If there was an extra hour last night–and of course there was–I didn’t notice. I woke at nine (okay, ten) (“fake nine”) and got a quick start on some proofing while trying to print out a half-dozen page sets of an oldie-but-goodie chapbook, Terry Kirts’ To the Refrigerator Gods. For some reason, the laptop couldn’t find the wireless printer, and I fiddled with trying to reinstall the printer for the better part of an hour until it dawned on me that maybe I should just try restarting the laptop. Which I did. Which promptly set the printer whirring and blurting out every copy I’d sent and re-sent.
Technology eludes me. I manage an uneasy, tenuous grasp on just enough to get me by. My cell phone, for example, has been almost out of memory for a month. Today as I was trying to hang two small cubbies in my room, I really needed a level and thought There must be an app for that, which there was, but my phone didn’t have enough memory to download it and so I scrolled through applications, trying to find something to delete. Then I remembered the tiny flash drive I’d bought, and lost, and just yesterday found in my desk, the one with a micro USB port at one end and a standard USB at the other. I plugged it into my phone, hoping for a prompt to pop up. Honestly, I can’t even say how I figured out how to click and transfer files from my phone onto the flash drive; whoever created this device must have had the elderly in mind: I just seemed to accidentally intuit the correct series of taps and clicks.
But it’s also terrifying to move files I’ve saved on my phone for three years, to remove them from the phone and onto a device half the size of my pinky. Not just pictures, but all the audio recordings I’ve made over the past year. Notes for poems. Pep talks I’ve given myself in my car. Lists, reminders. And fears I couldn’t speak aloud to anyone: the night I borrowed the neighbor’s car and went looking for R because he’d gone to the grocery and hadn’t come back (I found him in my car in the parking lot; he said he’d been talking with a friend and had lost all track of time); the awful, rainy night last December when I drove home late from work in the rain and sat in my car talking to myself, recording my mounting dread because R hadn’t answered my texts all day. I don’t know what was recorded after I went into the house because I don’t remember turning off the app and I haven’t had the nerve to play that file. And now, today, I’ve removed it from my phone and stored it, with about ninety others, on a ridiculously miniature flash drive. I’m not even sure how to play the files, except maybe to reconnect the drive to my phone and open them through the original application. That should work, right?
In the same way that I’m not listening to those notes, I’m not writing–even as I sit here writing on this blog for the first time since–what, June? Today, in a closed group on FB, I posted a status update that was basically a call for help: how do others do this? “This” referred to my having set down everything but work when I relocated to Ohio with the vague notion that I’d somehow figure out how to pick back up the other pieces of my identity and gradually master the juggling that others seem to manage–specifically, carving out time to write, but also, most baffling to me, figuring out how to be social in a city/community in which I feel completely invisible.
Do I want to date someone new? Would I rather just fuck? Where are the men in this town who like to talk about books? Is fifty-five too old to even try? How do people do this?
I posted these questions and stepped away from the laptop. Folded Terry’s page sets. Made a sandwich. Edged back to my desk to see if maybe someone had responded (it’s a small, closed group of less than fifty). And found the sweetest, most generous encouragement posted by a writer and publisher whose work(s) I adore. It’s a Sondheim moment, sweeties: No one is alone.
I’m on my way to work—I close tonight—and I brought along a fresh, new journal with the idea that, given any time at all, I might be able to start jotting down ideas for this chapbook that B has invited me to write. There’s a group on FB that J started; it’s for gay men, mainly writers and readers—a closed group so no one else can see what you’re posting except the fifty or so guys who are in this group, and there’s not been much activity on it, but yesterday I made this—I spent a few days thinking about posting and just flagging my, I don’t want to call it despair, but my inability to pick up, let alone juggle—to pick up the pieces I used to juggle when I was teaching and reading and writing and doing the press, and then there’s dating. And I don’t know, do I want to date, or do I want to just fuck? I don’t know.
In the whole year before R died, I think I had sex twice. Once with R, but I can’t remember who else. If that happened that year or not. And in the eleven months now since, I haven’t been with anyone. Anyway, I posted something—not all of that but something—about how to pick up the pieces, how do people manage to do this, that at 55 I felt like a dinosaur, and should be looking for a paleontologist, and I walked away from FB for an hour or so and worked on some chapbooks in the kitchen, and when I came back, B had posted a sort of invitation/challenge to write this story, to think of it as a chapbook. I messaged him with some doubts (maybe this was something that other people could say as well or probably better), but he said it was my story he wanted, my voice he wanted, to take whatever time I needed, take a year, or two even if it took that long, that he was committed to doing this with me. So, last night, against my better judgment, I mentioned to Mom that I had heard from a publisher who wanted me to write a book—I didn’t say chapbook, I said book—and she said, Oh. Well, what are they going to pay you? And I said what? And she said Well doesn’t it work that way, they give you money up front? And I said Mom, it’s not about that. And, again, that exchange just serves to underscore how I’m living in Bettyville and don’t have people I can talk to about this. And I really want people to talk to about this.
And then today in the shower, getting ready for work, I thought about the cubby guy who came into the store, who said he was the manager at IHOP, and I said I should come by sometime for dinner, and he said Yes, you should, the one who was so friendly, and making serious eye contact, lots, and making me feel—like someone saw me—for the first time in I don’t know how long. And when I went he didn’t seat me, someone else sat me, he walked by the table two or three times and maybe gave this imperceptible nod once, but it wasn’t like, Oh, glad you came to dinner; it was—it was horrifyingly embarrassing, and the worst part is that a couple of weeks later I went back again just to double-check, and nothing. Nothing. Never greeted me, never said hello or anything. And the food there is too awful to do that twice, let alone the first time.
So I was thinking about that and thinking about how many times men will walk into the store and I’ll walk up—of course you walk up, you greet them and ask if they need anything—but I want to be the one who greets them, I want to be the one who helps them find something that they need, I want to be the one to look at them and talk to them and be in that space next to them because I’m attracted to them. And, in those moments, I forget what I look like. To them. I forget that I’m in my mid-fifties with gray hair. I forget that I’m pear-shaped. I forget that I’m invisible to them. And then I remember.
So my relationships are with people at work. And they are limited to our interaction at work and one of the things I’ve noticed about my own behavior is that, now that I’m in a management position, I have not learned to curb my desire to be chummy with the other associates. I know that this behavior is a stand-in for other relationships that I long for, a stand-in for the friendships I wish I had, and one good example is a recent hire: his name is T, he’s a Tennessee boy, a musician, he’s sort of an otter, a geeky otter, if you will, which of course is physically appealing. He has a sweet Southern Tennessee drawl. I find myself picking up the accent when he’s around because my sister S and I both are mutts that way. But he’s very nice and he’s very friendly and he thanks me for any assistance I give him, for any help, anything I show him how to do, and he even praises me as being a good person, a good man, to the point that if he weren’t married, I could easily begin to fantasize about him. I don’t. I don’t, but I do enjoy working with him, I’m glad when he’s scheduled to work on my shifts because he’s a pleasure to be around. This is normal, I know, except what’s not normal is the lack of social life; what’s not normal is the lack of friends. It’s okay, I think, to be that friendly with some coworkers—even if they’re “subordinates”—but it’s not healthy to use them as a stand-in for actual relationships.
Netflix and other stand-ins
So writing is writing, but (I tell myself) so, to some extent, is reading, and thinking about reading, and so (I would argue) is talking to myself in the car, especially when I use a phone app to record said self-talking and transcribe the talking later into my journal, and most especially when the self-talking is about how to write about the questions I’m trying hard to lean into.
For example, tonight I transcribed 1400 words from a 12-minute recording and found at least two ideas worth further thought. For me, this is progress. This is, dare I believe it, writing.
Cue Netflix. Before I fall asleep, I usually watch something on Netflix, streaming it to my phone. For the past few months it’s been whatever queer-themed movie Netflix suggests–as long as it rates at no less than two stars, I’ll watch it–or, if it’s terrible, skip through it–and so I’ve spent many late nights hugging my pillow instead of whatever fictional boyfriend happens to be emoting on my tiny screen.
And The West Wing. One of my favorite series ever. I started re-watching the whole thing, start to finish, right about the time I moved from Pennsylvania. I love the characters, I love the dialogue. I love the caring about issues and the banter and the camaraderie and yes, that is part of what I try to recreate at work, though I’m only just making that connection as I type this paragraph (I write to learn, yay). I remember watching the original series on television, so there are no big surprises for me, just memories and favorite moments and many other scenes and dialogue I’d forgotten but immerse myself into as if this weren’t a TV series but a window into a past alternate reality in which Martin Sheen really was the President (I can’t count the number of times I wished it so during Dubya’s reign of error). I weep. I clench my pillow and weep. Don’t go to the movies with me if you can’t bear sitting next to the guy who shudders and emits audible moans.
All my relationships are with characters on Netflix. Through my phone. Except for those via what Mother calls Facepage.
And then there’s Mother. And my brother, and my sisters. They’re real, of course.
Though we’ve had moderate, spotty frost a few times over the past few weeks, tonight the temp is expected to go below freezing–and tomorrow we’ll drop into the twenties. It’s time to say goodbye to the houseplants.
This is hard for me. I’d normally be lining windowsills with as many plants as possible and taking cuttings from the rest. But that’s not possible this year, so I’ve spent the past couple of months hardening my heart against the inevitable demise of my plants, some of which I’ve nurtured for years.
Anyone can sprout and grow an avocado. It’s not that hard. But stepping outside tonight to say goodbye to the Christmas cactus, the seedling palms, the wandering jew and spider plants and avocado trees (three) and geraniums, the cane begonia that started as a gift from Glynis and Julie when R’s mother died, the difficulty became clear: I think of these plants as witnesses. They lived with R and me. They were there. And to let them die, to let them go, makes me feel that much more alone.