Youth, Pt. 4: 2004-2005

At age 20 I finally graduated high school.

This wasn’t because I had been held back but because in my first attempt at grade 12, I dropped out. I was sixteen and my life was tumultuous, to say the least. I had missed a chunk of time thanks to my stay in a psychiatric ward after a suicide attempt and when I returned to class I was at long last able to understand something I already knew: I was getting almost nothing out of my education. I was never much for school anyway. I did okay for marks in most of my subjects except math and gym, but the impersonal standardized system was one I simply was not able to thrive in. So I said, "I quit, let's see what this whole 'real life' thing is all about."

This, as you can imagine, did not go over well at home. When I told my parents, stating clearly that I intended to finish at some point when the time was right, they sighed the sigh of people who had put up with all manner of shenanigans and shot back that I could do whatever I wanted but, thanks to life outside school being very tough, only a handful of dropouts ever went back and they didn’t believe I was capable of being one of those people. I was informed that if I chose to go down this path, that I would be kicked out of their home. Our relationship at that point was pretty strained so, not going to lie, that last part was exactly what I wanted to hear. I said I had already found a place and a roommate and would be out in a month. From the look on their faces, it was clear: they were attempting tough love and it hadn't gone how they'd hoped.

Believing I had everything figured out, I was filled with smug satisfaction.

My first apartment was in Saskatoon’s downtown core in the basement of a run-down building. The location was amazing and the property seemed to have charm, but our particular unit was really, truly a piece of shit. We did our best to get it looking decent. I don’t actually remember much from this period of my life. I spent most of it under the influence or at work.

I was a host at the local Earl’s Restaurant which, at that time, was one of the hottest spots in the city. I partied a lot with the older servers and bartenders. So much that I was pretty consistently late for work which eventually led to me being fired. This loss of steady income and the fact that one of my roommates ran off with a month’s rent meant that I was forced to clean my act up for a bit. A very teeny tiny bit.

When I found a job at a local coffee shop, I quickly resumed my old ways. Despite being as prone to depressive states as I am, I had not yet made the connection between my level of melancholy and the amount of alcohol I consumed. Yes, I knew alcohol was a downer but in my mind, drinking was the best way to stop those low feelings from overwhelming me. It helped that drinking happened when I was out having a good time, exalting in my emancipation. The feelings of joy I got from the music and atmosphere became tied to the feelings of loose liberty.

Consistently though, the scale always tipped back hard in the other direction. I would find myself in intense melancholy, unable to fully pinpoint why I had fallen so deep. The truth was I was spending all my money on partying and rent so I almost never had any groceries to speak of. I wasn't great at cleaning the apartment or making it homey. These elements conspired to exacerbate the already cavernous emptiness I felt inside. I remember one night, I sat down to watch the film E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. I hadn't seen the movie since one day when I was pretty young and we put in the VHS. The moment E.T. was left behind and started screeching for his family, the sound terrified me so much that I ran out of our basement and stumbled out into the sunlight in a state of panic. For some reason (I was probably tipsy) I had become determined to face whatever had caused that fear. But, as I sat there alone in my piece of shit apartment, feeling hungry, tired, and stupid I started bawling from the second E.T.'s family left him to the very end of the credits. This was not a small cry but instead, a big heaving cry that I truly will never forget.

After my overdose on ecstasy, I was allowed to move back in with my parents. I began to learn more about my body and what made my depression worse. I started working out, trying to eat better, get more sleep. Then, one day, I woke up and found myself ready to return to school. I told my parents and, although they seemed proud, they also seemed surprised. I reminded them that I had maintained all along I would return eventually, they had little to say in response.

As we discussed options to go back to school, we kept returning to a junior college in our original hometown of Rosthern called, surprise, Rosthern Junior College. RJC was a Mennonite faith focused private school that boasted a dormitory for out of towners and small class sizes with teachers we were encouraged to call by their first names. Having been raised in Rosthern in a Mennonite church, the school was always a part of my life. Many of the adults in my congregation had attended followed by their children who will likely be followed by their children.

I think when I finally conceded that the best course of action to complete my high school education was to immerse myself completely - to remove all other distractions from my life - I was in part fulfilling a dream my parents had had for me since I was young. I can’t tell you how many times they had mentioned RJC as an option when I was originally attending high school. I had always turned it down. First, because it meant moving back to Rosthern, a town I associated most heavily with ugly memories, and second because I knew they didn’t have the money and, as someone who has spent basically my entire life relatively poor, I've always hated asking people for help.

But now that my sister had moved on to university and I only had a year to complete, my parents scraped together enough for a year’s tuition including room and board. Whatever issues my parents and I have between us, I cannot deny that they always provided for us materially as best they could. Helping me to attend RJC is something I will always be grateful for.

So, at 19, my parents drove me and my bundle of belongings to Rosthern and moved me into the dormitory. What a strange experience. After everything I had been through in the last few years, I was now expected simply to be a good student. The school being as small as it was, most people were super close with each other and were, for the most part, the kind of good, kind Christian people that have always scared me a little. They’re so friendly! So welcoming! So humble! They must be hiding something.

When my parents left, I went back up to my room, wanting to avoid everyone. The dorm was a simple space: concrete walls painted white, a bunk bed, two desks and two small closets. I moved to the window and looked out. A field stretched into the distance. Memories of my childhood flooded back. Here I was, committed to spending a full school year in a place I had never ever ever enjoyed returning to. And yet I was so thankful for the opportunity. Not everyone gets a second chance at high school. Overwhelmed, I began to cry. Not a big, sobbing cry, but rather a small, contained one. Maybe the best word to describe it is bittersweet. Here I was about to repeat a portion of my childhood but no longer as a child. Instead of the usual flailing about I was so accustomed to, I was now armed with the wisdom of a (stunted) adult. Or so I thought. There was in fact a great deal of wisdom yet to gain.

It took a while for me to get settled in. Everyone seemed so young and so damn friendly. I started hanging out with a small band of "weirdos" and "misfits". We would run across the highway and smoke cigarettes and talk smack about the utterly foreign helpful teachers and welcoming atmosphere. I had my dorm room to myself for a day or two but then my roommate showed up. His name was Liam* and while he was a sweet enough human being, he was also a bit of a nightmare to live with. I had actually gone to school with him briefly in Saskatoon.

When my family first moved to the city a small group of older kids (strange sorts who my parents immediately disapproved of) came over to my house to get the lowdown on who exactly I was. He was part of that group and there seemed to be nothing out of the ordinary about him. That was the last time I saw him until he came bounding into our dorm room like a twister. Rumour was that somewhere along the way he’d had a very bad acid trip. He was now less like someone a year or two older than me and more like the Ozzy Osbourne you see in MTV’s reality show The Osbournes. He was messy and had a habit of staring off into the distance and then suddenly piping up with some crazy sentence that had nothing to do with anything.

I started to worry that his presence would negatively affect my schooling and I managed to convince the deans that because I was older than most of the students and had lived on my own off and on, that I would be better off in a room by myself. Once I was moved to a solo room I started settling in for real. I tried to stay involved. I auditioned for the extra-curricular choir and for the Christmas theatre production. I didn’t make it into the choir in that first semester but managed to get cast as George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. As has happened to me several times in life, once I was able to show that I had a talent, people who had previously written me off as quiet and cold started to find they could respect me. I solidified friendships with some of the “good kids” and became more comfortable in the school social environment. Later, when mid-year auditions came up for choir, the director told me flat out the reason he didn’t let me join the first time was that I was hanging out with people he deemed unsavoury. He later went on to gush to my mother after one of our performances as if he had been the one who had truly seen my potential and managed to unearth my talent. My mother, even with all her own reservations about my pursuit of art, could not have made a better “Girl, please.” face to me after.

I spent most of that year not drinking and just focusing on my schoolwork. It was a huge privilege to have that experience. It’s insane what a difference it makes to have educators who care about your success. The teachers I had during that year were the most supportive I've ever had. Thanks to them I managed to believe that I could actually do maths for a moment, I got to believe in my acting ability again, I believed in my writing. And all the students, who I had so many doubts about off the top, ended up being truly beautiful souls who welcomed me into their environment with open arms.

It’s strange though, I haven’t spoken to almost any of them since we graduated. Looking back, I can see I kept them at arm’s length even then. In part, because I really didn't know myself (the truly necessary digging was still a few years in the future) and in part, because Rosthern is a place I still have not made peace with, a place I may never make peace with. Despite the warm memories associated with RJC, my fellow students were sucked into the same memory abyss I tend to send that whole town into. The funny thing is, I spent almost no time in the town proper during that year. While the school is on the outskirts of town, it’s not separated from town. But I still rarely ventured off campus unless for something school related. On weekends I would return to Saskatoon. Still, each time I think of RJC I think of the dread that accompanied every single drive back into the place I grew up.

I think often of my former classmates. I know many of them are married, quite a few have children, many still live in Saskatchewan. As much as all those things are the complete opposite of what I’d want, I do wish them long, happy, and prosperous journies. Some might see it as rather tragic that the people who contributed so much to my blossoming are no longer in my life. I don’t. I’ve always believed that very few relationships are forever. That people stumble onto each others paths, teach each other something, then move on. I try not to be too sentimental about it because I think there can be just as much beauty in that brief, concentrated connection as there is in a connection that lasts for many years. But if I manage to make it to old age, I will absolutely look back on 2004-2005 as a year filled with positivity, kindness, and love.

That's a huge deal. Because the older I get, the more I see that years filled with that much pure joy don't come around nearly as often as you'd wish.

*Names have been changed.

II. Youth, Pt. 3: A Devilish Man

The dream was always the same…

I see him in glimmers. His tall frame with wide shoulders, slim waist. His dark hair varies in length, sometimes long, sometimes short. His lips full but never fuller than mine making him want to kiss me longer, deeper, want to chew on my roundness. He’s got hands so soft, that know exactly where to touch. The stubble on his cheek feels good under my grasp, against my mouth. I can see my fingers run down his back like in a movie. I can feel the firmness of his ass in my palms. And when I look into his eyes there are no eyes, just flickering flames and a bright orange glow. I wobble, I teeter, I fall right in.

I wake up then, short of breath, overwhelmed with an all-encompassing pleasure. The border between reverie and life is thin in those moments, so thin I can still almost touch him, smell him. I place a hand on my own wet forehead and in the dark wonder if I called for him or if the sound I remember making was muffled by the fog of fantasy. I roll over and stare into the pitch black suddenly full, fuller than I think I’ve ever been, of loneliness.

I fall asleep again, eventually. Always, before I slip past the gauze of reality and back into make-believe, I ask for the man to return to me, to hold me in his wicked arms again.

*     *     *

It wasn’t long after my overdose when I returned to the party scene.

The first event I attended felt strange. No longer was it a gathering place for the weirdos and supposed burnouts. To rave no longer felt subversive or particularly wild. It felt instead, like a playpen for children. And I was the kid who had long outgrown the available toys but refused to let go. I only went because I wanted to see him again. Him. The devilish man.

While in the hospital I had stared out the window for hours on end, putting together the puzzle pieces of my fragmented memory. I could see what he was wearing: dark pants and a sheer, tight long-sleeved black top. I could see his jewellery: a few necklaces and bracelets, an earring that dangled. I could see his facial hair and eyelashes. I could see him walking toward me, looking right into me. But like in the dream I could never see his face, not completely.

I became convinced that I had seen him a million times before and also not once in my life. He was alternately a friend of a friend and someone from someplace. But what place? His look wasn’t like anything I had encountered in the homogenous wasteland of Saskatoon, but also exactly the kind of goth-lite you only get in places where "real" goth probably doesn't actually exist. I attended party after party, never really partying, too busy, too obsessed with finding him.

I thought he was at a bar in Calgary with deep red lights and great martinis. I thought he was in Edmonton at an industrial gathering with the most aggressive music I’ve ever heard. I thought I spotted him in Vancouver as I stumbled toward Kitsilano Beach with a friend.

Every time I saw the ghost of him, it was like I was caught committing a crime. My breath, my heart, my everything stopped. My mind assembled the old puzzle and I would squint at its faded and tattered pieces hoping they'd come together as the full picture.

But it was never actually him.

Still, he stuck with me, emerging from the dark in my dreams, lurking in corners of shadowy bars, always out of reach. I managed to fully invent him and to lay his spectre, like a second skin, over every person, every situation that followed in his wake. After all, it wasn't really him I wanted, it was the danger of him, the threat of him.

And I’ve managed to find that several times.

Take for example the man who found me crying on the sidewalk after my boyfriend at the time refused for the umpteenth time to stay the night. We had been out at a bar, celebrating a friend’s show. We’d been dating for a few months but his intimacy had remained elusive. When he left, after rebuffing my advance, I got very, very drunk and told myself to go on home. Halfway there, in my sadness, I decided I had gone far enough and couldn't possibly continue. I plopped myself down on the stoop of a shop and began to weep. People passed by, whispering, never stopping. Until him.

I saw his shoes first, Converse sneakers with dirty laces. I looked up. Can't even imagine how terrible I must have looked, tears all over my face, drunk as drunk can be. He sat down beside me and we started talking. He invited me to his house. I followed him home. At the entrance to his yard, I hesitated, continued on anyway. In his basement apartment, he watched me take off all my clothes before he removed his. We sucked each other off for a while. I complained about my boyfriend. He told me I was with the wrong man, that he could be the right man. He said I was asking someone for something they could never give. He offered to tie me up, to make me beg for something worth begging for.

I said I needed to leave. Stumbling home, I actually questioned if staying would have been a better choice.

There was the man at the bathhouse.

Our eyes had met across writhing bodies. I had moved away, wanting to continue my search through space and wanting him to follow. He caught up and pulled me into a shadowed corner. He pushed me onto my knees and placed a bottle of poppers under my nostril. He told me to take a deep breath. I did. A rush of idiotic warmth filled the veins of my skull. He instructed me to suck his dick. I did. He told me to get on my back and moved to fuck me. I asked if he had a condom. He said he didn’t. I almost let him go ahead without. My drunk brain screamed to stop, that this was a bad choice.

I pushed him away. He complained. I told him I don't fuck without protection. He whined then abruptly left.

There was the man I met in a park parking lot. Whose car I got into and who I let drive me to his home in a part of town I didn’t know. I went inside his house and climbed into his bed where we fooled around. After getting off, he said he just wanted to go to sleep and refused to drop me off where he found me. He said I should have planned ahead and had my own way home. He rolled over and didn't bother locking his door behind me.

There were all the times I got into a car with friends under the influence. One time in particular sticks out: a group of us had taken mushrooms and had gone to the bar. We got drunk and danced. I tried my first - and last - Prairie Fire shot. Then, we decided to head on home. The driver was a wild drunk, prone to picking fights with his girlfriend. He did so as we zoomed along and, in his rage, hit the brakes stopping us right in the middle of the street. He disembarked and ran off into the night. His girlfriend jumped out and chased him for a bit, leaving the rest of us in the back seat. I remember laughing like a hyena at the absurdity of us waiting in the empty street, front doors wide open while the lights twinkled all around us like a kaleidoscope. 

And then there were all the ways I tainted my long-term partners with my warped need for dark and danger. I would ask them to be rough, to wrestle me or hit me. I’d manipulate them into treating me like shit, to say something awful that they didn’t really mean. I would revel in it, all of it. But, in the end, it was just a game and they were decent men so sometimes they would do what I deemed to be the worst act of all: doing exactly the opposite of what I asked. They would treat me kind, with love and respect. And if there was anything as a younger man I could not accept into my life it was kindness, love, and respect.

This ultimate betrayal meant I could give myself permission to be my own brand of black-hearted man. I would disappear. Sometimes physically, often mentally while I was still in their presence. I would emotionally cheat and actually cheat. I did everything in my power to turn that person against me. I did everything in my power to turn the world against me. I partied harder, picked fights, said terrible, horrendous, unforgivable things. I’d go out and get wasted, then drive home. I did this so many times, I can’t even count. I was chasing the danger of that devilish man and the night I first saw him. I wanted to grab him and kiss him rough, our lips mashing together until our mouths filled with blood.

Then, finally, I got my chance.

It was the end of summer. I was again living with my parents in a small two-bedroom apartment. Some of our extended family was in town and they had all gone down for the weekend to the hot springs hotel and spa in Moose Jaw. I tend to avoid family events and so I stayed back. My sister had lent me her car to use for the weekend to get to work and do whatever I needed to do. Eduardo, my best friend at the time, and I were hanging out at his place, getting baked as we often did.

Somewhere in the night, we decided we wanted to dance so we went down to Diva’s, the local gay club. There, I started drinking. At one point, a lovely, friendly human being who went on to become my boyfriend started dancing with me. We had a great time. When we were about to leave, he asked me to come along with him and his friends. They were going to an afterparty and he wanted to keep hanging out. I told him I couldn’t, that I had committed to hanging out with Eduardo. We parted ways and Eduardo* and I went back to his house. While sitting outside we got into a massive fight about some stupid thing or other. Anyone who's known me intimately can tell you that I’ve got a temper, always have. I’m stubborn, dismissive, and argumentative at the best of times, but when I get drunk, everything becomes enhanced in an ugly way. I can become much meaner and colder than I usually am which is saying a lot.

Eduardo and I fought and fought. I decided I didn’t want to be around him any longer and that I was perfectly okay to drive. Eduardo protested but, being pretty drunk himself and probably fed up with my bullshit, let me go. I drove off, taking it slow to be "careful." My mind drifted, furious and resentful and ashamed. I had the music turned up, playing a tune I loved. I sang along absentmindedly, the words baked into my psyche.

Around the corner from my house, I fell asleep.

I have a distinct memory of the dark before I awoke. It was the purest black, silent and deep, almost tangible.

And then it was invaded by beeping.

When I opened my eyes, my head was on the steering wheel. I tasted blood in my mouth from biting my tongue. The beeping was coming from the engine light, flashing amber in my eyes. I tried to move and barely could. The seatbelt had locked into position and was digging into my hips. I felt a sharp pain on my chest. I looked down. In its effort to keep me safe the shoulder strap had scraped along my pectoral and left behind a tattered shirt and scraped skin. The beeping continued. I pulled the key out of the ignition and it stopped. Peering through the splintered windshield, I could see how the front of the car was bent into an accordion. Looming over me was a giant truck.

I undid the seatbelt and pushed open the door. I stepped out onto the sidewalk, glass bits spilling onto the concrete. Standing was difficult. The seatbelt had really done a number to my hips. I took a few steps back and stared at the wreckage. I had apparently veered into a parked sand spreader. My sister's little Toyota looked minuscule in comparison to the red and rusted hulk.

Someone emerged from the duplexes across the street. They asked if I was okay, informed me they had called the police and went back inside. I stood there, dazed, not knowing what to do. I felt around for my cell phone, couldn't find it. Since I was right around the corner from my house, I ran over and called my friend from the landline. I told her what had happened. She listened and told me to go back. After hanging up I bawled on the floor of my room. Collecting myself, I got up and returned.

When I arrived, the cops were waiting. I was clearly drunk so they placed me in the back seat and asked me some questions. I took a breathalyzer and they informed that I was going to be taken downtown. When we got there, I was administered a more official breathalyzer while the cops joked around about my foolishness, and charged with driving under the influence. I was placed in a cell equipped with a steel toilet and sink and a rubber mat. When the door closed, I sat down and curled into the corner, going over the events of the night. The kind, joyful, effervescent man who had wanted me to stay with him and his friends seemed like a distant, almost cruel fantasy.

Suddenly, where I sat became the inevitable conclusion of every choice I ever made, every time I skated right up to the edge of the abyss and laughed into its void. No longer could I compartmentalize every action and pretend like it hadn’t directly led to the following action. The tsunami of pain, regret, and shame hit me hard.

Overcome, my body gave up and I passed out.

Slipping away from the harsh fluorescent light of my cell, I stumbled into the dark of my mind. Normally, when I’m that drunk, my sleep is dreamless, but on this night, I would not be so lucky. Instead of a comforting nothingness, I was treated to wild nightmares from which I would jerk awake, freezing, every joint of my body aching.

I have no idea how many hours later when I had been sitting up for an extended period, an officer came to fetch me. They handed back my belongings, including my cell which they found in the vehicle, and signed me out. I was directed to a stairwell and told to head all the way down. I followed their instructions and emerged into the street on a cloudy day. It had rained at some point, the sidewalk still wet, the smell still in the air. The freshness felt unbearably kind. I sat on a bench and stared up the sleepy street. Occasionally a car would roll by, driving at Sunday speeds. I sent my friend a text and asked her to pick me up. I waited until she arrived.

We went to McDonald’s and got some fries. I told her everything that happened. She listened with patience and no judgement. After a few hugs, she dropped me off at home. I went up to the apartment and took a hot shower. It stung the scrape on my chest and various other tiny cuts I hadn’t even noticed yet. I winced but told myself to suck it up because it was part of the punishment. I stood under the water hoping it would drown me, devastated to know it wouldn’t.

I stepped out of the shower and stared at myself completely naked in the mirror. I looked like I had been beaten up. I felt disgusted with myself. Not only had I destroyed my sister’s car, but I could have died or, even worse, killed someone else in the process. My knees buckled. I sat down on the floor of the bathroom and wondered when I would finally take responsibility for myself and my actions.

You’d think, crumpled naked on the linoleum like I was, I would have wisely seen this as rock bottom and forced myself to change. But I knew myself too well. I knew how I'd made those promises in the past and not kept them. I knew how I'd vowed to change and stayed exactly the same. So instead of making promises, I simply got up, got dressed, and called my mother. I told her over the phone what I'd done. Her disappointment in me and my stupidity was different this time, less angry, more resigned. She said they would be back as soon as possible.

I sat on the couch and curled up with a blanket. Outside, the sun was setting, soon it became dark. There was only one light on above the stove. The TV sat across from me and in its black mirror, I could see my silhouette. I was a dark shape, barely moving. The way my glasses caught the light in the kitchen I had no eyes, only orange flares. 

Everything became clear, each battered puzzle piece falling exactly into place. Suddenly, I could see him there, found at last. The devilish man I'd been searching for. Me.

*Names have been changed.

I. Youth, Pt 2: Dancing on the Edge

I used to rave.

I don’t remember exactly how I ended up at my first party. I’d say it was in grade nine or ten, somewhere between 1998-2000. My parents were generally pretty strict, wanting to keep my sister and me at home as much as possible. They had come from war-torn El Salvador where people could leave for milk and never come back, they’d seen gang activity in Los Angeles where they lived in poverty. I understand now why they were so strict but at the time I felt unbearably suffocated, and could only think to rebel, rebel, rebel.

Living in sleepy Saskatoon, Saskatchewan meant there weren’t a lot of really hardcore ways to achieve this goal. Staying out late, pushing my curfew to its limits, and partying hard ended up being my chosen poison.

The scene at that time was odd. It seemed super underground to my naïve eyes. Most of the parties happened in run-down warehouse spaces in the industrial parts of town. They were usually not easy to find. Some were even a fair drive outside the city on who knows who’s property. I recall driving a solid forty-five minutes just to get to one. Others were in surprisingly family-friendly spaces, like community centres which the night before had held a lovely little tea dance or senior citizens bingo. Somehow this made the party seem even more transgressive, even more badass.

The very first one I recall was quite large. I met my friend Eduardo* at his house and we got dressed up in what we thought were good facsimiles of the rave fashions we had seen in movies or TV. I wore these balloony cream coloured parachute pants from the Gap my mother bought me for the first day of school. I paired them with a dark green sleeveless tech style vest that zipped up to a mock turtleneck, also from the Gap. On my feet I wore brown Vans. This outfit would be ridiculous today but seemed super hip then. Eduardo had stocked up on glow miscellany and wore about fifty of them as bracelets on each arm, and another twenty as a necklace. These numbers are probably exaggerated but also probably not because he was always and still remains extra af. We drove over to our friend Tatianna’s house and went in to meet her. She was in the most basic bitch outfit: khaki pants and a sensible sweater. Eduardo and I insisted on a makeover.

We sat in Tatianna’s basement drinking 2 litre Canada Cooler’s - my preferred flavour was Rockaberry, Eduardo’s was Tropikiwi - and gave her a Party Babe makeover. This basically meant that we put her hair in pigtails and adorned her in candy necklaces and gave her a t-shirt with something ironic on it. She insisted on keeping the khakis. Fine

Armed with our sugary buzz we headed out. 

At this point in my life, I had not yet snuck into the club. The most nightlife thing I'd done was attend a series of Spanish dances with my friends in grade seven and eight. No, 'Spanish Dance' is not a euphemism for anything. They were exactly what they sound like: a hall full of latin people (and a smattering of white people) dancing their faces off to the tropical rhythms of warmer climes. Occasionally my parents would even be there. In those days I still had a deep hatred for Spanish music because my father used to play it at insane levels on Saturday mornings as he vacuumed and I tried to sleep in. In other words, I never really had much fun at these events. Mostly I went to pretend for a night that I was a grown up and because my friends were into it. Prior to that, the MuchMusic school dance or watching Electric Circus on TV was as deep into the nightlife as I got.

This meant I still did not know that my body is hardwired to get super hyped at icy beats, deep bass, and glittery lights. So, when I stepped into the huge party space, it was like entering a very sweaty heaven. It didn’t take long for my cooler buzz to wear off from all the sweating and so I spent the rest of the night completely sober. It didn’t matter. The music was enough. I could ride the intoxicating electro waves right up into the clouds, lifted high, high, higher by digital acrobatics. I wanted to live right inside the speaker, often making my way through the crowd and plunking myself directly in front of the pulsating components. There, I could drift off into the deepest recesses of my mind, close my eyes, and lose myself in the multi-coloured firework show behind my lids.

This was the truly essential part of going to raves for me. No longer was I expected to stand in the lame ass dancing circle so common at other gatherings, no one wanted to carry on a conversation which consisted mostly of screaming, ‘what?’, and 99.9% of my fellow revellers respected your party space. Back then, electronic music wasn’t quite as mainstream as it is now. The frat bros with tiny girlfriends on their shoulders weren’t yet trying to muscle their way into the best spot to watch the DJ or starting pointless moshpits. Back then, nobody cared what the DJ was doing, because, for the most part, they were nobodies. We only acknowledged them when their crescendoes were especially good or their mix was extra smooth. I was free to be alone in a room full of people and that was a beautiful thing. 

Being as young as I was, I wasn't yet aware of the drug culture happening all around me. Well, that’s not entirely true. I knew there was something going on, and I’m certain someone must have offered it to me, but I wasn’t interested. Dancing until my joints ached, sweating out every last drop of moisture, annihilating my hearing - all this was enough, then.

I suppose that changed when I started sneaking into the local gay bar. Eduardo and I came out to each other in the food court at the mall while waiting for Tatianna to get off her shift at Orange Julius. It was the summer before I entered grade 10 and Eduardo entered grade 11. Saskatoon’s only gay bar was called Diva’s, a name I still adore. Its entrance was tucked away in an alley where The Straights couldn't find it. It had a small non-descript foyer with a window on one end where, behind some bars, a young, usually catty man would check your ID and buzz you past the locked door. It was surprisingly big inside, consisting of two long rectangular spaces. The second floor was up a pretty grand staircase (a perfect stage for endless dramas) and partly overlooked the dance floor.

Eduardo had a fake ID and looked just barely past the legal age of 19. Our scam was for him to go in and have his hand stamped. He would then make an excuse for why he had to step out and would come find me in the parking lot. There we would press the back of our hands together and transfer the stamp. We would sweep into the foyer when a lineup had accumulated and would announce, ‘We’ve already been here.’ I’m almost certain the doorman knew I hadn’t but probably took pity on the little baby queers just trying to get their big gay lives.

And oh how we did.

I was already a fan of being lifted to the rafters by big beats, and my music tastes had always been skewed toward pop but I was not prepared for the special alchemy made by those same big beats, a vocal goddess, access to alcohol, and a crowd of homosexuals in a safe space. It was here that I was introduced to the Snatch Your Wig-Take You to Church Thrice dance remix, aka the kind of music that will never fail to get me smiling and posing and werking atop a box or a speaker or a table and absolutely living. There’s something so magical about that moment when a Whitney or Mariah jam comes on and a wave of queers heads to the floor and, as a group, serves up charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent whether they've actually got it or not.

Our scam worked for quite a while. It wasn’t until we ran into one of our teachers that we were called out. He was actually an intern, still in his final years of university. He worked with us in choir and drama classes. He seemed nice enough but also rather uptight, pointedly avoiding the obviously gay ones and focussing his energy on the "cool kids". I know we were in the wrong but I still think it’s a shame this teacher ratted us out. Yes, if the cops had come in the bar our presence would have incurred a hefty fine and probably gotten the place shut down for a weekend, but you know, still.

Cut off from access to this safe, specifically queer space, we started going to more raves. By this point, I was fully aware of the drugs present at these parties, but I was too chicken to give them a try. I stuck to alcohol, not even smoking weed. That’s not to say that I wasn’t partying pretty hard. With all the emotional turmoil I was experiencing at home and within myself, alcohol proved to be a perfect, if dangerous, antidote to the darkness. Through alcohol, I could access the looser, more energized version of myself that didn’t feel painfully awkward in any way shape or form. Through alcohol, I could forget all my frustrations and just focus on the joy. I was aware of all the downsides that came along with drinking, but I didn’t care. On one hand, I thought I was going to live forever, on the other I wanted to leave life and its shackles behind forever.

And so my behaviour became more and more unsafe. Now, I’d like to say quickly: this is only my experience. I made specific choices and led myself down a certain path. I still think most people ought to get out into the nightlife and, if so inclined (and in a safe space), try some quality mind-altering substances. Doesn’t have to be anything too intense, but I believe it’s good for your overall perception of the world. With that out of the way, let me continue:

This time of my life is marked by some pretty wild nights. The high of the music and the lights of the club or the party weren’t quite enough any longer and I found myself drinking more and more to get to the point where I felt just as lifted as I had in the past. On nights when there wasn’t a party to go to I could be found drinking in a park or a parking lot, Eduardo and I playing our music loud and chugging, not just sipping our booze. There was a spot outside the city that I would often drive to. Supposedly a ghost train appeared on the horizon and the drive at night was fun. Sometimes I would go with a friend, sometimes I would go by myself.

I remember one night, in particular, that was especially risky. On the way out, speeding down a desolate highway, my friend Brayden and I decided we wanted to see how fast the car could go and what would happen when I slammed on the brakes. This was the middle of winter, there were snowbanks on the side of the road and probably patches of black ice. I hit the gas. We held hands and took the car to its top speed. I slammed on the brakes. The car started to spin, one, two, three times. When we came to a stop, we were facing in the opposite direction. We screamed and laughed and marvelled at the fact we were still alive.

When we reached the deserted field which was our destination, we held a chugging contest with straight vodka and got absolutely wasted. We bonded for hours, trying to see the ghost train that was supposed to appear in the distance. I knew I couldn’t drive so we spent the night in the field, occasionally turning the car on to keep ourselves from freezing. The next day, my mother questioned why there were footprints on the ceiling. I pretended I didn’t know, not telling her how Brayden and I had put our seats back and walked to and fro for who knows what reason.

I still look back on this night and shake my head at how stupid it was. It was so, so, so dumb. And yet, I didn’t learn anything. Instead, I kept partying, thinking that if I could survive that idiotic night, I could probably survive anything.

It was an overdose that finally brought me back to earth - for a time. At this point, I had already attempted suicide, spent a spell in the psych ward, and dropped out of school (more on that in a later ess-haaaaay). I was living on my own at 17 and working doubles at a coffee shop in the hip part of town. I thought I was all grown up. Clearly, I wasn’t.

On this night, I was out at a rave and had decided to try ecstasy for the first time. This particular party had felt strange to me from the start. I was not with my normal group of friends, but rather some coworkers and their posse who I didn’t know. When we went inside, I remember thinking the energy around the space was odd, gloomier than some of the other parties I had gone to. The music was heavier, the lights lower. I remember one man in particular: he was tall, slim, with dark hair and dark eyes. If you looked up the word ‘devilish’ in the dictionary, you’d find a picture of him. He had his gaze on me all night but in the strangest way. It felt like he was both putting a hex on me and also flirting. At some point, one of my group handed me a small orange pill and I took it. I really wasn’t prepared for the feeling, especially paired with the vibes of the space. I would alternate rushing heat and pure exultation with an unsettling fear. Whoever this devilish man was, he remained close, drawing me in with eyes that seemed to glow and pierce right into my soul.

The group decided they needed more and pulled me out to the car. I expressed my hesitation and received a round of encouragement. Feeling pretty good, I said I would take half. One of the pills was broken in two and handed over. I peered at the crystal powder in its little belly. It seemed so harmless. I popped it into my mouth. A disgusting bitterness filled spilled over my palate. I tried to wash it away with water, but it stuck.

The rest of the night is only present in flickers.

I remember riding the high in the car as we listened to some electronic music. I remember how cozy and warm it felt, how I didn’t want to go back inside. I remember the entrance once again, flashing my wristband, and watching blurry faces streak past in the hall. I remember the inky mouth of the party and the wall of humidity as we went inside. The warmth became a fog.

I remember holding hands with my coworker and being led around the room. I remember telling her about the devilish man and how he stared. I remember her encouraging me to talk to him, that he was probably interested. I remember him being close and saying something in my ear. I remember thinking he was dangerous and the heat from his body was unbearable. I remember asking my coworker for water, obsessed with getting the bitter taste out of my mouth.

And then I remember waking up.

My mother was sitting beside where I lay with cold morning light behind her. Seeing me stir, she leaned in to get a closer look. She jumped up and went to find a nurse. Alone, I looked around and realized that I was connected to an IV and a breathing machine, I was in nothing but a hospital gown, and there was a catheter in my penis. When the nurse arrived, she grudgingly checked to be sure I wasn’t in any immediate danger and stated that the doctor would be around in a while. When she left, I turned to my mother and asked what had happened. I’m not quite sure I can describe her face in that moment. It was a potent mix of fear, frustration, disappointment, and pure unadulterated rage. There was kindness too, and relief.

She said I had been out for an entire day. At some point the night of the rave, I had returned to my coworker’s house and passed out on the couch. My coworker had later been woken up by me trying to find the bathroom. I had already pissed myself and was totally incoherent. They had taken me to emergency and left me with a doctor. I had become incensed, convinced I didn’t need help and had tried to get away. It apparently took two nurses and a doctor to subdue me. When they finally got me strapped down to a bed, I started bawling, wailing until I passed out once again.

My mother and I both began to cry and I apologized again and again and again.

When the doctor arrived, I was so ashamed and deservedly so. None of the staff made me feel much better. They treated me like exactly what I was: a drain on much-needed resources. I told myself that I would do better, that I would stop partying so much, that I would get focussed.

That didn’t last long. As I lay there in the hospital bed, staring out the window, I started wondering what had become of the devilish man, and where I might get to see him again... 

*Names have been changed.

III. Youth, Pt. 1

Recently I saw Greta Gerwig's absolutely fantastic directorial debut Lady Bird. The film follows Christine "Lady Bird" MacPherson, a theatrical young woman from "the wrong side of the tracks" as she navigates the ups and downs of her last year before college in Sacramento, California. Cinematographer Sam Levy has said Ms Gerwig wanted the film to "feel like a memory". She completely nails that vibe and in doing so, makes space for the memories of one's own coming of age. For me, it was hazy visions of my misspent youth in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

More specifically, it was the often embarrassing follies that come with fumbling toward adulthood. The mistakes we make as we try to understand who we are can be immense in the moment, but in hindsight look hilariously quaint. We all have them. Some will forever remain secret, others we type up in essay form and put on the internet for the world (or my readership of like, three - hiiiii) to see. Fair warning, this mini-collection might get a bit graphic. You may feel some second-hand mortification. You may cringe at my teenage exploits. 

Ready? Okay.

My first man I ever loved was a soccer player named Jim*.

Well, loved might be too strong a word. Awkwardly obsessed over might be more accurate. The early years of my "romantic" life were… tragique to say the least.

I was a pretty sheltered kid. My family was late getting the internet and when we finally did the shared computer was right in the middle of the living room. This meant that the myriad resources a queer kid might be able to access on the digital highway were off limits to me, so I had to resort to more analogue ways of exploring my budding sexuality. Back in those days, they still sold smutty magazines at the Coles bookstore in the mall. Up on the top shelf, there were several options for men: Playboy, PenthouseJuggs, etc, and one option for women and gay men: Playgirl. I was in the habit when my parents dragged me along for their shopping, of finding the nearest bookstore or magazine aisle and plunking myself down for a spell. This was how I got into Stephen King novels at much, much too early an age and where I devoured every article in Premiere magazine, easily one of the best film-centric publications of all time.

I remember how the dirty magazines, way up there supposedly out of reach, peeked over the row in front of them: bleach blonde, brown-eyed bombshells stared out, beckoning to you with their seductive gaze. Next to their heads were big, bold, "sexy" words meant to titillate.

And titillate they did. Without even looking at the cover, you could dive off the cliffs of your imagination ravine and coast on the warm zephyrs of fanciful carnality. The covers often seemed like let downs in comparison. Often, but not always. I remember an issue of Playgirl dedicated to ‘Sexy Truck Drivers’ which featured three long-haul masculine men in ripped sleeve flannel that gave me about a full month of sexy dream material.

I used to stand in the periodical aisle "reading" something like Us or People, my eyes darting back and forth to see if any workers were nearby. If they weren’t I would quickly reach up and grab a Playgirl, slipping it into my cover magazine. Then, as nonchalant as possible, I would stroll around the store until I found the most out of the way corner. There I would open the issue and take in the beefy, sun-dappled bodies and semi-erect penises. Looking back, it was all rather tame, but at that point in my life, it was very sexy.

I actually stole one once. I remember it so clearly. I had performed my whole dance, loitering in the magazine aisle for much too long, fake reading a tabloid, finding an uninhabited corner of the store. Only this time, I slipped the Playgirl into my pants and returned the other magazine to the shelf. I proceeded to wander a bit longer and finally walked out of the store casually. My heart was beating quick, pounding in my ears, threatening to burst. There was a little bus roundabout behind the mall and I waited there for what seemed like an eternity. Every time the door to the mall opened I thought it would be a security guard and I would be caught and sent to jail for the rest of my life.

The bus arrived. I got on. I breathed a sigh of relief. When the driver got off and wandered away for a cigarette, I once again began to stress. A security guard came running out of the mall and I thought I would die right then. I sunk low into my seat, my eyes just barely looking over the edge of the window. The guard did a lap around the bus stop, searching for someone. He spoke into his radio, stopped, looked directly at the bus. I quickly looked away. The next few moments passed like hours, the world seemed to close in, the air thickened. I imagined the guard boarding the bus and pulling out his guard weapon and yelling at me to get down on the floor and I would be handcuffed, dragged away, interrogated, and my family would be shamed in the media and my life would be forever stained and I would rue the day I chose to live dangerously. Instead, when I looked back up, the guard was returning to the mall. The bus driver got back on and we drove away. I have no idea if it was me who the security guard was looking for but I decided, despite the adrenaline rush, that shoplifting wasn't worth the years I'd probably taken off my life through stress. I vowed never to do it again. 

Instead, I chose to spend actual cash on legal almost smut. Men’s Workout magazine did the trick. If you’re unfamiliar, Men’s Workout is the slutty, über homoerotic cousin to more mainstream fare like Men’s Fitness and Men’s Health. I haven’t picked one up since that time but from what I remember it was super gay. In fact, in the back pages, there were ads that essentially stood in for porn. It was amazing! I could ogle muscley men and it was all above board to society because it was about exercise and health or something. Never mind that I was a noodly slip of a person who looked like they hadn't ever even seen a gym.

I also started buying XY Magazine at this time. XY was a glossy, full-colour publication aimed at the teen to mid-twenties urban homosexual. Its issues had super provocative images on the front and inside with each focusing on a different topic like ‘Underage’, ‘Skewl’, ‘Straight’, or ‘Boi’. One of their issues is of particular significance to me because it happens to contain one of my most enduring secrets. We hadn’t lived in the city for very long and a magazine like that was huge to my closeted self. It revealed a world of young homosexuals who were out and proud, living large in gay-friendly cities like San Francisco or New York. At that time, I knew a total of one out gay person, and Saskatoon was, to me, a wasteland of boringness. It was a place where all anyone had to look forward to was marrying young, having kids, and then settling down into a life of grey oatmeal blandness. Nothing happened in Saskatoon, nothing. 

To top it off, my family was living in what was basically an old folk's home. Officially it was referred to as something like an ‘Independent Living Residence for Retirees’ but some of them could barely move and there was a kitchen and dining hall where they would all gather daily for tea time and low-sodium meals. My father was working as the building supervisor and an apartment was provided to us so he and my mother, who also worked there as a custodian, could be on call in the evenings in case of emergencies. The two bedroom apartment they gave us was definitely not appropriate for a family of four. My sister, as the eldest was given the second room and I was placed in the laundry room. I’m not even joking. I slept beside the washer and dryer in a windowless closet for a solid three years of my life. Originally, when we moved my bed in, the door couldn’t even close, space was so cramped. My father eventually gave in to my many protestations and figured out how to reverse the door so it swung open outward. But there was still a gap in the frame and so for those extremely formidable years between grade six and nine, I lived with basically no privacy.

I was always a solitary sort, but this lack of room to call my own caused me to guard even more fiercely my time alone. Even though I felt I required that space, it turned out to be a double-edged sword. It contributed quite a bit to deep feelings of loneliness. And these feelings weren’t exactly helped by exposure to a magazine where young men were depicted living the life I desired - going to queer parties and having romantic odysseys. I wanted so badly to connect to this wider world of queer life. So when I saw an opportunity to take part, I grabbed it, ignoring the many reasons why I shouldn't.

Each issue of XY featured a section of reader-submitted photos or stories. I had just started grade nine at a Catholic high school, transferring over with a core group of female friends. In the final years of elementary school I had been present for all their most intense crushes: Brian Littrell of the Backstreet Boys, Usher (Usha-Usha), and for some reason, George Strombolopolous and his leather jackets. So, when we reached high school it was only logical that I would continue to support them in their new obsessions. I would often get “dragged” to sporting events that their current infatuation was taking part in. We would show up at football games and gab in the bleachers while drinking watery hot chocolate. We’d go to wrestling matches and giggle insanely at the sweat stains in unmentionable places. I was out to my parents by this time but not out to my friends, so I was never vocal about how much enjoyment I got out of looking at football toned meatheads or the homoerotic entanglements on the mats. This also meant that I couldn’t drag my girlfriends out to the events where my crush participated.

Jim, oh Jim. He was a member of the soccer team on track to become captain. He had the tall and lanky frame of Nick Carter, with the pale skin, dark brown hair, and thin lips of Kevin Richardson. He smoked in the parking lot and carried himself with a kind of self-assured ease few of the other boys had. He often carried headphones slung around his neck and sported the behemoth jeans that look tragic now but were of the absolute moment then. He was tight with one of the members of the wrestling team so occasionally he would show up at a match when my friends and I were there. In these moments, as I stared at him from afar, the beefy grappling in the ring paled in comparison to the daydreams winding through my head. We never went to one of his games though. None of the girls found him particularly dreamy and in Saskatchewan soccer wasn't a marquee sport. This devastated me at the time but I couldn’t show it. Instead, I enlisted my potent imagination and came up with a kaleidoscope of scenarios in which we might run into each other in the hall or on the lawn of the school or in line at the cafeteria and fall truly, madly, deeply in love. This, despite what so much gay media of the time told me, was never going to happen. No, the jock wasn’t going to realize his homo ways and fall for the femme geeky gay, not in real life.

But in my youthful reveries, all things were possible. And that's where those musings should have stayed. Instead, I decided it would be a grand idea to share this fantasy with the readership of XY. So, one day, super late at night, I decided to write a letter. In it, I included a photo cut out of an old yearbook of Jim and his buddy. The story I included was something about how my crush’s wrestling friend had noticed me and my posse at a match and had appreciated our fandom. He had seen in me a quality that he knew would perfectly match to my crush. He proceeded to set us up on a date and we'd now been together for a while and we were just so happy and wouldn't you know it, everyone accepted us and blah blah blah blah blah. I put the letter in an envelope and sent it off thinking the editors of XY would see my fantasy for what it was and toss the whole thing out.

Instead, about a month later, I was at the bookstore and picked up their latest issue. Inside, almost at the end, was the picture of Jim and his pal followed by my completely made up story. The fact that I didn’t faint right then and there is a testament to how well I'd learned to suppress my dramatic side in public. Instead, I calmly approached the counter and bought the magazine from the wary seller. Seemingly unperturbed, I placed the magazine in my backpack and quietly exited the store. Then, I proceeded to run home in a freaked out tizzy. When I got there, I burst through the door and beelined straight to my room where I stuffed the magazine under my mattress and sat right down on it as if that would somehow make it go the fuck away. It was the middle of the week so for three days I kept the magazine under my mattress where it emanated guilt. I almost managed to convince myself that what I had seen wasn't actually true. But, to my dismay, very late on Friday night when I knew everyone else was asleep, I pulled out the issue, flipped to the correct page, and stared at what I had done. There it was, real. So so painfully, painfully real. The black and white photo peered back at me with pixellated accusation. Below my counterfeit account of young love was my real name followed by my real location. It was mortifying and exciting and terrifying all at the same time. I had wanted so badly to be seen, to take part in queer life, that I had allowed myself to go to far and suddenly it was like the world had placed a magnifying lens right above my head and zoomed in as I sat in my literal closet silently freaking out. What if someone at school saw it? What if they shared it with my crush? What if my friends saw it? What if I was exposed for the liar I was? What if one of my enemies, the hockey-playing dudebros, got a hold of it? Would they plaster it around the school Cruel Intentions style while I ran through the halls, seeking asylum with the tech nerds in the dark bowels of the theatre? Would even the tech nerds turn me away, disgusted at the tragic destruction of my (non-existent) reputation?

Despite the melodrama playing out in my head, it felt oddly good to know that my real name was out there, that someone somewhere could be thinking at that very moment that a kid in Nowheresville, Saskatchewan was one of the lucky ones. They could be thinking ‘I want to be like them, able to date out in the open and be supported. If they can do it, why can't I?’ Problematic as it was, It felt like a declaration of independence. As if finally I was proclaiming myself to the world, snatching back the control I wasn't being granted over my life, gaining back a tiny bit of the power I so lacked. I've since grown out of those straight boy fixations (though not quite my lanky white dude fixation) and look back on these silly notions with a mixture of embarrassment and nostalgia. 

Not too long after the bookstore where I bought the issue stopped carrying the magazine. The editors had frequently commented in their pages how difficult it was to find advertisers. The magazine’s focus on the many facets of the lives of young queer men, including frank discussions of sex, scared them off. They went away for a while and only recently, in 2016, relaunched. You can buy back issues on their website. I’ve even considered picking up a copy of the offending edition since mine was eventually destroyed in a blaze.

As I said before, my parents already knew I was gay, but they were certainly not comfortable with any aspect of queer sex or that I had access to the knowledge of that sex. When they found the several issues of XY in my bedroom I was ordered to get rid of them. As a Diamond-Certified Member of the International Drama Queen Club, I decided to spark up a raging fire and ceremoniously tossed each torn apart issue into the flames while I sobbed on the hearth. This was both incredibly cathartic and, in hindsight, terribly wasteful.

Over the years, I’ve thought about this lie more times than I can count. My emotions have gone from deep, overpowering regret, to total embrace of the undiluted mortification. I look back at the person I was and while I feel sadness for his isolation and wish he thought about others more often, I also appreciate his gumption and his drive to discover, to seek beyond what was being presented to him and to challenge what was being imposed.

I also see how I conveniently ignored the fact that, while I had exposed my name and location, I had not in fact exposed myself. There was no photo of me. Instead, I had put someone I didn’t even know under a spotlight, someone whose actual sexuality was a complete mystery, without any care for how it might impact his life. After the bookstore stopped carrying the magazine, I told myself no one else in the city was reading it anyway and therefore the incident could not affect him, the same way it proved not to affect me. I have no idea if this is actually true for Jim, wherever he is. If it ever does come to his attention, I hope he's able to see the whole thing for what it really is: the silly, fantastical ravings of a sad, lonely young queer screaming into the void while searching for the rainbow in the darkness.

Who knows, after his initial embarrassment, it might even bring a smile to his face to know that someone once liked him enough to include him in a romantic tall tale.

Come back next week for more youthful awkwardness. Schadenfreude is wonderful for the skin.

* Names have been changed to protect the innocent.

II. LATINX

It was a few years ago when I was writing my play Salvador: A Latin-Canadian Fantasia that I first discovered the gender-neutral term Latinx. I was in the middle of a research period. I tend to have several, usually between drafts, and they often involve hours upon hours of Googling and reading, Googling and reading. I think I had typed in ‘Latin theatre in Canada - what gives?’ which brought me to a collection edited by Natalie Alvarez called Fronteras Vivientes: Eight Latina/o Canadian Plays. This collection led me to its wonderful companion, essays also edited by Ms Alvarez entitled Latina/o Canadian Theatre and Performance. You’ll notice neither of these titles includes the term ‘Latinx’. But they opened the door to deeper thought on something I had been struggling with for quite some time.

But before we get into that, for those who don’t know, Spanish is a gendered language which means most words have both masculine and feminine versions, some are strictly one or the other, and some are considered ‘ambiguous’. For example, a kitchen is la cocina (feminine), an oven is el horno (masculine), a cat can be both el gato (masculine) and la gata (feminine). If you are a male of Latin-American descent you are referred to as Latino or Hispano, a woman is Latina or Hispana. These terms have a broad application and don't distinguish between the many different races that live in Latin America. According to a study by the Pew Research Centre, 51% of Latin or Hispanic people prefer to identify with their family’s country of origin (eg Guatemalan, Mexican, or Bolivian) and only 24% prefer the broader terms Latina/o or Hispanic. This makes perfect sense. While we (mostly) share a language there are major differences between the people of each country.  

Despite what the Pew study suggests, I find it odd to identify as El Salvadoran. When I’m inevitably asked, “Where are you from?” I often say, “My family is from El Salvador, I was born in the United States, and I grew up in Canada.” It’s long-winded and people find it pretentious but I don’t give a fuck. I wasn’t born in El Salvador and have only been back three times in 33 years. Once when I was in grade three and twice within a few months while I was researching Salvador. It’s a country that I have a complicated love for, a country that can seem completely foreign to me. My only saving grace is the fact that I can understand the language. But I’m only barely capable of putting together a sentence in Spanish so we’re essentially back at the beginning. Therefore, identifying as El Salvadoran is out. So is identifying as American since I lived there for all of about six months after being born. And despite being back several times I view it through a very (stereotypically) Canadian lens. In other words, I am both attracted to and repulsed by the United States in equal measure.

That leaves identifying as Canadian.

This can be confusing to a lot of white people since I’m also brown skinned. And in the eyes of many white Canadians, only white people are actually from Canada. Plus, I’m technically not from here because I was born somewhere else sooooo… we return to Latina/o or Hispanic.

Surprise, surprise, I’ve never been a fan of ‘Hispanic’. Why? Its roots are blatantly colonialist. As per Wikipedia the term “applies to countries once owned by the Spanish Empire in the Americas and Asia.” [emphasis mine]. If you don't find the grossness in that sentence, we can't be friends.

Latina/o are also not my fave. I’ve always had a complicated relationship with gender. As a boy, I was expected to play soccer, mow the lawn, keep my emotions to myself, and help my father with the neverending home renovation projects he cooked up. I was terrible at all of these ‘boy’ things and more. While playing soccer I’d get lost in dreamy reveries and got pissy whenever the ball came near me because that meant I had to stop creating the little world I was creating in my head. It was always a fight to get me to do the “boy chores” but I would happily help with the “girl chores” like washing and drying the dishes, or helping with food prep. Keeping my emotions to myself was something I managed until I didn’t and then they came out in such savage ways over several years that I’m still dealing with the fallout. As for being my father’s helper on home reno… let’s just say he eventually accepted that all I was good for was handing him whatever tool or fixing he needed from across the room and chatting awkwardly about life. These examples are mostly light but the gendered aspects of my upbringing, the threads of misogyny and homophobia that are woven so thoroughly in patriarchal Latin culture, left deep scars on this sensitive, feminine person as it has on many others.

I identify as male so you’d think that simply saying “I am Latino” would be sufficient. It’s not. These days we’re having a lot of conversations about identity and gender, which can be both beautiful and frightening to witness. The transgender community is much more visible than ever before and unfortunately so is the transphobia. The terms ‘gender neutral’ and ‘gender non-conforming’ are much more widely known. Both have opened the world up for some and inevitably caused fear and retaliation in others. While the negative responses to this movement can be mind-boggling in their ignorance, the positives can be overpowering in what they could mean to a new generation.

I often wish I had been exposed to this movement at a much earlier age. There's no way to tell if things might have been easier, and it's not worth dwelling on the possibilities, but the thought does occasionally cross the mind. While I currently identify as male I often feel spiritually aligned with both male and female energies, they’re vitalities that have been in constant conversation since my youth but have yet to find a common tongue. I’m filled with joy that people are out there living their truth but a little saddened - or maybe frustrated is the better word - by the fact that I’m still wading through the waters of discovery, acclimating to how these essential beings translate on my body. I love the theatre of being able to express the feminine one day and the masculine the next. I’ve even gone on a whole Instagram journey to try to challenge the gender biases not only in myself but also in the expectations society has for Latin men. But, again, the language continues to be a stumbling block. As a writer, you can imagine, this has been especially frustrating. 

Here's the thing, I know labels can be dangerous if relied on too heavily. But they also have the potential to be the key that unlocks something deeper. Above I referred to myself as a 'writer'. When I typed that I didn't flinch. The only reason I'm able to do this is because one day I told myself, "Start calling yourself a writer if that's what you want to be. That's how you want people to see you, and it simply doesn't matter if you don't have a body of work. By referring to yourself in this way, you will be forced to create one." There is a lot of power in labels that you give yourself

And so, what works? While I have deeper rivers of Indigenous Central American blood in my veins than straight up European Spanish, I obviously can’t use the term two-spirit. Gender neutral, non-binary, bigender, agender, and pangender all feel wrong because I still, and may always, view myself as male first. I don’t feel comfortable using ‘gender non-conforming’ or ‘genderqueer’ because I’m still experimenting and present as male 99.9% of the time. Beyond the femme fantasias that I create in my own home, it's quite rare for me to go out with any traditional feminine markers greater than lipstick or eyeliner.

When I first saw the cover of Latina/o Canadian Theatre and Performance on the Toronto Public Library website I remember having an overwhelming feeling of… confusion. On their website, as opposed to Playwrights Canada Press which I linked to above, the book cover and title are listed as Latin@ Canadian Theatre and Performance. I had an inkling of what this might mean but it was the first time I had seen a gender-neutral way of identifying Latin people and at first, part of me thought it was a mistake. Then, when I gave it a quick Google and realized it was not, in fact, a mistake, I started to feel good. The circle around the ‘a’ felt like an embrace of acceptance, proclaiming ‘All are welcome here, we do not segregate.’

Still, it wasn’t quite right.

‘Latin@’ seems to me, to only embrace cisgender men and women. I know that's not it's intention, but both Latina and Latino are visually represented so it still feels binary. Also, it’s not all that appealing to look at. It reads too much like the first half of an email address, perhaps something like Latin@morethanjustMexican.com.

Then one day I saw ‘Latinx’.

Not to be too flip about it but in that instance it all made sense. It’s funny how sometimes when it comes to really significant moments you can remember details of the journey, but you can’t remember the details of the epiphany. It’s possible I saw ‘Latinx’ in the pages of that essay collection but it feels in my gut like it was somewhere else. I suppose where that was doesn’t really matter. What matters is the feeling. And this time, since I had already been exposed to gender neutrality in Latin American identity, I didn't feel confusion but instead, I felt healing. There was something so beautiful about the way the ‘x’ seemed to remove so many years of gender expectation in my cultural identity. Instead of an embrace, it was a kiss that said, I love you no matter who you are, wherever you are. It was a kiss out to disrupt. Its unexpected formation on the lips had potential to tear down an entire system. It was no longer the hard stop of Latin-AT, it was the open-ended possibility of Latin-EX.

Obviously, this is a lot to lay at the feet of one little letter. But the power of language should never be underestimated. And while the wounds from years of trying and failing to adhere to strict gender rules may never fully heal, most would gladly take the salve where they can get it.

And ‘Latinx’ can be a balm like no other.

I. Los Angeles, MCMLXXXIV

I was born at 2:57 am in Los Angeles California on Wednesday, October 31, 1984.

On this day Indira Gandhi, India’s first and only female Prime Minister was assassinated by her own bodyguards, Ronald Reagan was only a few days away from being re-elected despite rumours he was suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease, Billy Ocean’s "Caribbean Queen (No More Love on the Run)" was the US number one single, James Cameron’s The Terminator was the top film at the box-office with a just-over four million dollar gross, and, after 359 years, Pope John Paul II declared the Roman Catholic Church had wrongly condemned Galileo for his work that said the Earth revolved around the Sun.

Supposedly I was meant to be born the next day, November 1. But the way my mother describes it, once I decided I wanted out, there was no stopping me. In fact, she once referred to her birth canal as a “waterslide,” which used to gross me the fuck out. Apparently, they almost didn’t make it to the hospital. As a soon to be Scorpio, I probably relished the drama of being born on the side of a freeway in the middle of the night, but it also makes a lot of sense that my love of drama was trumped by my love of good art direction, and the inside of a beat-up dark green AMC Gremlin was certainly not serving up that fantasy. So instead, I gripped the sides of the waterslide and held on until we were safely inside White Memorial Medical Centre.

At birth, I was nineteen and a half inches long and eight pounds, zero ounces. The back of my birth certificate features my tiny footprints in light purple. The left is rubbed almost clean, and the right is on its last leg. There is a clear imprint on the right foot of a round bandage where they pricked me for a blood sample. My first photo shows gigantic cheeks, an almost full head of hair, and pale skin that had yet to darken up to the caramel lusciousness that it is now. My parents used to joke that the staff actually mixed up photos and for all these years we’ve been looking at the baby of the East Asian family down the hall who was born on the same day.

My mother and I were soon discharged and we returned to my father and sister. We lived in a room of a house located in el barrio of East LA, a place that according to Wikipedia is 96.7% Latinx. The exact number of people who also lived in this house varies. The figure seems to have fluctuated between 10 and 20, all illegal save for me. The four of us slept in one bed. My sister was three, my parents were in their early twenties. Occasionally, with terrifying clarity, I can understand how, when they look at me, a barely educated, just above poverty line 33-year-old with no children, living in a run-down townhouse with three other people in one of the country’s biggest most competitive cities, it might look less like progress and more like a lateral step. Then I think of the time I read somewhere it can take a whole generation for immigrant families to truly see advancement in their new home and I wonder if I shouldn’t have children after all. You know, for the culture. Then I remember I'm too selfish for children and the weight of expectation returns.

At the time of my birth, my father was working at a tortilla factory, an experience he has described as pretty horrible. My mother worked for a rich Latin-American family as their maid and occasional nanny. She has said her employers were wonderful, still in touch with their roots, but their children, having grown up with everything, were terrible brats. 

I have no memory of Los Angeles in 1984. After I was born, we lived there only until Monday, April 15, 1985, a few days after Madonna launched her Virgin Tour, when South Africa ended its ban on interracial marriages, "We Are the World" was at the top of the charts, and Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment was number one at the box office. We moved to Saskatchewan where, as the plane was touching down, my mother peered out her window, saw the dead trees, and thought to herself while clutching me tight, “What have we done?”

It's been said by people much smarter than me that we’re shaped by our landscapes. Five months in a city seems like nothing, but babies are basically loaf-sized sponges. They have no idea what anything is yet are acutely aware of and affected by their surroundings. I’ve always tied my deep desire to live in large urban centres to being ripped from the hustle and bustle of LA and being dropped into the flat nothingness of Saskatchewan. I tie my distaste for being even slightly cold to the contrast between my first weather experiences: the harsh bite of early spring in Canada after the warm samey-sameness of beautiful southern California.

It’s a bit of a cliché to romanticize The Golden State, I know. Especially for a Canadian in the arts. It’s probably even more problematic for someone whose family experienced some of the worst poverty, racism, and classism that Los Angeles had to offer. California, like America, is sold to the world as the place where dreams come true, where magic is created, where the tortured artist can become fabulously wealthy and celebrated. These things can be true. But we’ve also all seen its dark side: the exploitation of foreign workers, the exploitation of young performers, the steep class divide. It’s a place, like so many others, built on broken bones and dreams. Yet somehow it still calls to me.

I’ve examined this impulse in the past and come up with many reasons why. I’ve told myself this compulsion is based on an immature yearning to run away, or the infant sized void only a pilgrimage to one’s birthplace can fill. I’ve convinced myself LA is the only place one can truly “make it,” the only place to gain the kind of recognition I crave for my art. When I talk about this desire my friends roll their eyes, immediately conjuring up the same images we’ve all become accustomed to: the sun-dappled beaches, the endless traffic, the new age-y faux spiritualist posture of the uber rich, the stars in the eyes, the delusion.

No, America is not the only place to “make it.” California is not the only place with nice weather. They're places with shitty health care, astronomical rent, horrendous immigration law, the kind of racist vitriol that turns your blood to ice. Where queer identities and women’s bodies are disrespected, where corruption and ignorance have become a new religion. America the dream maker is a shambles. And Hollywood the mighty machine is destroying itself from within.

Still, it calls.

Why?

I think buried beneath it all is a need to conquer the place where my family lived with those 10-20 illegal immigrants, where we slept in one bed with rats on the floor, where we were refused food stamps for anyone but the legal baby, where the threat of deportation and familial separation hung over every move. Things I wasn’t even conscious enough to understand but that were inherently woven into the fabric of our time there. Things that have since been reiterated to me again and again, seeping into the deepest recesses of my being. It’s not enough to be satisfied with the country we escaped to and it’s supposed promise of safety and diversity. I’ve got to go back and show the place we escaped from who's boss.

This is the kind of thing I’m not supposed to write. It’s considered un-Canadian to speak freely of our ambitions. We’re supposed to be humble and nice, beset by crushing inferiority complexes, the polar opposite of Americans. We're never supposed to be churlish to the land that made us modest and kind. This cultural rule is as much a part of me as my need to subvert it. Because as much as these qualities can be good, they can also be stifling, and can most definitely be a facade. Humility becomes performative, drive is suppressed. There should be nothing wrong with wanting to - and believing - you can make it all the way to the top. In Canada it seems we’re expected to be grateful for settling somewhere in the middle.

Every industry has its problems, no doubt, but the Canadian need to find an umbrella identity of “Canada Nice, Canada Humble” (aka Rural, majority white) in my opinion often pushes more artists away than it welcomes in.

And so, it calls. And calls. And calls. And calls…

Maybe now… now that I’m five foot, eight and a half inches, about 140 pounds, when my footprint wouldn’t even fit on my birth certificate, when Post Malone’s "Rockstar" is at the top of the charts, when Thor: Ragnarok is the number one film at the box office, when the world and my chosen industry seem at their scariest... maybe I could return. To the place I was born, a land of perpetual summer and dreams beyond any dreams. Maybe, Los Angeles, 1984 was not only the beginning but also the end.

Or maybe I’m crazy, maybe I'm delusional, maybe I'm ungrateful and I should just be happy with where I am.

Or maybe... 

V. Damn You, Mr Van Damme

Today’s my birthday so we’re gonna take it easy.

We’ve all got that one, don’t we? That one image that appears early in life and stirs in us a desire so strong that it burns into the brain for the rest of time causing you to seek it out so as to experience its thrill again and again.

For me, that image was of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s ass in the 1990 classic-in-certain-circles film Lionheart. If you’re a fan, like me, of shitty 80’s and 90’s action movies you’ve likely come into contact with JCVD’s monumental rear end. It’s featured gratuitously in many of his films, always lovingly lit, often at the end of a pan up from the feet. The shots are ridiculous, taking you completely out of the film, but tell me the truth, were you really paying attention anyway? Probably not. And let’s not forget: action films of all eras, but especially of the 80's and 90's, have been known to feature many, many more gratuitous shots of naked women. It’s a nice change of pace to openly objectify a man.  

Which, to get it out of the way, I’m not here to totally reduce Mr Van Damme to a single body part. He produced several of his films and wrote many of the scripts. And he’s not a completely terrible actor. Given the right material, he could work it out. You’ve simply got to check out the film JCVD to know what I mean. Butt (ha!), somehow I doubt the man who apparently claimed he could crack a walnut on them cakes would mind my little ode to his fabulous derrière Belgique. He put it on film for a reason, non?

The first time I laid eyes on this portentous posterior I was at my cousin’s house for a sleepover. This was during those heady days of youth when no one was really paying attention, particularly to what we rented at the video store. It was a small hamlet and everyone assumed you'd gotten permission to rent whatever you wanted. We could walk up with the most inappropriate material and the bored teen behind the counter would barely look up from the Very Important Film they were watching and say, “Due back in seven days. Leave.”

We’d rented something else along with Lionheart I'm sure of it, butt (ha!) who knows what. We'd started the first video late and by the end, everyone was pretty sleepy. We figured some brutal fight scenes would wake us right up. My cousins were super into martial arts then, obsessed with playing Mortal Kombat and having epic battles on the trampoline. I pretended I was also interested in these violent pastimes because I wanted to be cool and like, masc or whatever. I didn’t realize at the time that always choosing to play Sonya Blade made that effort moot.

I remember very little about Lionheart. According to IMDb, it’s about a French soldier who takes up underground fighting to support his dead brother’s family. Sure. I recall there was a rich white lady with Soft Butch hair who was the financial backer of some of these fighters. She sees Jean-Claude kick the ass of her prized gladiator and decides to take her money and put it on his plump rump. But he’s a bit rough around the edges and she decides she’s going to clean him up, get him into some slick outfits to show the other fighters he’s someone to be reckoned with. Again, sure. None of that matters. What matters is that her effort to spiff him up gave me my first glimpse of heaven on earth.

At some point during Lionheart, my cousins had fallen asleep and I was only half paying attention. Then, JCVD stepped into frame, naked as can be. Suddenly I was completely awake. How could I not be? Before my eyes, between a broad back and thick thighs were two stacks of tan musclebound majesty. I may have gasped. Possibly even passed out for a sec.

When I came to, I checked to see if everyone was fully in dreamland. They were. I reached for the remote as carefully and quietly as possible and proceeded to hit rewind with all the force in my body. I played the moment again. Jean-Claude is in a red room, framed from the ankles up, holding a luxurious dark blue bathrobe which he eventually (and disappointingly) puts on. The light from the window is hitting him just right and there might've been angels singing, it's a bit fuzzy. I hit pause. Now, this was a VHS so the image quality wasn’t amazing. Butt (ha!) despite the squiggly freeze frame lines I knew I had never seen anything quite so parfait.

One of my cousins stirred. I hit play at lightning speed and pretended to be half asleep. He didn’t wake. I gave it a moment and eventually sat up, pressed rewind. Play. Pause. Rewind. I took note of the slight jiggle in the haunches as Jean-Claude finds his mark. Play. Pause. Rewind. I memorize the divine dimples where the sensuous curve of the lower back kisses the braggadocious buns. Play. Pause. Rewind. Play. Pause. Rewind.

I held my breath, not wanting to make any extra noise so I could bask in this jubilation a little longer. Then my cousin rolled over. I smashed the play button and was all like, “Huh? Did you say something? What?” He groggily focussed on the TV, shaking his head. The moment had passed, thank Christ. He asked me to explain what had happened so far. I told him, conveniently leaving out the part where I had had an out of body experience thanks to coming face to screen with an Olympian being of celestial birth.

I spent the rest of the movie thinking about that scene and marvelling at Jean-Claude’s body.

Because who're we kidding? His whole body is amazing. The man worked hard and it showed. He’d been doing martial arts since he was ten and had several years of ballet under his black belt. After starting to lift weights he won the bodybuilding title of Mr Belgium. He was also gorgeous in the face. Problem was, Van Damme knew he was attractive and often had a smug tilt to his head. That cockiness both repulsed and drew me to him.

I became pretty fixated, not gonna lie. I started seeking out his films just to get a glimpse of that body-oddy-oddy. Lucky for me, he didn’t mind showing it off.  Some of my favourite shots include 1992’s Universal Soldier in which he sweatily strips down to nothing but a pair of white gym socks in front of an air conditioner. There's also 1993’s Nowhere to Run where he emerges, glistening in the sun, from a lake. He's caught by a little girl and backs into the water, giving us the same Poseidon-like shot butt (ha!) in reverse. And finally 1988’s Bloodsport - which might be the ultimate gluteal shot because as he's about to put on a pair of red briefs, he seems to pause for a second as if to say, “That’s right, drink it in because it is magnificent.”

Honourable mentions go out to the full or partially clothed shots that still make the heart skip a beat - starting with 1994’s Timecop, featuring a truly terrible haircut and an underwear-clad fight scene where to avoid getting electrocuted, he does the splits onto his kitchen counters. Or how about Maximum Risk from 1996 where he fights a guy in a Russian sauna wearing only a towel. If only he'd gone the Full Viggo and dropped the towel altogether. And finally, we have 1991’s Double Impact. This is probably my favourite Van Damme film since it features two big beefy scoops of Jean-Claude. He plays twins in the film, separated as babies after the murder of their parents. The family’s trusted bodyguard mistakenly thinks the one child died along with the parents and he adopts his rescuee, taking him to America. The other baby gets dropped off on the steps of an orphanage by the family maid as she dies.

One of the first shots of the American twin - who has a thick Belgian accent despite spending his entire life in America - is at his martial arts studio where he is asked to take over the stretch portion of an aerobics class down the hall. After he extolls the virtues of flexibility, he drops into a deep split. The camera sits low in the bright pink room, inviting us to bask in the spandex-clad mounds as he bounces them up and down. This bounce is presumably to show just how deep his split is, but really it’s about as homoerotic as any image I’ve seen in a mainstream film. And this despite the fact the class is full of women, ogling him hungrily.  

I once attempted to rent this movie at Queen Video’s flagship location (which is now sadly closed). My friend stood beside me and made a face. As we walked out sans film, she said, “Wait, what were you trying to rent?” “Double Impact,” I said, disappointed. “Sounds like porn.” she scoffed. I spent the rest of the walk defending the film. Then, as we entered the house I admitted, “Really though, I just wanted to see Jean-Claude’s fine, fine ass.”

In other words, damn you, Mr Van Damme. I’m ruined for life because no other rear will ever be as redoubtable, no tush as terrific, no booty as beautiful.

Don’t believe me, darling reader? Then take a look. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

 

Now tell me I’m wrong.

IV. Pt 2 or, It Could All Be So Simple...

"It could all be so simple / But you’d rather make it hard / Loving you is like a battle

And we both end up with scars..."

Ex-Factor, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill

To say that my first night in the hospital psychiatric ward was one of the longest in my existence isn’t an exaggeration. I'd felt so trapped by life, then hurt myself in an effort to become free. The fact that I ended up putting myself in an actual, physical cage, even if it was just for a night, was a vengeful reality that returned again and again anytime I opened my eyes.

I had arrived at the hospital sometime around ten in the morning. I'd waited in emergency for about eight hours, then was taken to a room to be examined by a doctor. Quickly cleared (though not without judgement), I was taken to a tiny room with a small table, two chairs, and a phone. I waited perhaps another hour. I was visited by a nice lady I would not see again who questioned my motives in hurting myself. As she left, she instructed me to call home. I did. After waiting what felt like another hour someone came for me.

It was mid-November so by the time I walked the maze to my home for the next while, it was dark outside. Hospitals at night are not cute. They’re filled with people yet unbelievably lonely. The man leading me through the dim halls didn’t say much, only occasionally looked back to see I hadn’t run off. I suppose most wouldn't know what to say to a teen who tried to off themselves. A joke feels inappropriate and anything serious runs the risk of sounding like an admonishment. Silence seems like the safest option. We came to a sky bridge that connected the main building to the psychiatric ward. Looking out, I saw a parking lot filled with cars. I could almost hear the muffled sound of the atmosphere in its blanket of snow. I remember fear starting to creep in.

We entered the psych ward and I was greeted at the main desk by a big burly bald man (who I would also not see again) with a no-nonsense attitude. My first thought was: he’s that big so he can overpower the patients. The person I journeyed with disappeared into thin air and, after being given a sleeping pill, I was informed that I was being placed under observation. I would be sharing a room with two others and everyone was already asleep, so I needed to be quiet. This wasn't hard. Inside my brain, a terrible cocktail of self-hatred and numbness trapped my words. Even if I had wanted to, I doubt any sentences would've formed. All the lights in the building were dimmed and there was a terrifying heaviness to the air, the kind that made you feel like it would swallow you whole. In those moments it seemed possible I and this big burly bald man were the only ones alive. He took me to some stairs and started heading down. The fear became stronger.

I was led into the basement where we entered a brightly lit hexagonal room. A heavy looking door punctured by a small barred window was on each wall. There was a man in a hospital gown being corralled by two nurses. He was clearly high as a kite and the nurses were trying to get him to return to bed. When he saw me he smiled a smile so sweet. It was one of the first I'd seen all day and I was totally taken aback, not remotely prepared for kindness. When he attempted to hug me I recoiled and the big burly bald man put his body between us, reminding the man not to touch the other patients. He opened the door to my room and pushed me inside. As the door closed behind us, I looked back to see the man in the hospital gown staring at me with kind understanding.

The room was dark and silent save for the breathing of my two roommates. The big burly bald man pushed me toward my bed and asked quietly if I needed anything. I said no and he informed me that we would be checked on every hour. He turned on his flashlight and told me to get comfy. I stiffly sat down. He swung around, checking on the other two who didn’t stir and left. I stared at the light coming from the main room, the way the little squiggly bars cut it up. I listened to the breathing of the two strangers I couldn't see and wondered what they had done to end up here. I started to cry and lay down, tucking myself under the rough hospital sheets. I curled into the concrete wall, wanting desperately to slam my head into it. Looking up, I could see the stars through a small window near the ceiling. I recall being unbelievably pissed at the sky. Like somehow those stars were an affront to my whole existence. I didn't cry for very long. This wasn't that kind of sadness. Instead, I let my hands roam the divots in the concrete, let the cold permeate.

The pill eventually took hold but, as promised, every hour I was pulled back into the night. The sounds and images in my memory are fuzzy, burned into my brain under a layer of hazy narcotics: there was a clanging door to signal the watcher, a beam of light, a silhouette somewhere beyond. They would stay long enough to know you were breathing, then go. Eventually, the tempo of these visits became the lullaby I drifted off to. Off into a dreamless sleep.

The next morning when I was woken up, my roommates were already gone. I was taken upstairs for breakfast. Everything looked different, including the man in the hospital gown. He looked older now, heavier. He didn't acknowledge me. The cold winter light that infiltrated the building showed it was much larger than I'd expected and also much fuller with people, people who seemed friendly, who wanted to start a conversation. I was in no mood, still trapped in that repugnant cocktail, so I found a corner as far from everyone as I could possibly get and stared out the window. That light. Same as the light the day before. But nothing was the same. I wished for music.

It was only a few weeks before that I had purchased The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Prior to this, my tastes lived most in the space of pop or musical theatre. I was obsessed with Britney Spears, The Backstreet Boys, and Christina Aguilera. As you may have previously read in Part 1, I was a musical theatre junkie, a complete sucker for the shallow unchallenging waters of blockbuster warbling. But sitting in the psych ward doesn’t exactly promote shallowness. Instead, it promotes introspection and, hopefully, a deepening of your understanding of self. If you’ve heard Miseducation you know that album does the same in the most beautiful, hopeful way.

When my mother arrived for a visit she brought clothes and the only thing I had really asked for: my Discman and a wallet of CDs. The first one I popped in was Miseducation. I’ll admit, to this day, I think of that album as beginning with “Ex-Factor” the album’s third track. For some reason, I always skip “Lost Ones” unless I’m feeling like I need hype, and the “Intro” is not really necessary unless you're a completist.

I still remember my first listen. Probably one of the most mind-expanding non-drug related experiences I’ve ever had. There’s layer upon layer upon layer on that album and each one spoke to a different part of myself that had gone mostly unexplored until then. Now, to be clear, I am aware this album was not written for me. I'm not here to appropriate a Black woman’s gorgeous ruminations on love and life and make them all about me. But I can’t deny that while listening to Miseducation I was allowed access to a worldview and life experience I had little knowledge of. This, in turn, gave me entrance to a part of myself I couldn’t have entered before. In other words, exactly what good art should do. It opened my eyes to a different way of seeing the world, pulling me out of my solipsism. The distance I gained from my own situation - one that seemed so hopeless and trapped - showed me I had the tools to continue exploring, to continue breaking down the walls.

This is going to sound simplistic but I believe the lack of this knowledge, the knowledge of your own power, can be a huge part of what allows depression to take hold, to really sink in its teeth. It certainly was for me. I was brought up in a world where I was encouraged to only look so far, where my views were expected to stay confined to a tight box. And, like most people, I had deeper layers that needed tending. My inability to explore them left me emotionally handicapped.

A few weeks back, I was discussing with a friend our differing tastes. I made a bad joke about how his tastes tend toward "white people music." In response, he made a point of telling me that I used music to manufacture emotions because I didn’t know how to access them myself. No, this wasn’t the kindest thing in the world to say, but it’s also not totally untrue. So much of my life was spent tamping down my passions, not being encouraged to speak freely about what I was feeling. And music is a totally accessible way to dig into something you might not otherwise have any idea how to dig into. Lauryn Hill’s vulnerability, wisdom, her way with words… if she could dive into herself, if she could speak the truth about her experiences with strength, then I become convinced I can too.

For example, even though “Ex-Factor” was written about a former lover, its lyrics can also speak to one’s relationship with oneself. I know, even now, I still wage an internal battle on all things. These days, when I listen to Miseducation new things become clear, new layers appear that I can apply to my adult self. Whereas before, I was comforted by the lush romance, and fuck you-ness, today the themes of forgiveness and love stand out in a way they hadn’t before. Like during the interlude at the end of “Doo Wop (That Thing)” when one of the students breaks down the difference between loving somebody and being in love with somebody:

“You can love anybody," they say, "but when you in love with somebody you looking at it like this: you taking that person for what he or she is, no matter what he or she look like, no matter what he or she do.”

Of course, they’re talking about love between two people but as Mama RuPaul always says, “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love somebody else?” You’ve got a responsibility to learn to accept yourself even with all the flaws, to learn to forgive yourself even after all the mistakes.

Another student responds, referring to a theoretical partner, “Maybe sometimes they never been loved before, or they never been in love before, or they never - they don’t know what the feeling is to be loved.” This can absolutely apply to one’s approach to oneself. If you didn’t know how to love that inner being, were never taught to love them, how easy will it be to accept love in kind? To give love?

Art of all sorts presents us with these questions. Art leads us to a deeper self. The best piece of advice about writing I’ve ever gotten was to go out and take in more art, more life - it doesn’t always have to be about getting something on the page. Those experiences feed the page. Those experiences feed your forgiveness and understanding of self which in turn feeds your forgiveness and understanding of others, which allows you to live more intimately, to create more expansively. I'll admit, I'm still not great at this, the chains of emotional repression are hard to break in their entirety, but I know it’s possible. It will always be possible when there are amazing, sensitive people out there making beautiful, layered, intelligent art. It will always be possible when you allow yourself the space to experience that art.

I don’t actually remember how long I was in the psych ward. Two weeks seems too long, but one week seems not long enough. I suppose it was somewhere in the middle. In between visits to the psychologist, occasional group therapy, and becoming confinement friends with the man in the hospital gown, I wrote in a diary while listening to Miseducation over and over and over again. I consider it the gateway to all the art that has fed my practice through the years all the way up to today. It led me to seek out music with deeper layers, to find films that challenged what I thought film could be, to read more, to write more. That album helped me get through, no two ways about it.

If you're an artist of any kind, you might be that beacon to someone out there. You could be the person whose work makes someone feel seen, lets them feel comfortable with being seen, to love, to be loved, and pulls them out of the mire and into the light. So keep going, keep creating. We need you.  

III. I Dreamed a Dream That One Day I'll Fly Away From This Wicked Little Town (Pt. 1)

I’ve been conflicted about being seen my entire life...  

When I was in grade three my school was arranging a trip to see a touring production of Phantom of the Opera in the “big city” aka Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. At the time we were living in a little town about 45 minutes north of Saskatoon. Even then, I was pretty obsessed with going to the city, probably because it seemed to happen so rarely. We'd go mostly on the weekends for groceries or the occasional movie, and I remember the excitement I would feel when I saw the city rising on the horizon. Y'all, it wasn't even a nice view. But to my eyes, starved for anything out of the ordinary, it seemed like a City of the Future. In other words, the idea of a day trip with no parents to see a theatrical event sounded pretty damn great. I suppose I imagined a Home Alone 2: Lost in New York scenario where I would get to see the glittering stars of stage and then somehow get separated from the group and wander into the hijinks of the city streets. I was excited.

There was a little problem with this daydream, however: I was already being called out quite a bit by my father for not being enough of a boy. I was expected to play soccer and help him with home repairs and generally stop being so effeminate. I already knew these things didn’t interest me, but I was brought up to listen to my parents, to respect their authority, especially my father's. The trip to see Phantom was around the same time as a monster truck rally. We didn’t have much money so I was given a choice: go see Phantom (which my sister had already decided to do) or go to the monster truck rally. You already know what I really wanted to do. But thanks to some pressure from my father and uncle who made it clear that swaying in the other direction would make me a Man Disappointment, I decided to go to the rally. I spent the next couple of weeks performing my excitement for this most masculine of activities.

The weekend of the rally came and we drove into the city where my father, uncle, two cousins and I headed into the arena once known as Sask Place. I don’t know how many of you have been to an indoor monster truck rally but they are truly horrendous. The smell of gasoline, the roar of engines, and the crashing of metal put me off cars for the rest of my life. Still, I’m not going to pretend that I didn’t have a kind of fun. I was, after all, an eight-year-old boy who was getting to spend dedicated time with his father doing something that felt like exactly what fathers and sons should be doing to bond. But the fun was fleeting, to say the least. I remember getting a splitting headache from the gas fumes and bucket of soda we shared. I remember thinking myself much too delicate for all the noise and macho posturing. But, when we got home, I again performed my part. I made it sound like the most fun thing I had ever done.

I ate my words when my sister came home the next week from the performance of Phantom. Since her ticket was deeply discounted she had some money left to spend and came home with the double tape of the Original Cast Recording featuring the legendary Michael Crawford and (gasp) Miss Sarah Brightman. I was immediately fascinated by the deep black of the tape sleeve with its broken glass titles, punctuated by the red of the rose and bluish white of the Phantom’s mask. Then, I listened. And OH. MY. GAY. GAWDS.

(Hold up, I put it on just now as “background music” and got completely sucked in. I haven’t listened to this shit in years and somehow every word is still up there. Will I remember this when I’m on my deathbed!? I hope so.)

Anyway. Another souvenir had come home with my sister: The Complete Phantom of the Opera in glorious hardcover. Inside all the secrets of the development and mounting of the original production were revealed and I became obsessed. Not just with the show but with the process of theatre. It seemed like such amazing magic. They had a boat, my friends. On stage. And a chandelier! And and and! Then, after all this joy and fascination, I crashed. The world of lights and costumes and curtains seemed completely inaccessible to a kid stuck in a wasteland of flatness. I vowed then and there that I would never pass up another opportunity to see one of these big touring productions. In the following years, I begged my parents to take us to every show possible. They did their best, bless them. I honestly don’t think they knew what to do with the little girly boy who holed himself up in his bedroom and listened to the Phantom tape over and over. Taking me to these shows might have become one of the only ways for them to get me out of the house.

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat was my next obsession. Mostly because it was a frustrating missed opportunity. When the production came through they announced that they were looking for local kids to join the children’s chorus. Despite my desperation to be on stage, I was beset by horrible doubt that theatre wasn’t an appropriate desire for a boy to have, and my father was still doing very little to dissuade me of this notion. I hadn't ever been a, let's say, socially talented child, possessing very little self-esteem and feeling unsupported in my dream didn't help. So I missed my chance to make my theatrical début. I was crushed. Especially when I got a chance to see it and the sea of white kids who emerged as the chorus made my theatrical dreams that much more inaccessible. I became a critic that night. As much as I appreciated the talent on stage, I was struck by the shoddiness of the production, something I probably couldn’t (but absolutely could) tell from our cheap seats in the sky. Also the fact that Joseph was meant to be this wonderful, kind, attractive young man, but struck me as a terrible brat. I could have given him heart, I thought. I was also put off by the blatant kid-pandering of the score. I was sophisticated, you see. I found myself wanting to play the Narrator, an interesting choice in hindsight.

It was Evita that truly solidified my love of the stage. I mean, come on. Latin actors (maybe) on stage! Latin characters that I could (maybe) play! And Eva Perón was exactly my kind of lady: outspoken, ambitious, calculating, and glamorous with a deep-seated need to Get Out, to Live the Dream. There were many times where my father discovered me using my music stand as a makeshift balcony of La Casa Rosada, singing quietly and emoting gigantically. He could never hide his displeasure and I would shrink into myself, trying not to be seen, trying not to take up space. Despite this, or because of this, I swear Evita was the real cementing of my queerness. How could it not be? It was Diva Magnifica Miss Patti Lupone whose voice I pretended was mine, and there’s a song called fucking “Rainbow High.” If that's not Gay!, then I don't know what is.

Then came Les Misérables. Joseph and Evita were cool, but they felt obviously scaled back for touring. Les Misérables, on the other hand, was BIG. Having love for Les Misérables is pretty basic, it’s true. It’s a bunch of accessible pop songs strung together by a "plot". Characters come and go at random, giving us A Moment and then often dying tragically and glamorously. But for all the Bigness, the moment that stuck with me most was when Eponine, your favourite tragically glamorous street urchin in unrequited love with Hunky Marius, wanders the stark night-lit street of that French place they were in (Paris? Who knows, who cares!). This was when they still had that giant rotating disk as the centrepiece of their set so she was walking but stayed. In. Place (gasp). Dilapidated windows looked down on her as she belted out her emotional deprivation. I meeeaaan. Girl! She was me, I was her, we were one. Both "on our own." Pretty sure I’ve described this moment in reverent tones to practically every single one of my friends. Then, the dumb girl had to go and die to save Hunky Marius and I was outraged. Why would she do that? He was a dick! He didn't deserve her love! She should've said "Boy, bye" and gotten outta that fucked up town, lived her dream in some other fabulous city where they appreciated her kind. I had conveniently forgotten her (and my own) financial hardship. 

The next few years were pretty dry. The only major theatre in the city underwent renovations or lost a contract and could no longer host the bigger productions that rolled through town. I spent those years going to the library as much as possible. The main branch in Saskatoon actually had a really great musical theatre section and any chance I got I would head down and spend hours browsing the CD’s. I would bring a stack up to the counter and cart them home. I stuck to the more traditional stuff, South Pacific (nope), Carousel (nope), Sunset Boulevard (meh), and Jesus Christ Superstar (meh).

Then the renovations were finished or the contract renewed and one of the first shows announced was Miss Saigon. I’m not sure if I can fully describe how impactful this show was to me. Asian people (maybe) on stage! Parts that ambiguously raced people like me could play (maybe)! And the scale. They had a fucking. Helicopter. And there seemed to be so many people on stage! Things flying in and out! A pink Cadillac! And the melodrama of it all. I assume it’s because I’ve become accustomed to Lea Salonga’s voice from the Original Cast Recording but I swear the woman who played Kim sounded exactly the same. How could you not be turned into a jelly mess when she sings “I’d Give My Life For You”? But, as big a deal as the show was, the music wasn't always memorable and the icky fetishizing of Kim was truly unfortunate. Theatre still seemed so far away. I needed to find something that spoke to me. 

And then I found Rent. As A Theatre Gay of the 90’s, I’m pretty much obligated to have a past with Rent. I found the double CD at the library, pulled in by its colourful cover, with a diverse group of faces set in grungy, hip expressions. And the music! Everyone was so angry and ~arty~. They were also glamorously tragic and, despite living in New York City (the centre of the universe!) they desperately wanted to Get Out. My parents probably know the words as well as I do because of my near constant listens. This love only deepened when I got into a summer theatre program in Edmonton where we workshopped a new show by Marty Chan called The 7th Circle. The kids in the program were a gaggle of mostly middle-class nerds from the suburbs of our various cities and we were supposed to be playing a bunch of disaffected teens in a high school based on Dante’s Inferno. Rent was the angriest thing most of us had any experience with so clearly we had many sing-alongs while partying in basements. I was playing the closeted gay teen who led the main character through the halls of the school AKA the seven circles of hell. At some point, my character was beaten up by a gang of boys. He eventually shot the school up in retaliation, at one point dramatically dumping a backpack full of bullets on the stage. Despite the difficulty of the role, I was in heaven. I remember quite clearly when we choreographed the beating. It was appropriately hot as hell that day and the studio was beyond stuffy. For some reason, the director had left this scene to the last hour of a very long day in the final week of rehearsal. I spent much too long on my hands and knees on a hard floor in the middle of a circle of young men enacting a violent beating in slow motion. When we finished setting, I left feeling emotionally distraught but challenged. It felt good to tell the story of a queer kid, to make explicit the kind of violence that can happen to us. I had a lot of bottled up rage and pain from never really feeling safe to be who I was and, being away from home, playing this role, gave me a chance to let some of that out. Because of all the emotional catharsis, the run felt like a resounding success. I was given an award for performance excellence and on the last night, as we partied, we belted out "Seasons of Love" until our voices ached. I felt like a new person, finally free, finally more comfortable with being seen, with taking up space. 

Then, I returned home to play Scarecrow in my high school production of The Wizard of Oz. The shock to my system was immediate. All the old walls and expectations started to build up. Depression started to creep in at the corners. I needed... more.

I went back to the library where I had been eyeing a certain CD. On the front was a black and white photo of a sad looking person holding a microphone under a single light. In the top right-hand corner, in bright pink, it declared: Hedwig and the Angry Inch. For balance in the bottom right-hand corner was one of those Parental Advisory: Explicit Content fearmongers. I was fascinated, completely. First, Explicit Content? Yes please! Second, this person on the cover was ambiguous in gender. They wore a skin-tight dress with a slash of red on their lips. Their legs were muscular, their shoulders wide, their jaw square. I mustered up the courage to face the judgy library worker and took the damn thing out. Friends, this album. The moment Miriam Shor snarls “Ladies and Gentlemen, whether you like it or not: HEDWIG!” made me a fan for life. I had never heard anything like it. Hedwig was my dream role. A self-professed “slip of a girly boy” sitting alone, listening to quiet music and imagining a world far away from the world they inhabited was exactly me. Unfortunately, Hedwig is German, blonde, white and clearly, I am not. I was also tragically unhip and trying with every last bit of my gay heart to continue being the good kid I was supposed to be, never rocking the boat, never being too emotional or too feminine. Having gotten a taste of what the world could be, I felt even further from it than I had before and, as my sexuality crystalized, all that need to be good and fit into what was expected became more of a cage than it ever was.

Things got really dark then. Playing a brainless sack of hay was obviously unchallenging. And the director had a rather unsavoury habit of separating the lead actors from the chorus folk by treating us like friends, equals, regularly belittling the chorus members to our faces. It fed my ego, sure, but took a lot of fun out of the proceedings. As one of her favourites, I was supposed to live up to a standard: the good kid, the upright example. Over the next year, I partied more and more, trying to be anything but That Kid. I started going to raves and sneaking into the local gay bar where I hung out with drag queens and disappeared into an all-night lucid dream. I thought, if this is who I have to be at school, then it's too much to try to be the same at home. The rebellion was strong. This turned me into a disappointment in my parents' eyes and the weight of managing lies - pretending everything was all right - was heavy. The depression drew closer still.

The next year, as a senior, I played Tommy in Brigadoon. This show, man. It was the complete antithesis to everything I found interesting or creative. The songs were dull and totally unchallenging, I was one of the only people of colour in the entire cast, and I was supposed to be playing a masculine charmer of a man, the kind who falls madly in love and croons gently in the fog. I've since softened on it, but at the time, Brigadoon felt like the kind of thing that could only appeal to someone at death's door. So, not only was I not feeling free to express myself at home, but I was also left without a chance to do it in my chosen art. Without a proper outlet, I spiralled further. My aforementioned fear of being seen came back with a vengeance and that meant I was too scared to speak up or seek help. Who knows if it would have mattered, I don’t remember Saskatoon having much in the way of queer youth outreach. I felt completely muzzled without the proper tools to deal with anything I was going through.

I tried to kill myself that winter. I know, I know, dramatic shift. But that's how it happened. I made the choice suddenly. Or at least that's how it looked from the outside. Really it was a choice that felt inevitable, the darkness laying under the surface of my skin finally ready to come forward. I remember quite clearly lying under the twinkle lights I’d set up above my bed, as drunk as I’d ever been up to that point. Nicole Kidman was singing “One Day I’ll Fly Away” softly from my CD player. The world of Moulin Rouge with its bombastic romance and tragically romantic bohemians felt like a universe away, space that despite all my efforts, I could never ever have access to. I’m not going to describe how I did it, that's too personal. But I can say it felt very freeing. I know now that was a huge part of why I did it: to exert some kind of control over my own existence.

I drove myself to the hospital the next morning. And that night as my sleep was interrupted every hour by a watchful flashlight, a new vow began to form: to never let myself be muzzled again and to focus on the kind of art that felt rigorous and challenging.

This was much easier said than done.

II. To You and You and You and...

Dear Preskott*, my first in so many ways. First love is probably too generous but as my first boyfriend, you’ll always hold a special place in my heart. You were older and so much cooler than I thought I could be. I'd barely kissed a boy and somehow you were into me. They said you were a player, maybe I wanted to be played. I know now you weren’t always kind, once telling me the acne on my back meant I’d be horribly hirsute in later life. This hasn’t come to pass. I can still see those chunky highlights, “diamond” earrings, smell the mix of cologne and cigarette smoke. I remember how I lost my virginity to you while the Grammys played in the background. Céline Dion was having mic problems, I was having flexibility issues. I made you wear that powder blue baseball hat, turned backwards. It helped fulfill all the straight boy fantasies that would disgust me today, but in that moment it was hot as hell. You proceeded to cheat on me with my nemesis, whose spectre I'd fought since high school, first day. Callum, tall and willowy, pink skinned and self-possessed with that perfectly straight statue’s nose, everything I couldn’t be. This betrayal gave me a complex that went on for years, might still be going on. Last I heard you married a man, had kids. You’re probably a good dad. But maybe try not to make fun of their bacne. I still wonder why your name was spelt with that ‘k’...

Dear Jack, baby you dodged a bullet. Though it probably didn’t feel that way at the time. There was so much going on in your life and you still picked up, moved two provinces at my urging. I can admit now I was scared, didn’t want to go alone. I needed a steadying presence in my life and you were happy to provide. When I gained confidence in the new city that need ran out and I tossed you aside, for that I’m sorry. No other relationship has soured so quickly, and no other break up has felt quite as concentrated in its implosion. I still can’t listen to those yearning first notes of Hero and Leander from Myths and Hymns without seeing your sweet snaggle-toothed smile, without thinking how I shut you out, how I couldn't support you in your family difficulty. I cried and cried to that album, convinced every word was about us, but really about me because that's as far as I could see. The way I sobbed and sang in our empty apartment by the docks, "my lighthouse on the shoreline, my passion on this lonely sea..." The way I stared across the harbour singing, “my loving you was meant to be...” Ludicrous now, but at the time, oh at the time… I know we’re good now - you sent me that note. It was lovely to hear you stayed in the city on the island and found a life that leaves you fulfilled. 

Dear Matthew, you got me at my worst. Maybe we should’ve known from the way we started it would be a rough ride. I went home with you the same night I broke up with my boyfriend who’d moved across the mountains for me, the same night I’d run back and forth across my building alternating makeout sesh with you and a classmate, the same night I kicked everyone out of my house in a rage. We had stars in our eyes, blind to everything that wasn't us. That's never a good sign. You were the first person I ever told my biggest secret. I remember crying in your arms on that pile of pillows in the acting studio. You cried too. My concept of time has always been junk, but it feels like only a little while after that you proposed. Or was it me? Lying in bed together all giggly, somehow we decided we’d lived enough life on our own. Everything about you made sense. In the morning that was terrifying. My plate was already full of terrible memories and I’ve never been good at accepting good in my life. I spent the next few months dodging your questions. I also spent those months spiralling further and further into depression. The day you found me in a heap on the floor, crying uncontrollably, totally unable to accept comfort is still the deepest sadness I’ve felt in my adult life. But you sat by me, waiting. You waited a lot. We broke up and got back together so many times, we lost count. Do you consider that time a waste? I still remember your kisses and hugs, the way our bodies entwined throughout the night. I wonder, if I hadn’t been so off the rails, would we have survived? Last we spoke you’d been with the same guy for awhile, possibly heading toward marriage. I know that’s what you always wanted, to settle down, have kids. If my madness hadn’t ruined us, that probably would have. I hate to admit, I'd probably still make out with you.

Dear Sean, your shine persists. We had our problems, I know, but our relationship felt stable in a way no other has. Maybe it was my year of sobriety, maybe it was being stuck in the Prairies… really though, I think it was you. Your caring spirit was like none I had encountered before. Your non-judgemental kindness surprising me from the start. Though we had a deadline, nesting with you was easy. I remember how you'd stay up with me and my unsettled mind despite having school the next day, I remember how we’d sit and leaf through your giant atlas while getting baked, I remember how you would give me space to disappear into my writing for hours on end, then make us an amazing meal. I ate like a king in those days - I’ve never been so chunky in my life. You were even willing to give non-monogamy a try. Something about the fact you couldn't go through with it was terribly romantic. When you proposed, though it made no sense, I accepted. It was probably unfair to do so. I didn’t want you to give up on moving to Asia, I didn’t want to compromise on moving to Toronto. You used to say it didn’t matter that our paths were divergent, we could make it work. Maybe I was cynical, less prone to Big Romance. All I know is that everything that had come before taught me to be cautious, taught me that really loving someone sometimes means letting them go. We were no longer engaged. We moved apart. A while back when we messaged each other about I don’t know what you said you’d move here in a second… I actually considered it. It's still a bad idea.

Dear Kyle, I was blindsided by your jawline. I suppose I’d had too much stability in my life for too long and I needed to be upended. I broke a cardinal rule for you and probably deserved exactly what I got. But you were so charming and handsome and broad-shouldered and had that long hair and those lips. On our first date when you drove us out to the beach and we made out on that log and laid in the grass under the stars, I knew I’d been hooked. When you picked a small flower and gave it to me with that smile; when you pretended to look over your shoulder in the car and instead gave me a quick kiss… boy, I could see all the moves. I could see how you were playing me. But it didn’t matter. I’d already decided I’d give in and let myself Feel. To my dismay, I became that kid who waited by the phone, who thought about you always. I could see myself careening toward that wall and let myself crash right in - I’ve always had a self-destructive streak. Then that day when you visited between rehearsal and work and we napped in the sun, I came to my senses. Somehow in that afternoon light, the heat, I faced the truth: I was more into you than you were into me and that simply wouldn't do. Our last night together, at that party where my phone got stolen, your friends kept asking, as if we were in high school if I “liked you," if I "wanted to be your boyfriend." One of them even pulled me into a room and grilled me on my intentions. Yes, I’d let myself Feel, but I knew it wasn’t serious, I knew we weren’t meant to be. How could I make it work with someone I only made out with to avoid listening to their stories? We went back to your place and the heat had been so dispersed I could barely put your dick in my mouth. We stopped texting after that night. Then you moved away. Your current boyfriend recently liked a post of mine on Instagram, then followed and unfollowed. Maybe he was upset I hadn’t followed back. Maybe he knew we once had a thing.

Dear Charles, I had to take a pause before I wrote to you. Not because the feelings are hard to deal with but because you’re the last, so far. There have been flings, one night things since you. But nothing serious. We weren't together for a long time but you taught me a lot. Or maybe it’s best to say, you finalized a lot. I was finally able to admit after you that, despite wanting something long-term, I really, really don’t want monogamy, I don’t want kids, I don’t want to settle down in the traditional ways people settle down. It wasn’t easy to admit this. I remember looking through your Insta after you asked me to get a soda and visit the cherry blossoms. There was a photo of you smiling in your fave flannel, holding a baby. It reeked of sweetness and I hope it's not offensive to say, but I swear I straight up grew ovaries and started ovulating on that day. I remember lying in the grass in High Park and talking about whether or not we saw kids in our futures and I lied. I lied because I thought I’d be more attractive to you if I said I did. Because that’s what all the nice boys - the ones worth anything long term - seemed to desire. I made every effort to be the kind of man I thought you wanted. Pretty sure I tried to become my ex, Sean. But very few people can be that good. My mom had come to visit while you had a show on. I was making you a gift as she watched. She shook her head said I was sweet, that I fall too hard, that I'm prone to exposing too much of myself for those I deem worthy. I scoffed. But when it took you three days to acknowledge the gift, I realized she was probably right. I was reliving a pattern I’d lived several times before. Despite the self-centeredness of youth, you were a sweet, kind boy who checked a lot of the boxes we're supposed to want checked. Maybe I thought I could change for you. But I’m not that guy. Not really. Someone told me you’ve been with the same guy for the last few years. I’ll admit I think about you often, your name is everywhere in the city and we covered the most area in our wanderings. The thoughts are warm, with no bitterness. How could there be? Our breakup inspired me to write a whole play, and that play set me on the path I’ve been travelling for the last few years. I wonder sometimes why I don’t see you in more things, conveniently forgetting how little theatre I actually see, then tell myself I should write something for you. But, despite those previously mentioned warm feelings, I don’t think I’ll ever really trust you. Doesn't help that you think Beyoncé is only so-so (!) but you stan Taylor Swift hard. I'll see you around again, no doubt. The city is too small not to. I'm pretty sure I'll be nice. If I'm not, say something nice about Queen Bey and I'll probably warm up.

Dear Future Love, as you can probably tell from the above, I’m a bit of a mess. I’ll probably fall too hard for you too quickly and then proceed to ignore you when I get into my fits of creativity. I still don’t quite know how to be part of a family or how to not be socially awkward. But maybe, like me, you’ll think it’s okay for us to keep our friend circles separate so my inability to have meaningless conversation in large groups won't be an issue. Or maybe, like me, you often think you’re an alien left behind to observe and we can loom on the edge of parties, quietly judging or praising sartorial choices. I’m still a terrible cook, but I don’t mind baking. If you cook but hate to bake, we’re equally matched. If you also bake, I’m sorry my dear but you are up for elimination. Not really. I’m totally down to make muffins together as long as you’re not one of those non-allergy gluten-free crazies. I’m prone to overly chaotic workflow, I’ll never know where anything is. I’ll want to talk over wine about movies and TV shows until all hours of the night. I'll want to get baked and drag you to shitty action movies in 3D. I love celebrity gossip, will always want to watch the Oscar's red carpet, and will probably hush you when Nicole Kidman or Angelina Jolie show up. I still use too many words to say something simple causing me to forget what I’ve said two minutes before. Somehow, despite this terrible memory, I will remember many things you say and then use them against you at a later date. I’ve retained my love of cuddling and getting all tangled up in each other, but when it’s time to sleep, I’ll probably move as far from you as possible. This isn’t because I’m mad or suddenly don’t like you (most of the time). I’ve lost my disgust for feet so I’ll be willing to give you foot rubs. In fact, I’ll probably rub you a lot. Your cheek, your head, your back - it’s a thing. I also give random squeezes. Usually of the bicep or thigh. I hope you’ll be comfortable in your femininity and accepting of mine, I hope you’re able to hold hands in public, and okay when I put my head on your shoulder at the movies. I hope you’re ambitious and creative (just don’t be an actor) and that you teach me a few things. Like where to find good vintage sweaters that don’t smell like old men or where to get the best deal on rhinestones. I hope the people who came before me were as wonderful as those who came before you. These gents taught me a lot and I'm grateful to them. Maybe, if things don't last between us, Future Love, you'll make it onto this list. Or maybe our story will be so long and full of stuff it'll take a whole book. Oh, that's another thing: if you date me you better be okay with showing up in my writing, 'cause it's already happening. Kisses!

 

*Names have been changed.

I. Very Scary Things

Writing for anything other than film and theatre has always been something I’ve shied away from. Not because I thought I'd be bad at it. Back in the day, I'd occasionally whip up a short story and, when I read it back, had general good feelings. But writing an opinion piece seems, to me, a very different beast. I suppose I’ve never thought anyone would want to hear my thoughts on anything, or that my lack of formal education somehow made me less qualified. And isn't the internet populated with enough Men Who Opinionate to last us ‘til rapture?

But recently I was reading an article by Catherine Hernandez in which she helpfully reminded me that “being an artist means scaring yourself into doing new things every day.” This is how she scared herself "into writing full-length fiction for the first time after years of writing theatre.” And I had been meaning to diversify my writing soooooo here I am, doing this Very Scary Thing, which might not be so scary in the end, but since it’s October why not lean into the spooky moments?

In a convenient bit of synergy, my most recent play Rope Running Out will be read in one week as part of DaPoPo Theatre's Live-In Festival 2017 in Halifax. This piece recently had its world premiere in Toronto presented by lemonTree creations. It was my first professionally produced work and I'm still shook that I can make a claim to such a thing. Even more that people came to see it (which is only a bit of a lie because I was also convinced it would sell out every single night [it didn't] and that it would win every award it could possibly win [it hasn't]).

Rather, my shookness comes from how long it took to get the damn thing to the stage. At several points, you start to think it might not happen, so when it does incredulity is part of the package. In total, the journey was about twelve years. It began at theatre college, a particularly tumultuous time in a tumultuous life. I was in my most serious relationship up to that point and had recently come to terms with the fact I had been sexually abused as a child, something I had by that point suppressed for over a decade. I'm still not totally certain what combination of events led to the bubbling up of this truth. Maybe it was all the stretching and breathing, the dance classes, the sheer physicality of it all that finally loosened the walls I erected for protection. Loosened. What a slight word for how they fell! They crashed really and buried me under.

Still, I soldiered on. Offered the opportunity to create our own work in second year, I chose to write. I'd recently seen the original cast of August: Osage County on Broadway and I was inspired. The revelation of my abuse caused huge rifts in all my personal relationships and this work, with its high-wire emotions and fractured familial dynamics, had resonance. But it, like so many works before, focused on a white family. The only person of colour barely had any lines and seemed to serve only as comfort to her employers. Wanting to be an actor at the time, this obvious lack of opportunity was glaring and, paired with all my inner turmoil, stirred a hunger to create something that reflected my reality: a world where people of colour were central to major stories.

The first version of Rope was heavily influenced by August and super traditional in its structure. There were like seven (!) characters. One was depressed! One was overbearing! One was distant! There was a dinner party where everyone got drunk and yelled! And, about three-quarters of the way through there was a revelation of trauma. Specifically childhood abuse.

The experience of the read is fuzzy, like I had stepped outside myself because I knew how personal it was going to be. I sat as far away as possible in a dark corner, on the floor. I remember the audience laughed more than I thought they would. I remember the actors seemed to enjoy themselves more than I thought they would. And I distinctly remember cringing for the gawds as the revelation happened. But while the moment felt exposing, it also felt amazing. Because even though the words were coming from the mouth of a fictional character, they were still my words, and it felt in many ways like they were coming directly from my lips.

The reading went well and buoyed by the high of triumph I vowed to keep developing the piece. But as the weeks went by I found I could no longer look at the pages. What had once felt healing, now felt oddly exploitative and much, much too personal. Then my relationship came to the final end in a string of ends and the central love story lost all meaning. I put the piece away, telling myself I would revisit it one day after I had lived some life and gotten a better grip on the emotional mess of being abused.

What I didn't realize was that a "better grip" would never really manifest. Not in the way I thought anyway. A part of me said, "get some therapy, put in the work, you'll feel normal again soon." But it had slipped my mind how expensive therapy is, how much life gets in the way of doing the work. The journey to a kind of healing was marked by fits and starts and the burden of my abuse hung over every single intimate relationship I went on to have.

That might seem a bit overblown, but I assure you it's not. In the most simplistic terms, it got better, but it never really went away. I'll use a rather strained metaphor I've voiced in the past: think of the emotional toll of abuse as the weight you might use to create recycled paper. You are the amorphous blob that gets smushed into something seemingly pristine, but easily tearable. Once torn you are turned back into an amorphous blob, waiting for the weight to land again. And it always lands again.

By the time the opportunity to return to Rope came up, I'd done therapy whenever I could, I'd fallen in and out of love a few times. Needless to say, I approached the writing with a completely different set of eyes. Thanks to all that emotional work I'd done over the years, I'd gotten to a point where I could be totally open about my abuse with anyone who asked and when I was feeling sassy, even those who didn't. Yet still, when looking at the script anew, I was reminded of an issue that had plagued me in the past: the third act revelation. So, not wanting Rope to be That Kind of Play, I chose to move the revelation into the distant past, outside the structure of the piece. I chose as well to focus on life after without revealing the details of trauma. Basically, I didn't want it to be easy for the audience. The revelation only served to explain away the protagonist's complicated sexuality when what I wanted was for the audience to find a piece of themselves in the characters and go off into the night reflecting on their own relationships with sex and intimacy. After all, everyone's got hang-ups around both.

Some context: Rope Running Out follows Nacio, a struggling photographer who, for better or worse, has learned to live in the aftermath of trauma. He and his partner Félix have built a loving and happy partnership that just happens to be physically non-sexual. Instead, they play a game where they choose a hookup for Félix and after he has gone out to play, return to each other to have what Nacio calls "brain sex." But after a drifter from Nacio's past appears, their entrenched approach to intimacy is challenged.

Here's the thing: I still feel keeping the exact nature of the trauma out of the play was the right choice. First, because I didn't want to trigger anyone and I wanted to show a loving relationship whose members were working together and apart to heal. In that context, exactly what the trauma in Nacio's past entailed wasn't relevant. In collaboration with Indrit Kasapi, the wonderful director of the world premiere, I chose not to share the full information of Nacio's trauma with the actors. We felt it was more important for them to make their own choice, to find something that they could relate to and therefore play truthfully.

What no longer feels right, however, is how I kept telling myself I didn't want Rope to be That Kind of Play. While I stand by my reasons for not including what the trauma was, I do regret to a certain extent that I wasn't more open about how the play came to life, that I didn't use my platform to be a more vocal advocate for the lives of survivors. But my regret is a double-edged sword. The play did what I hoped: it spoke to people's personal experiences in personal ways. Audience members expressed to me vastly different opinions on why Nacio and Félix related the way they did. Some thought he was trans and not ready to admit it, some thought he was asexual and again not ready to admit it, some picked up on the trauma but vocalized its origin in vague terms, usually in hushed tones. Some who mentioned it even rolled their eyes, aghast at the "cliché" of it all.

Sadly, I completely understand this reaction. So often trauma is used in film or theatre as a way to shock audiences or to explain in supposedly simple terms why a character acts the way they do. It is almost always depicted as pitiable and strips the survivor of their agency. We rarely get to see what it means to live in this truth, what it means to work together with a person you love to overcome past pain. I suppose too, this reaction had a lot to do with the fact that I was not forthcoming with my own truth, which could easily have meant I was appropriating this experience to inject drama. I tend to shy away from discussing the personal aspects of my writing. There's a feeling in some circles that putting too much of yourself into your work makes it less Art and more diary entry. The personal nature makes work too specific, cutting off a chunk of the potential audience. Also, talking about your personal issues in a professional setting is to most unbearably gauche. So even though I was totally open about my abuse in my personal life, I figured bringing it up in my professional life was, well, unprofessional.

But in experiencing my work with an audience again, I realized that whatever shame or hesitation I had about sharing the true genesis of this piece in a public forum stemmed from a small raw spot I hadn't fully come to terms with. When I was actively dating, I used to feel this same shame about revealing my trauma to potential partners. I feared that when I told them they would go running for the hills, never to be seen again. Or, if they chose to stay, they would never truly be able to look at me the same way. Suddenly, in their eyes, I was damaged goods to be handled carefully. I feared that my work would be looked at in the same way. I feared that the true core of the piece would then never been seen. I keep hemming and hawing about whether or not to share this. I imagine if I hit publish some future audience member will read it and will only be able to see the abuse. I worry the truth behind the piece will make it less enjoyable for them, less relatable. But what is the root of this feeling? Shame, plain and simple.

So you know what? Screw that. There's nothing to be ashamed of as a survivor. And there's no reason for this piece to pretend to be anything else. I trust non-survivors will still find something to relate to. But mostly I hope that survivors will feel seen, reminded that they are worthy of the kind of love that is willing to work alongside you, willing to evolve and expand and flourish. Because survivors absolutely deserve this. And we deserve to have the aftermath of our trauma depicted in a way that doesn't only focus on the suffering but chooses to celebrate how we can navigate those difficult waters in a sex-positive, loving way. 

Rope Running Out will be read as part of DaPoPo Theatre`s Live-In Festival in Halifax, Nova Scotia 7:00 pm, Tuesday October 10 at the TNS Living Room, 2353 Agricola Street

For more on Dahlia Katz please visit www.dahliakatz.com