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