While I was getting my haircut, the bell jangled, the door opened, a woman’s sweet voice said, “Hello. Will you shave my daughter’s head?”

The barber closest to the door turned and looked. He considered it. “Maybe. How old is she?” He was Yugoslavian. I liked the way he spoke.  

The rest of us looked—myself, my short barber, the man getting the fade in the other chair. We turned our heads in perfect synch to see an Indian woman in a lavender coat holding the hand of a toddler.

My first memory which I can place in time is my fourth birthday party. My dad took me for a drive in his midnight blue Ford Mustang so my mom and her sisters could decorate the house for my surprise party. He took me to Roy Rogers and I got a chicken sandwich and a black cherry fountain soda. The soda slipped through my fingers and spilled all over my white OshKosh B’gosh corduroy pants, making a red lake on the seat and then the carpet at my feet. I don’t remember getting yelled at for that. It was my birthday. He loved me.

Later, at the house, in my pink pants, everybody jumped out and yelled, “Surprise! Happy Birthday!” One of the gifts I got was a plastic sword from Thundercats. The sword, when held up high, said, “Thunder Thunder Thundercats Ho!” Just a few days after I got that sword, my babysitter’s little brother heaved it onto their roof and the sword was gone. I never ratted him out about it. But I guess I am now.

My friend died laughing on the telephone. He laughed so hard his heart stopped.

It doesn’t sound real. It sounds like something a person puts in a short story and it bothers the reader because it’s so unbelievable. But this was real life. My friend died laughing on the telephone.

It was late in the evening. He was clicking around the internet. A lot of his friends lived in his computer. He was always saying hello.

A direct message came in to his Facebook from a person saying they were the dean of Harvard. Harvard needed money. Help Harvard. Go over to the Western Union right away and wire money to help save Harvard.

And every other word was misspelled. And the person pretending to be the dean of Harvard had no grasp of grammar. So my friend started playing around with the scammer and the messages from the scammer got threatening, and god, could anything be funnier?

 

I’m a turkey baby. That’s what mom says. I’m her turkey baby. I was her turkey baby and I am still her turkey baby.

It was snowing. We stopped welding on the million pound bomb. I left work. The turnpike was all jammed up. I battled my way to the spur, and past the tollbooth, onto Christopher Columbus Blvd.

Now I was almost home, but dead stopped in snowy gridlock traffic and saw no end in sight, so I parked on the side of the road and walked half a mile to a bar with a fireplace raging and the lights otherwise off.

I had a happy hour whiskey. And then another. The fire felt really good. The car was illegally parked. Every minute was illegal. Every sip was illegal. I texted a friend in Ireland, he messaged that my night sounded like a John Cheever story. I knew one John Cheever story, a drunken man stops and swims in every neighborhood pool on his way home. I agreed, Yes, I was swimming home too.

 

I stood and watched a man in a blue suit stare into the window of a shop that only sold popsicles. He stared for a long time. He kept staring and I said, “Do it, man. Get yourself a popsicle.” But he couldn’t hear me. I was all the way over here leaning against the brick wall on the other side of Bleecker Street and the wind ripped and sent a newspaper slapping into me. I laughed, kicked it away.

The man in the blue suit changed his stance and peered closer. His breath fogging the window. It was such a cold day. I was shivering. Part of my problem with shivering was that I didn’t own a coat anymore. I’d gotten too fat for my coat three years before, maybe four years before and I refused to buy another coat. That coat was supposed to last the rest of my life. That had been the deal.

Maybe I’d change my life or something.

Long Beach, California.

Out on the ocean on a small boat that can only hold twelve of us, we put my grandmother’s ashes in the ocean.

Speakers on the boat play music.

Cat Stevens, “Don’t Be Shy”.

It’s strange to see my grandmother in this new form.

She’s scattered.

And there are flower petals that float around her.

And the waves created by the boat spread the petals farther and farther away but there are some petals that cling to the ash.

And then Tom Jones sings “She’s a Lady”.

And my grandfather almost falls out of the boat and when he regains his balance he says, “We almost had a double feature.”

And then a few hours later, my parents and my sister and Ashleigh drive me from Long Beach to Los Angeles so that I can be interviewed by a man named Brad who interviews writers in a nice garage.

I’m going to talk about a book of poems I wrote a year ago when I was suicidal and heartbroken.

I’m fine now, but no one is fine forever, so I’ll be sad again.

I’ll be suicidal again.

And then I’ll be happy again.

And one day I’ll die.

And maybe I’ll be happy when I die.

Or maybe I’ll be sad.

But either way, I’ll die.

I won’t live forever.

And then I’ll be dead.

And that’s okay.

I saw my mother for her birthday. I was with my aunt, her sister, and we worriedly drove to her care facility because the on-site nurse had called saying that my mother has been complaining about her mouth and doesn’t look good and Mom refuses to get medical attention.

I was driving, talking to my aunt about what we might say, how best to handle my mother’s fears about dentists, their scrapers, their metal hooks, their drills. My mother doesn’t want to go to the dentist because she doesn’t want false teeth. But she never brushes.

If she is suffering from an infection in her mouth, my aunt says, the infection can get into her bloodstream and kill her. I do not say, “Good, this is what she wants; to die,” but I think my aunt and I are both choosing not to say it out loud. I think about how if my mother was a dog, I could have said goodbye to her years ago, the vets agreeing she was in pain, ready to go, and that this was for the best.

Maybe if I talk about how pain meds numb you completely, how you don’t even feel the tooth being pulled, maybe she’ll believe me and go.

The facts are as they are. They are in black and white; they can’t be changed. As a baby, I lived with my mother and father in Sunrise, a suburban city just east of Fort Lauderdale. The romance of the city’s name is not lost on me.

When it happened, blue and white Hanukkah lights were strung in windows all around our neighborhood and plastic Santas on sleighs sat on the roofs. It was December, 1978. While I was toddling around the family home in diapers, my father, Paul, died in circumstances that can best be described as tragic: he took his own life.

Tragedy begets change, sometimes reinvention. My mother and I left Florida for England when I was 9 and she remarried when I was 11. A few years later, I was legally adopted by her new husband, Steve, who raised me as his own. While I love my stepfather deeply, the biology of paternity is a halachic matter when you are planning a Jewish wedding, as I was, a couple of years ago. In the process of preparing to marry in the faith, I had to dig into some family history.

Nothing bad has ever happened to me but it will and I have that to look forward to.

Bad things have happened to Ashleigh but those things are not my things to tell.

It’s Friday and I pick her up from work and we drive to Weldon because Ashleigh wants to get me out of the house and there’s a trail in Weldon.

It’s called the Canal Trail and we can walk on it.

We park the car and we walk on the trail.

I’m wearing shorts and Ashleigh is wearing shorts and there are these little black insects and I think they are biting me.

“Those are called no see ums,” Ashleigh says.

They keep biting us and we keep walking.

We sit on a bench and look at a pond or a lake or I don’t know what it is.

Some small body of water.

Behind us, two men meet on the trail and discuss things that we don’t care about, and then they are gone and it’s just us and the water and the no see ums.

We look at the water and then we’ve had enough and we’re hungry so we get back on the trail and head back toward the parking lot.

We see an old condom wrapper embedded in the dirt.

A long time ago someone had sex out here in the woods.

It’s hard to tell what day it is.

Wednesday feels like Monday.

Monday feels like Thursday.

I drive Ashleigh to work.

I take Ashleigh to work.

I drop off Ashleigh at work.

It’s a two-lane road.

The speed limit seems to change every half mile.

It’s 35 and then it’s 55 and then it’s 25 and then it’s back to 55.

I drive about 70 the whole way there.

I still don’t have a job.

And Jay Leno collects cars.

He has about 150 of them.

I know this because I listened to an interview with him yesterday.

I don’t even like Jay Leno.

But I have a lot of free time.

Before I drop off Ashleigh at her office I tell her that I’m going to go on an adventure today.

I say, “I’m going to Greenville, North Carolina today.”

I say, “I’ll eat some good food.”

She says, “Good. Go to B’s Barbecue. That’s the spot. But get there early because once they run out of the hog, that’s it.”

I think she worries about me.

Here’s the start of the story and it’s a good story and this one is true.

Ashleigh Bryant Phillips is from North Carolina and we met on the internet because she went on a book tour with my friend Bud Smith and Bud told her some stories about me and then Bud told me some stories about her.

We exchanged numbers and texted and talked on the phone and I told her to listen to the song ‘House Cat’ by Mark Kozelek and she sent me a video of a hooting owl.

And then she sent me a postcard.

 

Language needs a few new relationship words. Particularly boyfriend.

I’ll allow the issue of boy having a troubled history to speak for itself. Except to add that Black jazz musicians in the 40s began calling each other man because of the Jim Crow practice of referring to them as boys. This then is the root of the all-encompassing pronoun-slash-exclamation man used by most musicians, then bleeding into beatniks and out to many other bonded male groups: athletes, actors, (poets?).

But also, while women don’t mind (even, in my case, prefer) to be called girls, men don’t usually refer to themselves, individually, as boys. As in I’m a boy who likes ___. Yes, there’s the old standard one of the boys. Or boys’ night out. Or even my boys (although that could mean the male anatomy that comes in a pair, but I’ve never heard a woman refer to her breasts or ovaries as “my girls.”)

 

 

As I drove further away from downtown, the houses and sidewalks became progressively neglected. Like forgotten memories in an old attic. Like the unloved pages of an old dusty photo album, some complete, yet frayed–overflowing with used-up cheer. Others, abandoned, with only the peculiar unblinking gaze of an unnamed child–questioning and accusing all at once—staring out from among dubious, brown, square-shaped stains, the only proof that there was more to the story; that more had once existed. Proof that here was once a happy, bustling, productive community. A thoroughfare of dreams, once cherished and kept tidy and neat, to proudly display the depth of love, the fullness of life, of one family. One community. With its empty lots between every other house and its broken sidewalks and time-tested aluminum fences dislocated by century-old oak trees, Columbia’s North Main Street was such a forgotten piece of history.

 

In the winter of 1992, my sister got married.  A year before the wedding, she asked me if I would grow my hair shoulder length for the occasion. At the time, I was twenty years old and just beginning to come to terms with owning a transgender identity (though I didn’t yet have words for it). But the dynamics of my gender “situation” had been playing out in my family life since my earliest memories. Stuffed into dresses for synagogue despite putting up a fight  (always a losing battle), or hiding in the dining room so as not to be stuffed into a dress (laying on the chairs tucked under the table) until I (quickly) got too bored to stay there, and then was summarily stuffed into a dress and off we went. I hated dresses, but I actually liked synagogue. The rabbi had a thick New York accent. He was a teller of fables, the kinds with foxes in them, and grapes, and though there was a moral at the end of each story, his stories were about the journey as much as the destination, and he always had a playful lilt to his voice and a twinkle in his eye.