once upon a time
i believed my life to be a fairy tale
i thought I knew what love was
i thought i was safe
i thought I knew what happiness felt like
I thought i knew
i thought i knew
i thought i knew
and then one cool March night
i stood in the street with a girl who made my palms sweat
and my my heart pound
and my knees weak
and i was suddenly introduced to everything i ever thought i knew
This picture was taken of me the day after I met Talia.
I had been rebuilding myself day by day, week by week, month by month, trying to learn how to be me without my wife by my side.
I had let myself fall ever so slightly in love with moments, or girls, or women, or friends. I had started living in a way that was new, and vibrant, and without apology.
I had somehow survived, and somehow felt more whole than ever before.
This was me on a day that I knew was the first of many perfect days, because I had finally found her, and she had found me.
It’s a hot summer day and I’m somewhere close to 8 or 9 years old.
My shoulders are pink from the sun. My face smells like the Noxzema my Grandma had rubbed on my sunburned nose when I got out of the swimming pool smelling like the perfect mixture of chlorine and grape Kool-Aid.
My brother and I climb into the far back of my grandparent’s wood paneled station wagon.
"Don’t tell your Mother I let you ride back there," my Grandfather says as he starts the engine.
The car smells like hot upholstery and my Grandmother’s perfume.
My Grandpa sings Perry Como songs out the corner of his mouth and through the end of his toothpick.
My Grandmother sits with her right elbow propped in the window and and her perfectly painted pink fingernails picking at the seam of the sill like always.
I slip off my jelly shoes. I stretch out my legs and press my bare feet to the hot glass of the hatch back.
I can feel the ridges from the defrost lines on the hot soles of my feet.
My grandparents bicker in the front of the car between verses of It’s A God Day.
My brother tries to convince me that the wood paneling is made out of giant lincoln logs and I almost believe him.
I sing along to songs written far too long ago for a kid my age.
I press my face to the hot upholstery and let it itch my cheeks.
We pull into the little ice cream shop on a street lined with families all living the same easy summer day.
My brother and I empty out of the car like monkeys in a barrel. My grandmother takes her time fixing her hair and reapplying lipstick. My grandfather twists the toothpick in his mouth with frustration, "Come on Rose, your face looks just perfect," he says in a less than patient tone.
She gets out of the car, tosses her purse over her shoulder, and leads us like lambs into the ice cream shop while my Grandfather reads a newspaper in the driver’s seat to the tune of Frank Sinatra.
I met her on a Sunday.
I sat at a picnic table on a candle lit patio
and tried to tame the butterflies in my stomach.
The first time I touched her
we were comparing the size of our hands,
I placed my palm against her palm
and felt my heart skip a thousand beats.
I talked too much
and flipped my hair like a school girl hoping to get asked to dance.
By midnight I was walking to my car.
My boots fell heavy on the sidewalk.
She followed me.
We stood in the street until my toes were numb from the cold.
My thoughts rambled
and my words fell out of my mouth in unfamiliar jumbled sentences.
I’ve never struggled so desperately to look a girl in the eyes.
But her eyes are not like any other.
And something in me knew with such certainty
that her face would rest easy in the palms of my hands.
“Meet me at 4:30 tomorrow, and pack a bag for 4 days and 3 nights.”
I asked what to bring.
She makes me a list with bullet points that include things like “that laugh I can’t get enough of, your body your body your body…”
And regarding clothes:
“…two dresses with non functional shoes, two semi-dressy outfits with shoes you can walk more than 6 blocks in, three casual outfits, *clothes to sleep in very much optional.”
I have no idea where she’s taking me.
I feel like I’m 17.
In lieu of flowers
records on my shelves,
in my car,
in my office,
without me ever knowing how she does it
or where they’ve come from.
books under my pillow when she’s making my bed,
or sneaks them to the hostess at the restaurant to have waiting on the table.
The waitress places a small white book silently next to me
while we sit candlelit in a crowded restaurant.
She writes something lovely
in perfect penmanship
inside the pages of anything she gives me.
I’ll flirt with your mind
until I can no longer
stand not touching you
When I look floored by her actions she looks back at me and grins and tells me I deserve this.
As if these are things that people do.
On a random Monday,
she tells me
“pack a bag, and don’t ask me any questions”.
She drives me through a rainy haze for over an hour.
She loves that I don’t know where we’re headed.
She steers the car with her knees and gestures big with her hands.
She tells me her heartaches and I tell her mine.
I want to make her words into edible things
and eat them all for late night snacks.
We drive through an empty town glowing yellow with dim streetlight.
I can smell the ocean when I step out of the car.
Haystack Rock has been put to bed under nighttime skies.
Wine on the beach with a moon draped in clouds.
We sit on a log and drink straight from the bottle.
We watch the water pool in the dark like ink on the sand.
“I’ve never seen the ocean look like this,” she says more than once as she grips my hand in the most perfect way.
I feel the salt in the air.
My long curls are starting to tangle in the ocean wind.
Rain starts pelting
and it drips down my cheeks like the happiest of tears.
After the best kind of sleepless night
we lay in bed laughing in sweet morning banter.
We listen to Motown and sigh and smile at the start of the same songs.
She’s cutting a pineapple on the hotel counter.
Aretha Franklin is singing sweetly in our ears with her long o’s and stretched out u’s.
you send me,
you send me,
honest you do, honest you do, honest you do,
I take a shower and try to grasp how this could be my life.
This perfect girl
with dimples that make me forget how to form sentences,
and eyes that turn
and back to blue,
and a kiss that brings me
She tells me to meet her at the barbershop.
I walk in and she’s not there.
I start looking around.
The two girls at the front desk giggle and tell me they have something for me, then hand me a wrapped record and smile sweetly then say “you can open it here if you like…”
I’m smiling so big I can hardly breath.
The card on the outside is typed on the typewriter I bought her for her birthday.
I open it while the girls watch intently.
It’s an album that I mentioned used to break my heart, but now sounds so very different.
“You have managed to rewrite very single song to fit perfectly”, it reads in soft faded type.
“Meet me where I first held your hand”.
I walk down Alberta street.
I see her there where we first held hands.
She’s leaning perfectly on a bike rack.
She walks towards me as I walk towards her.
We’re both grinning like lovesick teenagers.
This is somehow my life.
Summer is coming and I can feel the nostalgia scratching at my bones.
My childhood smelled like charcoal grills, and fresh cut grass.
My blonde hair constantly turning green from too much time in the swimming pool.
My skin perfectly scented with the mix of chlorine and sunscreen.
I can squeeze my eyes tight and see a day that’s locked sweetly in the corners of my mind.
You can practically smell the sun.
My Dad is mowing the lawn.
My brother is under the willow tree in the backyard reading a book that I wish I could remember the title of. My mom is at the edge of the L shaped swimming pool about to dive in.
She looks up at the sun.
She squints her hazel eyes.
She dives in with barely the slightest splash.
She swims the length of the pool without surfacing like a mermaid in a one piece bathing suit. Down and back, and down again. She breaks the surface slowly and spits at the water with her exhale. Her brown curls have gone sleek and smooth. She smiles at me and tells me to get in.
My Dad gets off the lawn mower, “your pride and joy”, as my Mom used to call it. A 1960’s John Deer still in perfect shape.
He pulls off his straw hat.
He kicks off his shoes and I can see the green ring from the grass stains on the ankles of his socks.
He takes the stairs into the water. He didn’t know how to swim until my Mom taught him when he was somewhere close to 25 years old so he still looks out of sorts in the water. He moves around the edges of the pool scrubbing the walls with a pool brush.
My mom gets out and lays down on the diving board, her feet dangling over the edge and skimming the surface of the water.
She asks me to play her a song.
I walk onto the porch and open the big yellow cabinet where the stereo is. I smell the dust and want to wrap my arms around the familiar way it smells.
I dig through the options.
I can’t make up my mind, and then without looking up my Dad says, “Joni Mitchell…Mary, when it comes to your Mother always pick Joni Mitchell”.
I can almost hear her smiling.
I play this moment like my favorite record.
I lift the needle on this single track and see it again, and again, and again.
It was Valentine’s Day.
I was sitting having drinks with a friend.
I was gripping the candle in the center of the table with my hands, and sipping sangria from a mason jar.
I notice an email come in.
It’s my Mom.
She doesn’t do that.
She doesn’t email, or call, or reach out, or acknowledge that I still exist.
She’s asking questions about how I am, and where I’m living, and how my job is. She’s trying to small talk with a daughter she disowned 7 years ago virtually the instant I came out.
I respond quickly with only the facts.
She responds just as quickly, but this time I can feel some emotion.
She’s asking how I am. She’s saying she’s been thinking of me.
I leave the bar.
I sit down in the driver’s seat of my little silver GTI.
I dial her number.
"Hi honey, I was hoping you’d call, " she says quickly instead of hello.
"Hi Mom, I’m good…really, I’m good."
We start talking about small things at first and then things start to layer into the most genuine conversation I have had with her since the day they disowned me.
I tell her I love her. I miss her. I never stop missing her.
"My biggest fear is that you think that we don’t love you…that you think that this isn’t just killing us…and your Dad…honey, he can’t even talk to me let alone get on the phone with you…"
I stop her.
"Mom, I know you love me. I know that you do. I find myself defending you and Dad and your convictions…I understand…"
She interrupts me with a mouth full of tears.
"Well I’m glad YOU understand, because I certainly don’t. I don’t understand at all. But I know that this is who you are and I just want you to be happy."
I wipe my tears.
The phone is getting hot on my ear.
My car smells like my perfume.
"You know that you were supposed to be a boy. We were going to name you Michael. We had blue EVERYTHING. And then you came out, and you were this perfect little girl. And the first thing I did was buy every book I could find on raising a strong willed daughter. It was all I wanted for you…for you to be strong, and brave, and happy. And now when people ask me about my daughter I tell them that you are the strongest person I know, and that you have never let ANYONE stand in your way of what you want. I may not agree with your choices, but I am so very, very proud of you. Pleas know that."
I can’t even form a sentence.
"It’s not a ‘choice’ Mom. It’s just who I am," I sigh, "I just wish you and Dad had the chance to know me like this…the real me."
She sighs as well.
"I know you Mary, you’re my daughter. I know you."
She then tells me she thinks I need time to just be me. Be single. Be on my own. She tells me she can’t understand any person who would walk away from me so easily.
"I know I have a propensity to jump into relationships," I say with a smile.
"No, Mary Ellen, you don’t have a propensity to jump into relationships, you just have a propensity to JUMP. You have always thought the grass is greener on the other side of EVERY fence, and if you got there and it wasn’t green, well, then you were going to paint it green."
She laughs with me.
She makes some comparison to my life and to that theory that alcoholics shouldn’t date until they’ve kept a plant alive for a year.
"Just get a plant Mary," she says as we laugh, "and maybe your plant is actually a person you’re dating…just don’t move in with the plant."
We laugh more.
We have the same laugh. I’ve always loved knowing I got my laugh from her.
It feels like I can breath for the first time in years.
"I admire the woman you are, " she says clearly.
I thank her.
She gets quiet.
"Have I ever told you that the day after that day in the church 7 years ago, that I started walking 3 miles a day by myself. And you know your father likes to be by my side all of the time, so I had to explain to him that those three miles is when I talk to you. Some days, all I do is apologize to you. I feel like I’ve failed you in so many ways…"
I’m wiping tears with my sleeves.
"Mom I’m still here…you can call me. We can talk. I miss you so much, and I don’t know how to get past it. I can’t replace you and Dad with anything or anyone."
She’s sniffling and sighs again.
"You know, I always felt so comfortable knowing that you had Natalie’s family at least, and mostly that you had her Mom, and when you told me that she left you and your marriage was over, well, I realized that my little girl was all alone, and that I couldn’t help you, or be there, and that’s when I realized how much I have failed you.”
We continue to talk through endless tears and stuffy noses.
She mentions that she has wanted to have me come visit them, but that she knew that I would never come without my wife, and that she respected that so she never asked, because they couldn’t allow us both in their home. She asked if I would consider a visit now that I don’t have my wife.
"Mom, even without my marriage to Natalie, I’m still gay. Her absence doesn’t make me any less gay, just like my marriage to Sean didn’t make me any more straight. Does that make sense?"
"Yes. Yes it does," she says calmly.
We keep talking a bit longer. She tells me that this is the closest she’s felt to me in years. I agreed.
We say I love you.
We hang up.
And soon after she sends me this email:
Thank you so much for your phone call. I know we are so far apart, in distance and in lifestyles, but I still love you so much, and is so many ways still feel very close to you. Thank you for taking the time to talk with me, to tell me about yourself, your life, your hurts, your hopes. In many ways, it makes me feel like I am still your mom and can help in some small way. I feel I have let you down in so many ways.
I love you,
I haven’t heard from her since.
I don’t expect to.
Nothing will change.
Nothing needs to change.
We had a phone call on a Thursday night.
I sat in my car and cried with my Mom while the rain pelted my car and I wiped my tears on my sleeves.
She told me she loved me.
She told me she didn’t understand.
She told me she was proud of me.
This is all I can ask for.
We can try to water down this love
but we’ll both still be able to taste it.
Pour our sleepless nights into mason jars
and leave them next to bedside tables in houses
that neither of us call home.
We can go back to that spot in the street
and look up at the sky and ask how we got here.
We can continue to not say those words,
that are somehow bigger than all of the others
and covered in dust that is not yet settled
and far too heavy for Sunday mornings spent apart.
Make no mistake,
this is not something sad,
we’re watering roots with worry and heartache
but something is growing that we can’t see.
So water it down.
And sip it slowly.
Taste the sweetness of this.
Pour it out, or drink it up.
Feed the roots from inside or out.
Water them well, and feel them tangle and twist
and tether yourself to the trunk of our tree
Feed the roots,
watch the soil turn to mud,
then kiss me good morning,
and spend your Sunday’s wrapped inside my sighs.
Before my wife left I never felt the need to have pictures of my estranged parents anywhere in the house.
Six years spent filling our walls and shelves with pictures of happiness between she and I…I never felt compelled to have reminders of the family that no longer wanted me.
Since she left I have found myself digging through boxes searching for some kind of proof that I once had family.
These were all I could find.
They are clipped to my bathroom vanity with tiny wooden clothespins.
My Dad kissing me on the forehead when I was 16, long before I broke his heart by coming out.
My brother and I having our hands held by my Mom at Disney World. Me still in diapers and a dress that my Grandmother made. My mom’s skin brown from too much Florida sun. My brother in knee socks with a toothy grin.
My Mom by the pool at our beach house in Naples. I took that picture. It was always my favorite. I thought she was more beautiful than any other Mom at the beach. I was somewhere close to 12 years old, and my Mom was my best friend.
This is all I have left of them.
My Dad’s birthday was on the 2nd. I usually call on birthdays and major holidays (even though they rarely answer). This year I decided I’m tired of giving everything to people who give me nothing in return. I didn’t call.
The day after his birthday my phone rang.
My chest tightens. I feel the tears before I even answer.
Her voice was nervous. She’s called me no more than 5 times in the almost 7 years since they disowned me.
We talk the usual chit chat. The weather, my job, more weather.
Then I hear my Dad in the background. My heart stops at the sound of his voice. It’s been at least 4 years since he’s spoken to me at all.
“Oh is Dad there?” I say in the smallest voice I have.
“He just walked off the 18th green,” she says.
I know she’s passing him the phone. I can almost smell the golf course on his clothes. I’m terrified and so thrilled to know I’m about to talk to my Dad.
And then he says it.
The words I miss the most from him.
Suddenly I’m 14 years old dying for approval from my Dad.
“Hi Dad,” I say fighting back tears, “I’m sorry I didn’t call…did you have a good birthday?”
He tells me where they went for dinner, as if I couldn’t have guessed not only the place, but also every single thing they ordered. As if I had somehow forgotten how sweetly routine they are. As if I was never part of their world.
It was four minutes and twenty seven seconds.
Four minutes and twenty seven seconds of meaningless words that ached for some kind of semblance of the family we once were.
Four minutes and twenty seven seconds of voices I barely recognize anymore.
Four minutes and twenty seven seconds that nearly brought me to my knees and left me in tears for hours.
I hung up.
I didn’t move from my spot in front of the picture window.
I watched a duck land on the water. It’s feet skidding like tiny landing gear.
I choked back my tears and swallowed the lump in my throat.
I stood there locked in my stance. Staring at water surrounding my perfect house that used to be a home. That used to be OUR home. I reminded myself that I am alone. I am without a wife. Without the future we had planned. Without her family. Without my own.
I am without family. I am alone.
I made myself say it out loud.
I took a deep breathe.
I turned around and walked up the stairs to get a load of laundry.
I repeated with each stair I stepped up.
I walked into my bathroom and these pictures were staring me in the face.
My Dad. My Mom. My big brother.
I haven’t always been alone.
I was a daughter. A sister. A sister in law. A daughter in law. A granddaughter. A niece. A cousin. A wife. An Aunt.
I was all of these things at one point. And now I am none of them to anyone.
But it was real once. I was a daughter.
We were a family.
This is my proof of a life that has vanished.
Asked by Anonymous
When they disowned me my mom said “I will always answer the phone when you call, but that’s where it ends”.
They said, “if you choose this path, there will be no room for you in our life or our family, but we will always love you”.
Over the years I have realized there’s an ebb and flow to it for me. Sometimes I think,
well I’m not going to let them just let me disappear, I won’t make it easy for them
And I’ll call and write more often thinking they’ll remember why they loved me…or something…I’m not sure what. But then the rejection gets to be too much. Too constant. Too tangible ( I swear some days I can feel it in the air).
Their conviction is unwavering. It always has been.
They are strong, educated, wonderful people. They just happen to be so deeply rooted in their faith that they see me as a “lifestyle choice” and not their daughter.
They don’t reach out to me in ANY way, so I think this makes them feel like a phone call answered three times a year isn’t doing any harm.
Calling my Mom to tell her my wife had left me was a strange shift for the already non-existent relationship with them.
It’s as if now they are even more hurt. Now I’m “choosing this path” of being gay for no reason. I’m single. I’m alone. I’m lonely even. And for what?
One could hope that me being single and STILL being gay would help them realize that this is not my choice, but is just ME.
Still, here I am.
I say good morning to photos of parents I’m likely to not see again until one of them has passed away.
This is the reality of what an unhappy ending can look like.
Still, I will never stop calling them. They can be the one’s to continue to not answer, and not accept, and not love unconditionally.
I’ll always brave the rejection for the slightest chance of acceptance.
Tell me what to do with the leftover sweetness of the life I once knew.
We had been working opposite schedules. Crossing paths. Missing each other. Only having one day off together per week.
She would wake up to love notes on the stove top for her to read before she made her eggs.
I would come home to post notes on doors and walls.
“I Monday miss you” written on a Thursday in her perfect penmanship. Things that only made sense to us.
One summer day we were driving Sauvie Island and we saw these trucks loaded with flowers and it almost made me cry tears stupid joy.
Weeks later I came home from work to an empty house and our opposite schedules, missing my wife, missing our life, and pictures of these trucks were hung all over our house. All. Over.
Natalie was never much for words, but her actions could speak volumes.
I went into our bedroom and she had strung her favorites over the head of the bed on a wire.
There was a note on the bed. I’m sure it said something short and sweet and perfect. I’m sure I have it in box somewhere with other remnants of a life that was happy.
I’ve been removing traces of her, and us, and our life, and our love.
My walls are lined with empty spaces where smiling faces used to be.
These pictures of the trucks are the last things I’ve pulled down.
Someone gave me something to hang in their place.
I took them down from over a bed that we got as a wedding gift.
I laid them on a dresser that Natalie built in our first loft in Portland.
I sat them next to a yellow owl that she bought me for Christmas.
That was two weeks ago.
They’re still sitting there.
Still reminding me.
Still haunting me.
Still comforting me.
And silently lurking in my bedroom with their sweet reminders of something that I used to call love.
I need a place to leave my leftover longing.
I need a hiding spot for who she is to me.
The girl that took me to the belly of the whale.
I need a box to keep this love in.
I could stash it all under the bed, or the deepest corners of my closet.
Something tells me I wouldn’t be able to resist pulling it out of the hiding spots, dumping the contents of she and I out onto the floor and letting the moments sift through my fingers like sugar.
She never gave me flowers, instead she gave me moments.
Mornings and nights woven together by the strum of her guitar strings.
The day we stood in a field of honeycombs while the bees swarmed perfectly around us. Her green eyes flickering in the fall sun.
I would turn us into honey in honor of the bees if I could.