When I first moved to NYC, I was so defeated. I spent all my little money incredibly fast and nobody would hire me. I was crashing with a friend from boarding school until I found a job, but the thing they don’t tell you about moving to a big city with your college degree in tow is some degrees are good for landing a job immediately (even entry level is still a paycheck), some degrees are good for internships while you wait tables to pay the bills, and some degrees are only good for sending you back to school for your masters where hopefully you will also gain some kind of experience in your field. There’s nothing you can do in your field with an anthropology degree or an economics degree unless you have already gained some magically elusive experience in that field already.
I worked my way through college, but I worked retail because the schedule was flexible and it paid a lot (retail management is a really nice paycheck, especially in a lucrative chain). You can’t get a retail management job in NYC unless you have “New York Experience” which I most certainly didn’t have coming up here from South Carolina. I took a job as a cashier in a Bed Bath & Beyond with extremely high turnover because I would be promoted faster and catch some “New York Experience” as a manager. Until I got that experience, I was trying to survive in NYC making $9 an hour at a part-time job. When I did find an apartment, it was an overpriced, newly (but shoddily) renovated building way out in Bushwick where the first floor residents were selling crack all day. I was pretty much living on Top Ramen and lunchmeat, begging for extra shifts at work, and trying to keep it together.
But I had a roof. And I had a job. And I was paying my bills. And I could eat. All around the city you see people every day who don’t have that, so I wanted to put it all back into perspective for my own sense of wholeness and to remind myself that I did have a lot to be thankful for regardless of my struggle. So I went to volunteer at a homeless shelter.
I don’t talk about volunteering a lot, but when I do, I’m never shy about what I feel is the selfish aspect of it. The general feeling toward people who give up their time for strangers is that it’s a selfless act of extremely giving people who want to make the world a better place, and that’s true and warm and fuzzy and all that, but for me (and most of the volunteers I know) you do actually feel better. It’s not just that you are helping another person, because I would hope that everyone feels a little bounce in their step if they made someone else’s day easier, but at a place like a homeless shelter, you’re also thankful that it’s not you who needs the help. I wanted to stop feeling sorry for myself living above a crack house and eating ramen every night, so I went to volunteer with homeless people to help make their lives easier. While I was there, one of the administrators told me I might be interested in a battered women’s shelter organized by a Catholic church that was looking for more volunteers to help some of the women with job interview skills.
My first day there, I barely met any of the women. They didn’t just need volunteers to help the ladies get back on their feet. They needed extra people for everything from meal prep to laundry and I spent most of my first shifts on housekeeping duties, but what I noticed most were the kids of these women. The goal of the program was to not only provide a safe space for victims (and their children if they had them) but to also get them back on their feet as quickly as possible. That means helping them find jobs and housing away from the abusive situations where they’d previously been living.
Everything was focused on the women, but there was no nursery. There was no babysitting system in place for the women who had job interviews or appointments with the housing authority. The kids were just as stressed out as their moms and there was nothing really there to alleviate that stress. I was talking about it with another volunteer and I suggested we start a little babysitting club between the two of us, nothing official, just a little signup sheet on the front messageboard with the times we were there and off our regular duties so the moms wouldn’t have to depend on each other for looking after their kids all the time. We got other volunteers in on our club and then there was always someone to watch the kids.
I did get promoted at Bed Bath & Beyond to full time, then management, and I was also working another part-time job, so I wasn’t around to volunteer as much as I wanted to be. Still, I had planted that little seed and I kept babysitting off and on for the next few years until I got hired by and then fired from Uniqlo and found myself jobless and pounding the pavement again looking for work. This time, I didn’t go back to work. I’d started making decent money writing and arranging marching band music (which I’d been doing since junior high), and even though it wasn’t quite enough to cover my bills, I could make ends meet with odd jobs like catering and tutoring. I wrote my music, and I went to volunteer more.
By this time, I’d seen a lot of women & children come and go, and while I babysat, I usually tried to find out what the kids were up to in school so I could help them with their homework or give them little assignments. Some of the kids would come back to see me even after mom had moved out because it’s not the best neighborhood and they felt safe there. Plus, we had snacks and I’d help them with their homework. Our little babysitting sign-up sheet slowly turned into an afterschool program that I was responsible for and I had to round up volunteers and make schedules for us so we weren’t overstaffed on some afternoons and then no coverage on others. In the actual shelter, the number of kids staying with us at any one time was never more than 11 or 12, but we’d have like 30 or 40 of them dropping in after school, and sometimes during the summer we’d have a full house all day long while the parents were working. We eventually got funding from the city with regular visits and guidelines and I have no experience in community building or youth organizations, but I saw a need, and I was just trying to fill it. And, selfishly, it felt good.
I don’t know if I’ll ever have kids. I’m a difficult person to be in a relationship with and I will probably never make enough money to adopt as a single parent, but I’ve had hundreds of kids over the past eight years, and some of them become like family.
There was a woman who came to us in my earliest days who was running from her boyfriend / pimp. Her little boy had seen drug use, men coming in and out, and a shooting, but he was so smart and I focused so much energy to get that kid out of that neighborhood. When he writes me emails now, they come from a Penn State address because he’s in his second year there. He’s the reason we have a slush fund to pay for AP exams and college application fees.
I got a call from the center in the middle of the night a few years ago because there was a girl asking for me and she didn’t want to talk to anyone else. She and her mom had had a very brief stay with us a couple of years earlier, and I was the only name she could remember because I was the loud gay Black man in this Catholic environment. She ran to the shelter when her mom’s new boyfriend raped her since that was one of the few places she’d ever felt safe. She’ll be a high school senior this year and she wants to be a nurse, and even though there was nothing we could’ve done to prevent that assault, it was my first time coming face to face with a rape victim and I thought about the other girls that we could possibly help if they had more information. Those were the first seeds of our classes on consent and assault that we do twice a year now.
We had an obviously gay boy for awhile who was best friends with all the girls and bullied by the other boys because he liked dolls and glitter. There’s a fine line you have to walk as a gay mentor because so much of the world still sees you as a pervert or a child molester. You go through so many risk management scenarios in your head every day especially when one of your kids is a little gay boy who reminds you of yourself. You don’t want to be blamed for “turning him gay” but you also remember what it would have meant to you when you were younger if you’d had any sort of gay role model to talk to so you don’t want to be too distant. He and his mom left before I really bonded with him there, but he still emails me. He likes to write science fiction and he sends me his stories to critique. I hate sci-fi with a passion but you know, just trynna foster that creative spark in another little nerdy gay kid and at least give him feedback from a storytelling perspective. After the shooting at Pulse last year, I wanted to give a Sunday School lesson on love and tolerance, and I remembered the bullies picking on him within the supposedly loving walls of a Catholic Church. I’ve been an atheist for about fifteen years now, but I grew up steeped in the Word and I wanted to teach these kids that being a Christian is about loving your neighbor, not punishing your neighbor.
I don’t doubt that I could have volunteered as a laundry helper or dishwasher or administrator with the women’s program indefinitely. Being a gay atheist really has nothing to do with changing bedsheets so it’s not really an issue. In the back of mind though I started to realize that as the kids’ program got larger and larger, I wouldn’t be able to be the head of it forever. A gay atheist as the front of an organization for children at a Catholic Church – it just wasn’t feasible. I held an easy truce with most of the church leadership for a long time. I won’t turn the kids into heathens as long as you don’t proselytize to me. Now my time has run out and they asked me not to come back.
Earlier this year they replaced me as the overall manager with someone who “had more experience” and was also a Catholic heterosexual, so I knew this was coming already. I pretty much just refused to think about it because I’ve sort of built my whole life around this now. At my last two jobs, I structured my schedule in such a way that I could be at the church when I was most needed. I’ve turned down fairly lucrative positions because I knew they would come with the kind of stress and responsibility that would take me away from what I really found valuable, which was spending that time with my kids. Writing gives me the extra income I need so that I don’t have to be chained to a desk working 50 hour weeks and I can go spend time with my kids instead. I didn’t really want to think about what I’d do when they finally gave me the boot. To be fair, they didn’t throw me out. They asked that I “take a less active role with the children” and consider focusing my “time on duties that help the program run smoothly.” Church leadership has changed so much over the past 18 months and I don’t really have the kind of support I used to have. I made every argument I could about tolerance and fostering a younger generation that was open-minded enough to coexist with anybody but their minds were pretty made up.
So I’ve been processing. Trying to figure out what’s next. I never set out to work with kids and never really had any interest until it happened. Maybe I should go back to school and get a degree in education. I don’t really want to volunteer with another church, even one that accepts gays, because I’m still an atheist and I don’t need that possible complication to arise. I could find another kids’ program to volunteer with – there’s always some organization in need here. I have options and I’ll decide on the best one, but it’s rough and it feels like a huge loss. The biggest, most stable part of my life in this city isn’t there anymore. Now I have to find a new purpose and it’s a little overwhelming.
I’m fine though. I’m fine now anyway. I was definitely not fine for most of the week. I don’t have a future there anymore, but I still feel like I accomplished something and that’s comforting. You can’t save every kid, but thinking about the ones I did help save gives me comfort. Thinking about all the kids who’ll be helped by the program I started and nurtured gives me even more.
Maid is the best show on Netflix.
There’s no more realistic portrayal of single motherhood in poverty than this series.
I do a lot of stream-of-conscious thoughts about things I’ve seen and I call them Hot Takes. These are Hot Takes, but a little more in-depth than usual, with some personal reflections at the bottom.
1. C’mon Emmys! Everybody is doing their good good acting here. I used to sweep hair in my mama’s salon and I used to do electrical work on my daddy’s remodeling jobs, so I know the pressure of doing your best work with a parent around. So, props to Margaret Qualley for hanging in there with her mom, because Andie McDowell ain’t no slouch.
2. Lo-key was waiting on Anika Noni Rose to break into song, at least a lullaby or something.
3. You can call it prostitution or whatever you want, but you not finna put me in a house with this man and expect me to keep my draws on.
4. The shame of being poor is so complicated and layered. You know you need help. Your friend in a position to help you knows you need help. You also know that your friend knows. And yet, you pretend you do not need help! Your friend pretends that you do not need help, because they are ashamed that you need help and they want to avoid making you feel more ashamed about needing help.
It’s all an extension of this value we put on people based on how much money they make. Rich people are rich because they are good people and are being rewarded for being hard-working, good people. Poor people are poor because of some moral failure. Part of the reason the fight for higher minimum wages is so tough is this moral hierarchy of salaries. The person who bags groceries deserves to make enough money to live, but giving them a higher salary puts them closer to your salary, and you feel like you’re a better person than they are because you made choices (or had choices) that kept you from being in a position to bag groceries. You want to be able to look down on people who you feel made bad choices or don’t work hard enough.
So, it’s hard to ask for help. You don’t want your friend to look down on you like a person who made bad choices or doesn’t want to work hard enough. You pretend everything is fine so you can look like a good person.
5. The fact that Alex also has to parent her mother is a great addition. I think a lot of conversations about single mothers stop there, at providing for their child. A lot of people in poverty are there because of the lack of choices they had growing up, which is a reflection of the environment created by their parents. Young adults are sometimes caring for their parents too.
6. Also, I’ve been working out in my head how to word this and it’s always clunky, but here goes: I like that this story is about a white woman. One of the reasons why conversations about social safety nets and universal healthcare and access to housing only go so far is racism. There are too many White Americans who will cut off their nose to spite their face — they don’t want Black people to get “free stuff” so nobody ends up getting aid. The picture of the Welfare Mother as painted by (Mostly Conservative) White America is a Black woman in an inner city with multiple children by multiple men locked up by the state. It’s not an intelligent white girl running from a bad situation cleaning toilets to get by. I think Maid is an important piece of art about poverty because everyone can watch it devoid of race. Conservatives can “see themselves” and Liberals can see poverty divorced from having a conversation about what part race plays in the choices we have.
7. It’s a near-perfect limited series for me. I haven’t read any of Stephanie Land’s essays (the story is based on her), but now I’m going to. I can’t say anymore here without spoiling it, but it touched me very deeply and it’s taken me about a week to process it. I’m about to add some more personal observations, but there will be spoilers, so you can stop here if you haven’t watched it.
I watched this last week, but it’s taken me a long time to be able to process how it made me feel. Y’all, I was sobbing multiple times throughout the course of that series, because it was so accurate. I’ve been homeless and I’ve made bad decisions because of mental health struggles and I’ve worked in a domestic violence shelter just like that, and I was transported. The stories are told so well.
I’ve used pennies to pay for something off the dollar menu. I have budgeted every cent I had for the entire month to make sure I had enough money to ride the subway to work…but only to work. There was a bad patch years ago where I had been unexpectedly fired from a job and had trouble finding a new one. When I finally got an offer, I didn’t have any money for transportation to and from work until my first paycheck, so I walked home every day. Three hours, regardless of the weather. I had to walk home, because I had budgeted everything I had until my first paycheck. I’ve negotiated labor with a landlord. I had been living in an illegal basement apartment where the owner got caught and I had to leave with no money for First, Last, and Security. This old gay man on the UWS let me live there for reduced rent in exchange for errands, cooking, and cleaning.
When I saw Alex’s pocket of cash slowly depleting with each essential purchase, y’all. Y’all! I was sobbing. I check my bank accounts and credit card balances multiple times a day, every single day, to make sure I still have money. Before I buy anything at the grocery store or put my card down to pay a bill in a restaurant or make a purchase online, I check the account to make sure there’s money in it. Logically, I’ll know that I have more than enough money to last me for a few months, but I have to check, to make sure the money is there. Every single time! I mean, I don’t have any money now because my savings dried up during the pandemic, but even when I’m comfortable, I still feel very uncomfortable.
Not having enough money to live is embarrassing and soul crushing and you don’t want to talk about it, because you’re ashamed that you failed. But you need to talk about it, because you still have to live, and you need help. The way Maid captured that tightrope act is masterful storytelling.
Paula, Alex’s mother, adds an entirely new level that we don’t often see. I’ve never had to care for anyone other than myself, but in caring for myself I saw a lot of Paula. I’ve made a lot of bad decisions because my brain was too foggy to make the right ones. I once lost a job because I couldn’t get out of bed for two weeks. I knew I had to work and I knew what would happen if I didn’t go to work, but I couldn’t actually make myself get up and leave my room. I’ve put myself in so many abusive situations for some sense of stability. Sometimes I could see that where I was or what I was doing was unhealthy or dangerous, but I put it aside, because you gotta eat. That’s about as much detail as I’m ready to put online, but I’ve told myself “I’m fine!” a lot, when I was absolutely not fine.
And the shelter…
I’m still in a bad place because one of my girls from the shelter overdosed a few months ago. I can’t shake it and I want to find another way to help that’s further up the chain of command. When you work in a DV shelter (and I volunteered in one for a decade), you do see the same faces come back and forth. And then one day you don’t see them again and you wonder, “are they back in a bad situation or did they finally shake it?” But you can’t wonder too long, because there’s a new face. There’s always a new face.
When Alex is back with her ex and down an emotional void toward the end of the series, I had to take a break. I think I cried for like ten minutes. There are so many women I never saw again at some point, and I know that’s where they are — in a void, just going through the motions, trying to survive. They’re stuck there because we don’t have enough systems in place to pull them out. We have court systems that won’t help you leave an abusive situation until you have a black eye or a broken bone. No rewards for being smart enough and brave enough to see the physical abuse coming just beyond the horizon — you have to stay until you get hit, and then maybe there’ll be assistance for you.
It takes a special kind of person to do that work for decades, and it’s not me. I can’t go back to a DV shelter. I don’t have the inner strength necessary to do it and I don’t know how I feel about that. I’ve told myself that it’s okay to admit you’re not strong enough to help the way you want to help, but I grew up with guilt as part of my upbringing. I feel like I’m failing myself.
But it also makes me more determined to find a way to help further up the chain. The more steps removed you are from the day she leaves a bad situation, the more women you are dealing with who are absolutely ready to leave for good.
I want to be the person who can offer a job. Her boss wasn’t the best boss, but Alex was able to make money because there was someone there offering (very basic, mildly exploitative) employment for someone with no skills.
I want to be the person who can offer housing. When my mom married my dad, she didn’t sell her house, because she was proud of it. She was a single Black woman in the South who bought her own house, and when she moved in with my dad, she rented her house out to other single Black women who would’ve had trouble finding housing elsewhere. She accepted low income housing credits and she adjusted the rent based on what the woman could pay.
I want to be the person who can offer free legal services. If Alex had had a lawyer the first time she went to court, she wouldn’t have lost her daughter for a week. If she hadn’t had a lawyer the second time around, she wouldn’t have been able to take her daughter to college with her so she could make a new life for herself.
What I really want to do is go to med school to be an OBGYN so I can give my time to free clinics in underserved communities of color. There are no unwanted children in Maid, but in reality, that’s the number one predictor of poverty for women. Unwanted children keep women shackled to bad situations and oftentimes it’s the result of no access to reproductive services. Birth control, from preventative to reactive, needs to be free and available.
There are so many reasons Maid is a good show, but the realism is intense. There’s no part of it that I didn’t recognize in some way, either personally or through the stories of women I’d met in the DV shelter. Everyone who has ever been poor can relate. Every woman who has ever been in an abusive situation can relate. And everyone who has experienced neither should watch it for a glimpse into what those lives are like.
Everything is broken.
What are y’all doing to preserve joy? I’m very sad.
I was depressed after I moved to NYC. Years and years later I would finally get diagnosed with depression and anxiety, but back then I just looked for coping mechanisms to make me feel better. I didn’t want to do drugs, because they make you look old. I didn’t want to eat my feelings, because I’d already been chunky when I was younger and could vividly remember my babysitter calling me “husky” for the first time when I was in second grade. And I didn’t have any money — retail therapy wasn’t option.
So I volunteered. I learned during COVID lockdowns last year that I’m actually a nurturer, and taking care of people makes me feel better. When I was new to the city, I volunteered because it made me put my struggles into perspective: I hated my apartment on the top floor of an overpriced building in Bushwick where they were making crack in the basement, and I couldn’t find a job that paid me enough to eat more than bologna and cereal, but I did have a roof and I did have food and I did have my health. Volunteering also tapped into my desire to help people feel better, so it was a win-win. I started volunteering at a battered women’s shelter, which turned into babysitting for their kids when they had job interviews. Babysitting eventually became a full-blown youth program in the neighborhood complete with college prep, tutoring, and museum trips.
I met so many kids over the past decade who I think about all the time. One girl made me want to rip my hair out because she used to drag everybody around her unprompted, so I had to discipline her, but I also had to hold in the laughter each time because she was so smart and the reads were good. She works for the MTA now. There was a little gay boy who used to follow me around everywhere. The center was administered through a Catholic Church and he was just so fascinated by an openly queer man traipsing through the building like I owned the place. He’s currently at CUNY to be a teacher. One of my kids got into Penn. One is a manager at the Target where I shop.
One night years ago, maybe 8 years ago thinking back to the apartment I was living in at the time, I got a call around 3am. One of the women said a teenaged girl had walked in. She thought the girl had been sexually assaulted, but the police hadn’t been called yet because the girl was asking for me specifically. I got dressed and went, but I didn’t recognize her when I got there. I pretended to, but I had no idea who this girl was. June looked to be around 13, and she was disheveled, but she obviously wasn’t living on the street. Street kids never come in wearing a satin bonnet on their hair.
I was able to pull the backstory out of her. June and her mom had briefly stayed at the shelter a couple of years ago when they ran away from the home they shared with a man who was physically abusive. I guess June’s mother and boyfriend worked it out soon after, because she went back to him and I never saw the mom or June again, but I did remember her after I talked to her for awhile. She was good at math I think. Or science. It was a long time ago, but I remember being impressed with a class she was taking at her age.
Fast forward a couple of years, and mom’s boyfriend raped June, so she ran back to us. She said she felt safe at the shelter and she didn’t know where else to go. She didn’t want to run to the police because the boyfriend’s brother is a cop, but we talked her into it. What other choice did we have? The system is imperfect, but without reporting it, there was absolutely no way for her to protect herself from this man.
She ended up with CPS and I don’t know what happened after that. I dropped the ball. Her mom was on and off drugs, so I don’t know if she was on June’s side or the boyfriend’s side, but I would guess the boyfriend. We saw a lot of instances where the man would take an interest in the daughter, and the mother would blame the daughter for “enticing” him. But yeah, I totally lost track of her. She never came back to the center and I just let myself forget about it. We had so many kids come through with their mothers that we’d see for a week or two and then they were back to their lives. I don’t think you can keep them all in your spirit, because emotionally and mentally, it will wear you down and tear you apart.
A couple of days ago I was chatting with one of the kids I met back in the day, Alissa. We were giggling about memories we both had from when she used to come by for the afterschool program. Sometimes they find me on social media and it’s nice to see them doing well. Alissa has a kid and does nails not too far from the center. A lot of them live right in the same area, and they know each other because they went to the same schools or they’re related.
Alissa told me June died a few months ago of an overdose, probably fentanyl-laced heroin. She doesn’t know what happened with June’s rapist, but June was in foster care for a few years, aged out, and worked the streets selling sex for rent money, and then for drugs. Alissa and June had mutual friends from the neighborhood because they went to school together and she got those pieces of the story through the grapevine.
I don’t know how I feel. I’ve heard bad outcomes before. One of the kids I used to tutor in English was shot and killed a couple of years ago. A few have been in and out of jail. You try to focus on the wins and realize you can’t help everybody, but so so so many people failed June and I feel heavy inside. If her mother had had support to get off drugs, support that wasn’t immediately tied to imprisonment for possession, it’s possible she could’ve stood on her own two feet without a man, and she wouldn’t have had her daughter around an abusive boyfriend who would eventually rape her. If the foster system was equipped to provide guidance for young adults, June wouldn’t have been on her own when she turned 18 without resources. If we had better social safety nets in this country, she wouldn’t have been forced to do sex work to keep a roof over her head.
I don’t write about politics and current events as much as a I used to. For a few years, I was making a decent income breaking down the news of the day into my own words so other people could take an interest in what was going on in the country. I felt like I was helping people get involved — by giving my POV, they would be inspired to do something. I liked getting messages from readers about how I made them look at something differently or why they donated to a certain cause because of what I said. I was being helpful, and that’s the nurturing part of me. I could make the world a better place by staying informed and keeping others informed too.
And then I stopped believing that. I just did not want to write anymore after the 2016 election. It peeled back too many layers of the country and I didn’t think anything was actually fixable. The United States is rotten to the core. Everything is broken and nothing works. Human nature isn’t as intrinsically good as I’d hoped. You can’t teach empathy and you can’t help someone care about human suffering, so what was the point?
I do appreciate the people who have the moral foundation and mental fortitude to continue fighting the good fight, so I didn’t think it was responsible of me to put more negative energy out there. Better to be silent and let the fighters fight than to get on this soapbox and continually tell people how broken everything is.
I got diagnosed with depression and anxiety a few years ago, and after some false starts, I found the right pharmaceutical cocktail for me, and some of the negativity lifted. Everything isn’t terrible all the time. There is joy all around us. Even in times of darkness, the overall trajectory of humanity is still an upward trend in a positive direction. It’s hard out here though. June has me down a well and I’ve been at the bottom of it for a couple of days now. Why didn’t I check on her? She should be working at Target or doing nails or going to CUNY to be a teacher. She shouldn’t be dead. She asked for me specifically when she ran to the shelter for help, and then I just…released her to the system and into the world.
I don’t know y’all. I’m trying to focus on the wins and keep the positives in mind, but I’m tired. Some of y’all who have been reading this site for a long time wonder why I don’t write as much anymore, and I just don’t always have the energy to pay attention to the world the way I used to. There are just so many Junes and I don’t know what to do about it.
What are y’all doing to preserve joy? I’m very sad today.
Happy Birthday Mommy!
I baked a little something for you!
It’s been a YEAR and, to be honest, I’m not doing that well, so I just wanted to check in real quick and get some things off my spirit.
First of all, let’s get the most important stuff out of the way immediately:
Jackée is gonna be on Days of Our Lives!
Look out, Salem.. here I come. 😉 https://t.co/xMp0qGPG9C— Jackée Harry (@JackeeHarry) December 8, 2020
I don’t know who she’s gonna play or what the character will be like, but clearly I will be tuning in…because I’ve been watching that doggone show since birth because of you.
Also: Don’t actually go to her Twitter. You too High Holy Christian for all the mess she puts on the internet.
Anyway, yeah…this year has been rough. I got my dream job in March (yay!) but then I lost it a week later because the office closed due to the pandemic and I got let go — last hired, first fired. The first day on the job I actually cried on the way home because I’d been searching for that perfect career move for years and I thought I finally found it. So, that was a huge disappointment that knocked me on my butt for awhile.
Then Travis and I stopped speaking. I had been building up this resentment toward him and his boyfriend because all of the things we used to do, he was doing with his new boyfriend instead, and I didn’t have anybody to hang out with anymore. We were on lockdown so I couldn’t go anywhere. We’re best friends who live together, which was great until the boyfriend moved in and I didn’t have my best friend to spend quarantine with anymore. They’ve since broken up, but the cracks in our friendship are still there — I resent him for ignoring me and he resents me for not trying harder to accept his boyfriend. We’re fine now (great, actually) but it’s right under the surface if we get upset about something unrelated.
And our third roommate is…difficult. In the best of times he’s not the ideal roommate because he’s LOUD and oblivious to other people’s needs. He’s absolutely the type of person who should be living alone, but since the pandemic, it’s ten times worse because he’s an actor and a comedian who no longer has a stage to perform on, so his computer is his stage. All day every day is just the sound of his voice, from the time I wake up to the time I go to sleep, hanging out with his friends videochatting, yelling and doing voices.
I wear headphones all day now and just count down the days until the lease is up because I can’t wait to get out of this apartment and away from him.
Speaking of away from him, I thought I found an outlet this summer. I met guy (we’ll call him John since other people can read this)…and we had chemistry! I don’t trust my feelings around men anymore. I’ve never developed deep feelings for a man who returned those feelings. It’s just a string of unrequited love, so if I feel a spark, I try to stamp it out to save myself another disappointment. But this was different because he pursued me. I let John make all the first moves to be sure I wasn’t building a fake relationship in my head like I usually do. He told me I was beautiful every day, he kissed me first, he came on to me first, he suggested we take a trip together, he suggested we move in together. I heard all the right things, so I let myself fall for this man. I was almost looking forward to the inevitable Winter COVID Lockdown because I could go hang out at his apartment and get away from mine. We were gonna cook and watch the snow. I was gonna spend a week or so at his apartment here and there to make sure we could live together in preparation for a move next year. He wanted to get two dogs.
Just before Halloween, John’s energy was off. I’d had a pumpkin carving party and our dynamic was different. He wasn’t paying much attention to me — which is fine because all of my friends are great and they all liked him — but the lack of affection was odd. So I brought it up a few days later and he said we should go back to being “just friends” because it bothered him that people thought we were, and asked him about whether we were, in a serious relationship. John had said from the beginning he didn’t want to be in a serious relationship, and I was totally fine with that. I told him he could date whoever he wanted, but he said he didn’t want to date anyone. I told him he could have sex with whoever he wanted, but he said he wasn’t interested in sex. He just wanted to make new friends and work on himself, but we had this great connection that he was really into. I was like, “okay…if that’s what you want…”, but I told him people would assume we were in a serious relationship if we kept acting like we were in front of everyone. He said he was fine with that — let them think what they want.
He wasn’t actually fine with that, so he decided we should pump the breaks.
And the next week John fucked my friend that I had introduced him to, the friend that he’d been sitting next to at my party instead of talking to me.
Here’s the thing Mommy…my self-esteem is shot and my abandonment issues are through the roof, and it goes back to that moment when you found out I liked other boys and our relationship changed forever. You were my best friend growing up. I felt awkward around the other kids, I felt awkward around my dad, I felt awkward around my cousins, but you made me feel normal. If I wanted to watch Days Our Lives and talk about the war in Kuwait, you let me. You took me everywhere and taught me so much about life. You told me I was the most important thing in the world to you. And then my teacher told you I was gay and you told me I was going to Hell. And you told me that regularly for the next ten years. I told you I was going to marry a man and have a happy family and you told me I was gonna get AIDS and die alone.
I let you make me feel bad about myself for years. Even after I moved all the way up the East Coast to NYC, I still felt like I had to respect you, even while you were tearing me down. When you would end every conversation wanting to pray with me for God to take away my homosexual demons, I let you, because you’re Mommy and I didn’t want to lose Mommy. When I finally got fed up and decided “this is the last time, this is the last conversation,” it was your birthday 9 years ago. I never told you why, but I picked that day because we had a fun conversation. I called you to wish you Happy Birthday and you gave me all the latest gossip on the family like you always did. We talked about random stuff, laughed a lot (your laugh is so ridiculous and I miss it more than anything), and then I jokingly asked you what I should buy you for your birthday — jokingly, because we both knew I had no money and I wouldn’t be getting you anything at all. You replied that you didn’t want anything; all you wanted was for me to give up my homosexual demons and come back to the Lord.
Mommy we had talked for an hour, a delightful conversation about everything, and in that last sentence, you threw me in the trash again. I couldn’t take it anymore. I had taken it since I was 12 years old and I just reached my limit. I kept the conversation light and made some kind of joke to get us back on track, but in my heart I knew I would never speak to you again until you made a turnaround. I wanted that to be the last conversation we had in case it was the last conversation we had, so that our last conversation would be full of good memories for you. I was left with a bitter taste in my mouth, but I wanted you to be left with lightness and joy. I swallowed my feelings, told you I loved you, and hung up for the last time, because you died later that year.
And now I’m stuck. I still feel so much guilt for being fed up. I missed you then and I miss you now and I feel like if I hadn’t stopped speaking to you, you wouldn’t have died, and we could’ve eventually found our way back to each other. I keep letting people treat me badly because if I stand up for myself, they’ll go away and I’ll never see them again. If I stand up for myself, I’ll be alone, and I would rather be with someone and feel bad some of the time than be alone and feel bad all of the time because I don’t have that someone anymore.
I realized that about myself a few months ago, so that’s the first step. And I’ve tried to stand up for myself more as of late.
Last week, a friend (we’ll call him Brian) asked me out to dinner. I met Brian just before the pandemic and he’s such a sweetheart. We had an instant bond and I was looking forward to getting to know him, but COVID kinda put a halt to that. NYC bounced back this summer, and Brian lives in the neighborhood, so I invited him into our little bubble for a couple of parties and brunches. We already had some mutual friends, but he also took quickly to John and to Travis, so he was a good addition to my social circle.
At dinner, Brian told me that he had fucked John. I introduced the two of them. I invited them both to brunch and to parties. The week after John said we should just be friends, he was out to dinner with Brian and fucking afterward.
All of John’s flings are hot and all of the guys he would show me on social media that he liked, fucked, or planned to meet up with looked more like Brian than me. I was insecure about being involved with a guy who looks like John because gay NYC is vicious and I could imagine the whispers of “wow John is way too hot for that guy” because I’ve heard people I know say it about other couples. John knew this. John knew about all of the guys I was into who liked Travis — the taller, hotter best friend — instead of me. John knew about all the times I’d been out with my Friends Who Lift and how some random guy would make me feel like trash because I don’t look like them. He knew all of that and still fucked my hot friend the week after he broke up with me. All of the men in the city, all of the men right there in Hell’s Kitchen where he lives, all of the men who hit him up on Grindr, and he fucked the one that would obviously hurt me the most.
But I cut them both off! Obviously I’ll never speak to John again because that kind of betrayal — when someone knows your insecurities and disregards them anyway– is like a knife to the heart, but my first reaction when Brian told me what he did was to let it go, because this is gay NYC and most of them do have fewer boundaries and hangups around sex than I do. My boundaries aren’t invalid just because other people don’t share them and I did what I needed to do for my mental health. I don’t have to prioritize a relationship that’s damaging to my mental health. I don’t have to swallow my feelings to make someone else feel more comfortable with their personal failures or mistreatment of me.
So I’m proud of myself for standing my ground, but it’s still the holidays, and I’m still lonely. I miss John every day. I miss what we could have been doing this holiday season, all the winter plans we made. When I was younger, I’d assumed I’d have a family by now to make Christmas traditions with. Instead, I just watch the little family I’ve built in NYC — my circle of friends — latching on to their own families, and I just feel rudderless and a little rejected. Abandonment issues are complex.
This is a lot longer than I meant it be. I hadn’t planned to tell you about the “gay stuff” because I know it makes you uncomfortable. I still haven’t finished reading the email you wrote me, but I read a little more of it each year until I start crying again. I’ve gotten to the part where you’ve come to terms with my attraction to men, so I think you would be okay hearing about my relationship/friendship problems at this point.**
And if not, well here’s a cake to sweeten it up a little!
I do love to bake — thanks for passing that on to me — but I don’t decorate anything….thanks for passing that on to me too. I decided to bake a cake and actually try to decorate it for once, and the end result isn’t half bad! True, I did try to make a Red & Hunter Green Christmas themed cake and I guess my dye was the wrong kind so it’s a Pink & Pale Green Easter themed cake instead, but it tastes good. You would especially like it because it’s not super sweet and I used buttermilk instead of regular milk.
So Happy Birthday! I feel a little lighter after getting some of that off my chest. Maybe this will be a thing and I’ll bake you a little something every year and give you an update about how I’m doing. Next year’s update will be much better than this year’s, I’m sure of it.
If nothing else, I’ll be much better at cake decorating anyway.
Love you Mommy!
(**a note for y’all who don’t know: When my mom died, I went through her emails to compile some information for my dad and I found an email that she had written to me a few weeks before she died. She sent it to an address I no longer use so I didn’t get to read it before she died. The first line says “I’m sorry…” and it took me about 7 years to get farther than that. I still haven’t finished reading it because I know she died thinking I ignored her email and I’m not strong enough to handle it yet.)
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