Exorcism

‘Lo childs! I hope you have successfully performed the solstice rituals pertinent to your local tentacled monstrosity, and that your sacrifices have been accepted with lavish blessings for all. My particular Old One is a lethargic beast who tends to be anywhere from two to four weeks late in showing up to be kowtowed to, so I will be going on vacation next week, over the new year. You’ll hear from me again on Sunday and then after that probably not a lot for a week, although I promise I’ll return with a great deal of sketching to show you. At least some of it might not feature naked ladies, but no promises.

This week I’ve been putting a lot of words into… well, a semi-autobiographical romance? The lengthy backstory to the unlikely epilogue I am currently living, perhaps. My Lady and I used to write together a lot, and I’ve missed it. It’s also somewhat an opportunity to reflect on our constant miscommunications and missteps over the eighteen years we’ve been totally failing to get it together. And an opportunity to channel some horrible shit from my adolescence and perhaps exorcise some ghosts! It’s all very cleansing and emotional, and as usual, I prefer to do that kind of raw, vulnerable self-examination IN NEON LIGHTS IN THE STREET, so here we are.

We gettin naked over here

One of the fun things about writing with someone else is that nobody’s process is the same, or even remotely similar. She tends to plan out stories in detail, and knock them down bit by bit. I avoid planning with a kind of superstition, and treat my writing like summoning a dark god: apply various oils, ungents, spirits and offerings of flesh, and excitement will doubtless result. I find her mild outrage at this… entertaining. It’s all going very well. But be advised that it’s very unfinished, and there are huge bits missing! We’re working on it.

AFS #4: Does insecurity and mental illness make me unlovable?

I found this question from Mr. LordMacbethh on Reddit’s r/RelationshipAdvice, and it made my heart hurt, because I see myself in the question and it’s taken me years to get to the point where I believe I deserve to be loved in spite of my issues. Here it is:

I believe that people with Mental Illnesses and people who are insecure are just as deserving of relationships as everyone else. Of course they shouldn’t let these things negatively affect their partner or significant other.

On flip side, I believe that all of my insecurities and mental illnesses make me unlovable. I’m 19M and gay and I’ve just started talking to someone and I’m concerned that my problems may make me hard to love.


I’ve had many bouts with Anorexia, and that’s something that’s likely to continue. It takes me like 30+ minutes to get dressed and choose my outfit because I want my clothes to fit a certain way to cover my insecurities & I want my clothes to project a certain image. The idea of just putting on clothes or just wearing comfy clothes is completely foreign to me. I’m constantly checking my appearance in mirrors and adjusting things, some of my friends think it’s annoying. I control my diet very seriously and workout a ton. Being shirtless/ nude around a romantic partner makes me really really insecure. I just generally hate my body. I’m also just very insecure about my personality, I’m always concerned I’m not funny enough or too overbearing, etc etc.

I have anxiety, depression, and OCD and they affect me of course. I’d never project them onto my partner or let my issues negatively affect my partner but I would definitely need a partner who is very supportive, empathetic, compassionate, and patient with me. I’m not necessarily controlling, like needing to know where my partner is at all times but if for example my partners behavior was drawing attention I’d get very anxious. I also have a lot of family related trauma. I think these problems would make it hard to be a romantic partner to me.

So my question is, what are your experiences with insecure partners? Can someone with mental illnesses and who is intensely insecure find someone who loves them and can be patient with them or is it likely to constantly be a barrier in their relationships? Any discussion is helpful!

Oh, darlin’. Before I even get started here I want to lay down a blanket statement, and I’d like you to write it down somewhere you can see it and repeat it to yourself for as long as it takes to start getting seriously on your own nerves: You deserve to be loved, protected from harm, and treated well by those around you. No quality you possess, from insecurity to mental illness to a face like a foot, can change that. It’s what you deserve, it’s a fact, and it doesn’t require a lot of data to prove it – I know you deserve love, and I don’t even know your name.

But you’ve got a rough road ahead of you. You know that. You know that growing up as a gay man at this moment in history is still a lot scarier and more isolating than it looks on TV. You know that people, especially men, don’t often treat men’s mental health issues with respect or compassion. You know that the gay community can serve to reinforce body image issues at times, because there are a lot of guys out there very much like you who will try to soothe their own insecurities by needling yours.

None of this is news to you… and yet, you’re not asking, “How can I feel better about myself?” or “How can I find someone who will fix all my problems?” When you look at potential partners, you aren’t thinking of what they can offer you. You’re distressed because you feel like you don’t have much to offer them. And that right there sets you apart from most people, especially most non-neurotypical people your age.

I want you to acknowledge this because the first important thing you can do to protect the people around you from your issues is remember that they are your issues to manage. You’re already doing this. You’re already anticipating the ways your behavior might affect a partner and trying to figure out how to mitigate that on your own, before you even have a partner. So let’s first acknowledge that you’re already ahead of the curve: you are ready to do your own emotional and mental work to get better, not put it on someone else. You are ready to do the best you can to give yourself to someone, not your mental illness. Two things I want you to focus on about that, two things you already believe, because you’re acting as if they’re true:

  1. You are not your mental illness. (Relatedly: you are not your thoughts. You are not your emotions. You are a being inhabited by those things.)
  2. You still get to choose how you act, however shitty those choices may be, and you are responsible for how you treat other people regardless of what problems you may be having.

That is a big-ass deal. Those are some advanced lessons, okay? It took me thirty years to get that far. Some people never do. The attitude that made you ask this question is going to make you a fantastic partner for whomever you choose to be with.

One more thing… I’m not going to nose into your family trauma too much, because you didn’t choose to go into it, but the data points you provide – anorexia, OCD, lack of self-esteem, desire to go unnoticed but still be exactly correct if anyone should notice – they also describe my life, and they paint a kind of picture. I think maybe the reason you think you don’t deserve love is because someone who should have loved you made you feel that way. I think maybe the reason you’re worried nothing about you is good enough is because nothing ever was, once. I hope you’re somewhere else now.

I’ll make some suggestions later on, but for now I just want to tell you that I know some of those people, the people who made you feel that way. They had ’em when I was a kid too. It took me a long time, but I found out that those people are wrong. They’re wrong for days. They’re wrong up one side and down the other, man. They are so wrong they have no idea what’s going on, and you know what else? What’s worse than being stupid, they’re mean. They’re fucking mean! They’re supposed to help you, protect you, love you, and they’re not just hurting you “for your own good” like they say. They are, in fact, doing something that hurts you, something that will never, ever make you better in any way, and they don’t care that it doesn’t work. Hurting you satisfies them.

That kind of person doesn’t know anything you need to hear. That kind of person has nothing to teach you. That kind of person can’t tell you who you are or what you’re worth – they can’t even see you. They only see themselves, so their judgment is meaningless, them projecting their issues on you. I know more about you from the few paragraphs you wrote here than that person knows about you, and I’ll bet they’ve known you for years. I know that you are trying not to burden someone you love with your pain like someone burdened you. I know that at nineteen you’re more of an adult than any of those people, because you’re preparing, with compassion and introspection, to manage yourself like an adult and give a partner something you were never given.

Now that we have established that you’re a catch, son, we can get down to business. To my mind, you just need a couple of things to help you manage your insecurity in a relationship:

1. A therapist

Get thee to therapy. No, I mean it. And I’m talking to all the rest of the class as well, now – everyone can benefit from therapy. We all grew up in a capitalist hellscape that places the value of human life somewhere below that of last year’s iPhone. You don’t have to have any kind of issues to benefit from someone whose job is to listen to you and not judge, to demand nothing, to help you understand yourself better. If you’re poor, I feel it, but you still have options. The National Alliance on Mental Illness has a whole division just for helping you find support near wherever you happen to be, and it’s free. If you’re super poor like your gracious host, may I also recommend Medicaid? It’s saved my life, literally. Thanks, Obama! F’real tho, thanks.

An important caveat: trauma makes therapy… difficult. People with trauma often find traditional CBT therapists make them feel more self-critical and aggravate their anxiety. That was certainly my experience. I went through four therapists before I found one who could help me. The keywords you want to look for are “trauma-focused,” “MBCT,” or “EMDR” – those last two are therapeutic methodologies that have been proven effective with people suffering from PTSD or CPTSD. Psychology Today is a really good search tool and my therapist tells me that, at least around here, doctors keep it up to date and respond to it quickly, so it’s probably reliable. It’s okay to dump a therapist if they’re not helping you. Sometimes it takes a while to find someone you can connect with, and that sucks, but you’ll have a leg up if you find someone who understands trauma.

2. Support outside your partner

One way to take some pressure off your partner to be everything in the world to you is to make sure you have other friends, other things to do, a life of your own. This is also a good way to find a partner in the first place! You’re 19, this is your moment to figure out how you want to spend your time generally, so go try stuff. Join groups, take classes, go places. Go do interesting things; you will become more interesting, and there will be interesting people there who might share your interests! Your anxiety and depression will try to make you stay home, and that’s okay – don’t put a lot of pressure on yourself. At my best I can manage about one social outing a week, so if that’s what you can handle, that’s just fine, do that. Don’t go with the intention of making a friend, that’s a lot of pressure. Go with the intention of staying for at least twenty minutes and talking to one person. (Person-talking script: “Hey, my name’s Macbethh, what do you like about this thing we’re doing? What got you interested in doing that?” People love to talk about themselves. Ask questions, back off if someone seems unenthusiastic, and you will make a friend.) If you have fun, go again. If you don’t, try it one more time – sometimes it’s just a low day – and then fuck it, try something else.

It sounds like you do have friends, and I suspect that you probably overestimate how annoying you are to them. We tend to assume other people are noticing a lot more about us than they actually are. One strategy I’ve found effective with this kind of insecurity is, when you start wondering what other people are thinking of how you look in some way, ask yourself… the person you’re worrying about, what were they wearing? Did they have cat hair on it? Was it stained? Do you remember their appearance with any kind of detail… or were you so worried about what they were thinking of you that you didn’t notice a damn thing about them? Here’s the big secret of life, seriously: everybody’s that way. Everybody, every single person is so concerned about how they’re fucking up they can’t possibly notice if you’re fucking up. The confirmation bias you have, the memories of people abusing you for your minute fuckups come from a vanishingly tiny minority of assholes, and once you’re an adult, you don’t have to listen to those assholes anymore. You don’t have to nod sagely and go, “Yeah, thanks Dad, I’ll contemplate your drunken wisdom at length once you put the belt away.” When someone says (like they never will in real life), “Hey, stupid, you’ve got a stain on your shirt!”, you know what you can say? “Why are you staring at my chest, weirdo? Fuck off.” You get to say that now. It works now. It’s nobody’s goddamn business but yours what you look like, because you’re an adult. Go out wearing your underpants on the outside like Superman, fuck ’em, what are they actually gonna do?

3. Strategies for advocating for yourself and asking for what you need

Minimizing the harm you do the people around you with your issues is mostly a matter of clear communication – asking for what you need and setting boundaries. Having a therapist and other friends will help you feel the confidence it takes to stand up for your own needs. Remember that whatever you need to feel secure in your own space and your own body is fine – you get to dictate that, and anybody who tells you otherwise is not someone you want to be anywhere near! You get to say, “Hey, I’m working through some stuff around my body image, and right now it’s tough for me to be looked at. Can we have the lights off for a while / you tell me some things you think are attractive about me / you just tell me I look great when you notice me fretting in the mirror?”

Your partner can provide support and do a lot to make you feel sexy and beautiful, but it helps them if you can give them concrete things to do, rather than saying, “I feel bad, please change your behavior till the bad feeling goes away.” In a perfect world, how would they respond to you? If you can figure out what outcome you want, that’s actionable data for your partner. If you can’t… it’s possible you’re just trying to find a source for your bad feelings, but there’s not actually anything your partner could have done differently, and that’s a case where you have to manage those feelings on your own. You can also ask for space to process your feelings, and generally it’s okay to ask for time to recuperate and be alone if you need that. As a mentally ill introvert, I can take about four hours, max, of anybody, even people I love, before I need to go crawl in a hole and not be a person for a while. When I meet people, I say, “I try really hard to be up for fun stuff, but sometimes my brain clobbers me, so if I have to cancel on you for no useful reason sometimes, please know it’s not because I don’t want to be around you, it’s just because I don’t always have the spoons for social interaction with anyone.”

Generally, don’t be afraid to overshare with your partner. If they can’t take it, they are a douche, and I’m sorry, but you might meet a few. It’s getting better; there used to be more. If you’re feeling shitty and you don’t know why, it’s okay to say that. Your partner will be relieved to know you’re not expecting anything specific from them. Being somewhat impaired at expressing my own emotions, my go-to phrase is, “I don’t feel good.” This almost never means a physical illness, it means I don’t feel good; it’s nonspecific and true without feeling too whiny for me to say. “Hey, I don’t feel good, can you snuggle with me for a bit / bring me food / tell me I’m pretty and kiss my face?” Someone who loves you wants to do those things and will leap at any opportunity to do them! They were just sitting there trying to come up with an excuse to kiss your face!

In summary…

This is already lengthier than I intended, so I think it’s time for a TL;DR.

  • You deserve love. You are compassionate, brave, honest and capable of self-analysis. Anyone you choose to be with will be very, very lucky indeed. Don’t ever forget it.
  • Get a therapist who specializes in trauma
  • Spend time with your friends. Do new things, figure out who you are, not just who your depression is. Believe your friends when they tell you they care for you. Dump the friends who don’t and make new ones. Being by yourself is much, much better than being with someone who treats you badly – don’t do like I did and spend all of your 20s putting up with bullshit because you’re afraid to be alone.
  • Ask for what you need, be honest when you don’t know, and give your partner actionable ways to help if you can. It’s okay to ask for compliments! I’m shameless about it, man, I just come in the room all shiny and say, “Hi, tell me how great I am pleeeeease!” Someone who loves you will think it’s adorable.
  • Try very, very hard to perceive it and believe it when someone loves you and is good to you.

That last thing is gonna be important. Your brain lies to you, you know that. It tells you that your friends think you’re annoying. It will tell you that your partner doesn’t want to be with you, that they hate you, that they’re fucking someone else, someone more attractive, more experienced, whatever. Your brain is going to tell you a shit-ton of lies. Most of the time it’ll be telling you that your life sucks a lot more than it actually does. The only way you’ll have a chance is if you try very hard to see the stuff your brain is pretending doesn’t exist: your successes, your talent, your beauty, the love and kindness other people offer you. Your depression can make you totally overlook those things even when they’re right in front of your face. My therapist once had to tell me I’d done a “good job” three times before I actually absorbed it and felt a glimmer of pride. She was talking right to me and I couldn’t hear her, because my brain doesn’t want to believe that I can do a good job. Your brain doesn’t want to believe that you’re gorgeous, funny, interesting, lovable… but you are. You are. You really, really are. Find someone who will tell you as many times as it takes for you to hear it and believe it. You deserve that, and so much more.

90 – Never Stop

This one has some cool lines in it but I don’t feel like it came together very well. Sometimes the leaps in association I make are a little larger than other people are comfortable with and it results in me looking incoherent. That’s a great excuse for being a blithering idiot, I know; how’s it working out?

At any rate, it’s kind of about my marriage, by way of Ursula Le Guin. My wife and I disagree constantly, but not about anything important – we fight about story structure and game mechanics and language and interpretations of TV shows, but never about money, or parenting, or values, or honesty. We’re very different in our expression but very similar in our underlying structure, like when you go inside a house in a subdivision and realize it’s got the same floor plan as yours.

One of the deepest foundations we share is a sense of identity as someone who perseveres. We are both never-say-die types, a tank/damage combo that has jumped from MMO to shooter to brawler to tabletop and back, infuriating teammates with our refusal to “just surrender and let’s move on.” She’ll taunt the boss without thinking if a healer screams, even if she’s got ten percent health left herself. I’ll be your top DPS and it won’t be because my gear’s good, it’ll be because I’m the only person still shooting when everyone else is dead and the boss is charging at my face. We’ve both spent our lives getting in trouble for never knowing when to stop.

There’s a kind of safety in that, from a relationship perspective. When I’m afraid, lonely, despairing, sometimes it feels like I’m in a space like the land of the dead that Ursula Le Guin describes in the Earthsea books – a dry, barren place, infinite miles of grinding rocks and bare dust, no borders, no light, no kindness, no mercy, no way to go back. All you can do is go on, into the dark, toward the other shore… which doesn’t exist.

In that place, where all you can do is push forward, keep walking on bloody stumps… the only joy in the world is someone who keeps walking with you. Someone you never have to worry will fall behind, drop to the ground, leave you alone. To not have to do it alone means so much. To know for certain, like gravity, a fact of the universe, that neither of us will give up. We will never stop while it’s within our power to keep going. Unlike Orpheus and Eurydice, no one needs to look back in doubt. If the distance between us can be devoured by effort alone, it’s nothing, and always will be nothing.

“Soul Clap Hands,” July 2006

The river got higher;
all the fish drowned.
We hit rock bottom and started digging,
hanged the navigator from the rigging,
tested our wings in vaults underground.

There’s a low wall at the top of the hill;
most people don’t go much further than that,
give up on escaping right off the bat –
what’s another millennium to kill?

You never fail to find me in the dark.
I never fear I’ll turn around and find
me out of your sight
you out of your mind
nothing’s heavier than someone else’s heart.
I won’t go back, and somehow you don’t mind –
love, like chair legs, stands best a bit apart.

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

87 – The Hungry Loop

This is inspired by the name of an item in Path of Exile, but it’s otherwise entirely unrelated – just a mental image that I thought was amusing. A nasty little fable in sonnet form.

Of course I knew mother didn’t like him.
I had a sense that father wasn’t keen;
each time I brought him over they were mean,
pretended I wasn’t home to spite him.

When he proposed, I thought they’d come around.
Mother brought out the heirloom wedding rings,
asked his measurements and did the fittings,
set a date, invited the family down.

I stood at the altar, veil on my head.
My love’s vows silenced every cry and cough.
I, barely hearing what the priest had said,
took his ring from the sacramental cloth,
and then my wedding dress was splashed with red
as my love’s ring bit my love’s finger off!

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

86 – Towers of You

Strictly speaking, this is some rather esoteric erotic poetry from the perspective of a woman named Irian Valcòn, who will come up in Captain’s Log eventually. But it’s informed by a lot of tender, hungry feelings toward actual people. I like when I have an opportunity to lay my hands on a person and look at them like art or architecture, observe them at length and with all my senses, run my hands over every part, appreciate every shape and sound and texture. When I’m kissing you and I close my eyes, I’m not imagining someone else or anything like that – I’m imagining your body turning into a fractal castle that throws out buttresses and breezeways each time you touch me, connecting me at every point with the evolving edifice of you.

“Loa,” October 2006

Sharp little feelings like thorns in places
To walk my fingers up the thousand steps
starting at your shoulder, climbing your neck
build civilization between our faces –

a theocracy, taking their gospel
from the whispered words between our kisses.
In your stained-glass eyes they depict wishes,
cast us both as goddess and disciple.

Light runs from your mouth, spills over your lips,
a star burning in the cup of your tongue.
My skin ignites with every molten drip,
leaving behind the ribcage harp you strung.
You pick out my fate with your fingertips.
Between us, all the sins of worlds… undone.

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

81 – Meet Cute

I’m into mythology – I like the gods that fuck and fight and are generally more interesting than the Judeo-Christian sky daddy tends to be – and mostly I like it for how they illustrate human relationships and interaction in the most ridiculously outsized way. It’s just a big soap opera up there for most pantheons. You know, a soap opera where the patriarch keeps turning into animals to bugger young girls behind his wife’s back. So, basically “The Young and the Restless,” I guess?

(This soap opera joke brought to you by someone who has never ever watched a whole episode of any soap opera in their life, so like, someone tell me if it accidentally stumbles into funny.)

One of my favorites is Hades and Persephone. (If you haven’t already listened to Hadestown, stop reading right now and go do that; I don’t even care if you come back to read the sonnet after, it’s that great.) There’s something I like about the Beauty-and-the-Beast Stockholm syndrome romance thing, which I know indicates just how damaged I am. Some part of me doesn’t recognize love unless it bites.

I also like the idea of Hades, the most removed and among the most powerful of the gods, made completely helpless by a girl, just like any other man. I like imagining him confronting what he doesn’t know how to do, trying to learn how to interact in any way but as the Lord of Death. Small wonder he was clumsy.

Watch the flowers spring up in her footprints.
Ask yourself again if you should be here,
if you should dare to taste her atmosphere
or frighten her with your cavern-dweller squint.

Down below, they don’t think you have a heart.
Most of the time, you’re glad to think that too.
If they were here, what would they think of you?
Has Hades found a foe he can’t outsmart?

Feels like it takes you days to find the words,
and then she turns and they scatter again.
You’ve just come up with something better when
the trees nearby fill with Demeter’s birds –
just take her down below, you’ll explain then!
…first thing she ever says to you is “Bastard!”

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

78 – Zeno Never Quite Feels You Up

I was free associating and then my lady got in the way, as she’s been doing the last few days. One thing I like about our relationship is that I’ve always felt she looked at me the way one would look at, say, a very interesting and entirely new insect: with bewilderment, amusement, and a tendency to trail vaguely after, taking notes. The funny thing is, I look at her in sort of the same way, but from a different angle.

Now that’s an interesting thought, isn’t it? The behavior of a disciple has a great deal in common with the behavior of a scientist. Much has already been made, by smarter people than me, of the comparison between a religious person’s faith and a scientist’s sometimes equally dogmatic adherence to his own hierarchical structures and unexamined biases. I’m not trying to be that critical. I’m thinking of something more… emotional.

The way a scientist trails after a fascinating specimen, noting its every characteristic, trying to absorb and learn with each moment… much like an apostle, attending his lord’s every word and gesture, no? It’s all just forms and permutations of devotion, fascination, attraction. When you fix your eyes and find so much to feast on that you never want to move them again. When you see the work of understanding this creature laid out before you, a thousand lifetimes long, and feel nothing but a ravenous hunger to begin.

I’ve been watching her a very long time, and now everything is new. I feel like something with wings, shackled underground for an age, finally, abruptly, freed… staggering into the sun, pale as a gasp and trembling, wondering if it’ll ever fly again. These muscles long ago learned to keep their place. It will be hard to learn that I’m allowed to look at her, to linger. Hard to learn that more than a moment’s accidental touch isn’t blasphemous. It’s all so bright and clear and beautiful that it hurts, brings tears to my eyes every few minutes. I want to forget about the withered, scarred thing I became in her absence. Don’t mind my stumbling. I’ll be right with you. I just need a little moment to remember how to walk.

“If She Was Fire, You Must Be Wood,” July 2012

Look around and see the stars in the walls
try to hold their positions in your mind.
You’ll need to be able to do this blind –
when we get back there’ll be no light at all.

Three fingers like a compass on your chest
describe curves and lines, geometry
entirely unique to you and me,
lists of new hypotheses to test.

Like glancing between the sun and the black
I must unlearn the habits of a thief –
take looks at you like you’ll make me put them back
Slowly transmuting faith into belief.
A lifetime spent stretched on you like a rack
and still my strength is beggared by relief.

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

73 – Sacrament

Oh, child… I feel dizzy, like I’ve had a couple of punches to the head. Love always makes me feel that way. Love likes to rough me up and leave me bleeding in alleys. It’s cool; it’s all consensual, that’s what I’m into. If my life doesn’t scar me I assume I’m not doing it right.

There’s this girl. I know, I know, another one? This is a different girl, even though the story has some marked similarities. Listen, I used to be really bad about falling in love with straight girls, okay? I’ve gotten better; I try to only let my infatuations get out of hand with the willing these days.

This girl is even harder for me to talk about, because the way I feel about her is so hard to put into words. I felt it from the second I met her – like a dislocated limb pushed back into place, a sense of recognition so acute it was painful. She didn’t feel the same, or she hid it well; I used to joke that we became friends because I interrupted her reading and refused to go away until she talked to me.

She’s always hidden how she feels well, from everyone. I’ve seen more than anyone else, but I have this particular blind spot where people’s feelings about me are concerned. So does she. Our blind spots intersect very neatly, such that we’ve been missing one another for a lot of years.

For so many years I’ve been crying thinking of her, of what I did to her. Nothing ever hurt as much as losing her. I went through plenty of heartbreak in the intervening time, with people on whom I had more claim and more right to grieve – people I lived with, slept with for years – and none of it cut deep enough to really hurt me. I couldn’t understand why for a long time, but now I think I do.

When I walked away from her, I gave up on that part of myself. Not consciously, I don’t think – I never swore off dating women, I went on identifying as bisexual, even fucked a few women over the years, but no one more than once. There were no women in my life at all for more than a decade. I’ve got a couple of female friends now, but that’s new, just in the last year. For about sixteen years I just avoided women entirely. Until she came back into my life, I thought I couldn’t feel that way anymore. Maybe my parents were right, maybe it was a phase. Everybody looks at women like that sometimes. Everybody has a bi phase in college. Settle down and get married to a penis-haver like a good girl.

Obedient creature that I am, I did get married. In fact, she married me – just not the way I hoped when I was sixteen. She was the officiant at my wedding. I needed her to be there, couldn’t imagine getting married without her. I never dreamed it would cause her pain – I’d concluded when we were nineteen that she wasn’t interested, that this bone-deep hunger I feel around her was entirely one-sided. That didn’t do a damn thing to make it go away, mind, but I’d long ago got comfortable with that ache.

It makes me feel foolish, in the best way, that it takes so little, the merest hint that she wants me around, and… god. My head feels like it’s on fire. It’s such a strange kind of tenderness I feel – more visceral than precisely erotic, because I had forbidden myself to think that way about her, and so every innocuous touch always hit me like a live wire. I remember one morning when I was about fifteen, waking up at a sleepover on the floor, with one arm around her. She was wearing a t-shirt that had ridden up some, and my fist was resting against her bare belly.

Slowly, so slowly, I spread out my fingers to lay my hand flat on her skin. Just that. It wasn’t a move, I didn’t have anything else in mind, I didn’t even know why – why I needed so much to do it, or why I felt such shame and self-loathing when I did. It felt holy – her skin as cool as marble, so still I could feel her heartbeat, the morning sun spilling over her shoulder. I lay there and felt adoration ricocheting through me, like a swallowed bullet, tearing up my insides with the effort to keep still, to preserve this moment for just another breath. And yet I was so ashamed. I felt sure it was wrong, I was wrong somehow. I knew I was trespassing, and I didn’t know why.

“Ayizan,” October 2006.

I never stopped thinking about that. I never stopped waiting for the day when I could be close to her and feel like she wanted me there. That’s all I ever wanted – to be with her and know that I’m welcome, that in her eyes, I belong there.

I recall every time I’ve touched your skin
and my skin prickles with the memory,
holding my breath to keep you next to me,
feeling the fragile moment stretch and thin

Your pulse is a cacophony under
my fingertips – it makes me want to weep,
to be so close to something I can’t keep –
drowning in my own heartbeat, like thunder.

For a moment I imagine a tree
growing from my sternum, up through your spine,
millions of roots between your heart and mine
finally able to see what you see –
roots that only grow deeper over time,
roots that will always bring you home to me.

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

69 – Anam Cara

A patient reader over time will notice my tendency to refer to a specific “her” in a specific way. She’s a motif that pops up in my writing quite a lot. She’s also a real person, and that’s why I don’t talk about her a whole lot… because I don’t want to hurt her.

It’s hard to write about real people, even harder to write about experiences you shared, because none of us sees the same event the same way, and there’s so much we don’t tell even the ones we love. So much of what we don’t say is the very worst of what’s in us, our pain and fear and solitude. So much of our memories is emotion and judgment we apply to them after the fact, hindsight understanding that turns a word into a lie, an abandonment into an accident, a betrayal into a miscommunication… We rewrite our memories every day as we grow and change. That can mean that when you share how you remember your life with someone… you risk damaging how they remember it.

“But Gentle, you insufferable torrent of surplus vocabulary,” I hear you protest, “You haven’t held back a fuckin’ bit on oversharing about your family, so how do you come over all shy about this one girl?”

Well. Because we’ve all got “that one girl” in our history somewhere. Or guy. Or robot, or being. Whatever you’re into. We all fell in love for the first time, once. The thing about first love is, it’s everything they tell you – beautiful, stupid, tragic, life-shattering and so, so silly – and it’s often almost entirely unrelated to the person you fell in love with. It takes most of us years to learn how to help someone open up to us, how to listen to them instead of projecting our bullshit onto them, how to appreciate everything they are rather than just the parts that reflect our own desires and answer our own needs. When we’re young, when we fall in love for the first time, it can start from the barest thread – a look, a smile, an arm brushing against yours. You embroider it into whole cloth, a world of it, population you and Her. The Woman.

“My Madonna,” February 2007.

I stood outside of a lot of venues, waiting for Her. A lot of times, her paramour du jour stood with me. We rarely talked a lot – I didn’t like her boyfriends, and I couldn’t explain why, even to myself. What little conversation we exchanged was always the same, and I liked it, the ritual of it.

Dramatis personae: Gentle, aged 16; tall, red-haired, surly. Boytoy A, aged 16; probably brunette, probably stocky, probably a suitable target for adjectives like “corn-fed.”
Gentle leans against the wall outside the (dressing room/band locker room/restaurant/movie theater), pulling a rather selfconscious James Dean ‘tude. Boytoy A approaches from stage right.

Boytoy A jerks his chin up in silent greeting. Gentle returns the gesture.

Boytoy A: She in there?

Gentle nods.

Boytoy A: How long?

Gentle: She said ’bout ten minutes.

Boytoy A nods and takes up a position against the wall also. His posture and demeanor take on an even more selfconscious James Dean ‘tude of his own, which Gentle courteously commences to ignore.

Sometimes it was me arriving second, and then the roles were reversed, but it was always the same. No one ever needed to say who we were waiting for. She was the connection between us, the only important thing we shared, the only important thing, period. Just Her, The Woman.

I loved her madly, and badly, and eventually I realized both. I’ve realized since how limited her understanding of what I was going through must have been, how much I hid from everyone. It hurts me, every day – and I still think of her every day, more than once – to imagine that she thinks I fell away from her because I didn’t love her. It hurts me more, though, to imagine tainting what we had, the strength and strangeness of our friendship, with… something I didn’t even yet know I wanted.

I knew every second that I was with her that I wanted to be closer to her. I couldn’t explain how, or what I was missing. I didn’t want to have sex with her; the idea was horrifying to me, a transgression. But then, it took me years to realize that the way I saw other women wasn’t the same way that straight women do. It took me years to understand that, yes, our relationship was Platonic, because she wanted it that way, and I would have died rather than make her uncomfortable around me. But yes… my feelings for her were romantic, profoundly so. I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. I didn’t care what that looked like, but I was jealous of her boyfriends, and also contemptuous of them. I knew that they were temporary, and I was not. I knew that what I had of her was more real, more honest, more complete than what they saw, and I thought that the difference was that they couldn’t see her clearly past their dicks.

I realize now that I was blind in the exact same way they were. I loved her, and I needed something from her that she couldn’t give, and when she didn’t give it to me, I ran away. Not because I didn’t love her. Because I couldn’t trust myself to love her the way she wanted to be loved. I couldn’t trust myself to let her be herself, rather than what I needed her to be.

I still don’t trust myself that way. That’s why I don’t talk about her very much – because I don’t want to destroy her memory of our friendship by making her feel that I was lying, or pretending, or constantly scheming after her body or any of that shit. Some of this is internalized homophobia – this is why lesbians are often so tentative, so unwilling to approach each other. We’re so afraid of being seen as predatory, of suddenly not being “safe” when we admit to liking other women. It feels like coming out means an audit of every relationship you ever had, every friend in turn desperately needing to ask, “Well, have you ever thought about me that way?”

But mostly it’s just… she saw something in me that it took me until now to see in myself. She kept me alive when I was a teenager, more literally than I think she knew. For years, she was all I was living for. And I was honest with her, more honest than I would be with anyone else for a decade and change after that. What she didn’t know about me wasn’t her fault, and I didn’t hide it on purpose. I didn’t know it either. She did nothing wrong, is the point, and I don’t want to take her happiness from her by recontextualizing our shared history. That’s the difference between her and my family. She did nothing wrong.

I think she’s happy now. As far as one can tell through the internet. She got married. He’s a cute guy – brunette, corn-fed. So did I, come to that. I learned how to love the right way. I’m not… better, though, not the way she is. I haven’t moved on from a lot of things that happened back then. I don’t think I could trust myself to see her any more clearly now than I could when I was sixteen; it would just be a different kind of blindness. She doesn’t deserve that. The world is better for me knowing that she’s in it, and generally happy. I promised her, “I will always try to do what would please you if you knew,” and I still do. She surfaces in my art again and again. I retell the story a thousand different ways. I learned so many ways to love from her, and so many of them were wrong at the time, but all of them have brought me joy, and brought me here.

I want so much to explain. But… that feels self-serving. She couldn’t benefit from knowing more about the horrorshow I was living out of her sight, and I couldn’t make her memories any more beautiful by telling her I loved her in a different way than she loved me. I think she knew. I didn’t know what I really wanted from her, but I was never shy about telling her how I felt. I can only hope that her memories are as good as mine… and try not to spoil them with irrelevant details like, y’know… myself.

Walk down this road with me a little way.
Yeah, I know we’ve been this way before.
I still know the fastest way to your door
from where I am, no matter how far away.

But you don’t live there anymore, and I…
I realize now just what I did to you.
I realize now just how little you knew –
you had the truth of me, but not the why.

What’s the etiquette on sharing a dream?
I could only darken your memory,
taint whatever good you managed to see,
make you feel it was never what it seemed.
A dream more real than what they made of me –
to keep this creature from you feels more clean.

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

61 – Prism

I don’t mean to be one of those guys, but I was dating people on the internet before it was cool. It was decidedly UNcool when I was doing it, and the way I was doing it, by the standards of my parents and the wider culture at the time. I was one of those fifteen-year-old girls who got ensnared by the internet and started flirting with thirty-year-old men in the form of orcs and strapping hero lads, is what I’m sayin’.

Nothing really horrible ever happened, though. I’m not saying all of those relationships went well, even the ones that got as far as an in-person meeting (not until I was nineteen and living on my own). But they went bad for the same reasons they would have gone bad had I met these people somewhere other than MUDs and IRC rooms and WoW – because we were different ages, or because we were both teenagers and breathtakingly stupid, or because we couldn’t ever quite figure each other out. I never met anyone who substantially lied about their appearance or age. I never met anyone who tried to deceive me in any substantial way, until I looked too hard into the bottom of a bottle toward the end. Even that could have gone much worse. Lies weren’t the worst of him – it was when he said what we both thought was true that he hurt me the most.

The internet has largely been kind to me, in terms of helping me find my people. I’ve had many long nights of feeling that needy knot in my chest like an ember, watching for the message window flash, lifting freezing fingers from the keyboard to press them against my burning cheeks. I’ve also had many moments of standing in the airport, or at the bus station, or on one side of my front door, holding my breath and staring into a pair of eyes I’ve never seen before, searching them for someone I love.

Most of the time, what I find looks nothing like what I thought I fell in love with. But that can be the incredible thing about being with a person over time, if you can let them – and yourself – change and grow independently: every day you find a new way to love each other. Every day it’s a new dish in your favorite flavor.

Of course polyamory helps with this, helps you find takers for your other flavors that your partner isn’t into. Cause sometimes you’re like, “Oh, I love that, but not with noodles,” and then they can be like, “Oh that’s cool, I’ll just find someone else who wants my noodle then, you’re still into the sauce tho?” and then you’re all, “Yeah totally, just load me up with that, you know what I like, baby,” and then you both get thrown out of the Cheesecake Factory but it’s a really positive relationship moment anyway.

“Ne Me Quitte Pas,” September 2007

I often fall in love with people’s words.
It takes some time, if we should finally meet
to match the words to the person I see,
hear your words in a voice I’ve never heard.

Sometimes I worry that it won’t happen,
I’ll look into your eyes and feel nothing,
or I won’t recognize you in your skin,
but can’t tell what just what it is you’re lacking.

It’s not like that, though. Like hearing covers
of a song I love, like seeing you wear
different dresses, or when you dye your hair.
One body, a thousand different lovers.
You show up in my dreams and my nightmares,
bringing a new treasure to uncover.

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets