Queering Up My Identity: How Critical Theory Made Me Inauthentic.

As a gay man, I’m supposed to recognize that I belong to the LGBTQ+ community. As a white man, I’m supposed to recognize that I have the “original sin” of privilege.  Intersectionality within critical theory exists to tell me that my queerness is somewhat canceled out by my whiteness. The following statements have been said to me, “yeah, but you’re white, so you can’t say that,” “Gay white men have too much power over the community,” “You’re not really queer, you’re just another gay white guy.”  Somehow, because of a biological marker, I have been told I hold less value. But to whom, I guess I can’t really say. This leads me to the conclusion that my identity is really only valuable if I can claim victimhood. As a white man, I cannot, but as a gay man I can. However, someone who is gay and is not white holds more victimhood, and therefore, must surely be a bigger victim than I. There is a reductive dehumanization at the core of the current critical theory movements that has permeated the pop culture landscape and is threatening to infiltrate every aspect of our lives.  But this isn’t just a cultural criticism, it’s an exploration of self and identity. I will undoubtedly be forced to examine cultural implications that led to my current ideology, as well as the need for victimization that I find so prevalent in our everyday conversations now.  It seems what we need is the opposite of critical theory, a kind of recognition of human similarities, or at least awareness of our inclusive ability to be terrifically wrong about things, which we are. All the time. All throughout history. It’s not a dig at anyone, it’s just scientifically accepted that human beings are bad at estimating and deducing things in the absence of physical evidence.

I am not authentic. This realization, which I woke up to recently, literally, I’m using the expression “woke up” because I literally opened my eyes one morning with the pang of how inauthentic I’ve become. This sudden realization has led me over and over again to one unanswerable question; who am I? I know who I’m not, and so this seemed like a reasonable place to start. What are the things that absolutely do not define me? I spent months searching for all the things that I think the world sees me as, but are definitely not me. Who am I not? This discursive, cursory query only led me to angled, albeit astute alliterations. I won’t bore you with the list, but at the very top sits the word I cannot seem to escape from: authentic. I’m not authentic. This was at the beginning of the self-reflective journey that I now find myself entangled in.

I’m a student of critical theory. I went to grad school for creative writing, playwriting specifically, with an emphasis on “rewriting queer history,” a thought that now makes me cringe. I became a theater reviewer with a heightened mission of deconstructionism. I was a kind of post-colonialist arbiter of language. I would identify, through the lens of identity politics, the cultural implications of a piece, and if it was a commentary on a race, gender, sexuality etc. from outside the group itself, if there wasn’t a heap of irony and/or satire, I would eviscerate the weakness of the narrative, and call the thing a dated and misanthropic exercise in heteronormative conformity.  Why did I do this? I was inauthentic. I thought I was speaking as a member of a disenfranchised group, and I had some moral high ground to point out oppressive forces at work. At the same time, I thought I was a member of a dominant and inherently racist system that I had to point out as well. In short, I was virtue signaling. I used victimization as a sort of flag to plant in some ethereal, and entirely invented landscape of my own devising. Granted, I devised it from what I considered evidence in the world around me. Evidence, that turned out to be fallacious, illiberal and self-defeating. My writing suffered because of this. I externalized my internal struggle with victimization because I’ve quite contentedly always lived with the thought that rejecting victimhood is antithetical to real self-improvement. I do not wish to diminish actual victimhood. I do not claim that there are no victims in our society. What I do find, what I applied to my own life, and what troubles me deeply, is the idea that projecting victimization, while at the same time ignoring progress, seems to be considered morally correct, instead of being a recipe for self-hate, self-segregation, confirmation bias, anger, and ultimately a reversal of the liberal ideologies that have literally changed the world for the better.

I also recognize we do not live in a utopia. Racism, homophobia, sexism, bigotry in general does still exist and is still a very real problem. However, I believe hate is an outlier. How could it not be?  Reading books like Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature, and Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, has opened my eyes to the lightning fast progress toward peace and away from violence that human’s have made. I know the world isn’t perfect, and hate and crime are still real. But, why do we insist these are the dominant traits of our culture? And why do so many people care how other’s define us? I think the clinging to victimization will only serve to erase what civil rights pioneers fought and died for. And that would be a tragedy on so many levels. Equality doesn’t mean everyone agrees. Democracy doesn’t work if diversity of opinion is quashed.

I reduced my own humanity and the humanity of others to a set of political ideologies. I used intersectionality and postmodern demagoguery as a myopic lens through which to interpret the motivations, intentions and moral worth of my fellow humans. As a gay man, I believed I was perceived as less than my straight counterparts. What this meant, I couldn’t really say, because it wasn’t my own voice, but rather the collective voice of what I perceived to be coming from the gay “community.” I was being fed the pessimistic notion that all of humanity can be summed up by the haves and have nots. I saw no room for argument. I would apologize for my whiteness, my shortcomings as a man, and I would stand on my “gayness” as the only authentic voice I could ever communicate through or from.  Thus, making my voice as a writer, limited and slightly confusing to most people who read it. And I was no exception to the ever-increasing ideology that a victimized “people” are always right and the oppressor, the dominant culture is always wrong. As a gay white man, however, am I half right and half wrong?

Why did I think this? I was inauthentic.

George Orwell- I know, I know, way too on the nose- said, “If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.” I assume there are other queer people who understand this quote, and can relate it to their identity. I now also equally assume there are straight people who can also relate to this. I grew up refusing to let myself even consider that I was gay. I forced myself to lie to myself to change the biological truth that I was powerless to change.  I was hiding the truth from myself, almost to the point of believing it. I really thought it would go away. Why did I think this? Inauthenticity has but one imperative, avoiding self truths. I wanted to be straight. Why? It seemed easier to be a part of the majority. I was bullied in school, sometimes to the point of running and hiding from physical threats. I dropped out of high school on my sixteenth birthday, when it was legal for me to do so, and got my GED. Why? High school, just like middle school before it, felt like a prison sentence, and so when an out was presented, I happily, ecstatically grabbed the shit out of it. I couldn’t conform, so I ran.

This idea that it seems easier to be a part of the majority has been a catalyst for me for as long as I can remember. And it didn’t even abate, in fact, it seemed stronger than ever the day I first woke up and had the thought that I wouldn’t change being gay if I could.  I was in my thirties when this finally happened, and I see it now as the product of my refusal to let go of the disillusionment that as a white man, if I were straight, I would have more privilege, and more access to success. I was certain that I would have been better off. I was caught up in the fantastical illusion of  “if” instead of the reality of “is.”  If only I could be something more. And success was defined only by materialism.

From an early age, I jumped aboard the political identity train in the wholehearted and earnest belief that it would lead to queer futurity. I believed the creation of “queer spaces,” was carving out a clearer and approachable queerness that would relish the individuality of queer people. My inchoate faith in such tactics filled me with the belief that in order to deconstruct hegemonic bigotry, queerness must stop being “othered” by the dominant culture, which was the heteronormative heterodoxy that can be seen in every aspect of pop culture. I went looking for confirmation that the world was homophobic. I only allowed myself to deal with things that I could interpret as negative toward my group.  I viewed everything I saw in pop culture including literature, film, television and theater through the critical theory lens that forces us to resort to Verificationism, which is like confirmation bias, but much more contrived. Confirmation bias, as I have come to understand it is when you cherry pick data, even so far as to only investigate evidence that will support your own theory or point of view. Verificationism is when you disregard the meaning of unfalsifiable claims, or everything that can’t be objectively proven. Like gravity, we should reject anything that seeks to undermine the clear evidence we have that gravity exists. Any claim to the contrary, is most likely an irrational conspiracy theory-style argument against it. Verificationism, as a philosophical doctrine has roots in positivism and logic, but when weaponized leads to illiberal argumentation that, like religion, requires faith in order to thrive. I had to disregard evidence, even truths, that didn’t align with my moral beliefs. I believed that homosexuality was an identity marker that was diminished by heteronormative culture, and I could find examples of this in anything I watched or listened to or read. I found it in Queer literature, in supposedly LGBTQ+ friendly television shows and in anything else that claimed to be diverse or inclusive. My Verificationism argument was: queer people are discriminated against by heterosexual society, and everyone is involved as either willing participant, victim, or ignorant dupe. In my mind, this was an unfalsifiable truth. If you argue this point, you are homophobic. Therefore, I can use as an example, anything in pop culture that addresses homosexuality. Anything at all, and it will prove my point. I, therefore, as a gay man, am compelled to scream in anger against anything I see as homophobic. And because the world is shifting toward this glorifying of victimhood, I am seen as an authority by straight people when it comes to gay causes. To doubt me, is to doubt all gay people, because my personal experience represents my group, so long as what I’m saying points to our victimization. If I pointed out that gay men are not victims and that the “gay community” is a social construct of self-segregation, I would probably have been seen as a “bad” gay man. #groupthinkisreal

What I didn’t recognize was the universality of confirmation bias. Homophobia does exist in the world, so if you look for it you will find it. This is true of every nuance of humanity. But to suggest that there is a utopia at the end of the tunnel that is current day life, a queer futurity that sees every gay and queer person as being seen appropriately, is to be blinded by ideology to the point of religious fervor. It’s also not reasonable to suggest that people will behave the same according to a biological marker like sexuality or skin color. But I used to believe the opposite was true. I was so far into groupthink that I actually mistook my own myopia as a side effect of being gay in a straight world. I would also get caught up in the idea that gay men who didn’t think like I did were somehow self-hating. I called many a gay republican a self-hater because there can be no other answer in the mindset of one who is clutching to groupthink as dearly as identity politics demands. And so, I became a kind of deep-sea diver of literature and subtext. I swam through the murky waters of pop culture and pointed out the shortcomings of heteronormative patriarchy when it presented its anti-queer, homophobic self- which of course, I saw as its truest self. If a deep-sea diver thinks that sharks are committing a seal genocide, he will be able to prove this to himself when he sees a shark eat a seal. He will also, however, be forced to dismiss everything else that make up the existence of both sharks and seals. He can then make it his mission to stop all sharks from “hating” and “discriminating” against seals before he can call the ocean safe for anything that isn’t a shark. It seems idiotic, right? I’m not making any comparisons to human experience, I’m just exploring confirmation bias. But the parallels to postmodern thought can be seen in the action of the deep-sea diver seeing only the negative experience of both sharks and seals, and discounting everything else.

Before coming to the ultimate conclusion, that I will henceforth explain, I found myself embroiled in a debate with a friend about the toxicity that Queer Eye has on the gay community. I saw the five men on the show as all having a sinister agenda. First and foremost, they are all some form of gay stereotype perpetrated by a heteronormative imperative. I’m not defending this argument at present, I’m saying that this was my view when I had this debate. Each of the five Queer Eye guys, I argued, must look perfectly tailored, they must be physical with one another because gay men are highly sexually charged, they must use the word “girl,” when addressing men, they must be caught up in “appearances,” and no matter how disguised behind the idea of self-love their words seem, the actions of these men is to make people “appear” a certain way, thus projecting a false image of success as something as easy as making yourself look less fat, or getting a better hair-cut. Basically, falsifying confidence based on what you look like. It’s more important how people see you, then to be who you really are. Image culture at its worst. I saw them each as nothing much more than a representative to a category of stereotype. Why did I see this? Two important reasons; first, my clinging to victimization told me that I had to look for the stereotypes, which seems easy enough. Second, I believed all gay men represent all other gay men. Plain and simple. I applied basic ignorance to an entire group of people. This was not my own doing, we are absolutely taught this by postmodern ideology. Bad representation of a minority is unforgivable. Why? The only logical answer I can come up with is that all gay men are the same and therefore, we must always be represented in a universal and positive way. We say this about ourselves. When we say things like Chris Cooper’s character in American Beauty is an unacceptable portrayal of a gay man, what are we really saying? Look at all of us as the same? Gay men can only be good people? Nuance is for straight people? What are we really saying when a fictional character literally becomes a representation of all of us? Same thing is happening in the black and Latino communities. I hear the same rhetoric. I hear people say things like, “that’s not a true representation.” Of what? All of you? So, what this seems to be saying is that all minorities should only be seen as a group and not individuals. We should all be rejecting this on humanitarian principles. The men of Queer Eye may be leaning into inauthentic versions of themselves, but they might not be. And it doesn’t matter. They are not me, and the fact that I may share a biological marker with them means as much as if we were all left handed, or shared the same eye color. There’s no logic in my thinking they represent me. Because they don’t. Nor should they have to. Believing otherwise, is the road to a kind of circular suffering of identity that will never be solved. I understand that representation is important, and everyone has the right to want to see themselves in the world. But when an entire group of people are represented by one character, or one story, the burden of responsibility on that one representation is too great, and humanity gets stripped in the name of political causes.

Hence, the idea of queer futurity must be utopian. Because I’m a victim, and victims must be morally right. The only real conclusion I ever got from this illogical syllogism was that in order to thrive as a gay man, I have to glorify my victimization. This logic is also applied to critical race theory, gender studies, and all postmodern beliefs that place identity politics ahead of individuality. Our educational systems are promoting pre-enlightenment stances on science, logic and mathematics because of things like identity politics, critical theory, and positionality or the political idea that one’s identity is completely dictated in terms of race, gender, or sexuality.  Positionality suggests that biological markers are socially created, and where you fall in terms of skin color, sexuality or gender will determine your outlook on the world. So, the combination of identity politics, critical theory, and positionality tells us that identity is nothing but a political abstraction. You are not an individual, you are an extension of others who share your skin color, gender, or sexuality. And if you are not in the dominant group- straight, white and male- you must shout your victimhood, and hold onto it, for it is the main component of your being. That is how I had to be gay. And before I could have the realization that led me to writing these very words, I had to reconcile my race. I was fueled by the thought that I’m questioning all of this because I have the privilege of being white. Gay white men are in a strange position, a kind of dual citizenship in the world of identity politics. How do I deal with the white thing?

Am I trained to see bigotry? Why do I assume it’s always happening? This is the direct cause of a system of beliefs that first seeks to dehumanize and then to shame. I have friends, family members, professors, and co-workers who are white, black, Asian, Latino, and Native American, gay, straight, bisexual, transgender, and non-binary and all of us spout vitriol about white oppression and privileged systems of power that cause actual physical harm. The system is rigged to favor white people.  And while this sounds an awful lot like religious dogma, I felt guilty for a long time for being the wrong race. But it didn’t stop there. I would feel transphobic if a transgender teacher challenged my ideas of gay male power, whatever that is. I would feel misogynistic if a woman told me I said something offensive. I would walk on eggshells around certain people, policing my language in an attempt to protect them, which I now see as an offensive form of coddling. But I also believed as a white man, that I was part of the problem. There is only an underlying violence toward all subjugated peoples, a caste system as Oprah recently reiterated, that exists ignorant of any effort. It just simply is. This is a cultish argument of trust us by our authority that the world is broken. You can’t see it, but we can. But how can we fix something if we can’t see where it’s broken? And you can’t ask minorities what to do to make it better. And you can’t question the veracity of the claim that the system is racist, without proving yourself to be a racist. It’s a perfect tautology. It’s exquisitely incomprehensible and impossible to fix. The solution, then, is to confess to your participation based on your skin color or gender or sexual orientation, commit to stopping your participation in the system, and then to do penance to apologize for it. The problem is what is the “it” we’re talking about? When I investigated what the proposed steps should be for eradicating bigotry, in the wake of the George Floyd killing, when I really believed white people had to do something to change the anti-black sentiment in the country, I came up with the following:  As a white man, gay or not, I am to feel the stain of original sin. Noted activist Ibram Kendi has written this out in a Tweet, he used the phrase “original sin” to describe white privilege. And I can vote. End of list. I already did both of those things. So, the answer was basically just live in shame. I’m familiar with this line of thought, it’s how I spent the first twenty years of my life trying to avoid being gay. It broke my heart a little when I would hear my friends telling me that my biological existence inherently has hurt them. Growing up gay this was my greatest fear. I understand that they are the myopic ones in this scenario, and I reach out to them with compassion and love because people who feel traumatized need it the most. And the trauma is real. The thing about perception is that it is what we say it is.

When I finally came out, I shifted the source of shame and inauthenticity to the straight world around me. When in truth, I didn’t experience homophobia on a regular basis. I’ve had maybe two encounters of actual homophobia in my adult life. And I was never unsafe because of an opposing point of view.  I thought I was. I thought I was discriminated against all the time. I would interpret people’s behavior toward me based on whether they knew I was gay or not. Anything anyone did that was negative was because I was gay. It was exhausting. I was growing hateful toward total strangers and I had to stop.  

I witnessed fear of gay people all around me when I was a kid because of the AIDS epidemic. I grew up in the 1980s and 90s when attitudes toward gay men and the community were rooted in genuine fear. The gay men I saw represented in pop culture were flamboyant, hyper-sexual, and usually the butt of jokes, unless they were really attractive, then they could be objects of desire. I took all of this to mean that I should assume the world would see me as a dangerous and sexually promiscuous effeminate scourge on society that is totally disposable. Identity politics was taking real shape at the same time the gay community was forming its own liberation, and the combination has led to the current day political gay identity. I say political, because I see no real reason to consider the idea that an actual community of gay men exists because making a sexual desire the basis of an identity is as preposterous as doing the same because of skin color.  What connects gay men? Their same sex attraction. So what would a community of gay men do? Have sex? Critical Studies would also elude to the fact that all gay men are victims, and that our voice of what it is to be gay can be the only voice of authority on the subject. Unlike multicultural studies, Critical Studies seeks to remove even the possibility of a homophile. Homophile was what the early gay activists of the 1950s dubbed themselves and their allies.  If an Anglophile is someone who learns and loves English culture, without having to be English, or a Francophile does the same with the French, why couldn’t a straight person become a homophile and dive head first into the gay culture that Critical Studies insists is not only very real, but also very fragile and needs to be coddled to for fear of erasure. Also, science demands objectivity, and so how can a gay man objectively view himself, if he and his sexual orientation are speaking for everyone else who happens to have been born with the same sexual orientation? It seems any queer studies, based in any science, are a clear conflict of interest if studied by someone who is queer.  The only answer with any real logic is that gay culture doesn’t exist, and that a biological marker of sexuality isn’t enough to build a community around. It would be the same as having a culture of left-handed people. There’s not enough difference from right-handed people, plus you have to ignore everything you don’t have in common to justify a self-segregation.  This is not to negate the huge strides necessary by the gay liberation movement of the 1970s and 80s. Liberalism demanded progress, and slow as it may seem, gay people are winning the fight against prejudice and anti-homosexual legislation in America. The fight was for equality, not uniformity. American culture has widened every decade since the 1960s.  The organizing of Pride, of marches against discrimination, and the creation of groups like GLAAD and the HRC are all products of a fight for equality. If we look for confirmation in how America has become gay friendly, we’ll find it. We’ll find more instances of progress than people looking for only the negatives will find.  Queer theory feels like a huge step backwards. It’s telling us none of that progress matters. If one homophobe still exists, we have all failed. It also says that the “invisible” homophobia that we’ve all been complicit in has been poisoning culture in secret all along. That we haven’t actually made progress, but just been blind to the truth. Religious dogma again. It feels like how a conspiracy theorist argues his point.  I reject this as unreasonable and impossible to maintain. If a baker doesn’t want to make a gay wedding cake, that doesn’t prove that the world is against gay people. I wouldn’t want to make a MAGA rally cake, and who would blame me? Opposing viewpoints are essential to maintaining democracy. It is not violence to state your views. It does not make people actually unsafe because you don’t want to serve gay people. Ignorance is not treason. We will lose all allies if we start pretending that everyone is against us. I am resolved to not only stop believing in the awfulness of my fellow humans, but also to learn to do the opposite, and trust that people are coming at the world with what they think are the best intentions. You can’t hold the view that people are generally good and be involved in any way in critical theory. Critical theory doesn’t allow a different opinion, or an opposing view. These two premises lead me to the logical conclusion that critical theory is illiberal, and anti-democratic.

For me, it comes down to something that has nothing to do with cultural beliefs, and yet, strangely enough, has everything to do with why culture is where it is in 2020. And I will only speak for myself. I didn’t know myself. This concept is deceptively difficult to grasp. I am inauthentic because my identity relied on how others saw me. My beliefs were deeply rooted in a group ideology that I didn’t question. The world was a bad, hateful place to me, and it was decades of thinking like this that led to my being a cog in an imaginary system that determined my worth. I now believe the opposite is true. I believe opposing views are important. I believe people have a right to speak out against what they think is wrong. This means all people. Not just the ones I agree with. An advocate has the right to say “transgender is a mental illness,” as much as I have the right to say that transphobia is anti-humanistic. I do not have a right to say that I have more of a right to say what I believe because I deem it morally superior. That’s not how freedom works. When one loses the right to say their beliefs, we all lose chunks of our freedom. Democracy is not one-sided, and it must never be. No matter how awful a person’s idea seems to us, they must, must, must have the right to have it. Democracy is when the people of a society are the voice of that society. Blaming everything on a broken “system” is really just saying our fellow humans are broken. I refuse to believe that’s true. And I am determined to start finding the evidence of the good, of the progress and leave behind the negativism that we must not allow to become the voice of our democracy.

I’ve been inauthentic enough as to nearly be devoid of coping mechanisms for my own individuality. I’ve relied on my assumed identity, based on what my group should be for so long, I felt immediately lost at sea on a faulty raft that I purposely built to sink. And so, before I ended up in the deep blue void of existential angst, I began to question myself. I began to believe that other people’s beliefs are not facts, but just patterns of thought, either their own (authentic) or a product of groupthink (inauthentic). I stopped value-judging the difference between authentic and inauthentic, and focused instead on really learning who I am. No one else can ever know us better than ourselves, and what a tragedy it would be if we saw ourselves through eyes that aren’t ours. And so, the answer became, that I should stop looking for answers outside of myself, and instead find out who I am, and what I believe, and never let anyone else define me. Ever again. No matter the cost, the pain and the alienation that may come from people who don’t want to call me their friend anymore. Knowing myself means I don’t have to worry what someone else might think of me. Knowing myself means honesty trumps political correctness, and each human being I encounter is an individuals worth so much more than to be thrown into a group because of their biological markers. So, the slate is being cleaned. And there’s a lot of excess ideology, a lot of knee-jerk reactions, a lot of old behaviors slowly being wiped away. They still creep in every day, and I acknowledge them and wait for them to pass. It’s a challenge, but the days are brighter, the world is kinder, and the future is hopeful. For the first time in a long time I have no outside expectations for myself. I get to be just whatever I am. I feel like I’m coming out of a cult or some deeply felt religion and into the light of something much more peaceful. It may be a little late in life to suddenly get born all over again, but as Neil Simon wrote, “at least I got the walking part over with.” 

The Intruder

By Patrick Hurley

Some men are born posthumously, and only when the world has altered to their superior wisdom can it accommodate their genius. Such a man am I. And such a wisdom I now impart unto you. For I hold the greatest truth of life. I have lived in solitude for several lifetimes and have learned all I can. I have summited the mountain of wisdom, I have defeated the relic who lay claim to it, and I have extricated meaning from every drop of color in every aspect of all of life. And I have done so completely alone. What realizations, you may well ask, fuel the soul of the man who has defied nature? Who has lived in perfect condition for hundreds and hundreds of years? I had not thought to write anything down until this very day. And with lifetimes of knowledge, which can only be translated as truth, so says Socrates, I impart the truth unto you. What proceeds from this precedent recountal is an ending. As all stories must, so too will mine come to a sudden and permanent stop. That which I have learned is a detailed list that if enumerated would be long enough to prove unreadable. So, truths, unprovable by any living science, in order of their importance, I will lay out before you now.

I do not sleep, but each morning I open the faded curtains of the windows of my small cabin to greet the sunrise. I equally greet the sunset on its departure at the close of each day, and gently pull the curtains back across the glass, keeping the darkness safely indiscernible. For I am the daybreak, but also the dusk. We are, all of us, either day or night, dark or light, wise or ignorant, but it is only the truest of us that can be both, to exist in the magic twilight of immaculate dawn. This is the first truth.

How startled and solemn the sunset seems, when night, enamored with day, rises up to greet her, only to just brush against her cheek. Rejected day after day, he will not relent, for surely, after so many millennia, he must accept the cyclical inevitability of his own fate. The deep sadness that accompanies some knowing, makes the knowing gray. And so, it can be stated that sometimes not knowing is the better of the two worlds. If light is knowing, then surely, darkness is ignorance, and so it is when these two forces briefly touch that the universe reveals its secrets. At the moment of birth and the moment of death. We must pay most attention to these. Sunrise is the antithetical life to the melancholy death of sunset. For when else is nature furnished with such potential? When blackness is lost to the pastels of a new day. But this morning, the world slowly awoke not to the blush nor violet, but rather to a stone gray. Spoken with softer words, the subconscious is a sneaky devil. And when I peered through the sleet blackness, the chalkboard sky of new dawn,  it was then that I first saw him.

A man, the first of his kind I have seen in longer than I can remember. I have been found. He is too far to have any real discernible features. In fact all I could tell, from my liminal view was that he was a man of some medium build and undetermined but clearly middle-age. He was wearing thick clothing, dark and heavy. Standing in the clearing of trees directly in front of me, facing me. Was he challenging me? This is the answer that must be so. For if greater truth lives in those of us who experience more, and I have lived eternally, I have the higher ground of truth between us. Who are you, man creature of the forest? Weatherworn and haggard. The first other I have seen in so long I cannot recall. Locked in an ocular showdown, a spiritual stare-off, a current of electricity touching both, moving neither. Am I exposed? If this stirring is danger within me, it must be so. But which of us is predator and which is prey? I am reminded of how I came to this repose. Images of my former self appear in the glass before me. Faceless propagators of basest need, of hunger, and fear and lust, of retraction and reproach. So much of being human is being unsure. So much of certainty is not knowing. The images flood past, burnt out flashbulbs snapping one after another after another. So many eyes, and none of them seeing. But now, on this ashen morning, the inconceivable has happened, for there is little doubt that he sees me. Dark nights of my former life spew forth like the overflow of shook champagne, and with as much unreliable, however intoxicating belief. And words that I have read, not created, rush to greet the informal feeling of something like nostalgia. False lights that on men’s faces play, distorts them gruesomely. And they always say “I”, “I,” but to whom they are referring, they know not. This is why I sought the emptiness of this new world. The “I” I was could only be I alone. And yet there is us. The wondrous, impossible penetrability of the Unum. A paradox: “I” can only fully exist as the middle letter of unity. I sought refuge away from the bosom of my mother, the fists of my father, the madding crowd that seeks to recruit and reform you, and into the arms of my mirror self. But now I see all of what I once thought to be true, staring at me in the blurry face of this stranger.

We, the us that is born of subjugation, must see the world as misanthropes. Where deeds are aimed at our Achilles heels, and intent is as black as slavery. Now, in the gray light of midmorning, I stand strong against the stare of the intruder of my forest atop the mountain I claimed so long ago.  I am overwhelmed by his enmity, though no such betrayal can be glimpsed from this distance, I cannot see his face, I know why he has come.  We are caught together, an invisible thread from there to here, from him to me, from dark to light. An inversion is taking place, a reduction of my eternity, my deepest solitude laid threadbare in the vulnerability of his evanescent gaze. I will not relent. He has climbed this mountain to lay his claim to it. I recognize the insistence in his stance. But I will not relent.

Nothing is so firmly believed as what we least know. Faith is a kind of blind prophet perched in our souls. But who is leading who? Imperatives echo conviction, and imprison knowledge, save for when the conviction is righteous. Such demands for certainty will impede true knowledge. Another paradox. I strain to elucidate my inchoate imperative: I am truth. For it must be true that he who is true is clothed in the garments of authenticity of this claim. Knowing this, one must trust that the blind prophet of their soul will guide them without fail. When one is correct, as I am, one will instinctively surrender. Keats said beauty is truth, and vice versa, which is technically a tautology, but Keats died at twenty-five of tuberculosis so we should probably disregard his attraction to the aesthetic for what it was, youthful ideology. Still, if language was the sea of life, the allure of his verse I could swim laps in for all eternity. Oh, to be young again. But this is inauthentic. It is in the presence of another, of this stranger, that I have begun to long for thoughts that are not mine. I am falling backwards. I have come too far to relent. The book of my life is not complete, nor is it written by any hand but my own. But this is false. It is not my thought. Others ideas like poison is seeping back into the cracks between my thoughts. Our lives are only like books when the last sentence is written. And I have learned in my immortal solitude, that alas, our lives are not books. We are not so grand. They are mere sentences. And the punctuation at the end of the sentence that is your life, however labyrinthine, if you were able read ahead of time, could only be a question mark. Ink is permanent. The soul must not be. Time is not moving. It is fixed forever in one spot. This is the truth of my immortality. Have I lost my way in the dark? Has gray morning and this stranger’s sudden appearance taken wisdom away from me? What am I? I must remember.

I’m not young. I am eternal, a lapidary construction, I am the chrysoprase moss of the ancient coral reef. I cling to something greater. I have survived time. No, not survived. I have discovered time is not real, and the passing of it is only imperative if you refuse to see the truth. The herd will only watch the clock. Tick-tick, tick-tock, tick-tock. I have no herd. Having become immortal, I feel it my duty, nay, my obligation, from the reflection of my deepest solitude, to maintain my hold on this mountain, lest my truth is stolen. I see this intruder as all who wish to diminish my glory. I will hold the justice of history and of wisdom,  an order taller than Hyperion, older than Methuselah, as true as anything in nature. And I will not let him pass.  Histories contain wisdom, so said one of the Brontë sisters, and sometimes the kernel of wisdom that emerges from the husk of history is scarcely worth the effort of cracking it open in the first place. I find that the very center of my thesis, protecting the greatest truths of life from the enemies who seek to challenge it, makes the nutcracking well worth the centuries-long effort of revealing the meat.

How did I get here? It is only natural that you would ask. It started with a question. As things do. What am I? A conglomeration of others, of ancestors, of history, parents, grandparents, friends, lovers, strangers who have fueled feelings of animosity and lust and pity? Am I made of the city I was born in? The first sounds I heard? The first taste I swallowed? Of all the sunrises, and sunsets? The music I’ve heard that has enlightened, shaken, and unnerved me? The art that speaks a secret language that sometimes I also speak? Like an archeologist of words, of symbols, and of the sublime. The indescribable. Am I the ocean? The rivers? The lake I peed in when I was a boy? The fireflies on a muggy midwestern night, the smell of wet pavement, the creaking of a porch swing? The sound of my grandfather stirring his morning coffee? Fresh cut grass, bug repellent, and a campfire? My nose twitches when I smell wood burning. Is that happening now? Nostalgia is cradled gently in the smell of warm cinnamon bread and banana pancakes, and mom’s chocolate chip cookies. I am instantly displaced by the smell of burnt butter, and teary-eyed from onions and smoke and jasmine. The solace of bacon frying, of whole day roasts and turkeys on holidays blurred together as one long grievance. And sage, and pine, and bleach each hold their own sedimentary sentiment in the catalogue of my history. Whole days of rain and snow and that feeling of summer, of freedom. The smell of books, the library of my middle school years, of synapses whirling into the first idea of what is possible. The gravelly ground by the railroad tracks of my teenage years. The smell of diesel from the trucks on the highway near my youth. And coffee brewing. And the ink on the page of a notebook meant to contain instruction but instead rambles of my subconscious. An overpass under a scorching sun, barefoot and bleeding. Of the ten stitches I had in the bottom of my foot after jumping off a fence and landing on a broken Coke bottle. The feel of ice-cold dog shit squishing between my toes on the neighbor’s grass. And sliding down a snowy hill, sledding with my father. The stolen glance, the arousal inside of me. The need to feel with my hands the urge that starts a fire just south of my stomach, a region that I hadn’t considered before, an unexplored continent. The release of my first orgasm. The fantasy of all firsts. The shape of adolescence, and the desire, the deep, deep desire, like a foreign language I would learn whether I wanted to or not. The first time I saw the ocean, sparking my need to always return to that scent, that sound. The spectacle of vast symmetry, of blue and green and of everywhere. The first time I tasted saltwater when a wave crashed over me like an animal tackling me to the ground. The first time I cried because I had to go home. The first time I didn’t have a home to go to. All the places I’ve called home. Teachers who told me my answers were wrong. Teachers who changed the chemical conversations inside my brain, whose ideas electrified my synapses. And books and words and images that spoke greater truths than the invisible faith demanded by the invisible hand of an invisible ruling force. The first time I tasted crème brûlée. Secret kisses in darkened rooms. Of icy dread, and frozen terror. When death was something that didn’t just happen to other people, but lurked on every stoop, around every corner, haunting the dreams of every man that has ever lived. Prophetic loss carries tokens of future converts, manifests of emotion, striations, like ribbons of dread torn in bloody patches, entwined in the mephitic fingers of death himself. But these thoughts are not mine. My search for meaning dies always in the colloquium of the collective. I’m straying from the kernel, lost in the casing, the thickness of the shell, and I come up with nothing but the universal. So what am I? I recognize that I am too consumed with the false idea of universal truths. I must reject how others see the world and trust that my soul is the truest of all truths.

When I was a boy, I swam in the sea, fully clothed, beneath a graying canopy of protracted autumn. In even intervals of the rising tide, up and down, the horizon would extend and the shore disappear. For slight instances when I would ride over the backside of a wave, I was completely alone, an anomaly of earth-bound particles struggling to stay afloat a liquid galaxy. I can’t help but wonder, sometimes, if that sea still holds a piece of me. Did I leave something behind? Did the salt water exfoliate microscopic DNA that could somehow still prove to some scientist in some lab somewhere that once upon a time a small boy swam a little too far off shore in the October Atlantic? Surely, they must, for the sea on that day existed for no other purpose. Is that what I am?

When I was a schoolboy I learned nothing so much as the necessity of suppression. A knee-jerk reaction to the objective truth of obedience. I didn’t speak the right words, I didn’t assert the right versions of things, of myself, and how to survive became an act of mimicry. I was certain of my superiority, and of what ought to be, but I cloaked my veracity veraciously inside the cult of the herd. But I was immutable in my virtue. I acquiesced and even rescinded the high ground to the puppets of opined dogma whose versions of the truth, like a termite-infested dwelling could only, one day, eventually and totally collapse on itself. I just had to wait. So I sat alone, and I chastised my thoughts, and I moralized my desires. Friendless and without faith, I altered the path only I could wander, to better match the paths I so desperately wished were mine instead. I heard the nicknames, I felt the fists, I stayed on the ground feigning the position of beta, like the prey of some vicious dominant master. I ran, I didn’t walk. I laughed, I didn’t cry. I covered scars with lies, and learned how to speak in a voice I didn’t possess. I dropped the act of me until I was the me that could survive them. The very existence of those who oppose the righteous is only alive as proof of something false. When they rise in greater and greater numbers, they strike out only to prove their iniquity. They serve no other purpose. I knew this is what I wasn’t.

When I first became an adult, I dared to speak out against the voices of unreason that had filled my head with their poison. Knowledge was rooted in the fertile ground where truth should prosper. Had I begun to believe the lies of the everyman? In the darkest of nights, in the coldest of winters, between two isolated streets, tucked between towering brick walls, where every sound heightened the possibility of danger, I first used the fist of reproach. Animosity from an inherent place, from years of silent abuse, of violence against piety, a primal instinct unleashed, and tore into the flesh of a man who dared to tread the ground of virtue alongside me and raise an accusation of hate against me. Was I wrong? No. For it can only be the impious who may wrong their superior opposites. Which is what I am. Piety, like oxygen, goes into our bodies as one thing and comes out another. Both necessary to the continuation of beauty and truth, or as Keats might say, the interchangeable sameness of virtue. There is only one truth, and it is only knowable to the observer of injustice. So, I lashed out, at long last against the inhuman instinct of a group I will only refer to as “them.” The darkness deepens the memory, cloisters it in a kind of protective bubble that lives just outside myself.

It was a cold night. Tucked in the safety of easy street, a place I called home away from home. Lowly lit and patronized, the air filled with sweat and gin infused whispers, and suggestive bodies, and the faint drone of a Victrola turned too low. Illicitly providing a service that some deemed immoral, it was a place for us. The us that had been rejected by them. The them that had made the rules for themselves, as if we, the we that is us, didn’t even exist, or existed as something beneath the law. A quiet rebellion was brewing, and with it the resolve that in our victimization, we were just in our calls to resist. Resistance is the same as violence to someone on the other side of it. But is it not justified to burn the forewarned heretic? Self-defense is not the same as hate. On this night, this cold January night, I had lost the ability to overlook the indefensible affront to my kind any longer. He and his friends were drunk, as tourists tend to be, and though by the very nature of their appearance, I did not want to serve them, I did my duty. I tried to ignore the comments, I closed my eyes, grit my teeth and disengaged, until I could last no longer. A wayward hand, a threatening smirk, his inimical instincts overthrew my reason, and the last thing I remember, before feeling the contact with his skin was the dragging of him out into the cold unforgiving night.

I remember the squishiness of flesh, my hand moving with the momentum of my entire body. I remember the hardness of bone. The pain jolting through my hand. The sounds of shifting feet on asphalt, and a hollow crack like a firework. I felt the wetness of him, it sprayed like mist onto my face and neck. A spewing of his original sin, an excavation of spiritual cancer ridding itself from his crooked tongue, because I had exorcised it. I heard a crashing thud, the weight of him all at once. Though it was dark, and I couldn’t see them, I could sense the spectators were growing in numbers. They were baying for my blood. So, I ran. and I ran. And I ran. And ran.

I ran back to the mountain of my youth, where truth first revealed itself to me. And I summited the hidden trail I had taken years before, to the edge of the tree line, near the edge of the world. And it was in this place, in the mountain forest, deeply darkened by nature, above the mortal world, where my spiritual ancestors first laid their roots, that I came to find the beauty of stasis and immobility. It took me I know not how long to traverse the wild country to find the small cabin that my ancestors had built, in the deep green forest of time, verdant and permanent, the needle-sharp Kelly of an evergreen, a fortuitous glimpse of my imminent future. I closed in one moonlit midnight, with an angry mob in tow, unseen but very close behind. But I alone knew the path, and so they could not catch me.  I clambered up the steps of the porch, pushed open the heavy oak door, and in the first of several certainties that would follow the decades and decades of my insistent youth, I closed the door to the world outside, and began to finally live truth.

At first, I slept for days and days, and the dreams that accompanied my slumber sometimes seeped into the in-between world. I saw the faces of those that wished me harm, of the bellicose flock I knew to be circling just below my sanctuary. The path to the where I am is hidden, and so try as they might, they will always be too far down the mountain to ever find me. Or so I thought. Days turned to weeks with very little effort, and day and night could sometimes seem indiscernible as the thickness of the natural world shielded me. When I finally woke, I didn’t need to sleep again.

I midnight foraged, so as to not be seen. The blueberries I gathered, I placed in a small bowl and set in a cupboard to keep them cool and dry. When I was satisfied with a handful of them, I didn’t need to eat again. And as days proceeded, I forgot about the surplus berries in the cupboard. It would be at least a year before I opened the cupboard and, to my astonishment, found the perfectly preserved spheres waiting for me. Impossible, I thought. They were existing beyond what was physically possible. Physics being the basis of nearly all of the beliefs of the herd, perhaps was not immutable, I suddenly realized. What I see is truth, not what a mass of group minded drones sees. The facts were incrementally beginning to stack against logic. Since my arrival here, I have defied at least two rules of existence; I have not slept, and I have not eaten. And then the nature of eternal existence stared me in the face in the perfectly taut azure skins of a bowl of year-old blueberries. I cannot certify in any certitude as to the exact duration of time the berries were, in fact, locked in the cupboard, but it was longer than science can give reason to. The magic of the four walls that now encased me, began to reveal itself on that day. But it is not magic when it is reality. It is a greater truth than any man is willing to seek. After long hours of contemplative analysis, I opened the small kitchen window, and I scooped the berries from the bowl into the midmorning air. As gravity pulled them into her arms, so too did time, and in all his unforgiving sine qua non, drained at once the life from the small orbs, shriveling and contaminating them in the blink of an eye. By the time they touched the Earth, they were gray and rotted. It was when the breeze tickled my cheeks, that I felt the breath of time whispering into my ear that I was next. I shut the window, and have not considered returning to the outside again. At least not until now.  

Time has passed outside these walls, but inside, I am untouched, unburdened, as fresh as the day I found my salvation. All remnants of mortal vassalage evaporated long ago. I need not sleep, nor eat, nor lust after the cheap pleasures of distraction, and above all, I needn’t seek god. I am a god unto myself. As all man was created to be. Man invented God as a means of worshipping himself. I have simply cut out the middle man. What else should anyone need but the wisdom of his own truth? What seemed impossible in my first youth, now the very foundation on which my beliefs are built. If I see it, it must be so. This is the truest truth of all. And in truth, I do not see as much as you might expect. There is a divine simplicity in the absence of time. Though the day and night repeat in cycle, as nature dictates, there is no succession, no accumulation, only euphony, the melody of fealty. Faith is truth and truth a kind of faith, syllogisms have to go both ways, hence, the dialectic that what I believe is what is true must also be true because I believe it. When the galaxy of what you would call time encircles you, as it has for me these past centuries, it is impossible not to create a self-philosophy. And in the absence of scientific time, there can be no subjective ought, only cold hard is. It is true, however, that, for the most part, I have found myself lost in a crevice of stillness. I have seen dust form on the edges of sills, a painted wall slowly suppurates, like an infected wound forming scabs and blisters, and only from enduring its own existence. This is the cruelty of all of life. White lace curtains yellow with antiquity, and the spines of books turn brittle and abraded. My sanctuary takes on the burden of time, but I am exempt. Where the world decays, my certainty prospers, the rose of my faith effloresces in my senescent soul.  I am a butterfly that has lost its quiescent tribe, and so has come to immortality without fanfare, without the crucial ingredient of being seen. But doesn’t this explain my seclusion? Much like the butterfly, who are solitary in their daylit flights, yet sleep in groups of hundreds. They may fly solo, but when the world is most dangerous they acquiesce to the tribe. This I do not want to do. This stranger has appeared to challenge all of my truths. I will face this challenge and act to substantiate my greater wisdom. Thus, in my final act, I shall prove myself deific in an Empedoclean leap of faith. As a martyr of real truth.

Though he is not encroaching nor relenting, the stranger is, nevertheless, still there with the breath of a new day. We have been staring for at least twenty-four hours. I try to see past the distance between us. His posture is that of a victim. He is hunched, he is belittled in his corporeal presentiment. A picture is worth some set amount of words, but a still life is more than just a picture. Representation is more than the totality of one life or two, it is the hand of reason reaching out to cradle, to shelter an entire people from a blurry archetype, from a poisoned version of the truth. Is that who this man is? Not a man at all, but a whole group of men? I stammer through the fog of my own charity only to discover the small kernel of what feels like pity. I daren’t avert my eyes, lest he will seize the virtuous high ground. And the comparison to my own discovery of truth is suddenly brought back to my conscious mind.  

I was eighteen, freshly matured, with a sense of the world I had neatly folded up and put into my back pocket. It was the morning after my eighteenth year began. I woke before the sun. I dressed as quickly as I could, grabbed only what I would need for the climb, I slipped into my boots, and headed for the mountain. At first, it was all trees and rocks, with the icy waters of winter melted into the rushing river dividing the terrain. The incline began almost immediately, and did not relent. The trailhead twisted and turned in an epically Homeric fashion. Birds of prey perched just above the rocky path that wound razor-blade thin alongside the edge of the world. Halfway up the thinnest of paths, the trail turned toward the outer edge of the mountain and I was left face to face with the wide-open vista of the outstretched Earth below. Patches of land demarcated like squares on a telluric quilt, and seemingly random bursts of color, of reds, of greens and browns scattered like fallen autumnal foliage. I ascended a little farther toward a stretch of clouds that were hanging down, touching the trail. The feel of mist tickled my face, and my eyes cast down to the ground to keep sight of the terrain beneath my feet, and of the impossible dropping off of the world only inches away. Something in the calm air changed, a moisture rose up from some eternal place, and from this height, clouds enshrined the whole side of the mountain.

The world suddenly wrapped in gauze, a cloud seemed to land right on the trail, like a vaporous marshmallow befogging the world.  I stopped midstride, heavy in breath, and heavier still in apprehension. I could hear the rustling of tree branches, the gentlest of breezes, the whirring of the massive cotton billows that muted the universe. I reached my hand toward the mountainside, and felt the cold permanence of the rock. I felt my way along the face of the mountain, until I saw the shape of a man only a few feet in front of me. I stopped, and to his silhouette I spoke.

“Good morning,” I said affably.

“Why have you come up this mountain?” his voice gravelly and soft at once, “did you not know of the dangers?”  The white swirled around me, and I saw the impending dark gray of the clouds just on the horizon of my vision.

“You must turn around,” he said, “for I cannot let you pass.” This to me was preposterous, for, by the sound of his aged voice, I would most assuredly be the stronger of the two. I say with no small amount of arrogance that he cannot stop me.

“What you will find on this mountain,” he says slowly, “will make all of the rest of your life completely unbearable.” Had I not been so indignant, I may have been intrigued. I said something like, “I don’t really care.” Still shrouded in a diaphanous haze, as the voice of some kind of god, he continued, “It is a paradox. Shall I tell it?” We stood in the silence of the imposing blur. I wasn’t sure if he was asking me a question, or playing a trick on me. Either way, I was completely stuck.

“You have been instructed,” he began, “by the creation of a perception handed down to you by those you claim as your own.” He inched a bit closer, I could hear the gravel beneath him crackle with his subtle steps. I stayed immobile. He continued, “And now what you see is determined by the creation of how others told you to see it.” He inches even closer. “And so now you have to decide, how much of what is true is actually false.” I can almost make out his face, but it is a blur, like a picture out of focus. “Above this nebula of obscure homogeneity, this clouded abyss lies the clearest view of the world, there is more to be seen at once than your mind can invent in a lifetime.”

            “That is what I came looking for,” I say determined to match his ominously wizened tone. His chuckle is at once condescending and genuine, and he says, “It is not as simple as a desire. That which you seek, being so great a vantage point must come with a heavy, heavy, price.” Again, he inches closer, this time, I take a step back. I’m suddenly filled with the sensation of falling, and the whiteness disorients and dizzies me.

“I can’t just let you go up there,” his menacing tone wreaking havoc on my newly discovered awareness of vertigo. I grip the solid wall of rock next to me, and turn slightly away from him. I can hear his footing as he steps again closer to me, and says, “herein lies a dilemma: only one of us may reach the top of this mountain, and I am already there. You have a choice, submit to my greater will, or turn around.”  Leaning back on the cold rock, I felt a flush of heat across my face. Why should I think myself less than any other? Why should I be obsequious to one who claims to have a greater knowledge of this mountain? The latter question seemed to answer itself, but my indignation was anything but stifled.

“I will find my own way,” I said, and then, “I need no help from you.”  After a moment of stillness, amid the cawing of a distant bird, he said, “I, and I alone, know the path to the summit. Would you fall to your death to satisfy your pride?

“Will you not give me directions?” it was then his stride increased, and I saw his face. I recognized the philosopher as soon as I saw him. I would know his face anywhere, and even here in some other worldly realm, the madness of his legend still lives in his wild glare. His fixated stare haunts me to this day.  He moved close to my face to tell me that there are no directions to the top of this mountain. He told me that if I were authentic, I wouldn’t have traversed the treacherous trail, but would have instead gone the gentle way. He then told me that he would lead me to the top, but that I would only be able to see the view he created for me. That anyone who does not climb alone, can only share what someone else already sees. I told him this was impossible. I told him he was a crazy old man. He began to seethe with rage, foaming at the corners of his mouth, his eyes ignited by a fire of unreason. He told me that to think myself as one was the earthliest of all sins. “You are not one!” he grabbed me by the collar and pulled me toward the edge of the mountain. Scrambling to grab hold of the rock behind me, I could feel my feet sliding as if the gravel were as slick as ice. Again, he stops moving and pushes his face close to mine, “You will try to change my view?” My face trembles with fear, my hands are gripping his hands gripping me. “You must go back down! You cannot seek to claim what you cannot understand! Leave me to my mountaintop or I will throw you from it!” It was then he jerked me forward, and I lost hold of the mountain. A whip of wind across my face as he spins me with my back to the edge of the world. He is gripping my shirt, I fear, not tightly enough as he pushes me back toward the void. When he stops, I can feel the vacant space just behind me, I am dangling at the edge of the path, over the edge of the world.

“Vainglory,” he spits his words, “Vainglorious bastard!” He begins to shake from the distress of keeping our collective balance. He tells me that I am not special, that I am no different than a grain of sand on a shore that stretches on for eternity. “The smallest speck that makes up the cells that make up you, is larger to your being than all of your being is to the universe.”  He keeps screaming that I am nothing. That he has seen the end of my kind, and it is in our collective delusion of some inflated self he keeps calling “The Vanished People.”  I hold onto his arms, in what I am sure is a futile attempt to keep from letting gravity seize us both. Before I gain enough strength to overpower his ancient grasp, he tells me that he has seen the end of me.

“Villain,” he bellows at extended length, as if he’s throwing the word into the valley beneath our feet. It was then, I was able to find my footing, and twist in such a way as to reverse our positioning and with all of the weight of my body I shove the old philosopher off the mountain. He falls backward and grasps hold of the edge, barely suspended by the tips of his fingers, so that his eyes just jut above the ground. Out of breath, and lying on the trail facing him, we are still eye to eye. Before he falls to his oblivion, he says, “You cannot see.” He strains, he pulls himself just high enough for his lips to reach above the rock, “you will never see.” He smiled, and with a deep kind of satisfaction he let go of the mountain, and disappeared.  Vanished into the soft white nothing. Relinquishing his place on my mountain.

I will never see. I say this out loud, but I know the man in the woods cannot hear me. But something in the vulnerable expression of my entire being must be communicating to him through the empty space that distances us, past the glass that separates us, for just as I say these words, he nods. And at once the glass, the distance, the antipathy vanishes like the old philosopher off the side of the ancient cliff. Is there a more perfect moment two human beings have ever shared? It is not apathy, nor is it its opposite, for there are no stakes that fuel our coexistence, only just this. A moment where neither is anything but the thing he is. He cannot see what I see. He will never see it. And with that, he raises a hand, a gentlest of greetings, but also a kind of surrender. He nods again, turns his back to me and disappears into the thick green ever after.

Now it is my turn. I will explain to you, as it happens, and in doing so, will reveal the meaning of all of life. I have no business left to attend. No goals to accomplish. Every nuance of every daily chore has been wrung as dry as a desert stone. I could stay, I think, I could stay and learn more. I could make the duty of menial tasks as beautiful as any work of art. But I no longer know how. In these my last moments, I am suddenly overwhelmed with sadness of all I have not seen, nor will ever see. It is true that this stranger will never see what I see, but what of the things, the infinite number of things I will never see? Winged Victory blanched by time, by her very survival still seemingly mid-stride against a faceless enemy. The goliaths of Giza, monuments of time touching history to the modern world. The ceilings of Rome, and all the tearstained floors beneath them, wrung from the eyes of all who have gazed upward at them, like the invented deities of a bygone people. What monoliths humans have rendered. How much I do not know. What does it smell like on the mouth of the Dead Sea? What textures in a handful of the Amazon? The chimes of Notre Dame? The caw of some exotic island bird. The tick of Big Ben. The cacophony of a street bizarre. And the touch of rare silk. And the taste of foreign fruit. The buzz of the watery ascent of the Hungarian mayfly. My mind is greater than any one of these, and yet the totality of their absence outweighs any idea I might hold. The shelter of my certainty has collapsed. I will seek the man that had sought me, and I will tell him the certainty that was once imparted unto me and you and all who come hereafter. I was truth. I was certain. I was alone. I was able to see what you could not. But unwilling to believe the same.

I place my ageless hand upon the door, and with so gentle a pull, no more than a nudge, I open it. How easy a titanic decision can be. I smell the dawn- it is new, damp and green. Oxygen overflows into my nostrils, my eyes water, my knees quake. I step my foot outside, and it is with great hope that my other foot will follow.  And it is with even greater hope, and maybe something bigger that I shut the door behind me, and I leave the place I never dreamed I could leave. And in my first external breath in so long a time I do not remember, taking in the world I thought I’d lost, the thought fills my head, covers the morning…

I do not know which way to go.

For Andrew

The Man Nothing Happened To

By Patrick Hurley

“Hello Patrick,” his voice thin and slightly frail, “This is Andrew Ronson,” a hint of his native British present in his formality if not his dialect, “and I understand you are interested in becoming a friendly visitor. Give me a call and we can arrange a time that suits you.”

I met Andrew one sunny April Morning at his apartment in West Hollywood. Andrew had been seeing a therapist at the Los Angeles LGBT center, and through the Center he was assigned different volunteers who would make visits to his house. My friend Scott was one such volunteer. Scott, who I went to Grad school with, lived a couple of buildings away from Andrew at the time. Scott was getting ready to move out of the city to take a job in Orange County, but was so taken with Andrew, he asked if I would be interested in meeting him and possibly making regular visits with him. Scott told me of Andrew’s love of movies and fascination with Hollywood. A man after my own heart. I was in. When I met Andrew, he was eighty-five years old, skinny as a twig, with a nervous air about him, as if he were always walking a tightrope. He seemed always a little off-balance. But he was sharp as a tack, and had a memory and knowledge of movie trivia unlike any I’d seen before.

 On our first visit, we spent most of the time talking about his favorite movie star, a woman whose giant photo adorned his bedroom wall, Marlene Dietrich. His eyes lit up when he spoke of seeing her movies when he was younger at the small movie theater in Cardiff, which was the closest town to his childhood home in England. Before our first visit ended, he said something that has stuck with me, as he walked me to the door, he apologized for “monopolizing” the conversation. I reassured him that he hadn’t, and that I was very interested in more stories of his life. He smiled and without any sarcasm he said, “I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed there. Nothing much has happened to me.”

 For three years, I visited Andrew at least once a week. Sometimes we would watch movies, sometimes we would go to lunch. I would bring him cookies and chocolates- he had a crazy sweet tooth. Watching him eat a cookie was pure joy. His eyes would light up, he would smile and make a yum sound that was somewhere between a low hum and a grunt of satisfaction. I spent his last Thanksgiving with him, he came to my house with my family. And on his last Christmas we went to the movies. Andrew passed away on June 10th 2020. He had been in a nursing facility in Santa Monica amid the worldwide shutdown. The Covid crisis made visiting him in a nursing home impossible. So from March to June, I didn’t get to see him at all.

Andrew was born in 1932 in Great Britain in Newport, a small town near the Wales border. He described his Father as a functioning alcoholic who was cold and distant. He didn’t speak a lot about his mother, but I got the feeling that she was subservient to his father and equally distant and cold. His childhood home had a wood-burning stove and a boiler that had to be lit every morning, as early as the dawn, and his mother was always up and working in the kitchen by the time Andrew and his siblings would get up for school. He had two brothers and two sisters. He would occasionally speak of them, but he mostly said he wasn’t particularly close to them either.  His father owned a petrol station near the border of their small town, and spent most of his days there. He would then spend most of his evenings at the local pub, and when he was home he could be seen at the dining room table reading the newspaper and demanding peace and quiet. Andrew’s life was mostly about trying not to disturb the stasis of his house, and Andrew was nothing if not accommodating.

 In 1940, as the war across Europe began to rage, Andrew recalled nights when air raid sirens would wake him and his family, and they would seek shelter in the basement of whichever family’s turn it was in the neighborhood to act as host- it was apparently a rotating responsibility. London was far enough away from them that the raids were more a precaution than anything else, and Andrew recalled the nights spent in his neighbor’s cellars as a chance to socialize, drink tea and play with other children. His experience of the war was that it was close, but not imminently a threat to him. Thus, perpetuating a lifetime of being just on the outskirts of the rest of the world, the world where things happened to other people.  There were days he and his fellow classmates would be made to walk to school with their gas masks in hand, just in case. But he always said he never believed he was in any real danger. Andrew is the definition of cool-headed, even-tempered, very pragmatic and he longed so much to find a place he fit in. He discovered the cinema as a young boy, and whenever he could he would make his way to the local movie theater, or on special occasions to the larger movie palace in Cardiff, and he would watch everything he could. Weekends were the best, because they ran movies all day, and it was often double or triple features of the latest and most glamorous Hollywood offerings. It was in his teenage years, as the war was ending, that he discovered the films of Marlene Dietrich, who he would adore until the end of his life. He was also a huge fan of Bette Davis, and to hear him describe the disgrace of the Academy Awards when she lost for Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, was the most eloquent shade you’ve ever heard.

One Sunday afternoon, just as he was enjoying a lemon square, he got lost in a thought, and cocked his head slightly before speaking.  “I regret not being an actor,” he said. And the weight of sadness in his voice made the words heavy, as if they had been coated in molasses. Andrew often spoke of regrets. So many regrets. His parents disparaged his love of movies, as so many of their generation had. Andrew wasn’t the personality to defy his duty to his family’s expectations. He wasn’t the guy that would run away to Hollywood to become famous. He was the guy nothing happened to. In his mind, he had failed at life. He said as much on more than one occasion. I wanted to tell him he was wrong. I never did.

He loved performing, and discovered, as a septuagenarian, his voice. He took singing lessons from Los Angeles Community College and a senior learning center in Santa Monica. He spoke of the Irving Berlin classics he got to sing in front of the class, and once a semester to a larger audience. In 2008, he flew to Germany for a friend’s wedding and in front of the entire wedding party on a stage with a band, got to sing Yes, Yes- with some updated lyrics appropriate to the happy couple.  The performance was caught on someone’s phone and posted to YouTube*.  I watch it and I see the joy in him. The pure joy of a true performer. *The link is at the end of this story.

After spending his required two years of British service, which he served in the Royal Air Force in post-war Germany, Andrew decided to go to college across the pond. His sister had moved to Toronto and talked him into attending the University of Toronto. He graduated with a degree in Psychology, and decided to pursue his masters in the subject at the University of Chicago. “Why psychology?” I asked him. His answer, “I wanted to find a way to fix myself.”I don’t think he understood the impact of telling a queer man in 2017, so matter-of-factly that he spent seven years in college pursuing a degree that would serve to change him from a homosexual to a heterosexual man. Yes, Andrew was gay. He came out in his seventies. And he told me another of his deepest regrets was that he waited so long. And that he wasted years of education in what he called a “deplorable attempt,” to fix what he considered to be the broken parts of himself. He spent years writing a book to heal homosexuals. He was convinced if he could cure himself, he could cure others. He abandoned the book before he finished, when he realized that he wasn’t able to fix himself. He still waited to come out for decades, but lived with the shame of being “incurable.”

When he was nearly eighty years old, he wrote a letter to each of his siblings detailing his “coming out.” And while, one of his sisters told him she assumed as much, his older brother told him he didn’t want anything more to do with Andrew because of it. They weren’t close, and Andrew said it didn’t affect him much. However, when his brother reached out to him a few years later to apologize, he had saved the letter. I saw it. I told him what a tremendous thing it was that Andrew had changed the mind of a man in his nineties. He shrugged it off. Unaware of the activism he had created.

In the early 70s, he moved to Los Angeles, and with a friend, decided to move into an apartment in West Hollywood. The irony being that Andrew claims he had no idea, at all, that West Hollywood was a gay area. When his friend backed out of moving in after they signed the lease, because of financial reasons, Andrew moved into his final apartment alone. When I met him over forty years later, he was still in the same place.  And had lived alone the entire time. Incredibly without much contact with the gay community around him. He spent the entire AIDS epidemic in one of the hardest hit areas in the country, and he said he only knew one person who died. A man he barely knew. Again, he existed on the outskirts of a world where things were happening to everyone but him. He never had a boyfriend. And when he came out, he told me he realized it was too late. He didn’t like to talk about his sexual past, but he did tell me that he never had a “real” experience with another man.

Shortly after moving into his West Hollywood apartment, he became a massage therapist. He’d abandoned his psychology path, and so for the rest of his life worked different jobs, in an attempt to find what he was “supposed” to do. He was enterprising as a massage therapist. He would write to certain celebrities and offer them free massages for an endorsement. He was taken up by several. The most significant being Rock Hudson. I was so fascinated that Rock Hudson had been in the very apartment that I visited Andrew in, that I brought it up a lot. “You got Rock Hudson naked in this apartment!” I would tease him. He still had the massage table. I remember when he showed it to me, he said he was disappointed that he couldn’t “remember what Rock Hudson’s cock looked like.” That’s a direct quote. He remembered that he reeked of alcohol, it was early afternoon and Andrew found that very unpleasant. He also vaguely remembers a sexual proposition, as if it were expected. “Wait, wait, wait,” I remember our conversation exactly, “Are you telling me,” I started, “you had the chance to give Rock Hudson a happy ending, on this very table anand you didn’t do it?”  Andrew laughed at this, and threw his hands in the air, dramatically, “I was never okay with that, but looking back now, I think he thought it was expected because of the neighborhood.”  His face changed a little and with a tinge of remorse he said, “I never did that.” And that was that.  This sparked a long talk about his “type,” a conversation he must have wanted to have for a long time. He had photos, cut from magazines, he kept in his photo albums, photos of shirtless men, actors he had been into, and even a gay porn star. There was no shame in his voice, and he in no way hesitated. In that moment, he was like a young man that had finally been given permission to finally reveal a long-hidden desire. A light was shining on something he had only ever allowed to exist in the shadows. He had very specific details. He liked broad shoulders, he liked tall men. He liked biceps more than triceps. He wasn’t apologetic. It was fabulous.

And then he told me about the first man he allowed himself to fall in love with. And in true Andrew fashion, it was something just outside of possibility. Right after he came out of the closet, he started seeing a therapist at the LGBT center in Hollywood. He saw the man for quite a few months, and it didn’t take long before he developed feelings for him. When he spoke about it, I swear, he had a tinge of teenage angst. “I don’t understand why he wouldn’t see me outside of the office.” He would say, as if his critical-thinking ability, like all of us with our first serious crush, had abandoned him. He had a hard time telling the story. He had connected, in a very real way, with another man for the first time in his life, in a manner that made reciprocity impossible. The man was “handsome, warm and just perfect.” I don’t even think Andrew was aware of his own idealization, but it made me immediately grateful for him. As awful as unrequited love is, it is a sign that we think we’re worthy. Andrew thought he was worthy of this thing he ran from his whole life. The cruelness of life made his obtaining it not possible in this scenario, and he never tried with anyone else, but he felt it, however briefly.

In February 2020, Andrew was admitted to Cedars Sanai Hospital. His gallbladder was seriously inflamed and he was septic. He had to have his gallbladder removed. I saw him a few days before he went to the hospital. He was struggling a bit more with his memory. He complained of being confused, and he said loneliness was surrounding him. It was a strange way to express it. “It’s like I’m surrounded by things that aren’t there.” He was also forgetting things unless they were in front of him. So I wrote my phone number next to both of his phones and I told him to call me whenever he felt lonely. He never did. I feel bad for leaving that day. But I couldn’t stay. Had I known it was going to be our last visit in his home I would have taken it in for a last time. I didn’t.

Andrew and I shared a love of Shakespeare. A love of words. He wanted to be a writer. After he abandoned writing his book, it took him years and years before he would pick up writing again. Apart from Journals, which he had kept regularly for fifty years, he worked on a gay version of Romeo and Juliet. He still had the original copy he had typed on an old typewriter. His idea was pretty clever, Romeo and Juliet were both men, Juliet was Julio, and instead of just changing pronouns, he pulled lines from other Shakespeare plays, lines that would be appropriate to the moment. So instead of Romeo saying “See how she leans her cheek upon her hand,” he would use a line from Richard II, “He does hold such fire in his hand,” and then “O, that I were a glove upon that hand,” still works. So rather than change the words of the great Bard, he borrowed them from other plays to change the gender.  He was very proud of the piece, and it must have been a lot of work to find so many different quotes apropos to the story. When he was finished, he sent the play, along with a fan letter to Kenneth Branagh, who took the time to respond to him. Andrew kept the note he got from him. He showed me once, and while I don’t remember the exact words, Mr. Branagh told him that he liked the idea, that it was truly clever, and that he would love to work on something like it someday.  It was polite, if not a little dismissive, and Andrew never pursued it any further.

He wrote a lot of fan letters. He had a few framed photos of celebrities with autographs- though no big movie stars, they were character or television actors who had long since been removed from pop culture. I didn’t recognize any of them, and I pride myself on knowing a lot about early Hollywood. I did recognize his nearly life-size portrait of Marlene Dietrich that decked the wall next to his bed. It was a black and white movie still, and though I forget the movie it comes from, I’ll always remember her expression, that no-nonsense diva that clashed entirely with who Andrew was and so was a perfect snapshot of what I knew he secretly always wanted to be. One of Andrew’s favorite movies was Witness for the Prosecution, the Billy Wilder courtroom drama that showcased one of Marlene Dietrich’s best performances. We watched it on Thanksgiving last year with my dad, my brother and my best friend. All in my living room, on my large sectional. Andrew, curled up in the corner of the sofa, knees to chest like a little kid, it was his way of sharing a piece of himself through a movie he loved so dearly. He also loved Morocco, which garnered Marlene Dietrich the only Oscar nomination she ever received. A fact he always found staggeringly difficult to comprehend. There was a local movie theater in Santa Monica showing a Marlene Dietrich double-feature, Morocco and Blonde Venus, two of his favorites. I bought tickets for us and planned to take him, but he was hospitalized three days before, and the tickets were never used. Someday I will watch Morocco.

The last time I saw Andrew was at the end of February. The Covid crisis hadn’t begun in America yet, but there were rumors that it was imminent, and in reality, it was about two weeks away from shutting us down completely. He was about to be transferred from the hospital to a rehabilitation facility because he was aspirating. When he swallowed food, small pieces of it were getting into his lungs, ensuring an infection which would most likely lead to pneumonia. They were feeding him intravenously. They wanted to put a feeding tube in, but he didn’t want it. And his caregiver said Andrew’s wishes should be honored.  I walked into his room in the ICU and he made eye contact, and it was the first time that he didn’t respond to seeing me. His eyes were alert and he turned his head to me, but there was no recognition, and no emotion. I was worried that he didn’t know who I was, but he did. I got close to him, I said, “Hi Andrew,” and he asked me for food. And he asked me for water. And he said he was being held against his will. He tried to pull the tube from his nose. He tried to remove his catheter, and when the nurses came to subdue him, he was verbally combative and not at all the Andrew I had known. He was battling, not only being away from the home he had known for decades, but the autonomy that had kept him going. What as I saw as loneliness he must have seen as sovereignty. What I assumed was isolation, he knew as freedom. I didn’t know that his freedom would be gone for good, or that it would be the last time that I saw him, but I stayed with him that day for longer than usual. We watched The Lion King, occasionally he would ask me for something to eat. He would tell me they were starving him to death. I reassured him it was temporary because of his surgery. He would accept my answer and we would sit in silence, watching the movie. After the movie, we sat a little longer, not speaking, I would smile when he looked at me, and sometimes he would try to smile back. He said he was sorry for not saying more. He was tired. Before I left, he grabbed my hand and we just looked at each other. And I said, “I love you, Andrew.”  He didn’t say it back. He didn’t nod or smile. After a moment he let go of my hand. I said I would see him soon. All he said was “please.”

I sat in my car in the parking garage of Cedars Sinai crying for close to an hour. How did this happen to Andrew? How can the world contain so many people and be a place of such loneliness? Here was a man who made it nearly ninety years, who lived on two different continents, in three different countries, had two degrees, found his way to West Hollywood at the birth of the gay rights liberation movement, and was dying with so little. I was crying partly because I felt Andrew’s burden. I am Andrew. All gay men run the risk of isolation and rejection. Some of us don’t find a spouse or a partner for life. Some of us don’t have children. And with the competitive nature of gay life in Hollywood, some of us don’t have the luxury of collecting a group of friends to substitute family because we get in our own way. We don’t come out until we’re too old. We don’t fall in love, because we can’t reconcile our own brokenness. Andrew tried. He tried so hard to find a community. Family. And he had some of us. But man did he regret his life.

He let the world define him. His gentleness, his kindness not shared by a multitude but only a select few of us graced with his presence. He jumped into the world in his seventies, but never let go of the line that held him back, that anchored him to the man he wasn’t, and never could be. The man that nothing happened to is the man Andrew thought he was, but of course it wasn’t at all who he was. His face told the story of regret in each line, every imperfection.  His eyes shone more what if’s than triumphs. I don’t know that he ever knew how much he offered others. His soft voice, seemingly afraid to speak too loudly, always uttering words of wisdom, unheard by too many. His heart never broken, and yet never entirely whole.  He kept himself where he thought he belonged, because he thought he started too late, but he persisted. He went to classes. He went to the Center. He went to movie nights with other queer seniors. He actually never gave up. This is the reminder. This is what Andrew gave me.

I hold his legacy, his unbroken heart, and for the rest of my days I’ll carry a piece of him. The piece that’s the same as me. A little Andrew when I watch a new movie that we would have analyzed together while we ate brownies. A little Andrew when I write about being queer and what it means to love one another. To let go of the outside and cultivate what’s deeper, what matters. A little Andrew when I’m afraid of trying something new. Or falling in love. Or using my voice. His regret is my fuel.

Andrew died on June 10, 2020. Alone in a nursing facility amid the global shutdown. I don’t know what his last words were. I don’t know what he looked like at the end. I don’t know if he knew he was loved. Andrew was a gay man who lived his life to accommodate the comfort of others. He never fell in love. He never dated a man. He came out when he was in his seventies. He wrote a gay version of Romeo and Juliet. He knew all the lyrics to the Irving Berlin songbook. He was a member of toastmasters. He loved Marlene Dietrich. He loved movies. He hated Donald Trump. He listened to NPR. He read self-help books. He exercised every morning. He loved desserts. He spoke with eloquence. He was always cold. He loved to sing. He loved to listen to other people’s stories. And though he thought he was a man that nothing ever happened to- he happened. And my life would be greatly diminished if he hadn’t.

R.I.P My Dear Friend…