The Church of Me (a lament, formal)

The Church of Me is subterranean and is not so by all fault of mine. That it stays underground, however, is proof of my damage, that I cannot alone resurrect a sunken thing. I am like a buried citadel, which needs the brushes and pickaxes of a willing army to be excavated, I am so covered in dust. I don’t think I was always like this; I know I wasn’t. I was above ground once. Kindergarten me was gregarious and self-assured (and that I have to retreat forty years to remember such caprice, such assuredness is telling); but something happened, and whether it was a long, slow curtailing of the ego—“Thom, you’re smart. Just don’t show it”—or its sudden devastation, I don’t know. I do know the buried church is fantastic, with vaulted arches and an altar to my corpus, and liturgies are elaborate songs that penetrate the soil in which they are otherwise muted; still its parishioners are few because the church is thus buried and were it not for my constant and psalmic report, I’d just as soon not exist. People, they hear the songs, they read the canticles that I leave at surface, but they are difficult scrolls, which by nature are of a cryptic fashion, and lead to a constant misinterpretation—“I don’t get it.”. My religion is a confusing one. I am forever misunderstood or, worse yet, thought inapproachable, which is why the eucharist remains full, the tithing plate empty. I am a lonely priest, worshipful of the world and a vessel of all that is beautiful, no matter its unlikelihood. I am the curved lens through which love is magnified; I am an ewer overflowing, but only the means to an end it seems, for the glass is seen for its imperfect bend and the urn unremarkable save for its contents. I am left alone, heart-achingly alone, and thusly unrequited I become my flaws: a cataract on the lens, a crack in the pitcher. I am no longer a conduit of the psalms, rather the lamentations; I am seen for having overturned my own temple—“You really fucked it up this time, didn’t you”—then for the temple I once and unswervingly was. I was never enough and so forsook my own church until the last parishioners abandoned me, a wretched and unwanted thing, at last buried by my own hand.

I was not always like this, but how to return to the above-ground? Has my time expired, the soil I rot in too deep? Or do I yet grow roots in my subterranean sleep? More importantly can they grow un-watered, without there being anyone to rain upon me? I’m thirsty, have been so for years, when all my affections were fixed on the one promising cloud that intermittently poured, other clouds having ceased their waters, and how nourishing that was. The perennial can forgive the cloud its occasional reluctance—the perennial remains a beautiful thing even in its dormancy. It is evergreen, and therefore a thing of constant potential. A blossoming is sometimes just the accident of weather, a fortuity afforded its roots, but accidents are nonetheless necessary, at least intermittently. The perennial cannot itself seed the cloud—it is impotent in that regard—though in its cyclical death, the perennial can seed itself. This is its only self-reliance; in all else it depends on the cloud to occasionally spill its abundance. The seeds, they wait to re-establish root by waiting on the cloud to reform. What happens when the cloud dries up? What happens when the season is unkind? The cloud doesn’t need the seed, but the seed needs the cloud, and so long as the cloud refuses to water, the seed is left to feed on itself, or worse yet sup on the poisonous salts of its own bed qua grave. Roots, they do not grow in salt and I am the seed having tried. I swallowed the salts in absence of water, I poisoned myself for lack of precipitation. I poisoned myself and the cloud refused to rain. The cloud, it moved on. The soil is no longer poisonous, but it remains dry. How do I return to surface without sustenance? The flowers are dying within, and I cannot control the weather. There is stubborn potential, but is it too late? Seeds are not immortal, just at times dormant. Just one more rain, please.

divorce · wife

Cleaved, Part I

I came across the detail of the Klimt purely by accident and, had I seen it before, I would have remarked it, the way one remarks a pleasing if not familiar scent—something unbottled from a perfumery perhaps, or a satchel of potpourri from the bottom drawer of a chiffonier. It was a detail of a woman’s face done up in blues and yellows and greens in Klimt fashion, the unlikely mottling he employs to suggest an otherwise even tone; face ovoid; eyes closed. A male face is also featured in the detail, and despite the bolder use of color, the angularity of his nose and jaw, his stern expression, he is background to the woman whose face is sideways in the frame. It is just a detail—I don’t have the full painting to reference, and quite frankly it doesn’t matter—and the fact of the woman’s tilt suggests she is in repose. If so, the overlap of figures insinuates that she is lying on the man’s shoulder, but—most notably—that she is happy doing so. It’s the smile which catches my eye, the smile that tugs at memory with the incessancy of cicada wings in summer. Just as Mona Lisa’s upturned mouth is decidedly coy, so too is the woman’s—upturned at least. Coy is not the right word. Her eyes are closed so what could be demure is actually a contented smile, one that reaches just the corners of her mouth.

I’ve seen this face before, and it is a welcome one. Its familiarity stirs a deep nostalgia, an almost painful remembrance, for it is a return home to a halcyon time, when things were simpler, when happiness was distilled perfectly into this, the smile the woman wears. Jenny wore the same smile on our honeymoon, which is why it is so familiar and so resonant of memory. She wore it in the Berkeley Rose Garden , this barest of smiles, while laying on my lap in the Northern California sunshine, her hair spilled over my thigh and my hand stroking her from the forehead to mid-scalp, just running my fingers through her hair, in total bliss. Jenny has her eyes closed to the sky, which is flawlessly blue, a San Francisco rarity, and it seems we have brought the weather with us, sunshine for the whole trip. We are staying in a curio of a bed and breakfast, so decorous with hidden treasures—singing bowls and Oaxacan figurines and spindly mobiles—that it is a wonderland, our bed a depositing in some fantasy wherein we communicate both our foundling love and future togetherness. We are husband and wife, a fact which is now signified by the reassuring <clink> of a wedding band against the rim of a champagne flute; it is signified in the ease in which we are together, sometimes in silence for, as fate would have it, on this trip my voice is gone—Jenn has to order me green tea at a Chinese restaurant for fear that if I attempt to do so, I will collapse into a coughing fit—so we talk in telegraph, but in full sentences with our bodies.

And this day in the rose garden is no different from our wedding day, our persons cleaved like opposing charges—she the ebullient one, me voiceless and not without greater discontent with the world, a discontent that makes her all the more important to me as she is the princess saving the prince—we are natural in our repose, and her head on my lap is most reassuring and we are happy. We are happy, and this is why the Klimt piece evokes such strong nostalgia, its particular pain in returning home, for why are we not any longer, or at least why is our love different? Why has ‘cleaved’ become its other definition, in which we are breaking apart, our charges suddenly repellant? I look at the Klimt piece and long for that smile’s return, but I know now it will be lent elsewhere, and not afforded me–just not in the same way at least–with the Bay sun shining and the rest of our lives ahead of us as husband and wife, when our rings were intact on left-hand fingers and every toast was ‘to us.’ We will be separated, alone but still together, just by different bonds, and I will be the one to have disappeared that smile, and left with the unflagging question, ‘How did it come to this? Why is the Klimt piece reminiscent of a ‘then’ and not a ‘now’? Why did Jenny’s smile downturn and, dear God, what have I done?’

I need acknowledge Jenny’s dispiriting, which is not a sudden thing, though in the finality of her leaving, and considering my then state, Octber 13th came as a seismic shock. Not exactly seismic, actually, but something post-. It was like most earthquakes in that I didn’t feel its magnitude, didn’t feel the ground quake at all actually—but was left with the eerie quiet after. The house was left standing and everything was in its right place, but the quietude was unsettling, like existing on the other side of a heart attack when the heart’s return makes you suddenly aware that a great machinery had stopped momentarily, and wow. That you were in effect dead for a minute, and what life is by contrast once brought into stark relief.

A great machinery stopped when that door closed on October 13th, but I can’t fool myself into thinking it was a grinding halt. I may have been suddenly left in the post-seismic quiet, but the quiet had to have been precipitated in a noisier time, when my actions spoke loudly, when I was unaware as to the import of their effect.

I was obliviously happy, then Jenny was suddenly at her father’s, then in Long Beach, then unexpectedly in a place of her own (a place I would be barred from for two months). Then her family, who I was disallowed from seeing and who I didn’t want to see anyway, descended and gathered furniture and clothing and accoutrements from our home like so much harvest, leaving me the orange leather chair, the chair in which Jenny nursed Cayden when we were a burgeoning family, three and not two. The orange leather chair where I would be suddenly one and not four. It was where I marinated for a good month, soaking up what I do not know, for it was not yet regret. I sat in that chair; I slept in Cayden’s bed. I couldn’t bring myself to sleep atop the marital mattress without Jenny next to me and I refused to open her closet for fear that, in its emptiness, a great something would be comprehended, the sudden realization that could have ended me right then and there, like a golden lightning bolt out of a Bernini sculpture. A realization so ego-destroying I would’ve writhed uncontrollably like St. Terese on the bedroom floor, just not in ecstasy but rather in some existential anguish.

The realization that I did this.  

divorce · wife

In the Pink, Grayly

 Her name is Dulcinea and her rank must be at least that of a princess, since she is my queen and lady, and her beauty superhuman, since all the impossible and fanciful attributes of beauty which the poets apply to their ladies are verified in her; for her hairs are gold, her forehead Elysian fields, her eyebrows rainbows, her eyes suns, her cheeks roses, her lips coral, her teeth pearls, her neck alabaster, her bosom marble, her hands ivory, her fairness snow, and what modesty conceals from sight such, I think and imagine, as rational reflection can only extol, not compare.”

                                                                                                –Don Quixote on Dulcinea

“You didn’t see me, I was falling apart/ I was a television version of a person with a broken heart.”

                                                                                                –Matt Berninger, ‘Pink Rabbits’

“Oh, Thom. I didn’t need your poetry.”


In the Pink, Grayly The room this time is more to my liking: informed by at least a tertiary knowledge of feng-shui, stone and fire elements in their proper corners, water taking the form of a perfumed vapor that dissipates as quickly as a cetacean plume over the slightly glowing diffuser. The last room did not cater to as calming an effect. I was forced to sit in a white leather sofa not of my choosing and the embroidered throws were garishly turquoise with gossamer threads that resembled ill-spun spider webs. It was an office in the Del Mar hinterlands, and so much of my recovery was spent there; horse stables, coastal aloe, Spanish tile roofs. We were not in Del Mar proper for we did not belong there. We were relegated to the exurban corners, this the white leather office, also La Casa Palmera with its near institutional bent. We did not belong in the city proper with its charming avenues and Gallic flourishes, streets named after Parisian rues; no, we did not belong there. We were untidy by virtue of our diagnoses, intergalactic trespassers if you consider the workings of the synapses something cosmic. We were ill. I am ill.

This office, I repeat, is more to my liking and how eerily prescient that it sits next door to Amethyst, which will be my future home when the core is breached and when my life comes to an end. I shouldn’t say ‘home’. I will have none. I will have no home when my diagnoses become me, or at least have me interpreted as such; in sickness and in health, it will all become a lie.

Erik sits across from me and he is appropriately sympathetic. We are on new pills—we have to be. We are ill. The last doctor miscalculated me—I am if nothing an exception to most rules—and she took away my manic tendencies in exchange for a soul-crushing flatness that threatened my continuation on this terrestrial plane. I have lost God’s address and am mortal again, mortal in both senses of the word, for I tarry with thoughts of terminus, of travelling to the next station, which isn’t the depot where I currently reside, the one where I wallow with my ever-present elixirs and erstwhile cigarettes, where I smoke every last Parliament down to its end as metaphor for the greater extinguishing. I am not only ill, I am dying, and I’m urging the death-wagons forward. Vraylar, Latuda, vodka when those don’t work. Vodka even if they were to work. I just want to live in some bovine comfort, in bucolic contemplation, but I’m disallowed pasture. Grass is become chaff; I chew a disarmingly irritative cud.

There is a church inside me though, an idyllic white church with steeple and clapboard windows. It is surrounded by pasture whereas I reside in briar. This church is where I keep Jenny.

“How are you and Jenn?” Erik asks, and I am drunk. Or at least I have softened the corners this morning. This is an increasing problem, I am aware. Erik knows to ask about Jenn. He is a meteorologist and this is the truest barometer of my wellbeing. I oddly think of feathered things, maybe because my Icarus wings are currently ruinted and I have—for now—my bird job.

“The thing about flamingos,” I say finally, “Is their color, right?”

Erik takes the non sequitur in stride; he has proven himself a patient man and I—I am practiced at using words to describe other words. The tireless if not tiresome poet. (Next door at Amethyst, I will end my transformation, finally, and just become words, feeding off of their honeys; I will be an alphabet eater).

“They’re pink—they get it from the food they eat.” I briefly describe the science: “Carotenoid pigments from algae and plankton. They store the pigments in their livers. Now a feather begins as a living structure, ok?” This, it should be said is different from hair, which Erik has smartly combed; I am most likely a two-day old mop.

“It’s fed by a blood vessel that delivers the nutrients needed for the feather to grow, to unfurl. Well, those pigments travel in the blood and color the feathers pink.”

This is rudimentary. Eric follows, though it’s not evident as to why I’m talking about feathers. They after all, are living structures whereas I am a fast dying one.

 “Flamingo parents—they give their kids milk, you see—flamingos and pigeons are the only birds that produce milk—and this milk contains a lot of pigment. Now the flamingo kids, they get the pigment from their parents so that when their adult feathers grow in, they’re pink.”

Science lesson concluded, I ask:” Do you know what happens to the parents?” Erik shakes his head, but remains attentive. My last therapist would, at this point, be reaching for her samples bag. She was a galaxy-destroyer, and liked to steal away my stars. With Erik, I can constellate.

“They become gray, Erik. Without their pigment, they’ve nothing to stain their own feathers. It’s a beautiful metaphor, really. The parents give all their color away to their kids, they give a piece of their beauty away, so that the kids are something gorgeous.” I pause.

“I’m gray, Erik.”

“I’ve given all my color away.”

“I’ve given it away, and you ask how Jenny and I are doing? She’s beautiful, Erik. More than that. She used to be such a..a self-deprecating girl. ‘Just a silly girl who drinks pink tea’ she called herself. Or: ‘Oh, beauty queen—that’s me,’ she’d say, downplaying herself. Well, she’s pink now. Of course, she was going to be. I know that. I just lent her my color in the meantime is all.”

“And I’m gray. I’m gray but I love that she’s pink.”

There is inequity here, I am suddenly aware. Jenny wants me pink, too, like I am capable—or was once capable–of being. I know this, but I’m the broken courtier right now, a male songbird with faded feathers. My constant irritation comes from an existential discontent and a keening cognizance of my own monochromatic decline. When I first acquiesced to pills, I was better. I had a flush to my cheeks, a serenity that had its particular ebullience. But then it was too much Escitalopram, and I went manic; it was the sudden absence of Escitalopram and my wings broke off. I either flew too high to have my color rightly seen, or else became the color of gruesome wreckage. I wrote a lot about plane crashes during this time. I wrote about being a fuselage without wings. I wrote in grays and reds. I wrote about flying and falling, the alcohol serving to maintain my bird-ness by contributing to both. (At Amethyst, I will be a spatchcocked something. I will have irreversibly landed, free of substance, but with my wingtips sheared off and tucked into my corpse. Appropriately, Amethyst is called a Landing).

Erik tries to circle the metaphor back to parenting. He should. The cetaceous vapor of the atomizer does its breathing thing, and it is a low and constant hiss, like a constant deflating. Erik mentions Cayden and Finn, and the color I have given them; it is indeed the parental sacrifice, how we become wizened while our sons ripen into smooth-fleshed fruit, how we first lend them our blood, then ferry its course throughout their beings, enriching it with the salts of our own harvest. It is a vegetal thing as much an animal thing, a seeding, a grafting of one’s parts. I love my children but in this moment I don’t want to talk about that. I don’t. I’ve written hundreds of pages on the subject, have written down the rules of my particular parenting which I developed when I was a young age, when I first felt the effects of a perhaps improper rearing. “Don’t ever tell your children they don’t know what love is,” I wrote when I was seven. See I loved Reagan White then, and her improbably straight, waist-length hair. I sat side by side with her on the elementary school rug, knees touching, she in her Strawberry Shortcake dress. I was devoted to her and allowed her to catch me during every playground chase so we could collapse in a fit of knowing giggles. This was love. This is love, just one that a seven-year-old is capable of mustering as a yet unripe achene, a fig still seasoning on the vine. To be told love is only for the fully wisened is to rob a child of love’s caprice. I think of Reagan White, I think of Jenny. I think of love, and its maturation. I think of giving your color away because it is a compulsion, the way in which rain is compelled to fall from a fully seeded cloud. That giving is not an option when you at last love someone more than you love yourself.

Perhaps it is easy for me to love Jenny in the way that I do, the fact that I love her more than I do myself. I have willingly given her my color because pink is off-putting on such an otherwise gray template. Thing is, I would drink poison for her; she would not for me, I know. Our ‘Romeo and Juliet’ would have a lesser body count, in which case the play would just be called ‘Romeo’, I playing the role of the tragic fool. Still, I have integrity in offering her all of me, though I must be unlucky to love. I must be a wretch for–though I don’t know it sitting in Erik’s placid office—I will ultimately have my greatest fear realized, and I will be abandoned by the love of my life. Illness: I am privy to it and proof my own septicity. I have hurt, in both manners of the word. I cannot fully love myself, therefore no one fully loves me. A wholly loved person is not suddenly left to their own devices, and I have always said, ‘Death before divorce’, the most superlative thing I can think to say.  (At the time of this writing, I have five months to prove myself integrous in that regard) In the meantime, Erik and I discuss pabulums and pills to combat the ideation, that death be the option waylaid. I tell him I have given all my color away, so hope that everyone wears Taxi-cab yellow to my funeral, a corpse needing proper lighting. (I am very funny). He gives me Wellbutrin; there is ‘well’ in the name, as in ‘well, why not?’ I have taken anonymous pills before without so much as a forethought—this one at least suggests tranquility. If it fails its promises, I still have the white steepled church with the clapboard windows, the green grass which I devotedly keep watered. Jenny, she is my forever.

(It is not to say, however, there doesn’t exist a ‘church of me’ harbored within. I am not without ego. The church is just subterranean. There is no raising high of the roofbeams, no proud campanile extoling any virtue. It is underground, belfry muted by soil, its doors blocked. No one sits in its pews and as corpus there is me and my crown of mirrors. The eucharist, it is always full, and on a disused altar. ‘Why has thou forsaken me?’–this has replaced the Lord’s Prayer).

“One more thing, Erik,” and I trail off. I want to express something, I’m not sure what. I have yet to become words. In sickness and in health has not yet become a lie.

“Never mind.” I take my scrips.

 Nights I would lie next to Jenny, she naked from the waist up were I to have my way after making love—I would feel her chemistries flow correct and aligned, me my own irregularities. I would cup her breast and press my chest to her back, never the twain of our heartbeats meeting. Inevitably, Jenny would turn me over, half asleep, and put her arm around me. We were a sideways Pieta, smother me Mother. My heartbeat was fast, hers a lulling thing. I could be happy. Sometimes and despite my gray, I could even be in the pink.

city · neighborhood · people · writing


Jamira is maybe in her thirties, I don’t know. She’s mentioned ‘my babies’ a few times, so I know her at least to be a mother. But ‘black don’t crack’ as the saying goes, so, with her flawless mocha skin, her age is of mystery to me. I like her youthfulness, though—the other tillers at the Chevron are stubbornly white-haired and have white-hair proclivities. John—who I like—has his homespun aphorisms, my favorite being:

Me: How are you this fine day, John?

John: (halfway drawling) Well, been shot at and missed, been shit at and hit.

Both afford me free coffee on the regular seeing as I go to the Chevron near daily for my Brazilian medium-roast, every other day for my smokes. I’ve put Jamira to the test: upon entering the store and announcing that it is, indeed, a ‘good morning’, I ask her, “So what am I getting?”

Jamira likes this game, though she gets it wrong every time. “Wait, wait—don’t tell me!” and she scans the cigarette display for my brand, which is bottom shelf and to the left. Every single time she hovers over the Cowboy Killers, which are top shelf, before invariably settling on the silver Marlboro lights: “These ones!” I shake my head. “C’mon, Jamira—I told you it’s the ones Kurt Cobain smoked.” (I found out this factoid in one of my internet searches of Kurt—we share the same DSM-V diagnosis and brand of cigarettes apparently).

“Ah—here you go!” and she plucks the Newport 100s from their place on the display. (I learned to smoke 100s at Casa Palmera because with only five cigarette breaks a day, one cigarette per session, you needed a longer smoke. Never have I seen people so eager to hit off re-frys as I did at Casa. Take away substance, addicts need SOMEthing and cigarettes do the trick).

“That’s the one, Jamira” and she smiles pretty. She’s got the best white-toothed grin this side of Cheshire, and lashes that are almost unnaturally long (they’re real, though). Jamira always wears a head wrap so I haven’t seen her hair, still I know it to be short. Her wrap resembles a Sikh turban—maybe it is, our conversations haven’t wandered into theological territory yet—with a large knot in front.

“Someday, I’ll getchoo,” she says, and I trust she will. An impulse comes over me.

“Jamira, I’m going to hazard a guess here,” I say as I pass her my monies, and she raises an eyebrow while still punching keys.


“You’re a singer aren’t you?” She looks up and Cheshire grins again.

It’s a writer’s intuition. ‘The human-sense antennae’ David Foster Wallace called it, as if we were an army of intelligible ants with probing feelers a-twitch, sussing out the people-scape with the energy of a thousand solar cells. Twitch twitch. Mary Wells face. Twitch. Sonorous speaking voice. Twitch. Would look natural as a Vandella or Supreme behind an RCA ribbon microphone. Twitch, twitch. Jamira.

You know, my favorite word—or at least among my favorite words—is ‘sonder’. It’s one of those terms that succinctly labels an inclination or feeling, in this case the ‘realization that each passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.’ Sonder is engine to my writing, an innate curiosity for people, which eventually and inevitably makes its way onto the page. If I’ve sketched you, it’s because I’ve taken the moment to ponder you the manner in which an artist contemplates a subject, clothed or no. That human-sense antennae furiously at play, sending sensorial details by way of synaptic connection to the brain, at first feeling out gestalt, then deconstructing a subject into its sum parts. Like a leafcutter ant segmenting a leaf into convenient triangles, something mandibular, it’s parsing a person into digestible pieces. Do they smell of bergamot? Have a Brobdingnagian nose? Do they gesture with brio? What, when riding a lift, would their “elevator story” be? That is, how would they, in between the lobby and desired floor, take twenty seconds to describe themselves?

“My name is Jamira, and I’m a singer.”

I know this. I’ve got a nose for such things. Comes from eschewing television for the sake of real-life interaction. The sun, after all, “don’t shine in your TV,” and I prefer color to Technicolor. Cathode projections of people can’t compare to the original. We are light, but not the synchronized lights of cinematic monochromes. I mean, was Humphrey Bogart’s coat brown in ‘Casablanca’? I don’t know, but I know Jamira wears a burgundy polo. It says ‘Speedee Mart’, but I can just as easily imagine her, knowing her in real life, wearing a maxi-dress and regency gloves, and clutching a ribbon mic.

Jamira doesn’t say, “How did you guess?” which I had expected. Instead, she steps back from the register and tells me that, once in a drive-thru, she was awarded the same assumption. ‘There’s the singer!’ Four faces pressed through the fast-food window. ‘You’re the singer! We know it! You’re the singer!’

“Somehow, they could guess through the intercom by my voice!” Jamira exclaims.

“So, I was right!” I cooly remark. I want her to break out in song—this was an ulterior motive of mine—but she doesn’t. She tells me what I know, and what I confirm: that people exude things, like she exudes the spirit of a songstress even with lips sealed. Rarely are people completely je no se qua—if your antennae are properly on point, people reveal their essence. Some people read auras—I’m apparently ‘yellow’ so it’s been said, something ebullient—some people read eyes, which is helpful in this time of masks and Pandemia. I read voices, which is why I’m so quick to lure people into conversation. How they say things as much as what things they say. This is how my friend Billie read me from across the room at group therapy, knew instantly that I am bipolar. “Game recognizes game,” he famously says, and I—in turn—am radar to his manias. Just like Jenny can tell instantly if I have been imbibing, I know when Billie is riding the fulgurations of an electrical storm. Also, addicts know each other. Simple as that. There are tells. Why Residence counselors are famously shrewd, particularly if they’ve had the sickness. Of course, it doesn’t take having cancer to be an oncologist, but you know a counselor is legit and worth their mettle if they in turn fly the junkie flag. They are the best counselors. Try and pull your usual rhetorical tricks on them and you may as well be lying with a polygraph sensor directly affixed to your tongue.

(Addicts are at heart liars. We gaslight as second nature, even if we don’t intend to. A recovering addict is simply an addict that has taken up truth-saying for a change, a reverse Apostle Peter, denial something en absentia. Why the First Step, though only 8.5% of the Program, is in fact 90% of the journey).

Jamira is a singer. I’m a writer. And we are evident to each other. “I knew you’s write something,” Jamira says when I reveal my occupation, “You look like it.” I get it all the time. I’m either a ‘writer’ or a ‘professor’. My coats don’t sport elbow patches, so it’s usually the former. I don’t mind the professor label, though, seeing as professors are part and parcel to the pedagogy and I am a pedant for sure. No one guesses I spent twenty years as a zookeeper, though. I have an out of place penguin tattooed among my lithographical ink, but this is in no way a tell (it IS a Picasso after all, so it matches the gallery of High Moderns which decorate my forearms). I don’t talk like a zookeeper; don’t dress the mode—no lifestyle REI for me, no North Face; and aside from the Picasso, don’t wear badges of service like the ubiquitous dolphin pendant and/or ring (or ankle tattoo—every blond wet-suited trainer at SeaWorld sported the ankle tattoo).  Being a zookeeper remains my curveball reveal, but let me around your animals and you will see the St. Francis come out. There’s a particular brand of sonder reserved for fauna alone.

A man waits, maybe impatiently, behind me at the Chevron Speedee Mart, so unfortunately Jamira and I wrap up our conversation, and unfortunately without her showcasing her pipes. Maybe if I show Jamira I’ve written about her, she’ll sing for me. People have mixed reactions to being written about or being watched, why, David Foster Wallace argues, people sometimes evade the human sense-antennae and hunker in their living rooms to watch television. They swat away pesky feelers and watch something that cannot in turn watch them back. It is the safest voyeurism, watching television. Writers on the other hand can be very dangerous, transgressive even. “Don’t fuck with a writer—we will describe you,” the saying goes. (Once I posted this as a veiled threat to someone on the interwebs. They recognized they were a potential target, and pensively asked, “Do I need to lawyer up?” I digress). I’m mostly harmless, though: I, reminiscent of David Sedaris, collect stories like a “friendly little junkman” and deliver them as would a wet raccoon with half a frog in its mouth, depositing them here and there for the consumption.

Maybe Jamira will like my story. I’d certainly love to hear a note or two.

depression · divorce · favorites · wife

Day 150

I don’t know what it is. Perhaps it’s the fact that Brian showed up to class today with his new chef’s coat tucked into his checked pantaloons, or the fact that his dullard nature has him three paces behind everybody else. Maybe it’s because he calls the consommé raft a sofrito, or that he can’t figure out a three-sink system, moving sautiers from soap to sanitation without so much as a rinse. Maybe it’s because Junior is the only one laughing at his own insipid story about catching a homeless gentleman taking a shit behind the Walgreen’s dumpster; or maybe it’s because Junior acts the Philistine and quaffs his finished consommé from a mug instead of spooning it with the savor it deserves: “Fuck! I can taste it so much better this way!”

I lend him a napkin and sigh.

Me: “Just don’t keg-stand the stock pot, Junior.”

I don’t know what it is. I woke up this way, so lend my fellow students grace—they’re just add-on to my irritation–not the source of it–though their front-brain proclivities and tardiness to the kitchen unseat me at times. (On the contrary, I always beat Chef to the school, twenty minutes early being on-time, being on-time too late; and when it comes to using the old gray matter in the kitchen, I don’t use the pour spout when seasoning a velouté, nor grab the sherry bottle when a recipe calls for a dry white. I take myself way too seriously). These are just kids and I’m at present their current ages combined. Junior can’t even legally buy a drink; I’m in sober living with an advanced degree in transgressivism, my curriculum vitae espousing multiple stays in San Diego’s various detox facilities and one fated night atop the roof of my house (I digress).

No, it’s not Brian, nor Junior, or the particular manner in which they people a kitchen with youthful unconcern. I’m just wizened, not necessarily wiser–wizened. To wit: I used to think Bronte’s ‘Wuthering’ was actually a misspell, so were I a novel right now I’d be ‘Withering Heights’, a languishing tale certainly, and one featuring a Byronic hero gripped with ennui. Step aside Heathcliff; there’s a new broody dude to take your place. And appropriately he’s in funereal black beneath all the chef’s whites.

We are dicing onions. Junior is openly weeping—he’s in fact retreating to the kitchen sink every two minutes to rinse his hands and splash water on his face, lightweight—but I’m the one with the undefinable lump in my throat. It’s been stubbornly there since my 1 a.m. dorveiller, when taking a cigarette outside Amethyst I am hit with a kind of midnight melancholy. Usually I’m what I call a ‘Starry Nighter’, homage to Van Gogh who quoted “For my part, I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream.” He also said “the night is more alive and richly colored than the day” and I’m inclined to agree. But at 1 a.m. I feel the first rising of an as yet unborn sob, stuck in the passages somewhere. It’s night and I’m far from starry.

Junior: “Goddamn! Aren’t you crying?” Junior is furiously scrubbing his hands of onion juice again.

Me: (drily, and while chopping planks into batonets): “Just on the inside, Junior. Just on the inside.”

” April is the cruelest month”—I say it all the time in deference to T.S. Eliot’s ‘Wasteland’—and historically speaking, the beginning of spring marks the end of my ‘Mad Season’, when I seasonally—and like Van Gogh—switch out moods in obeyance to my bipolarity. Winter, I fly high—I am something Icarus, something sky-bound—but by April I can crash a mess of spent feathers and melted wax. There is a price to pay for flying too close to the sun, or, in my and Vincent’s case, too close to the stars. I wonder if that’s what it is today, my body acting on a particular muscle memory of a now dormant manic-depression. It’s been three years since I felt the euphoric rush of my Mad Season, but maybe there are vapors still. My sleeping habits have been closely mirroring those of my old manic self: first sleep, dorveiller, second sleep—maybe five hours en todo. Still I am not somnolent during the day, a nap is not necessary. Go, go, go until I force myself into Nod. Let the fulgurations cease. Be still.

The surface of the stock pot is itself motionless, the barest of bubbles marking the beginnings of a simmer and Brian is champing at the bit. He is poised with nutmeg because Junior is too, Brian not having an original thought in his head, and their collective choice of spice is questionable if not downright Philistine. Even Chef gives them a weary look as if to say, “What fucking now?”  But not one to dampen their pioneering spirit, he just asks, “Nutmeg? In tortilla soup?” before leaving them to their own devices. I have Mexican oregano in lieu of epazote, which the recipe originally calls for, and am secretly hoping Brian and Junior over-season their creations (as they are wont to do) considering nutmeg is a kitchen poison in large amounts. Just a tablespoon straight up will give you a myristicin high, with norepinephrine flood gates wide open. I would like to see Brian on hallucinogens. It would make him at least interesting. Like a Dali clock or something. As is, he is the class dullard, a taupe paint chip of a person, done up matte. I try and give him the benefit of the doubt, but he gets lost in a room of only three workstations, often times grabbing my knife in error else my finished demi-glace, the latter of which is inexcusable and deserving of a fillet knife between the ribs. We are supposed to be a team, but lately I’ve been unapologetically spelling ‘team’ with an ‘I’. As in ‘I’ am saving myself. Junior’s already rifled through my knife set looking for his misplaced blade—and you never touch another man’s knife set, Bourdain famously saying, “Your knife is your cock”—and Brian is (he thinks) secretly weighing out my mise en place for reference when he can’t break down a simple recipe. ’32 divided by two is sixteen, Brian—it’s fucking sixteen. Now hands off my me-see.’

No, it’s not even Brian that’s having me awry. I’m just off-kilter, I seemingly have absorbed the askew nature of the Culinary Institute’s environs, both in and out. The Institute is located in Barrio Logan, once San Diego’s poorest and most crime-ridden neighborhood, now an epicenter of gentrification what with the explosion of microbreweries, restaurants, and art spaces. This used to be where Mexican cartels would send scouts to pick up nortenos for their bloody street gangs, now it’s a great place to buy a taco (Las Cuatras Milpas FTW) and check out the latest installation at the Soda and Salt. Thing is, the CCAI is on National Avenue, which—like a magician’s tablecloth—has been picked up by the corner on its south side, then whisked away for all to clatter into place, detritus to the north side. We’re on the north side. Outside the Institute walls is a tent city, a homeless enclave in between the Barrio and downtown’s southeast center. The vainglorious Petco Park is in view as is the Central Library and the Transportation building. What lies in the middle is everything that has otherwise been displaced. Ten dollars? It’ll buy you a pint at the Park else a hit of meth on the street. To pay for either generally involves psychosis and, indeed, the avenue outside CCAI is full of angry zombies in crystal heat. Loud voices and displaced aggression. Drunks can be amiable, hotheads on meth vapors not so much. I steer clear of the tent city, though it’s only a stone’s throw away. The closest I get is the café table next door to the Institute where I take my cortado on the daily in avoidance of Brian and Junior at breaktime. It’s across from the blue tent where I believe a homeless man of importance lives. His blue canopy is much trafficked. I just drink my espresso and watch the comings and goings of the randos, think of later when I will be going to Jenny’s.

I miss Jenny, and maybe that is what is setting me off. How to describe. I don’t know, but my room at Amethyst bares her imprint. It’s a practiced devotion, but not slavishly so: I know she’s gone and I’m not wallowing. Still, her picture is in no less than four places. Jenn by contrast has erased me from her apartment, reduced me to one photograph which is in her ill-used kitchen and on the side of the refrigerator (wouldn’t it be good, I think, for the kids to have pictures of their daddy?  I say nothing). We have established, me and Jenny, that there has been inequity—and I’m loathe to use such a pecuniary term but, sadly, most relationship words are—there has been inequity both in and outside of our togetherness. I sometimes lacked presence, erupted in fits of frustration; she sometimes lacked sentimentality, always needed to fix. I was the poet whose poetry was not needed and she was the begrudging muse who needed fewer words, more action. Still, we communicated so often and so well, that it is a wonder things were left unsaid, and unresolved. I used to love to sit on the rim of the bathtub with a cup of coffee while Jenny did her daily ablutions, staring at her adoringly while she practiced her mirror face and applied her foundations, did up her lustrous hair. I will never run out of words to describe her.  But somehow, I think all conversation ended a long time ago.

Him: “I think I love you more than you love me.”

Her: “I think you’re right.”

(Followed by the inevitable throwing of objects, which admittedly didn’t help his case any).

I recently got a tattoo for Jenny on my upper arm. It is a print by Egon Schiele who is renowned for his lascivious lithography—sometimes bordering on the pornographic—and it is inscribed with Jenny’s name. Brian says, “Someday we’ll know what Thom’s tattoos mean…” Luckily the Schiele is on the bicep above the rolled-up sleeves of my chef’s coat. Brian nor Junior will not see it and they, being of a diminutive age, wouldn’t understand it anyway. They do not know that the man who carries such confidence in the kitchen and who is punctual to a fault, is in fact a broken mess. I can cut a 1/16th inch brunoise with ease, but there are hundreds of as-miniscule cuts which make up my heart. And speaking of cuts, I am also keenly aware of the Angle of Luis, which begins below my mandible, crosses the throat, and ends above the opposite collarbone. It is the imaginary line the executioner envisions to guide the guillotine for the cleanest severance possible (severance: another pecuniary word).  I was severed in two on October 13th, left to my own devices, some say left to die. One applies alcohol to a wound, and I obligingly absorbed all things antiseptic. I could’ve died, and not just figuratively. The second and final death. I could’ve tattooed crossbones over the ‘;Amor fati’ stamp on my left wrist and just drowned in my thinking chair.

Listening to songs like: “You didn’t see me I was falling apart/ I was a television version of a person with a broken heart.”

No, Brian and Junior will not know this, my brokenness, nor see my Schiele. The tattoo depicts a male lover resting on crossed arms in a woman’s lap, she nude-save-for-stockings in genuflection over him. He is subordinate in his pose, kneeling before her, and the woman’s hair cascades over his crown. Her eyes are closed and her hands disappear beneath his crossed arms to rest in between her thighs. It is a highly sensuous drawing–not necessarily sexual–and I am subordinate to Jenny in the manner the tattoo depicts. Sometimes I’m even damn near placative so as not to upset any extant intimacy between us. I have worshipped Jenny far more than she ever will me. It is the truth. I have to accept that. She is her own person after all, but– goddammit–she was *my* Dulcinea. Dulcinea and ‘dulce’ share the same root—‘sweet’; I ink my flesh, I keep Jenny’s pictures, I relish this, the sweet honeyed pain. In my way, I practice the perverse devotion of the abandoned, the love in which some who have been abused love their abusers. “Batter my heart” and all that.

Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,

Take me to you, imprison me, for I,

Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,

Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

I am quoting John Donne here. And ‘Amor fati’ is Epictetus, Dulcinea is Cervantes. Brian will never know what my tattoos means let alone understand them, and the less he and Junior know of me, the better. They do not know that I’m soon to be an ex-, that my current state is ‘broken’ though Jenn forever tried to fix me. People have always tried to fix me. When I was a child, the doctor wanted to twist my scoliotic backbone into a brace and correct me. When I was a boy, the doctor wanted to break my jaw and rewire my mandible into something more presentable. People have always wanted to fix me.

But they always proposed breaking me further first. Every. Fucking. Time.

I still love. Does that make me fixed? Even as I am broken? Jenny says she doesn’t believe in ‘broken.’ But.

In ancient times, the Chinese used to mend broken pottery with gold so as to make the pottery more precious in its damage. In the kitchen, if you break a Hollandaise you can fix it by whisking in an extra egg yolk, enriching the sauce. The latter I tell Junior as we work in pottage and mother recipes. He doesn’t know I am working in metaphor, and not just in Escoffier.  

Me: “The added yolk helps the emulsification.”

Junior: “Wait—why not just add an extra yolk to begin with?”

Me: “The sauce has to break first, Junior. Only THEN can you fix it. Get it?”

‘To fix’ necessitates ‘to break’, and ‘to break’ engenders a fix. The snake eats its tail and so on: that old orobouros again, which, to think of it, my Schiele tattoo somewhat resembles. So Brian, if you must know: my Schiele tattoo represents me and Jenny, my Munch tattoo represents my ambivalence in its particular Madonna/whore fashion; my ‘Amor fati’ stamp represents my love of fate despite its inherent hardship. My Picasso penguin? Well, it’s just a fucking penguin. You know, sometimes things are just what they seem.

‘Sometimes things are just what they seem,’ this I tell myself as I drink my cortado in the shitty part of the Barrio in avoidance of my fellows, in my attempt to be solitary though the tent city is a bustle with meth-heads and the trafficking of wares, the air staccato with junkie complaint: I am just a broken man with a lump in his throat on a cruel April day, and it’s just like the three and reticent days prior. That’s it. THAT’s what it is. I needn’t think any further. I need only think that later I go to Jenny’s where I will be thankfully divorced of Junior and Brian and in the company of my loved ones. I will inevitably check the refrigerator to ensure my picture is still clipped there and, if buried behind other papers, I will move it to the front; I will inevitably watch Jenny apply her ablutions as I once did on the daily, but now as she prepares to go out for her every-Tuesday night with the girls; and I will watch her change from a backless number into a dress that better suits her, with a neckline that plunges to an empire waist, her decolletage on display and the sideways crescents of her breasts; and I will inevitably tear up at this, all this lost, things being as they are, and I will maybe feel a lift just being close to her despite her most likely being far away; and I will remember her in her best black outfit, the one with the particular rouching, and in seeing that how I used to know her beauty and know that it was in part mine and know that everything and everything would in the end no matter what be all and forever ok.

“April is the cruelest month”—Day 150 of sobriety