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Saved by the Scallop

MarriageAct CATMy mother’s generous offer to take us to a restaurant we couldn’t otherwise afford would not have been cause for a panicked frenzy under typical circumstances. The night before her arrival, Emir and I scurried around the apartment like squirrels preparing for winter. We buried banking paperwork bearing both our names, photographs of us with the red-suited Elvis impersonator, and Emir’s I-485 forms. My mother had only to see the code I-485 to know what we had done, and we worried she would sniff us out like a German shepherd and fifty-two tons of cocaine at baggage claim.

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When you communicate with your dead brother, you have to do it on the down-low. Communicate with him around other people, but be cool about it. Turn up “The Joker” by the Steve Miller Band when it’s on the radio. Sing along loudly, hitting every note and brrrehr-breh-ehr!  The best people will sing along with you. Most people will just sit quietly and listen to you, looking out the window. Some people will try to talk to you while you sing. Don’t answer them. Just keep singing. Play air guitar at the right spot, even though you’ll have to take your hands off the wheel.

RUTA_WithWithoutYou_trP R O L O G U E

Glass

My mother grabbed the iron poker from the fireplace and said, “Get in the car.”

I pulled on my sneakers and followed her outside. She had that look on her face, distracted and mean, as though she’d just been dragged out of a deep sleep full of dreams. She was mad, I could tell right away, but not at me, not this time.

Her car was a lime-green hatchback with blotches and stripes of putty smeared over the dents. The Shitbox, she called it. We called it, actually. My mother hated the thing so much she didn’t mind if I swore at it. “What a piece of shit,” I’d grumble whenever it stalled on us, which we could gamble on happening at least once a day, more if it was snowing. Far and away the most unreliable car we ever had in our life together, it was a machine that ran on prayer.

endofevecoverLung Cancer Noir

Two months shy of the death date my mother had written on her calendar in red pen, Sol and I sublet our studio apartment to an art student for the school year. We’d keep the shop space downstairs.

“Your situation is interesting,” the art student said as he signed the lease agreement. “If there’s a gay kid in the family, it’s always the gay kid who has to take care of the sick parent. I always thought that was because the gay kid wouldn’t have any children of their own. But that’s obviously not true for you.”

I shrugged. “Always great to be the gay kid.” And we packed up the car again for our move across town.

“Let’s make a pact,” Sol said as she turned the key in the ignition. “If we start plotting to murder your mother, we have to move out.”

I laughed. “Agreed.” But I knew she wasn’t kidding.

978-0-307-26987-4Some eighty years ago, Freud proposed that anxiety was “a riddle whose solution would be bound to throw a flood of light on our whole mental existence.” Unlocking the mysteries of anxiety, he believed, would go far in helping us to unravel the mysteries of the mind: consciousness, the self, identity, intellect, imagination, creativity—not to mention pain, suffering, hope, and regret. To grapple with and understand anxiety is, in some sense, to grapple with and understand the human condition.

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New York City’s radically reshaped political and economic landscape has me thinking more about the creepy fading Twilight of the Giuliani Era, a time when I viewed the city’s turbulent identity crisis from the vantage point of a silent Silver Man standing very still in the bowels of the subway system. In the decade-and-a-half that’s blazed by since, select sectors of New York have become safer but also heartrendingly sterile, with chain stores and bank branches muscling out locally-owned enterprises, and bohemian live-work warrens razed to accommodate obscenely costly condos—all of that frothy money polishing New York’s idiosyncratic edges into a smooth, homogenous sheen.

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All we needed was a tent but we didn’t have one, because I was supposed to be “at the library” and she was supposed to be “working later on a Friday than usual.” We only had a blanket, some snacks, and water. It was hot just like all the other summer Fridays we’d spent together, but instead of meeting at her best friend’s apartment we were in one of the many little outposts of Griffith Park, committing our adultery on a blanket.

realman_pb_cover_FINAL_PRWhy They’re Called Passports

Partial transcript of a telephone conversation I had with a representative of the U.S. Department of State ¹ [after having my passport renewal application rejected and returned in the mail]:

ME: I don’t understand what the problem is. You have my fee, you have my correctly filled-out application, and you have a letter from a surgeon saying that I had sexual reassignment surgery and have lived as a man for several years.

Still Writing by Dani ShapiroScars

I grew up the only child of older parents. If I were to give you a list of all the facts of my early life that made me a writer, this one would be near the top. Only child. Older parents. It now almost seems like a job requirement—though back then, I wished it to be otherwise. A lonely, isolated childhood isn’t a prerequisite for a writing life, of course, but it certainly helped.

My parents were observant Jews. We kept a kosher home. On the Sabbath, from sundown on Friday evening until sundown on Saturday, we didn’t drive, we didn’t turn on lights, or the radio, or television, and I wasn’t allowed to ride my bike, or play the piano, or do homework. This left me with a lot of time to do nothing. Most Saturday mornings, I walked a half-mile to synagogue with my father while my mother stayed home with a sinus headache.

Our house was silent and spotless. Dirt, smudges, noise—any kind of disarray would have been unthinkable. Housekeepers were always quitting. No one could keep the house to my mother’s standards. Every surface gleamed. Picture frames were dusted daily. Sheets and pillowcases were ironed three times a week. My drawers were color-coordinated: blue Danskin tops perfectly folded next to blue Danskin bottoms.

 

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“Now, none of us knows what to expect from Mavis Wilkerson,” my mother said, looking back in my direction from her position in the front passenger seat.

Several white sheets fluttered in the wind, hanging loosely to clotheslines. I’d started counting them a ways back, as my father drove us, winding in-and-out through back country roads.

In those days, I often found myself sitting in the backseat of my parents’ white Oldsmobile, driven from one supper to the next across the expanse of the Texas Panhandle. The trip to the Wilkersons’ farm was no different.

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Soon after we learned that our mother was dead, my brother and I went to a bar. We’d already worked the phones. Josh had called our grandparents, who’d been divorced for forty years but both still lived in Philadelphia. Grandpop said he’d book the first flight he could, but air travel was snarled from the attacks nine days earlier. Grandma was afraid of flying, so she stayed in her rented room in suburban Philly, wrecked and helpless. I called my dad’s house in New Hampshire, but he wasn’t home. Eventually he called back. I told him she was dead and a long pause ensued, one in a litany of silences between my father and me, stretching across the years since he’d left and the distance between us, thousands of miles, most of America. Finally he said she was a good person, that he’d always cared for her. He asked if I wanted him to fly to Arizona. I said he didn’t have to and hung up.

widget_custom_image_1_1371909154“No, push them over.”

“David, sing ‘Rainbow Connection.’ I knooow it’s your favorite.”

“Hey, David,” said my sister’s friend Tina Cosgrove, who already had an amazing figure. “I hear you like Beth Vandermalley.”

The other girls made teasing Oooo sounds at me. I tried to defend myself. “Oh yeah, Tina, I hear you like Phil Kincaid.”

Everyone shut up. Tina burst into tears. Her pile of girls fell and they all started patting her back.

“David, what the hell?”

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I was what — two years old.  It was a nightmare.  I was running.  Somehow I was near a giant hole.  And I fell.  It was a death dream.  My earliest memory.  But was it actually a death dream and did I actually know what death was at that age.  And do I now.

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In the winter of 1976, I committed the professional and personal faux pas of giving a poetry reading with Rod McKuen.  It took place at the Veterans Auditorium in downtown San Francisco and was supposed to be a benefit for the San Francisco State University poetry program. 

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In the spring of 1989, I registered for a class called “Melville and Pynchon.” We were assigned two novels: Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. The professor paired these books up, as far as I could tell, for their unreadability.