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.


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

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.


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...