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.

III. Youth, Pt. 1

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

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

Ready? Okay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* Names have been changed to protect the innocent.

II. LATINX

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

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

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

That leaves identifying as Canadian.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still, it wasn’t quite right.

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

Then one day I saw ‘Latinx’.

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

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

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

V. Damn You, Mr Van Damme

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Now tell me I’m wrong.

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