New York Anniversary

Last year, the destination was further than I thought.  I thought it was a four hour drive; we were still two hours away when the four hour mark hit.  You were with me.  That was another thing that was different.

I was back in Western New York this year, for the same conference.  Different school hosting it, different campus.  I had a different position than last year; last year I presented; this year I was just participating.  Last year, you were with me.

You had come along to explore the Finger Lakes.  We couldn’t have known what a bad idea it was; or maybe we could have.  We had already had a few good fights; we were in therapy at that point, I think.  I had cut myself open more than once, across the stomach and the arms.   I had concussed myself with a pair of crutches; I had put my head through the bedroom wall.  You found me once sitting in our closet, after I had been knocking my head repeatedly against a support beam.

But that weekend to Upstate New York, that first trip we took together, man.  I’m not even saying it was your fault.  I was the one that picked the fight that had us yelling at each other, that had you threatening to drive back to Vermont early, that had me saying good, I’m glad.

I was bent because of the conversation we had around a friendship you didn’t approve of.  Life began to feel lonely when I had to start dropping friends like I did.  You said it was just two friends, just two of them, that all the others were fine.  But you chose two of my closest, and this was a problem earlier in our love than I let you know.

We fought about this, and then we fought about running, because I was bent.  And you said you were going to go home early, and I said good, I’m glad, and then you were crying by the side of the lake on our way back to the hotel.

On the last day of the conference I gave a lecture and taught a class.  That was the entire reason for me being there in the first place.  The free hotel room and the wine tastings we got to do were all possible because of that.  Those obligations came and went.  The scene that really fucken stuck with me, the one that a year later, while I’m at the same conference, I still go back to and look at like it’s something special, happens earlier in the weekend.  It’s the one where I am in the bathroom with a pair of scissors.

The scissors are open, and they are pointed at my stomach.  I want so badly just to plunge one of the blades in deep and go to town, to make a proper mess, work my way around inside and see what would fall out of my body.

I don’t, though.  But last summer, every time I didn’t do it, I let my imagination do it for me, and that made it even worse.  What my mind had me doing was far worse than what I was physically capable of doing; up until a point.  Then there was the time I stood in the closet and saw myself in the mirror with a knife at my neck.  That was enough to surprise me.  Enough for me to say out loud That’s it.  That’s goodnight.  That was when my mind and my body were nearly in sync.

Before that, there were the scissors in New York.  Orange handles.  Stainless Steel written on the blade.  It’s open, and I’m gripping the thing like I want to stab myself so badly that there’s an exit wound at the base of my spine.  I’m not just looking to trace a line across my stomach like I did the same night I brought those crutches across my skull.  I’m not just looking for a little blood, a little scar.  I’m looking to snip my fucking guts apart.  I’m looking to make it seem like a murder gone fucking wrong.  Which is what it would have been.

You were in California the first time I lusted for a death that messy.  I wrote about it all down on one of the final nights you were away.  Normally that made things better, but this time, my mind just went, just started telling me things it wanted to happen, and so those all made it onto the page, and it still wasn’t enough.

I wrote about bloody handprints on the wall, I wrote that I wanted people to think Damn, that fucker worked hard. I wanted seppuku, I wanted a death sitting seiza, I wanted to see why I was dying laid right out in front of me.  That was that April.  We’d only been together since February, really, when we went on a date, and I shrugged at the waterfalls and then we kissed for a while.

Then it was April.  And I was fucking losing my mind thinking about you drugged up and dancing in a sea of people in a desert in California; not that you were, or that it would have mattered; it shouldn’t have.  You had nothing to do with the places my imagination went.  I tried to stop it.  Talked about it with my therapist; talked it through with friends.  No good.  I still couldn’t sleep, so I wrote about killing myself instead.

You fall so fast, Jeff – the lover before you said that to me.  That almost scared me away.

You fell fast, too.  You cried because you thought it would scare me away.  That was the night we broached the subject of monogamy while we ate dinner on the floor at my old apartment.

I thought that would make us compatible.  I did; I told others, too.  I fell for you hard, as I do.  I could say the fall was different with you, but fact is, I was the same person I always had been until I left you for the last time outside our therapist’s office.  That was when I was actually capable of being different.

A sad thing has just happened.  He said that after I told you, and him, that I needed to end it.  He said a lot of things that have become true.

I took your dog to my office the afternoon before that appointment.  My colleagues ogled over her; she loved the attention, and we gave her treats.

When a colleague who was also a close friend, and knew of my struggles, asked why I brought the dog in, I said Last chance.  I took an anti-anxiety pill before I drove to the appointment.

But all this comes later.  This is after the shit summer, after all the cutting, all the other forms of self-abuse.  After all the terrible things I said.  I was a dick to you; I really was.  I was a fucking monster, and you only saw what I let out.  I probably scared you; well, I know I did.  And that wasn’t even what I was capable of.  There was a lot I didn’t show you.

It’s almost the anniversary of our breakup, and it’s just past the anniversary of that scene in the hotel bathroom.  You had gone for a walk to cool off from one of the many fights we had that weekend, and I was sitting on the toilet with a pair of scissors pointed right at my heart, then right at my navel, then right at my heart again.

My breaths became a series of hisses, and my face scrunched together, like it does when I watch horror films – I want to see what’s happening, and I’m terrified of what’s to come.  Ready to flinch at a moment’s notice.  I can see the blades of the scissors.  I even poke the skin to test things out.  And in that moment, I want so desperately to unseam myself.  Like a goddamned fish.  That’s how I’ve described it before.

But I don’t.  Like so many things I want to do, I don’t.  I close the scissors; I put them back in the bag next to the tape I brought for my injured ankle.  I look in the mirror, then leave the room.

I think I find you sitting on a bench looking out at the water.  We keep it together for a while.

Lifeline

This is the time of year where we think about the year that we just had. We think about it because it’s coming to an end, and I suppose there’s some kind of impulse to want to make some sense of it all.

It strikes me still when I think about how it’s been three years since you made the request: Tell me why you’re here, and I told you why I was there, and it involved things I did with a knife.

Three years on a couch in your office; it took me months to realize that you could see a clock from where you sat; for a while, I thought you had an uncanny ability to sense how long an hour was.

Thirty six months of typing your initials into my phone to mark down the appointment; me always confirming the date and the time as I saved the meeting to my work calendar.

Last year I told you that my time on that couch, you at my one o’clock and the train tracks at my twelve, was the one time on any given week that I was honest. This concerned you.

But then, not soon after that, other things concerned you, and they concerned me, too. New love, old anxieties. New home, but the same goddamned blades opening me up, only this time, in new places.

And you’d saved my life before this summer, but this summer, holy shit, things got close, and it freaked me out, and it probably still will if I let it, but then again, it didn’t end up happening.

You tell me not to say that I almost died, that I almost killed myself, because the fact is I did not do either. The fact is I had a knife at my neck and then I looked in the mirror.

I looked in the mirror and said, maybe out loud, “Holy fucken shit,” and told myself, That’s it, Jeff, you do that, you’re gone, and maybe that was like a prayer, a request for an answer.

And I saw myself, shoulders bleeding, and then I didn’t kill myself, and this is what I am supposed to tell myself. That I stepped in and stopped that shit scene and got it together.

I can’t remember if I told you about the time, later that week, after you and I met, that I softened my head with a baseball driving home from couples’ therapy. I might have.

It seems that every year, I get better, and then I get worse, but not just worse than the baseline, I mean, holy shit, worse than before, that got out of control fast, and I am calling you distressed again.

And I am on the couch again, and you are telling me that this is the worst it’s been again, and each time you say it, it is true, and that, if I think about it, is a little bit amazing.

It was a shit summer – that’s what I tell my friends. I don’t need to tell you – you were the one that talked me out of it, that asked me questions that got me out of my animal brain.

And it makes me so goddamned happy to be able to say that things are better, and it’s more than a little frightening to suppose that things are the best that they’ve ever been.

It’s frightening because for some reason, I am expecting the crash again, I am expecting the joy’s departure, and I don’t know what would happen. I don’t think I want to think about it.

Because, fact is, I don’t know what would happen if things got worse, not just worse than the baseline, but worse than they got this shit summer. Worse than the story being that I did not die.

I hate to say the phrase “a knife at my neck,” and I hate to say it because I can say it in a way that is beautiful; I can say it in a way that is pleasing to hear, and it is not supposed to be.

It is not supposed to be a thing that I carry on my keyring, I am not supposed to be in love with the pyschic pain or the physical scars. This is supposed to be about getting better, not staying worse.

The thing is, things are better, but I can’t say I am out of the woods, and not just because no one wants a story about redemption, but also because I am not out of the woods.

But things are better, Jesus Christ, are they ever, and sometimes I think that I had to bottom out to start listening to some of the things you’ve been repeating to me for years.

Words like witnessing, and true self, and parts, and phrases like focus on your breath, and what would happen then; maybe they are more than words now; they might add up to an actual experience.

The shit summer might not be the bottom, and that’s a terrible thought, and man, does that ever put me on guard against letting myself feel anything good for any length of time.

This was supposed to be a thank you for saving my life, again, and again, and again, and again, and it still is, it is just a little more about me than I was hoping for.

I could not have told you that healing was possible. I could not have told you what it was that needed healing. So I told you why I was there. That was enough to start.

[Thank you, MD]

Letter to ECHO, in response to a recent panel on transracial adoption

This is a letter I recently mailed to ECHO, in Burlington, VT, about my reactions to a recent panel they hosted on transracial adoption.

Dear [             ]

My name is Jeffrey David Stauch. I am a transracial adoptee who grew up in a predominantly Caucasian town in central Connecticut.

I have something to say and it is important, and it is sad, and it is painful, but you need to know that I exist, and that my experience exists in the hearts and souls of other adoptees in a way that was wholly unrepresented at your Saturday Community Conversation Series on 10 November 2012.

I am a voice that nobody heard. I am a voice that nobody wanted to hear, and I was not heard. I am a voice that could have educated an audience, but I am a voice that nobody wanted to hear.

My very best compliments to the panelists for their bravery in exposing themselves as a transracial adoptees. While we can all acknowledge that there might not be a stigma attached to transracial adoption, there is nonetheless a difficulty in being raised under these circumstances. It does take courage to get up in front of a bunch of strangers and say, “There is more to me than you even know.”

I also want to thank those responsible for putting this panel together. I applaud your efforts for bringing this topic into the public discourse, so please take what I am about to put forth as an earnest criticism whose intentions are to continue the dialogue, and, indeed, to dive further down into the subject of adoption as a emotionally difficult journey. This letter, if nothing else, is a call to action for all of you, all of us, to continue this dialogue.

It makes me uncomfortable to admit, and it probably makes you as a reader uncomfortable to know that I was quite angry during this presentation. There was a momentous educational opportunity that was completely missed. The stories that we heard with the panel on transracial adoption was first and foremost about race and then the legacy of adoption as a bland secondary topic.

I was in true shock watching the panel, and a fellow adoptee, sitting right beside me, was having an equal struggle keeping herself intact. I was watching a panel in whom I had invested much hope communicate a message that was antithetical to moving the dialogue about adoption and its emotional repercussions forward. I felt abandoned, by a panel who know at a very visceral level what it means to be abandoned.

Every adoptee there narrated his or her identity vis-a-vis race, but almost there was so little attention given to the feeling of being relinquished, the doctored up way of saying, crudely, we were abandoned by our own mothers. That topic was ignored all together, and for me, as a transracial adoptee, this is what I have not yet made with peace. Race, for me is secondary, because it is in fact an easier topic to discuss. I say that because as adoptees, we are adopted before we are assigned a race. We are adopted first, transracial second. In fact, to say we are adopted first is to skip a step: we are relinquished first, adopted second, and then, only then, are we assigned a race.

I posit that the error, while not intentional, was not innocent. The moderators asked chiefly about race, and at no point was it asked, “How does it feel to be adopted,” or, “Was your adoption open or closed, and did that matter?” There were so many amazing avenues that the dialogue could have taken, and instead, we listened to racial integration and racial self-realization as an indication that everyone on that panel had made peace with their adoptions.

These were all stories of redemption. Stories of resolution. As a transracial adoptee, I have trouble believing them. I really do. Not because I think that the panelists were lying, at least not consciously or intentionally. Rather, I think as adoptees we are taught, not by ill-will, but rather, by means of under-educated parenting, not to bring it up unless we’re asked. We are not taught to be curious about our origins. We’re taught that it is no big deal at all, that we’re loved by our adoptive family, as though it is an exact substitute, but it is not. It is not, it is not, and I beg you to realize this truth. Being adopted is not nearly as easy as the impressions one might have gleaned from this panel.

There were two particularly offensive moments in the panel, or at least two moments where I took great offense (perhaps I am alone!). When the panelists discussed how they answer the question “Where are you from,” no one took the opportunity to say, “I have no idea.” Do you know how downright terrifying it is not to know? Dear reader, can you imagine what it would feel like if every family portrait featured you and a group of faceless bodies? Can you imagine trying to conjure up an image of the woman who bore you and failing at that for decades?

Where am I from? I came via C-section from a New Jersey Filipina in a Manhattan hospital. I have siblings that I’ll never meet. I know nothing of my birth father. He was not present at my birth. Worth repeating: I have siblings, which means that I was not kept whereas they were. Now look, I know we can rationalize and say, “She knew you would have a better life being adopted,” or “Of course she loves you as much as she loves your siblings.” And even beyond rationalizing, we can accept it as truth. But that is not a substitute for being raised by the parents from whom you biologically came. You see, just because my adoptive family loves me does not mean that I don’t need the love of my birth family. You can’t just swap it out like a pair of jeans. It is not that simple.

There are tradeoffs, yes, and I cannot tell you how grateful I am to have grown up under the circumstances that I did. But my life is a tradeoff nonetheless. I got to be raised in relative comfort and affluence at the cost of being unable to answer the question of where I am from.

Where am I from? I am enraged and despondent every time I am asked this. Because my answer is nothing more than words with which I have only the most abstract associations. This is not an easy truth to stomach. We adoptees: we are desert plants – emotional survivors with roots that don’t go deep.

To expound briefly on my continuing trouble with this question, and my disappointment in the panelists’ answers, it was puzzling when each panelist identified as a Vermonter. This saddened me, and here is why: you put any one of those panelists in the supermarket, at the local church, or right on Main Street, I can say with near certainty that almost zero percent of native, Caucasian Vermonters would even think for a second that the panelists were Vermonters. And this matters. The labels we apply to ourselves are one thing, but the labels applied by others is another. The labels of others might be inaccurate, but they do matter, because we have all spent a lifetime being classified as something other than what we consider ourselves to be. Do you know how tiring that becomes? To answer the question, “Where are you from,” for several iterations, because my response of “Middlebury,” invokes the reaction, “No, really.”

It is heartening to know that they identify as Vermonters, but this comes off as placating to the public, their way of saying, “I don’t feel out of place.” Weigh this against the fact that whenever someone asks them the ever-troubling question of their origins, they are in fact made to feel out of place by the questioner. The questioner, in asking this question, is telling the panelist, “I don’t see you as a Vermonter.” And this matters. It’s a moment for both parties to learn.

The other moment where I took offense, and even murmured to my adoptee friend by my side, “That is a gross assumption” was when one of the moderators asked about how the panelist found ways to integrate. To assume that we are all able to integrate is dangerously misinformed. This ties back to the complexity of the question “Where are you from,” and the slight dishonesty in any adoptee when they have an answer. We never say, “A faceless mother who gave me away.”

More than one panelist mentioned that the ethnic ties ended at cuisine, and one mentioned specifically that she felt an acute need to assimilate. I don’t think I was the only one in the room that took that as more than a passing comment. I know what she means, having felt that same need, but I look back now, and see that assimilation put greater value in others’ opinions of me than my own opinion of me, or, even more importantly, my own self-knowledge and awareness. Play soccer to blend in. Be as Caucasian you possibly can. But that only takes things so far. Even after you do that, you are still different, and you still have no one to tell, no peer off of whom you can bounce those ideas, or with whom you can share the struggle.

Some further thoughts, again, to be taken as criticism, yes, but not with the rage I felt at the panel. Rather, I continue to share these thoughts in the hopes that this continues the dialogue, rather than stops it. The argument put forth that anyone can have a child, but a family has to work really hard to adopt is a cop-out. I am just going to say it. It covers up the fact that being relinquished is a deeply formative experience, one that even we as adoptees have trouble expressing, and one, I would argue, that we are not encouraged to articulate, or even to attempt to articulate.

No one took a negative view on the adoption experience. So no one left the panel today thinking of the complications that arise in an adoptive family. I have to guess that so much of this was sugar-coating, a general aversion to wanting to stir up controversy, a desperate need to show the audience that everything is okay, that I am strong, and put together, and have processed the challenges endemic to being relinquished.

This might be an innocent mistake, but the takeaway from the panel has serious implications – no one in the audience was challenged by the panelists to think about how difficult it is not to know those who bore you. How heavy the weight of relinquishment truly is.

In short, the moderators asked questions that didn’t invite robust discussion on the complexities of adoption, and as a result, the panelists did not have the need to stand up and say, “Being adopted can really suck sometimes.” Because that’s the truth. Or at least it is my truth, and the truth of a number of other adoptees that I know.

It is a difficult existence that we are taught to believe isn’t difficult. And so we convince ourselves at an intellectual level that there are no emotional issues stemming from adoption, even though we carry a weight for which we have no words for many years. Then, later on in life, we realize, I’m in my mid-twenties, all of my relationships have failed and I’m depressed, because there is a gaping hole in my life created by not knowing where I’m from. Not knowing my biological provenance. Of not having anyone to tell that to. Of not even having a vocabulary for it.

I acknowledge that I cannot speak for every adoptee out there, nor do I think that I am doing so with this letter. This said, I felt the need to let you know, courteously but firmly, that there is an entire chorus of voices that you did not see represented at the panel today, and that this carries with it consequences. It perpetuates the general opinion that adoption can be a normalized experience just like race. It can be, but to wrap up adoption in a dialogue of race and equate the two is to do a great disservice to all adoptees, transracial or otherwise.

It is not easy to admit that things are not easy. But they are not, and it is saddening to know that the audience at the Saturday Community Conversation today saw only a very narrow view of the adoption experience as lived by the children.

There is plenty more to say, but I will stop here. I do hope that you do not take offense to the tone or content of this letter. I write to you with the sincerest of intentions. I felt a deep need exiting that panel to make sure that my voice was heard, as a way to give voice to others whom I know feel likewise. I would welcome the chance to speak with you or the appropriate colleagues; indeed, I would be delighted to have the opportunity to engage with anyone of you on the subject of adoption. I do applaud your efforts in bringing the topic into the public sphere, and this letter is written with the sincerest hope that my own experience and reactions might help to improve upon future iterations of this conversation. Many, many heartfelt thanks for your attention.

Most sincerely,

Jeffrey David Stauch

Who I am:

28 year old male

Filipino American

Child of a Closed Adoption

Raised in Avon, Connecticut

Resident of Middlebury, Vermont

From a place I cannot even fathom

The Problem of the Matriarch

It’s a strange balance, really, when recounting one’s relationship with a mother.  There’s such tension between telling it plainly and letting loose the pent up rage that’s been fucken stewing inside for years.  The decade or more of mutual misunderstanding, the maturation of self, but the mother clinging on to the thought of you as a dependent child, and treating you thusly.  And they do care, they just do so, often, in fucken terrible ways.

See, and that’s the thing.  We all make sense to ourselves, and since that’s true, we rarely explain our actions, and rarely feel the need to.  Why would we?  This makes total sense.  Fucken duh I was going to do that.  Figure it out for your goddamned self.

I read a friend’s account of a recent prolonged visit with her mother, and the sewage of memories which were in turn dredged up.

We find ourselves baffled by paradox:  something pleasant here, something less so here.  An apocalyptic fuck up here, another one here.  I mean, there’s no question which way the scales slide in this narrative.

But maybe what I’m surprised by more than anything is the normalization that we children do, the fucken rationalization that we do when we trace back.  We need it to make sense, we need all these tragedies to fit neatly in a box.  And that’s why we write about them.  Because we care about them, and we want to think that there was some higher purpose, some bigger reason, as to why we suffered at the hands of our mothers.  We become their apologists in the hopes of it all making sense.  If the pain of years ago is today meticulously arranged, we think, it will hurt less.

And it does make sense, in a way, but maybe not the way we think it might, or should.  Because to them, they raised us, and got us out of the fucken house, and boom, end of story.  And they were goddamned right to be mad about her girlfriend, or justified in hitting me when she found a box of condoms.  This all made sense to them.

I raised you, you didn’t die, you seem sane enough where I don’t need to worry more.  I did a good job, leave me the fuck alone.

What they will probably never think:  I am sorry for the lack of emotional nurturing.

What they will probably never say:  I made some serious errors.

What we wish they would:  Tell me about the times I hurt you.

What we wish they would:  A child should not have been treated like I treated you.

What they might say:  I did my goddamned best.

What they might say:  Your father, don’t even get me fucken started.

What they have said:  I don’t think you’ve been a good child to me.

What they still say:  Drive carefully on your way home. 

Could you take some of your stuff with you next time you visit? 

We grow up, it’s true, we race on ahead to check things off the list, and these childhood memories become tiny people with big voices and discomforting strength, and they live inside of us, and then they take over when we are adults, and we find ourselves distressed, and in the case of my friend, and in the case of me, this can take on unsavory habits.

In the writing trade, you’re taught to let the audience get mad for you.  Don’t get mad or be bitter on the page.  It flattens things out.

So I can’t say, You fucken bitch, do you have any idea? 

So I shouldn’t say, The less I talk to you, the happier I am.

But there is fucken rage, and it lives on, and I tell my therapist that it isn’t just rage, it’s a desire for action, to throttle the direct object of my anger, to bludgeon it until it sees what I want it to see.

Take a look, asshole – that crying child is your handiwork.

And:  I’m glad I fucken hurt you.  I’m glad I broke you, too.

Because the rage is a cover up for the sadness, the pain, the vulnerable little shits that we once were, and therefore still are today.  Secondary emotion is what the social workers call it.

And it lives on, but it stays clamped down until it doesn’t, and then man, there are fireworks.  It’s a drunken Thanksgiving with all of us yelling, or me reading a book in the adjoining room while my parents still threaten a divorce that they haven’t followed through on for almost 20 years, me nearly crying about it later.

So fine, we’re not angry, we’re telling you calmly.  My friend, in her rendition, is not angry.  There is confusion, yes, the gropings and attempts to extract some higher meaning out of the ether, something more satisfying than She just fucked up, and fucked up big.  And there probably is some meaning in there.  There’s the story of her mother.  Because her mother was rational unto herself.  Still is as she makes her husband work three jobs as she lives a life lavish beyond her means; still as she blames her newer children.  Still, as she stays in a hotel room to visit her daughter.  That’s the story.  Or another story.  Either way, the answers lie down that path, and as a child of that story, it’s a fucken scary route to want to take.  Digging up the past is rarely a fun and easy thing to do.  Especially when it deals in the business of rearing kin.

It all makes sense to her mother, and that’s my friend’s struggle – to make sense of that shit.

It’s my fucken struggle, too.

It’s what we’re left with.  I don’t think they’d remember the things that left the marks.  Or at least not remember them the way we did.  Or at least not feel the need to defend.

My friend isn’t angry, at least not on the page; the detached voice, the quiet, uncertain analysis, has the intended effect of unsettling me.  You put up with that shit? I asked her in my head.

Problems of the first world, yes, but problems nonetheless.  The impulsive decisions of my friend’s mother, the gross neglect, the social conservatism of my own mother, and her absolute need for control – these are things we are left figuring out, because they couldn’t do it for their goddamned selves.

We’re picking up the shattered vases of our youth.  We’re tending to our younger selves.  We piece it all back together, but we can see the fault lines, the cracks, the fragments that got lost.  And that’s fine, there’s nothing wrong with it, really.  Just goddamn, I wish there were less work to do.  It didn’t have to be this way.  But it is this way, and while there isn’t redemption at the end (there never is, there shouldn’t be, who wants to read about a happy fucken ending?), there’s solace, and there’s finally calm, as we leave them behind, and give at last ourselves the love that we wish we had gotten back then.  Filling the deficit daily.  It’s exhausting.  And it’s shitty to admit that getting angry doesn’t help one fucken bit.  So I don’t.  Instead, I administer a spoonful of self-acceptance, and hope that my friend might be doing the same.

To AH

Variation

There are the memories of you. From the year in Boston. Us drinking in Jamaica Plain on Election Night, all of us, the whole lot of canvass directors and the finance team from central. In pursuit of Humboldt Fog cheese at Whole Foods on a Sunday morning; foie gras under the influence.

I wrote to you that year, too. Once, a poem, I called you the king of the pocket beasts, and at the time, that meant something, and it still does, I just can’t recall what. That’s what happens when we get older. Things that meant something escape us. Or rather, the thing doesn’t, but the meaning does.

But see, M, I still have these memories of you, and I feel a need to keep them, not to myself, but as alive as possible. You were joy, and you were rage. I am assuming that you still are. You hung up the phone on loan collectors, you looked for other work; you had a head hunter.

You had a leather jacket and the best fucken giggle that turned to a laugh. You turned red when you were angry, and we were amazed that you came to work without a bag or backpack. This seemed mystical to us, that you could leave work and take nothing with you.

Then I was gone and you were gone and I kept raising money and you made delicious food for beautiful people. I am imagining, at least, that they are beautiful. They might not be. I hope that they are, if only because the photos of your dishes are, too. It only seems fair.

And then a funeral brought us all together again, as they tend to do. And I saw you and I embraced you, and we were fighting tears that we then stopped fighting, because she was a friend of ours, a former colleague, but a friend, and she died, and we felt responsible, all of us, at some level.

It was my birthday, and that was ironic, and I started anti-depressants that morning, which was, too, and then we were all there in Boston, three and a half years later; you and I had not seen most of our colleagues since we both left, and here we were, embracing, and crying, and looking at our shoes.

Then we carried the flowers from the church to the pub where we all drank and watched slides of our friend who was dead, and we were smiling again, and we looked and got quiet when the photos showed us why she died, and then we got more to drink.

But you weren’t there for this part, and I get it. You wanted a private sadness that was sad. You didn’t want to have to smile in a room of people you only kind of knew, and hadn’t thought about, I’m guessing, until we all got the phone calls from our former colleagues about an untimely death.

So I didn’t see you for that part, or the part where we went to the dive afterwards and I continued to hit on one of the VPs. Or the part where I decided on the spot that I was going to drive four hours back to Vermont, so I said goodbye to everyone, ate Korean food, drank tea, and drove home.

And I haven’t seen you since, and if I let it, that makes me sad, but only because you were warmth and fire, and an energy uncorked that I find in few people. But isn’t a deep sadness, more of a missing, saudade in Portuguese, one of my favorite words. It’s just that I love you, as friends and men do.

Your art arrived in the mail this week; I was away, and I came home to the peach colored slip letting me know you had shipped the painting, so I turned right back around and got a large box at the post office, and I carried it home and I looked at it, and I loved it, and I still do.

I screwed in mounting hooks, and tied wire, and now it is hanging from my bedroom wall, looking at me when I wake up. It’s an assurance – an artist’s soul, yours, on the canvas, greeting me, you saying, “I am vulnerable when I tell someone I love them,” and me saying back, “Tell me about it.”

There’s a halo and a brain you could scoop right out if you wanted to; wings and eyes and the bold, bounding energy that I told you I see as fire, and it’s warmth in the air, that moment when you step outside the theater in the afternoon and it’s impossibly bright for a moment.

You call it Chapter One, and this is correct – there’s a page painted on the right of the canvas, that reveals the title, and I recall the poem I wrote for you then, and I recall the ball point and legal size series of words and illustrations that you made for me in response.

And then, well, I think about how when we say “I understand,” we rarely do, how that’s a load of shit, how what we should say is “I want to understand,” which is a scary thing to say because it’s the truth, and the storyteller can say no, can say, “I already told you,” or “There’s nothing more to understand.”

But M, you see, the story isn’t ever over, it’s always just life, it’s today, and sometimes there really isn’t anything more to understand, we’re just a catalogue of moments which we hope amount to something, to some grander narrative; it’s the difference between chasing a butterfly and catching one.

Because it’s the strength, the discipline, of just showing up for the sake of showing up, of painting or writing because it’s painting or writing, and that is sacred enough, to say to the world, “This is a story, if you want to listen,” and making peace with the fact that sometimes it doesn’t.

You exist mostly as a series of images now, or qualities, or instants. I don’t say this as a bad thing. I’m a preservationist; I protect the rare collections, I keep them alive by telling you all of this, by replaying the scenes as I remember them, even if that’s not how it might have happened.

You in a leather jacket. You with your laugh and your wide, wide grin. You and your Connecticut roots. You in a church years later. You, an emotional man. You, knowing that that made us friends. You covered in paint, which you know more than most to be an expression of love.

To MDR

Word Choice

Okay, wait, stop right there. I need you to hear this. I need you to have this with you cognitively, she said. Whenever she commandeered the conversation this abruptly, I knew to listen, because she was about to give me some piece of knowledge that was supposed to help.

This was in response to something I said toward the end of the session. I told her I’m still freaked out. I guess I haven’t gotten over the fact that I almost died this summer.

She would later say, I’m glad that this part came up, and we should talk about this next time.

But what she said immediately after I said almost died was Okay, wait, stop right there. Which is exactly what I did. I stopped, and I waited, right there, on the couch where for three years going I’d sat once a week.

That isn’t true. You didn’t almost die. You didn’t die. Let’s stick with the facts. You didn’t die. Let’s walk through what actually happened.

So I tell her what I told her in July, the week after the entire shitty thing happened: I cut a lot into my arms. Then I put the knife against my neck. Then I looked up and I saw myself in the mirror, and I thought to myself, holy fucken shit. You have a fucken knife at your fucken neck. If you do that, that’s it, that will actually kill you. You can’t undo that one. That’s good night.

She said, Right. You did not want to die. Looking in the mirror, and being able to say that to yourself, that was your true self, that was you drawing upon your infinite resources.

I did not die. I did not almost die. This was not how I viewed things, but she was asking me to change that.

See, Jeff, the thing is, you did not want to die. Remember that the cutting is not because you want to die. The cutting for you is a painkiller, a way to slow things down, to stop the hurting, whether it’s the anxiety of being abandoned, and she didn’t finish the sentence, I don’t think, or maybe I wasn’t listening anymore, because I was still replaying the scene, struggling to reconcile in my own mind how having a knife at my neck while self-mutilating didn’t constitute coming close.

And so you cut your arms, and that wasn’t enough, so you went for your neck, but then your true self stepped in. You took control, and stopped letting these parts of you handle it. She mentioned the word leadership somewhere, but I can’t remember when.

The brain can create stories that aren’t actually true, she said. I fucken know that, I want to say, but don’t. Not in an angry way, just in a resigned way. So it’s important for us sometimes, in cases like this one, to remember what actually happened. You cut yourself, you had a knife at your neck, but then you looked in the mirror and stopped. That’s it. That is what happened. I think she was repeating herself to beat it into my head; she probably knew that I was having trouble believing this. Do you see the difference?

I tell her that I do, at one level, at a theoretical, intellectual level. But that I don’t believe it at a felt level yet. I’ll have to tell myself repeatedly. She nodded.

I did not die. I did not almost die. Those are the same thing. They are different from I almost died, but didn’t.

But what about the blood lust? What about the gory visions I had, the fetishization of unzipping my stomach? I don’t ask her, but I think it, and this doesn’t make me happy.

Maybe I want to be worse than I am. Maybe my identity is wrapped up in the suffering. Maybe I want to be a martyr for an unknown cause.

Let’s stick to the facts.

The goddamned facts. Even the facts aren’t pretty. Even the facts involve blood.

I don’t say any of this, of course. Instead, I get up, and make an appointment for next week.

Props

{written in August}

I am driving back from a session with our couples therapist. A good session, all in all. We made it from the office to the street before I said something wrong, before we threw our hands up again.

Why did I just not say I wanted to go to dinner in the first place. She wants to know this, and I want to know this, too.

It is because like any addict, I’m going through withdrawals, from not carving myself up. I used up every bit of fight I had not to down a cocktail of pills, not to drive into a pole or my fellow man, not to push the blade into my neck. So good responses are beyond me.

I am not thinking clearly; I say so. The question remains: why I just didn’t say yes in the first place.

We leave in our separate cars. I don’t have a knife so I dig a key into my forearm; it leaves scrape that swells. When I see it, I am glad that it was a key and not a knife, because I traversed at least one vein.

Then I am driving and I am screaming Fuck repeatedly, and I am punching the steering wheel, and I think about the corkscrew in the glove compartment.

But I do not use the corkscrew; eyes on the road at all times. Instead, I reach for the baseball, which I normally use to massage my shoulders and my legs on long drives.

One hand always on the wheel. One hand always with the baseball. The baseball is pitched repeatedly at my head. The baseball hits its target for the twenty minute drive.

I prefer to administer the pain. I prefer the headache to the shame.  I prefer the headache to the rage.