Specific Nothings From a Treetop Café

brown trees on green grass field during daytime

by Patrick Hurley

He always had an otiose memory. For as long as he could remember, he couldn’t really remember.  He seemed only able to recall details that indicated nothing of significant value or occasion. He could remember the color of a piece of food stuck in a tooth, say, or the speck of brown in the iris of a delivery boy’s eye. He couldn’t remember names, never recall a face, only immeasurable and seemingly irrelevant details could switch on his hippocampus. He is currently sitting at the window of a cafe that sits atop a tall tree at the end of Main Street. The Treetop, as it is known to the locals, is a converted treehouse made entirely of glass. It is said to have originally been built as a military fort two centuries earlier. The exact details are not at all clear. It’s also rumored to have been built by an eccentric millionaire in the 1930s to impress a Hollywood starlet. Whatever its genesis, the Treetop is a magical place. From a distance it looks like a giant Christmas ornament. It dangles near the top of an oversized beech tree, a lit up glass bulb with tiny figures lurking about inside. You have to climb a ladder up the massive trunk, then traverse a series of staircases which are built into the protracted branches, until, at last, you reach the entrance which sits over three stories above the ground. The door to the Treetop is located at the base of the structure, and once inside, patrons are instantly wowed by the floor to ceiling windows that circle the massive main room providing a 360-degree view of the entire town.  The Treetop serves coffee and tea, but classy tea of the high British variety, complete with trays of finger sandwiches and petit fours all smoothly covered in shiny pastel frostings, pinks and greens and yellows like miniature square Easter eggs. They used to serve liquor, but a dozen or so drunken falls led the owners to change their business model, and The Treetop has since become a trendy hangout for teetotalers and writers and readers alike.

C.L. finds himself sitting at a corner table, firmly wedged between two windows, sipping a chamomile and honey. He’s been coming to the Treetop for as long as he can remember, and as far as he knows, he has always come alone. He’s been alone for as long as he can remember. Ever since the love of his life died. Carole, his childhood sweetheart and constant companion, had drowned in front of him when they were both eighteen. Ever since, a kind of inertia had settled upon him. He finds no joy in life, only comfort in what he assumes is his daily routine. As if by rote, he goes about his days with no deviance, and no hope of any future. Life continues around him, but he has been stuck in the deepest of despairs, in the sorriest of sorrows ever since Carole was lost to the sea.  He doesn’t know anyone, and so asks for nothing of them. He doesn’t work, he steals what he needs from affluent enough people not to notice. He squats wherever he can, and he cannot care about anyone or anything. Poor C.L. is all his mother would ever say about him until the day she died of a broken heart. Neither of his parents had seen him after Carole’s death. His father never spoke of him again, and to this day lives in a rocking chair in an old folk’s home where he is mostly ignored, fed only enough to keep him from starving to death. As for C.L., he hasn’t been interested in anything for so long, that the passing of years is no different to him than the blink of an eye. The owner of the Treetop has been taking pity on him and never charges him for his chamomile and honey, which is the only thing C.L. drinks.

Which brings me to his odd memory. When he was a child, his mother thought the odd details he could remember was the sign of a disorder. And their family doctor agreed. It must be some kind of head trauma, the doctor said, he must have been injured. His mother swore that he was never injured as a child, and she was precisely the kind of helicopter parent that would surely have noticed. Perhaps it happened in the womb, then, the doctor said, calling into question the very womanhood that C.L’s mother held as the only thing of value she possessed. She never recovered from the good doctor’s casual suggestion that her womb could have been inhospitable, even violent. When C.L. was ten years old, he started to exhibit signs of being antisocial, and again the doctor entered the picture. It could be a brain tumor, he said, and C.L.’s mother, at just the words fainted dead away. After dozens and dozens of tests, the doctor finally concluded that brain tumors can sometimes be impossible to locate. He wanted to open up C.L.’s brain and “explore,” and in her fitful fear, C.L.’s mother agreed. In a strange twist of fate, the doctor died of an aneurism the day of the operation, and it was only after hours and hours that C.L. finally got up and left the hospital when the nurses promptly forgot to tell him his doctor was dead.

C.L. was always the person you forgot was in the room. People looked past him all the time. After he left the hospital that day,  he never got another brain test again. His memory still proves to be bizarre. He tries to stick to routines, so as to minimize the need to recall specific details about things that he just can’t seem to remember. His chamomile and honey, for instance, is only his regular drink because it’s the first item on the menu, and he can’t remember anything past it. He also can’t remember if he likes tea or coffee or both or neither. He actually doesn’t like chamomile and honey. It’s like someone spat into a cup of potpourri and then boiled it. He is often commiserating with himself about the dreadful flavor between egregious sips.  And so, he remembers only what seems like random details. Carole’s death, on the other hand, and the romance they shared, he can remember every minute of. Every tiny nuanced detail seems to stick to his brain like rice to sushi, a fate worse than death, if only he could forget her. He saw it as a cosmic reckoning.  As if the experience of the loss that he was doomed to relive day after day was some kind of punishment from god or whatever god might be. For it was true that nearly every waking moment of his life he was lost in some thought of Carole. Why was his memory so perfect of her, and so faulty with everything else? He had memorized every part of her, every patch of skin, every strand of hair. He hadn’t tried to, it just happened. He often considered that given the chance, he could recreate her entirely. If he were an artist, say, a sculptor or painter, he could make her likeness in a kind of verisimilitude unseen in most representational art.  But alas, another burden of his was the he in fact had no talent whatsoever for anything.  He was the personification of tap water. Plain, flavorless, as common a thing as exists in the civilized world. He also often hopes that the doctor who never showed up that day was right, he has a brain tumor and so he’ll surely drop dead soon.

The tree branches, just outside the window creak as C.L. feels the gentle sway of The Treetop in the morning breeze. At least, he thinks it’s morning.  He pulls the unbuttoned cardigan he’s wearing closer to his chest to warm up, and then slips his hands into the pockets. His left hand immediately feels the sharp edge of a business card. That’s odd, he thinks, but of course he has no memory of anyone giving him a business card. He pulls out the card, and it’s a deep emerald green colored card with only one word written on it, LETHE in all caps. And because of his unusual inability to retain useful details, the only memory the card issues forth is the image of a man with a mustache. Not helpful, he thinks, for surely, there are many men with mustaches who have no attachment to this card whatsoever. It’s less than ideal evidence to pursue, not that he had any interest in pursuit of any kind. Oh well, just as well.  He puts the card on the table in front of him, face up, and he stares at the letters. He doesn’t know what the word Lethe means. He’s pretty certain it’s not a real word, but he doesn’t really have a good reason to believe this, he calls it a hunch. His hunches are almost always wrong, but that has never slowed him down from readily believing them. Like most humans, he was not gifted in the art of estimation. And, as previously stated, he has quite given up the idea that he will pursue the meaning of this strange card or its owner, who may or may not be a man with a mustache.

Just then, as if by some cosmic force, a man with a mustache is suddenly standing in front of him.  C.L. looks up and wants to be struck by the coincidence, but promptly forgets that he was in fact just thinking about a man with a mustache, and then, as if he conjured one, voila! Here one stands. But no, he just stares awkwardly because he’s already forgotten, and so the irony, or the coincidence, depending on your cosmic outlook, is entirely lost on him. Luckily, the man in the mustache speaks first.

“Mr. Dodson, I presume.” The man with the mustache removes his rather squarish hat from his rather roundish head and nods at C.L. who continues staring blankly back at him. The fact that the man knows his name does not startle C.L. for he has had many encounters with people who seem to know him, people whom he has either forgotten entirely, or just never bothered to remember in the first place.

“You’re a rather slippery fellow, aren’t you?” the man says playfully as he motions to the empty chair next to C.L. “Do you mind?”  The man holds the back of the chair waiting for C.L. to give him permission to sit.  C.L., having not socialized for as long as he could remember, isn’t quite sure what to do, but he eventually nods, granting the man access to the chair. The man with the mustache smiles and sits. He takes a moment to take in his rather odd surroundings. After all, how often does one find himself in a glass bulb dangling from a tree branch? The man with the mustache is immediately struck by the incredible view and the sound he makes conveys as much, a kind of approving moan.

“Mmm, impressive,” the man with the mustache scans the scenery and nods approvingly.

“I suppose you want to know who I am,” the man says, and C.L. doesn’t really have an opinion one way or the other.

“I work for an organization that helped eradicate the terrible government program known as the EROS Project,” the man deliberately pauses, he stares at C.L. to see if the word Eros strikes any familiar chords.  “Does that name ring any bells?” Of course it doesn’t. C.L. doesn’t have normal human bells, if he has any bells at all. Suddenly, he is caught in the memory of something. A scent. Lavender, maybe jasmine.  Then without thinking he blurts out, “Eros means love.”  The man with the mustache smiles. C.L. is uncomfortable and keeps talking, “I must have known that before…” he realizes he can’t trust a total stranger in a treetop café who has appeared out of nowhere with an ominous mustache. “Before what?” the man asks almost menacingly. C.L. isn’t sure how to interpret the man’s tone.

“Did something happen to you,” the man asks gently. C.L. is ready to change the subject, “How do you know who I am?”  He asks more curtly that he’d intended, and he immediately drops eye contact and stares at the lace tablecloth, the green LETHE card staring at him.

“Did you give me this card?” C.L. asks as he picks up the card to show the man. The man just smiles.

“I need you to listen to me very carefully,” the man whispers and leans in close to C.L. The rest of the Treetop seems to go silent and still. The man continues, “Something happened to you when you were eighteen, something you were not supposed to know about.” There’s a gravity to his voice, pulling C.L. into orbit, and suddenly he feels something akin to aggravation.  The man continues to speak in a low monotone, “you were one of the test subjects in the EROS project. A pilot experiment aimed at rehabilitation, but something went terribly, terribly wrong.”

“Rehabilitation?” C.L. interrupts, “from what?”  The man leans back, his face kind of drenched in pity.

“We met briefly one night before the Eros Project was shut down, at the Highland facility,” the man says, “I gave you my card and told you to find me when you got out.” C.L. does not remember this. He looks at the card on the table, and before he can stop himself, “what’s Lethe mean?”  The man smiles and corrects him, “it’s pronounced Leethee, it’s Greek.”

“Do I speak Greek?”

“Do you know how old you are?” the man asks. C.L. almost scoffs at such an insulting question, but the truth is he doesn’t know. He hasn’t really paid attention to any of the days limping by him. Since Carole died, he has not marked the passage of time. Under the heavy weather of years, monotony and routine have become their own dimension, their own kind of eternity.  

“What does Lethe mean? In Greek?” C.L. asks, and he’s becoming somewhat impatient.

“Before I can help you,” the man says, disregarding C.L.’s question, “you need to tell me what happened. I can only help you if I know what happened.” This sounds to C.L. like he wants to know about Carole, and that’s not a subject he wants to broach with a total stranger.

“I can help you, if you tell me,” the man says, and C.L. suddenly feels threatened. Help me? He wants to say. Help me with what? Who does this man think he is? This man with a preposterous mustache

“Was it a death?” the man asks, “it’s usually a death.”

Usually?

“If you don’t tell me, we’ll never be able to move forward.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about!”

“You must have had some tragic event that has changed the course of your whole life. Now, what was it? Was it someone you loved?”  The man with the mustache is growing frustrated, which in turn is making C.L. grow frustrated.

“I loved her more than anything,” C.L.’s voice cracks, he hadn’t intended it to. His face quivers, he didn’t know how to stop it. He hasn’t spoken of her out loud. Not to anyone. Not since that day.

“She died,” the man with the mustache says, and C.L. closes his eyes and nods and says, “I think I did too.”

“How did she die?”

“She…drowned. On her eighteenth birthday.”

“How?”

“What do you mean how? In the water!”

“Where was she?”

“We were taking a boat to the island.”

“What island?”

“I can’t remember the name of it.”

“What body of water?”

“What kind of a question is that?”

“Was it a lake, a river?”

“A river? There’s no island on a river! It was the ocean.”

The man with the mustache stares at C.L. “the ocean?” he asks. “Yes,” C.L. says sharply, “the ocean.” 

“Why were you at the ocean?”

“It was her birthday. We went to the beach all the time growing up. It was our favorite place.”

“You grew up in St. Louis.”

“So?”

“What beach do you think you went to?”

C.L. is about to answer, when he realizes he doesn’t have one. No, he thinks, no, this is not right. He does remember everything about his time with Carole, how are these little details missing? He closes his eyes, and as he so often does, he loses the outside world to the sound of the tide, and the warmth of the sun and the sharp joy that is Carole’s laugh.

 When he opens his eyes, he and Carole are on the beach. They are alone. It’s midday on a perfect day, the sky is painted Egyptian blue, and not a single cloud to be seen. It’s suddenly too perfect. As he describes it out loud, he hears the artifice, like when a child makes up a lie in the heat of a moment, and it’s as see through as the pristine glass of The Treetop. He keeps describing it, nonetheless. The water sparkles in the sunlight, all deep blues and greens, and the crashing waves are as effervescent as champagne. The sand sparkles like crushed cream-colored diamonds, and perfect palm trees with cellophane fronds sway in the just right breeze. Nostalgia is one thing, and he’s not prone to it, but this feels more like treacle. It must be that memory is sweetened by tragedy. He sees Carole laughing. Something funny was always just happening, or had just happened. Her laugh was music.  He feels her hand, soft and warm. Her smile hits his chest with a tinge of something otherworldly. She is perfect. Too perfect. All this is out of a book, a fairy tale. All he can think is that he’s made it perfect to hide the awful, awful ending. He pulls her perfect hand to his face to kiss it gently. He closes his eyes, the smell of something sweet and brackish, a sweat and sand and sea and something soft, lavender.  He opens his eyes, and smiles. Her lotion smells like lavender. Her hand goes cold. She jumps to her feet. The boat’s waiting, she says,  last one there, she says, come on slow-poke. The sky darkens, the sea dulls, and the novelty of summer becomes the sleet grey of winter. Clouds appear, a chill in the air, the sand feels like broken glass on his feet as they rush toward the dock. She doesn’t turn to look at him, which is different, he thinks. She’s supposed to turn her head and smile at me, as I try to catch her.  The memory suddenly moves backwards. She’s running toward him, with her back to him, and he’s backwardly running away. They fall onto their blanket, he’s kissing her hand, his eyes close. Darkness.

He opens his eyes. The diner they used to sneak away to for chocolate malts and French fries, how unoriginal, he thinks. The lacquered tabletops and plush red booths reminded him of something from a time long lost, but not his own. He can’t taste the ice cream, but he can feel the cold like mushy ice cubes freezing the roof of his mouth. The ketchup on the fries is like mucous, no flavor just a thick, viscous gel. The music in the background indeterminate, like a million melodies of a million mediocre musicians. And they, sitting as if posing for some sentimental artist hoping to recapture his own youth through his subjects, shoulder to shoulder, sipping from the same fountain glass. He can hear her the sound of her, but no words. What did she say that day? Whatever day of the hundreds of days this was? Was it all of them? Was his mind melding every individual moment into this mess of abstract nothingness. What did she say? Do you love me? Will you run away with me?  What would you do without me? The absence of her was as big in his mind as if the sun stopped rising suddenly. How, he thought,  do people get over it. Do your eyes really adjust to that kind of darkness? He was lost in the curse of memory, but in what was now a washed and anodyne medley of nothing specific.  But the pain attached to it was so great that the searing heat in his chest was a permanent fixture to his days.

And then, he’s back at the beach, that last day, with the grey of a dropsical sky descending upon them as heavy as a lid. He chased Carole to the dock, where a few boats were tied. Carole jumped into one of the smaller ones, gloating that she was the victor of the race.  C.L. untied the boat from the dock, raised the sail, and off they went toward the drooping rays of the sun. They sat on the bow of the boat, with their feet dangling in the warm water, his arm around her, as they eyed the horizon hoping to catch the sun slowly drip into the sea. But the sky had turned dingy, the sea beneath them sloshing against the boat like dirty dishwater. The sunset was not to be, but that only proved an exciting challenge. Carole had a plan, god knows why. One of her virtues, he thought, was her spontaneous love of life. She stood up, resolutely readying herself for a dive off of the boat.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“Would you save me if I started to drown?” she said with that grin on her face that implied more than mischief. That grin that kept him up nights.

“Of course, I would,” he responded belligerently.

“Prove it.” She said as she removed her shirt and plopped into the water like a stone. C.L. didn’t panic, he didn’t think much of it in fact. This was Carole. This was what she did. He got a little nervous when she started to swim away from the boat, but was calmed by her singing “Come Sail Away” at the top of her voice.

“Okay, that’s far enough,” he said leaning over the edge of the boat and waving her back in. He was still smiling as she dunked her head underwater, and splayed her legs into the air. He was still smiling when the whistling wind whistled a decibel higher. He was still smiling as the water started rocking the boat more and more.  He stopped smiling when he lost footing and slipped and fell. When he hit the ground, he heard thunder, and panic found him almost immediately. He could hear Carole laughing as he pulled himself to his feet. He could hear Carole laughing as he turned toward her, but it started to rain, and he couldn’t see her anymore. He could still hear Carole laughing as he threw the lifeline off the port side, and the wind carried it to starboard, and it landed with a splash on the opposite side of the boat. He thought Carole was laughing at the sight of the wind carrying the little inner-tube like a kite. And at some point, when he still thought she was laughing, it must have been that her laughter had turned to a panicked scream. He reeled in the life preserver. More rain, more thunder and now lightning. He couldn’t eye her in the water he didn’t know where to throw it. His heart was racing, he was screaming her name over and over again. He doesn’t know if it was the sound of nature, of the rain and the water hitting the boat, but soon the wind would take her screams, dissolve them into one high pitched wail.  Nature at her worst, a furious howl. The rain was falling in sheets so thick that it blinded him. He couldn’t even see the water now, save for the buckets of it that were pouring into the boat at his feet. The waves were intensifying quickly enough to nearly capsize him, and he held on. Why had he held on? Why didn’t he jump in after her? He never stopped screaming her name. Somehow he’s still there, still holding onto the small boat, and still screaming her name into the unforgiving blue-black Agony that had taken his only reason for living. When the storm relented and the dark world grew calm and silent and cold around him, he slid to the bottom of the boat, his eyes cast heavenward at the waning moon, and he drifted off into the night, hoping he would never be heard from again.

“When did you get back to shore?” he hears the man say, though his eyes are closed, and it seems like a trick question.

“What does it matter?”

“Do you have any memory of the Eros project?” the man asks. C.L. doesn’t care, and he shakes his head slowly to give the answer and the impression that he’s not interested in wherever this is going.

“Do you remember a Dr. White?”

“Why won’t you just leave me alone?”

“They really did a number on you.”

“I don’t know what that means.”

The man with the mustache nods quickly, and then reaches down into a small valise next to his legs on the ground, and pulls out a brown file. He opens the file and takes out a small bunch of papers. He rifles quickly through the packet of papers until he finds the page he’s looking for, sets in on the table, takes a breath and reads, “the subject has trouble discerning right from wrong. He often shows no guilt or remorse for his behavior. He lies and manipulates for his own gain. Both his mother and father have expressed worries bout his intense apathy.”  C.L. shakes his head again, and turns away from the man. He looks out the window, and stares at the thick brown tree branches, totally devoid of all life, cracked and useless, he thinks.  And then the smell again. It’s definitely lavender. The man with the mustache turns the page and scans it until he finds and reads the following, “Dr. White, your assigned psychiatrist, suggested that you were a prime candidate for the EROS project and you and your parents all signed the release. Is this your signature?” He shows C.L. a form with his signature on it, it’s definitely his signature, and C.L. tries to remember anything he can about EROS, or Dr. White. He comes up with nothing,

“Why don’t I remember any of that?” C.L., for the first time in a long time is curious. “What is the EROS Project?” The man takes the file back, closes it and sets in back in the valise. He then folds his hands on the table, and smiles. “The EROS project,” he begins, “was a government project meant to eliminate violent crime.”  The man pauses, C.L. reaches in his brain for something familiar, but it’s not there. The man continues, “test subjects, such as yourself, were given an experimental treatment that would serve as a kind of preventive medicine.”

“What do you mean,” C.L. starts, swallows slowly, and finishes, “such as myself?” The man waits a moment, and then reaches back to the valise and grabs a different folder. He holds the folder to his chest as he speaks, “It was a two-day procedure, developed by an army scientist, who specialized in a certain kind of combat training. He called it Wonderland.”

“Why Wonderland?”

“Because,” the man says, “it creates a fantastical alternative to reality.”

“So it’s brainwashing?”

“The scientist, along with dr. White, started using the technique to worked with terrorists to de-indoctrinate them if you will. He discovered a rather severe treatment that the government deemed worthy of trials on non-criminals. But on those who showed a high capacity for psychopathy. The Wonderland project soon became EROS.” When the man stopped talking, he started looking through the folder. C.L. was completely dumbfounded, he was pretty sure that this man had just told him that he is a psychopath. The man pulls a sheet of paper from the folder and reads it, “Empathy Rehabilitation Operating System, or EROS is a memory implantation meant to change the chemicals of the defunct brain in an effort to restore empathy.” The man looks up at C.L. who is shocked but riveted, so he keeps reading, “test subject M,” he motions to C.L. to let him know that’s him, “has been diagnosed by Dr. White with antisocial behavior and narcissistic personality disorder.  He also shows aptitude for cruelty, his mother brought him to Dr. White after she discovered that he had buried their cat alive.” The man looks up at C.L. once again. This time, C.L. is in total disbelief. His face gives away that he knows none of this, and he’s horrified to hear it.

“I buried a cat alive?” he asks in a broken whisper. “No, that can’t be. I would remember that.” The man quickly looks back down on the page and scans it for more information “How could I not remember that? Why would I do that? What are you telling me this for?!” C.L. slams his hands on the table, startling everyone in The Treetop, the man included. C.L.’s eyes scan the room and everyone is looking at him, after a long awkward silence, the man goes back to reading and the room goes back to normal.

“A young neighbor girl told your mother what you’d done. She said that you made her watch. That you forced her to watch as you put the cat into a plastic grocery bag, tied it, and then dug a hole in your back yard to-“  C.L. snaps “That’s enough!” He tries not to raise his voice, so as not to garner any attention, “I don’t want to hear anymore.”

“The young girl, the neighbor-“

“I said I don’t want to hear anymore.”

“Her name was Carole.”

C.L. sits upright and back into his chair, his eyes are wide. He slowly starts shaking his head, “no,” he whispers.

“She was very young,” the man says as C.L. continues to shake his head more and more vigorously. “No,” he says. a little louder.

“You must have been thinking about her when they…installed the memories.” C.L. can feel tears welling, the inside corners of his eyes feel hot, and he can’t quite catch his breath. He is still shaking his head, “No,” he says, “No, none of this makes any sense.”

“I know. Believe me, I do. You’re the not the first patient of Dr. White’s that I’ve found.”

“I don’t-what do you mean installed the memories?” C.L. has stopped shaking his head, and glares at the man waiting for a response. The man doesn’t know how to sugarcoat it, so he says it plainly, “Carole. Your memories of her. They’re not real. Carole doesn’t exist.”  In the silence that seemed to be punctuated, C.L. tries to imagine what this man’s motives could be for such an elaborate and cruel lie.

“I know this must be shocking,” the man says, “I do. But I promise you, that we at Lethe can help you.”

“Why should I believe you?” C.L. says, and his voice has an eerie calm to it. “Why should I believe a total stranger when he tells me that the only person I have ever loved is a figment of my imagination?”

“She’s not a figment, she’s proof.”

“Proof?”

“Yes.”

“Of what?”

“Your ability to love.” They both stare neither sure what to say next.

“My ability to love?”

“True sociopaths do not harbor the kinds of feelings you have for Carole. It’s awful, but the government thought if they could get psychopaths to love and lose someone then they could prevent them from killing others. Because they would know how it feels. That is the essence of empathy. When you think about it it’s a frighteningly small detail that stops people from murdering each other in the streets. I for one don’t sleep very well knowing the line between life and death is so fucking small.”

“They thought I was going to kill someone?” C.L. tries to remember anything he can, but all he gets are random details, specific nothings, and Carole. “Why can’t I remember anything but her?”

“One of the side effects of EROS is memory loss and dysfunction. The only real memories some subjects were able to retain were the false ones. Other memories tended to be reduced to strange and seemingly random details. The system does quite a number on your brain. But that’s where Lethe comes in.”

C.L. can’t imagine participating in anything this man is peddling. “You must think I’m crazy,” he says, “you must think I’m a fucking crazy person, if you think I’m just going to believe you.”

“We can get rid of the memories of Carole,” The man says as matter-of-factly as if he’d just ordered toast. “The government has approved and fast-tracked our extraction modality. We offer Legal and Ethical Targeted History Extraction, either real or artificial. PTSD is soon going to be a thing of the past. It is a state secret, of course, so I’m afraid now that I’ve told you, you don’t have a choice in the matter. The CIA is running LEHTE, and we can’t let any civilians have any knowledge of it.”

“I won’t remember anyway,” C.L. says, and he knows it true, which gives him some comfort. “I won’t remember any of this.

“Yes,” the man agrees, “but that’s not a chance we’re willing to take.” 

“Or you can just shoot me. I won’t resist.”

“I’m afraid not.”

C.L shakes his head calmly and takes a deep breath. “I’m not losing her again.”

“You won’t know that you ever knew her, because you didn’t. You can start your life all over.”

“But I’m a psychopath!”

“No, I told you, you were most likely misdiagnosed.”

“And that’s a chance you are willing to take?” C.L. is certain he’s got him on a technicality. “I barely have the will to live,” he says, “If you take her away from me, I don’t know what I’ll do. I don’t know who I would be. I’ll be nothing. I’ll be even less nothing than this? What’s less than this?”

“We’ll create a perfect environment, you’ll feel completely safe,” the man says to reassure him, “and then we’ll explain everything as we extract the memories. The only downside is you will have to relive her death. We don’t know how to remove it without targeting it completely and that means, you have to experience it. But then it will be gone.”

“Did you not hear me? I’m nothing without it,” C.L. says with more pity than he thought he possessed.

“Well, that’s the thing about trauma,” the man says, “it usually defines us.”

Then the man leans in to make his selling point, “I’m offering you the chance to literally wake up tomorrow and be free of pain. Yes, you may be a sociopath. That’s not for us to decide. Without your actions, we can’t just assume you to be. You have to have some say in your own life. That’s what free will is. Now, I don’t normally do this, but I can see that you are desperately wounded by the loss of this woman, fictional though she may be, so, I will walk away from here and let you carry on in your agony,  if you can give me one good reason why you should want to live with the memory of such pain.” The man sits back, fairly certain that his argument was a solid one. C.L. doesn’t know what he’s going to say, but he knows he’s going to say it. “Because,” he begins slowly, “I’d rather sit in this Treetop in implacable pain knowing I was loved. It may be that I can’t move. The world may hurt too much. But there is no world at all if you take her away from me. You can’t have her.”

“She’s not real.”

“She’s real enough.”

“And what if you remember this? What if you remember she’s not real?”

“I won’t. As soon as you leave, all of this goes with you. That’s how it works.”

The man looks at C.L. with a mistrustful glance, “how do you know that?” he asks.

“How do I know what?”

“How do you know you won’t remember this? How do you know how your memory loss works?”

“I don’t…I don’t understand.” C.L. says and he quickly becomes frightened. The man with the mustache stands up, and puts the hat back on his head and stands looming large over the small table C.L. is sitting at.

“How do you explain this café?” the man asks in a parental tone suggesting he already knows the answer. “What are you doing here, C.L.?”

“I’m having tea,” C.L. says, and he wants to sound certain, but it comes across weakly, though not as weak as the tea, he notices, as he begrudgingly swallows a big slug of it.

“And how did you get up here? C.L.?” The man stares down at him waiting for his response. C.L. closes his eyes, and he knows. And his heart sinks into the brine of his own despair. He feels the Treetop swaying in the breeze. He hears the murmuring of life around him. He sees Carole’s face, younger than he remembered, and he cannot recall where or how. One more time, he thinks, just one more time. And he opens his eyes and the world has gone white. And he knows the answer, “I climbed the stairs,” he says, and that’s that.

Shadows of Ariston

            I’m awake!

I’m in my bed on West Fifty Second Street. It’s dark. I can’t tell if my eyes are open or closed. My brain is sluggish, more so than usual. It’s too dark to see, my confusion is brightly mirrored by the absence of everything.  I hear the bed creaking beneath me. Old springs. A memory of something from childhood. I place my bare feet on the ligneous floor. The implacable insistence of winter hits my skin like a shock of electricity into my soles and up through the rest of me. I sit on the edge of my bed, blowing hot air into my cupped hands, trying to adjust to the blue-black world around me. A racing pulse, frosty sweat sticking my shirt to my back. I am gripped with something animal, an instinct from I know not where, as if I’m exposed. I feel seen in this total darkness, as if something that is best left concealed has burst to fantastical life. This is why humans fear the dark, it claims our souls unnoticed. I place my feet into my slippers, but they do not feel familiar. Suddenly, nothing is familiar. I don’t remember coming home. It seems I haven’t been to this place in years. Perhaps I’ve never been here at all. As if a place I’ve long imagined, has suddenly become real in the mid-night of someone else’s midwinter. Perhaps I’ve dreamt a future from which I am finally waking up. This must be the fatigue of sleep pressing itself into me. The residue of dream. I have long believed in the veracity of my own inventions, but history is surely no invention of mine. But then, neither are my dreams. I am only witness, not perpetrator. They are cast up from the lake of hell as either truth or torment. I pull back the thick curtains of the window over my small wooden bed, and the faintest of glowing light, flame or moon I cannot tell, creeps in just so. As I turn my head away from the window, toward the room itself, I see, directly across from me, as if mimicking my very posture,  a shadow. It is the figure of a man, to be sure. He is indiscernible and as still as the stagnant night air. But I recognize the danger of him. The sight of him takes my breath, stiffens my spine. I am resigned to whatever fate I’ve awoken to. How could I not be? The memories of shadows overtake me in all their furtive avidity. They are everywhere, portentous and unremitting, and they will never stop claiming us. The shadow moves as I do, and I know I am not alone in my room. A stranger has followed me home. But from where? I cannot stop myself from jumping to my feet. I cannot stop myself from dashing as quickly as I can out of my bedroom, through the front room of my apartment, out the front door, down three flights of stairs, and into the midwinter rime that is hovering like an ominous angel over the tranquil city. I cannot turn around, lest I see him fast on my trail. He is coming. The shadows are coming for us all.  

First it was Edmond, and then Anthony, lovers never heard from again. William and Joseph, and myriad gossips of countless others. Disappeared into the thickness of obscurity. Taken by shadows, never to return.  I knew better than to be alone before sunrise. Why was I home? What had happened? I can feel shards of ice pricking my feet through the thin fabric of my slippers, and the vaporous clouds of my exhaled breath obscures the world in front of me. I can’t make a wrong turn. I can’t stop moving forward.  I am running back to the Ariston, the bathhouse beneath the world,  where safety lives in esoteric perpetuity, and shadows stick to their otherworldly selves.  I will be safe there.                 

Memories shuffle like playing cards through my bitter mind. I see the faces of men who have been taken, I see the faces of men who have been invited into me, who have known more of my body than I. We are tied together, I can see, we are tied together from the beginning of time, from the moment Erebus emerged from the void of chaos and gave birth to Love. A threaded succession of the male form grasping workworn hands around the blood red filament of all of time. A patchwork of tragic testimony from antiquity to eternity. I think of the passage of time, and its immutable procession. And of Walter. Walter, the man I seek in the dark underworld. It is in these last few months, since I first saw him, that I have discovered a new sense, a craving I never dreamed I could have. And as I run through the sleeping, wintry city, I am filled with the warmth of his embrace. I will feel complete again when his arms encircle me. I cannot recall when last I saw him. The exact look of his face eludes me.  I run faster.  How long has it been? The fog of sleep or dream hasn’t entirely lifted, but still I run. I pass block after block of brick, of lighted gas lamps, of hobos tucked as warmly into the crevices of buildings as they can cram. I run past parked carriages and street signs whose letters are indiscernible from the white frost of winter. Everything feels at once in front of me, and from a different time. And there is no rear view, there is only forward.

I see the red sign next to the flame of the lantern, the Ariston Hotel. The bathhouse entrance is down a flight of stairs just next to the glowing hotel sign. I grab the icy rail and I proceed down the steps as fast I can. Moving stealthily through the entrance door, opening it just wide enough to pass through and shutting it quickly behind me. I am safe.  

“Good Evening, Mr. Galbert,” that would be Henry, the concierge of the bathhouse, an amenable, slightly overweight fellow of middle-age with a wide jaw and a silly overbite. He is smiling at me, as is his usual demeanor. His small yellow teeth seem to be reverting back into his enflamed gums, but his smile is wide enough to suggest his indifference to this fact. He knows my name from the register that all guests must sign before entering. It is not my name. I have invented a surname as I assume others have as well. Leaving a trail of breadcrumbs in this particular forest is ill-advised to men of any prominent name. Henry watches as I sign the register. I look up at him,  I try to look him in his gray eyes, and I catch myself staring at the plastering of the few remaining hairs on his head that he must intend to present as a natural part. I smile back at him, as much out of pity as courtesy. I pay him one dollar for a private room. He hands me a sheet, and a key, and I am grateful. I leave him to his duties and I enter the dark corridor that leads to the bathhouse itself. To the safety of the others.

The dark corridor from the entrance to the changing rooms is lit only by the ambient light of gas lamps emanating from open archways.  Shadows of men moving slowly toward the sounds of hissing steam, exerted breath, and of chatter somewhere in the distance dance across the walls. And I, somnambulating somehow, float through the cavernous dark toward something, someone I used to be.

The changing room is a square windowless space just past an archway covered by a plain white curtain. Inside the room are a couple of benches, some cubbies for shoes and other personal effects, and long bars along the back wall where wooden hangars are placed for clothing. One does not wear clothes in the Ariston. They are real world accessories. No such need for excess barriers impeding our gratification down here. If there is one thing that every man in the Ariston has in common it is the desire for what lies beneath the clothing. The walls are dark. All the walls of the Ariston are dark, covered in wooden slats or thick lacquered paint of deep gray, an ironic and hoary reminder of our intentions. But here in the dark submissive subterranean, our sub-morals seek spiritual excavation. A kind of duality is necessary where rules are created by the tyranny of exquisite deviance. This place is but a shadow of the world above. Where life blurs into fantasy and simple men become eloquent poets. A netherworld, ruled by the exiled in opposition to pious fealty. What is wrong becomes right, in the darkness of night, where our selves are cloaked in novelty. So there’s a kind of spiritual imperative to the dark walls of the Ariston, a willful ignorance. We are the shadow-makers and we obey only the laws of the mirage.

The Ariston is the reflective nighttime other of the selves we know in the light of day.  A curse of its own time. When the puppeteers at the fire had no materials to reflect the image of such persons, they remained unknown, but to each other. And who is the less wise? But here we have found in our haven, our sanctuary, a poetic meter of unknown feet, yet what delicious scansion. Dive into the abyss and interpret anyone you like. Until such a time that our own time is history, we adjust the truth to fit our needs, and our needs are fitted just fine by the desire of others. But this is not what I have come looking for tonight. I have spent many nights in the somber embrace of my shadow self, and in the arms of Walter, the man I have returned to find. I fear I will not find him.

I remove my clothes. I wrap myself in the small white sheet that smells vaguely of ammonia and tobacco, and I step back into the dark corridor. The light from the parlor seeps in to the dark tunnel like the morning sun, glowing amber. The color cuts a melancholy figure tonight. Where are you, Walter? I know the shadows are closing in. The hourglass overturned is nearly empty. Our only hope is the other. I don’t want to panic, but I know he’s not here, and I hope he is on his way.  I turn a corner, unsure of which direction I’m heading, and I happen upon the darkened entry to one of the steam rooms. Gusts of steam exhale from the tattered white curtain of the rounded archway like vapor escaping between the teeth of an angry dragon. Before I can reason otherwise, I slip into the steam room. I have often discovered Walter in such rooms. I don’t know that i’m looking for him now. As if lost in a fog on the darkest night, I am swallowed. A slow hiss. The pulse of dripping water. The poetic scent of wet wood and skin and sweat. In the miasma, a pall hangs like tapestry.  It swirls as thick as oil paint, leaving smears of smoke suspended in space. The heat is overwhelming, and the tickle of menthol sticks in my throat. I hear the wet touching of bodies nearby, but I can’t see them. I want to speak, but as custom would have it, in the dark, speaking is usually disruptive and not at all welcomed. Or is it that I have no voice here?

“Hello,” his voice whispers through the fog like a god beckoning me toward our Arcadia. It is Walter’s, but it is not now

“I can’t see you,” I whisper back.

“I’m right here…” The steam parts and on the bench against the back wall he is sitting and smiling at me. His face is not quite how I remembered, or how I see it when I close my eyes.

“You’re not really here,” I say bitterly. “Where are you?”

“I’m right here,” he says again, this time in a voice that isn’t his, “I’ve been waiting for you.” He pats the wooden bench next to him, suggesting that I sit with him. That was how it happened, once, the second or third time. The first night was all silences. A few awkward phrases and more than one glance that writers call furtive. This is the what the room looked like, what it smelled like. But now it’s drenched in nostalgia, something artificial, too sweet, like the memory of some long-forgotten cake that hasn’t touched your tongue since youth.

“Sit with me,” he says, and I cannot help but give in to the fondness of this creation. Everywhere I turn in the swirling gray haze of the steam I see another version of him, of us, moments imprinted on the walls, on the benches, like a zoopraxiscope of shadows in the air, memories hanging and moving all around us ethereal and permanent like fingerprints we’ve left behind. And I can’t tell the memories from the shadows from men from myself.

“You’ve been running,” he says.

 “It’s cold outside. I didn’t want to freeze to death.” He laughs in the way he does that suggests he thinks I’m endearing. I want to kiss him.

“You’re so dramatic,” he says through his impossibly perfect smile. There’s that nostalgia again. If it is nostalgia, then the time on this side of us together is greater than I can imagine.

“I couldn’t wait to see you,” I say, and it’s true. It’s truer than the walls closing in around me. 

“Aren’t you tired of running?” He leans in closer, “what are you running toward?” I don’t answer. I should answer. “Or,” he says, “are you running away from something?”  I should tell him I want to run away with him. Why didn’t I tell him that? Why didn’t I tell him that I only dream of him, that I am only half of myself when he is absent? Did I say these things? Did he know any of that? How much of life is what we think we know someone else thinks or knows? And what intervals fill the hours between desire and fulfilment? The long silence of loneliness. He pats his legs a couple of times, a sign of impatience. I have not spoken.

“I told you,” I say slightly irritated, “I was cold.”

“Yeah,” he says, as he pulls away from me, “right, cold.” He leans his back on the wall, and closes his eyes. Another long silence. Why doesn’t he understand? Doesn’t he feel the same way?  

“I’m getting tired of this life.” I finally say, and immediately wish I could take it back.

“What does that mean?” he asks, with his eyes still closed.

“I hate secrets.”

“Really?” He says, and opens his eyes and stares at me knowingly, and I know why.

“I hate that there’s nothing I can do about this. What does the future even look like? I haven’t thought about the future in so long. I don’t know how I will ever have one.”

“How can you if you’re lost in the past?”

“How can I move toward something that’s lost?”

“You’re feeling sorry for yourself.”

“If I am,” I say pointedly, “it’s because I want to be with someone who would rather I stay a shadow than become a real person!”

“I told you,” he starts more aggressively than I’ve ever seen him, “I would go with you.” He softens immediately, “I told you we could go somewhere far away where no one knows us, where no one would ever find us.” Have I mistaken him. I don’t remember him saying these words. But my pride is stung, nonetheless.

“You didn’t mean it.” I say dismissively.

“How is that fair?”

“How is what fair?”

“Why do you get to decide what I meant?”

 “It’s impossible,” I stand up to make my point, “Words are easy, they make moments easier to endure, but when you say things that cannot be, your words, they’re just decorations to make everything seem to look better, but the ugliness of what it really looks like is still there. You can’t hide the truth of this. Not with anything.”

He hangs his head. Why did I say this? How do I put into words the impossible feeling that we share? Will anyone understand this despair, this injustice? Does anyone have to?

A pang of something deep and unendurable hits me, and I want to throw my arms around him. This was the last time I saw him. And what would follow…what terrible, terrible treachery would conclude our story. I would deny that I knew him, I would deny that we had even met, that our paths had ever even accidentally crossed. Our heated exchange made it impossible for me to hear the whispers. We, neither of us, paid any particular attention to the strange new faces of the Ariston those last few days. When the whistle blew and the chaos began, I didn’t know it was the start of the end of my life. For within only a few years, I would be dead and buried in an unmarked grave. Never to have this, never to feel this, never to understand the reason I was born wicked. I didn’t know then, Walter, that our collision would turn to rubble beneath an ever-changing world. That all moments hence would be reft of meaning. Can I change this? Can I edit the text of history? I turn back to Walter, and I’m about to tell him that I’ve changed my mind. That no matter how far we have to run, no matter how much time we have to wait, I’ll be with him. But it’s too late. The steam has filled the room once more, and he is gone. And I stand amid the empty space as I always do. Alone.

I turn to go, and I am face to face with a large man, Norman Fitzsimmons, one of the imposing and awkward new faces that I should have considered. I didn’t think anything of him, and to my detriment perhaps I still don’t.

“Hi there,” he says in that suggestive way that suggests a clever man should properly dismiss him.

“Can I help you?” I say, as if I’m talking to a tourist who doesn’t speak my language. Both of us can feel my impatience.

“What’s your hurry?” as soon as he asks, his eyes wander up and down my body as he licks his lips which, because of the moisture of the steam, makes a wet slithering kind of sound which sends a shiver up my spine.

“I have a room,” he says in a newly pitiful tone.

“That’s nice for you,” I am not even trying to be civil. I just want him to leave me alone.

 “Would you meet me there?”

 “I don’t think so.” I try to move past him, but he moves at the same instance to block my way.

“Come on,” his confidence has inexplicably returned, “I think we should get to know each other.” Unable to hide his tumescence under his rather small sheet, he seems oddly to be gaining confidence.

I nod, having experience with aggressive men in the past, I know the answer, so I smile and say I’ll meet him in an hour in his room, that he should wait there for me. This is usually effective because it never takes an hour for a desperate gentleman to find someone else who is equally desperate. I think I’m safe, there’s no chance he’ll be waiting for me in an hour. How could I know his intentions? I never suspected the flesh and blood in front of me to ever be as sinister as the shadows from whence they came. How could I have known? The only thing more dangerous than the law, is the law that wants to avenge himself.

“I’ll see you then, handsome.” He says as he brushes an awkward finger across my face. I try to smile, I know it must look false, but I doubt he’ll recognize the difference. The thing about desperation is that it makes everything look equally appealing. Conversely, one of the curses of the inhabitants of this place, and indeed all such shadowy encounters, is that ill-intentions and fear share the same mannerisms. We mistook each other. He disappears into the cloud of steam. I wait a moment before I rush from the stream room back to the corridor and toward the parlor, trying to shake off the residue of his insolent insistence.  

The parlor of The Ariston, is more of a lodge than a clandestine refuge. It doesn’t look at all like the kind of place where the underworld thrives. Unlike the men that populate it, it’s face value can be trusted. It’s filled with dark oak furniture and hardwood floors, and entirely illuminated by a giant crystal chandelier and a roaring wall-length fireplace. The room is in a state of perpetual aureate glow. In my imagination, this is the color of nostalgia, of wistful memories, and fêted histories, Versailles in its heyday. It’s the color of memory. The amber dawn when I walked along the Seine in the heart of Paris, and Notre Dame revealed herself on the pink horizon, is, in my mind, painted in this perfect golden sheen. There are round tables throughout the parlor, usually occupied by pairs of men who are discussing current events, or the weather, the opposite of the kind of provocative goings-on that fuel the other parts of our Hadean world. Shadows dance on the walls of the parlor, and here they are never feared. They are the distorted images of men cast from the large flames of the fireplace. There are refreshments and tobacco sold at small vendors on the edges of the massive room, and liquor may be purchased from the circle bar that serves as the parlor’s centerpiece. Sometimes, over the smell of the burning wood, you catch the faint hint of gin or whisky perfuming the air. The only men in the parlor tonight are John Rogers and his friend Theodore Casson. The herd is thinning. John is the most effeminate man I have met at the Ariston. He moves and speaks with a caustic hiss about him that demands either respect or reproach, and I honestly don’t know which he prefers. I often wonder if he is the same man in the daylight.  He’s handsome, tall and skinny, not very defined but lengthy, and he’s always draped with his sheet tied in such a way that it clings to his body as if it were tailor-made to fit him precisely. Theodore is an immigrant from eastern Europe somewhere. I never asked, and he never volunteered this information. His accent is thick, his English imperfect, and he is extremely handsome. He has olive skin, curly black hair and deep blue eyes, a contrast that distracts most of the gentlemen here when they first encounter him. He’s one of those people for whom the world feels invited toward. His smile can only be described as glowing, or any such adjective that suggests a light emanating from him, from a place beneath the surface. Of course, it is only the surface given greater meaning to avoid the shallow realization that human beings are drawn to corporeal pleasures first and foremost. Though I do fancy myself a bloke of some substance, I can’t help but feel only drawn toward Theodore for his remarkable beauty. There is surely greater beauty of the soul, but we don’t do much excavating here. John and Theodore are sitting at a table nearest the fireplace.

“George!” John shouts as he raises his hand to announce that it was he who shouted my name, as if being the only people in the room were not enough of a hint.  I smile and head over to their table.

“As I live and breathe,” John continues, as I sit across from him, “is a saying I deplore, but customs being what they are..” he trails off into his drink.

“How are you, John? Theodore?”  Theodore smiles, and I feel a tinge of something as his eyes twinkle in my direction.

“The world is being lost to the shadows,” John says abruptly, “what are you drinking, my friend?”

“I don’t drink, John, remember?”

“Why should I remember something as foolish as that?”

“You no with the drink?” Theodore, I assume, is clarifying that he understood correctly.

“I don’t drink,” I say, “I promised my sister I would quit.”

“Why?” Theodore asks with a furrowed brow.

“I drank far too often to excess. Which, in turn, can quite often lead to rather foolish mistakes

“Amen!” John says as he grabs Theodore’s leg and gives it a good squeeze.

“My sister is quite demanding.”  I add in almost a whisper for fear of reproaching her in public.

“Sisters are always much too demanding,” John begins, “why, my very own used to insist I stop stealing her angora! The nerve!” I shake my head with a little laugh.

“But in all seriousness,” his tone changes immediately to a graver seriousness, “I was worried we’d lost you. I haven’t seen you around lately.”

“Yes,” Theodore interjects, “where you been?”  I don’t know what to say. I don’t know.

“And with the seedy lowlifes taking over,” John says as he motions toward Norman Fitzsimmons, who is slithering by the parlor on his way to what I can only hope are greener pastures. I look back at John, who has both eyebrows raised and his jaw slackened, “shadow monsters, I tell you.” Just then, a loose ember sparks in the fireplace and makes a loud crackling sound. I jump in my seat, which makes John giggle. 

“Why so jumpy, my dear boy,” he chuckles a little, “afraid of the dark?”  He makes an attempt at a ghostly moan as he takes a sip of his drink.  John always drinks Manhattans, because as he says, he is like the city itself, a classy ole gal. A shadow moves across the wall, my eyes follow to where its origin is, but there’s no one there. Where are you Walter, I think, where are you? Lost in this endless night. Is there hope still? Was there ever?

“Where is Walter?” John asks as if he’s reading my mind.

“He should be here soon,” I say with less hope than I intended.

John crosses his legs, revealing, rather dramatically, his pink stockinged legs.

“Are those stocking?” I ask, in a scandalous tone.

“They’re not rubbers,” John says in his caustically endearing way.

“Where you get those?” Theodore asks desperately.

“I filched them from Wanamaker’s,” John says and then continues sonorously, “They were marked up ten percent from last week! Imagine the nerve, it’s as if they’re asking us to criminalize ourselves. I refuse to overpay for the pleasure of hiding my sophistication. Blaspheme, I say.

“You steal?!” Theodore can hardly believe it.

“And why not?” John asks, and then looks pointedly into my eyes, “the world is ending. For us. Anyway. Why should the morality that has cast us asunder be respected in any measure by any of us? I take what I like, and in return, I don’t burden the world with my secrets. Social contract!”

The long silence is broken by another crackling in the fire.

“Fewer and fewer of us now.” John says, as he swirls the small amount of drink he has left in the bottom of his glass, clinking the ice against the crystal.

“I can hardly remember their names,” he continues, “the stories of men, of lovers, a procession of lost souls, one after the other down the long corridor of history, arm in arm, sin after sin, dust to dust.” Theodore and I make eye contact, I always hope he will look back when I stare at him, if for nothing but that sense of invitation he inherently offers, but this time, the weight of truth terrifies us. John, not looking at either of us, continues,

“My friend Matthew, dear friend, was last seen in the southwesterly cooling room with a group of men from out of town. Swallowed by the shadows. All. Some who were nearby say they heard the languid screams, the pleas to God, the awful, awful wretched cries of the damned. But no one could stop it. How many men have gone? How many trodden these halls as nothing but memory now? And soon to be vanished, lost forever buried in the rubble. But oh, how we fancy ourselves immortal. Surely, we think, surely someone, someday will dig us out. And hold us in the light and see the colors of our geodes. Sparkled back to the life as priceless deities. Gods from an impossible time. Welcome to the future. The numbers are uncountable, the misery unimaginable, and yet we still return, as if by some terrible, spiritual curse that draws us again and again to suffering.”

John finished the rest of his drink and sets the glass on the table gently. “Do you know what I think it is,” he asks, suddenly his old self again. “I think,” he hesitates, and then smiles, “humans want the wrong things.”  This is a line I know. His words move through me, past me, lifting me into the air and placing me in the space between death and eternity, where every man has been that has known what it is to love.

The room is mostly dark. The mattress old and springy. I am face down with my head off to one side. I am naked. I can feel the length of his body alongside me. His hand gently gliding along my spine, softly, perfectly. I have ached in the absence of this feeling. This is why I return. One moment more, turns to days turns to weeks and the craving grows and the pain realer than the air I breathe. I can smell the mentholated air, a scent I associate with an appetitive impulse for him. More of him. Always him. Always more. He tells me of his life. He tells me his dreams. Time is precious when counted in the presence of such happiness. Always more. I traverse the wilds of his existence, an explorer, a conqueror. I want more. He has a tone in his voice that can bring me to laughter, to tears, to desire. He is an ocean of a man, and I, who had not hesitated before diving in to be carried off by the currents of his inexorable beauty, a seafaring dreamer.

“What would we do if the world couldn’t stop us?” I ask him, in a voice dripping with pity.

“That’s the wrong question,” he says.

“We can only know the shadow versions of each other,” I say with irritation, “because the world will not have it any other way.”

“That’s not why.”

“Of course it is.”

“Why should we be beholden to how others see us?”

“Are you serious?”

“We call ourselves victims of perception. But isn’t that just our own perception?”

“You do not think it is real?”

“But this is impossible to change. Why do we care so much to change the opinions of people we’ll never even know?”

“I’d like to have freedom.”  I say and I think I’ve won the argument.

“No,” he insists, “that’s not what you really want,” he says with a kind of certainty that stabs my heart. I turn onto my side toward him, I know my face is filled with anger, but I do not to try to mask it.

“Why would you say that?”  I say sharply.

“We’re human,” he says, “humans always want the wrong things.” He leans in to kiss me, but I do not let him.

“Oh, then I guess you don’t really want me?” I sound like a young girl in love. Why do such strong feelings of pleasure blister so easily, even at just the hint of rejection?  But rather than be embarrassed by this betrayal of immaturity, I am fueled by an indignation to both win him over and prove him wrong.

“I fear we don’t define the word ‘want’ in the same way,” he says in a dismissive tone.

“Then tell me,” I say, “tell me how should I define it.” He smiles and lies down on his side next to me, his elbow digs into the mattress and his hand holds his head up, and he says that want is a desire to be with, not possess. I tell him this is semantics. He tells me I am obsessed with having him entirely to myself. And then he tells me that our families and our world could not allow it.  And could never bleed into one another. I cringe at the word “bleed,” and my heart sinks with the meaning of his words. So, I tell him to choose me. No, I beg him to choose me. Always more. And, again, he insists it is human avarice, and that I am not to blame for my drastic position.  

“Are you saying you’re not human?” I say with sarcasm, “are you suggesting that you are infallible to the desperation that I feel for you?”  Instead of defending himself, he leans over my face, he kisses my forehead, and with a grin he says, “I love you.” And I can feel my spirit heighten, it is more, I think. He is giving me more.  

“Let’s get out of here,” I say, and I look into his eyes, and I feel that twinge. I cannot express what feeling accompanies the belief that you belong to someone else, it is something that only lovers know how to define. I am overwhelmed by it, and didn’t notice how the haze swept back in from the steam room and overtook us both. An ominous foreshadow, or the curse of imperfect memory. “Will you come with me,” I say desperately as a cloud begins to separate us. Did he say yes? Did he say no? He blurs out of focus, fading, retreating into thin air. And the air, clogged with the ever-graying shadows, overtakes me, and I let it.

John has finished yet another drink, and he pats Theodore on the head like you would a little kid, and leans in close to him to whisper “let’s go,” gently into his ear. Before I can think to excuse myself, out of the corner of my eye, I catch sight of a figure bolting across the back wall of the parlor. Walter? I look. Nothing. There it is again. I look to the other side of the room, but it’s empty. Another. And then another. They are surrounding us.

“Don’t go,” I say to John and Theodore, who are so enamored with each other at this point, they don’t even look at me, “it’s not safe,” I insist. But they do not believe me.

“Sorry, old boy,” John says, “can’t break a date with Atropos.” He kisses Theodore on the lips, it’s soft, sweet.  I feel a pang of loss in the center of me. I push the thoughts aside, I can’t let John and Theodore go.

“Spinning the thread,” John says, and then glances at me directly, “will never change the length of it.”  He winks at me, and he is gone.

Just as John and Theodore disappear into the darkness of the corridor that leads to the southwesterly cooling room, is when it happens. Out of what feels like a dream, I see a shadow on the wall farthest from me, near the corridor, all at once and without pause, peel itself from top to bottom off of the smooth surface of the wall and come to life in front of me. I cannot breathe. Transfixed and terrified, I watch as the shadow glides toward and disappears down the same corridor as my friends. I jump to my feet. I scramble to make sense of what I’ve seen, while at the same time trying to concoct a plan of action. I don’t have time to consider what might happen to me, I barrel down the corridor, into the hissing pitch-black. My hands are out in front of me, feeling the wall just next to me. There is no light. I am blind. I walk as quickly as I can, I think to call out John’s name, but I cannot. I open my mouth, and the harsh hot menthol stings my throat. I am voiceless. I am blind. The southwesterly cooling room is at the far end of the corridor, it will not be easy to reach in this dizzying blackness.

The cooling rooms of the Ariston are quite popular. They are the most temperate places for two men to relax together.  The southwesterly is often the most populated. And where the many go, most men will follow. It’s the largest of the cooling rooms. It’s illuminated by the ambient glow of streetlights through the small window at the top of the room. There are slatted benches and cots lining the walls, and there are usually a couple of men occupying one or two of them at any given time. I remember Walter in this room. I see him there. He’s sitting on one of the cots, propping himself up on his elbows. His sheet is on the ground near him, and the soft light makes his naked skin glow. He is otherworldly. Apollo, god of light, come to life before me, releasing his bow, briefly piercing the gentle body of this lesser mortal.

“Where will we go?” he asks playfully, he’s flirting with me, in that way he does. His half smile, that penetrating stare, a kind of confidence that doesn’t betray charm.

“If you’ll go with me,” I say, “I’ll go anywhere you want to go.” I sit on the cot next to him. He moves his arms and stretches out onto his back, I lay my head on his chest, and as he strokes my hair, he tells me where he wants to go. “Arcadia,” he says, “A future as far back as antiquity.”  He always speaks in contradictions, and I love it. He told me once that time always comes back to the beginning, and that it exists all at once. We are now and then and soon to be, and always will be, and never were.

“Describe it to me,” I say, trying to nuzzle deeper into him, if I could burrow beneath his skin, I would search for no greater destiny.  I smell his skin, and it forces my eyes closed. Always more.

“It’s perfect,” he begins, and I nod to encourage him. “The fresh morning has broken, and the sky is clear. It’s the kind of early morning blue that reminds you of youth, when dawn was still a poem. And there we are in a verdant field of tall grass stretched out for what seems like ever. Mountains paint the edges of the scene, and a gentle river runs past us, past the trees, the wilderness, a forest, floral with canopied orchards.  And on a bluff of perfect emerald alongside the river, just past the wild, we build our place. We build it from ancient stone and marble painted Egyptian blue, something megalithic. A temple maybe, a place that’s only ours. But all the ours who would ever come. And we live in that moment in that place until it no longer serves as heaven, overgrown with weeds and grasses, abandoned by time and necessity. Until then, we stay as we are now, unbroken from the other. And always.” and then he smiles, “The end.”

He stops stroking my hair, I raise my head to look into his eyes. I love you, Walter. I love you more than I should. I love you more than even I understand.  I can’t let you go. I’ve come back to pull you from the ruins. To take you, at long last, into the light of day, to this perfect place you’ve built for us. We have to go. We have to go now.

A scream pierces the dark,  I turn at the end of the corridor,  and I rush into the southwesterly cooling room. It’s empty. The cots are gone. The walls are cracked, the window is boarded up with planks of wood. And burning just in the middle of the room, a single candle. A vigil of something not just gone, but swallowed deep into the Earth. Forgotten. How do I pull all of this out? It’s rubble, it’s nothing but impermanent imaginings, whispers of shadows, spiritual hieroglyphics on a wall buried deep into the crust of the earth. It is gone.

“John,” I say compulsory, but I know he’s not here. The walls are dull, no longer alive with the images of the men that were once here, and the light casts no shadows on them. Not even my own. I have no shadow left in this place. And I remember. I remember the plan to escape. And I see Norman Fitzsimmons, in his desperate deceit.  And I see the others too. Bursting into the rooms. Shattering the walls. Betraying the underworld to the laws of the righteous gods high above. We were all taken that night. And we have never returned. That night. The last night I saw him. Walter.  The shadows came for us. And we could not stop them from pulling us apart. Only now I stand alone in the spot where last our eyes locked, with a piece of my soul cut out of me.  I thought I could return and find it. I took a step toward the history I truly believed made me who I am, and what I have found in its place is a world where even shadows don’t exist. When once they ruled the domain, bereft of agency, they are now nothing but the lack of light.  And these men. What can I do with these men? How do I excavate them, and bring them up to the world? How will you know their names? And love. Or perhaps, the point isn’t their love. History doesn’t record the heart. And once made invisible, a man cannot reanimate. He is gone. And only the poet may resurrect him.

The candle on the floor of what used to be The Ariston flickers,

I stare into the center of it.

The room disappears inside of me,

I pick up the flame,

and I take a deep breath,

and I close my eyes.

And then,

flashes of Walter,

of John,

of Theodore,

of laugher,

of hope,

of fear,

And dreams and impossible possibilities of future,

of past,

of now,

and then and then and now again,

and us,

and them and all,

one after another

in the succession that creates the procession of all the things that have made me come to this place and hold this light in the center of this darkness and with these men with all of them and everyone who has ever dared to taunt the shadows of misfortune only to succumb to the shadows themselves and to the ones who came later and who know themselves more than others can even imagine when shadows no longer haunt us nor never can again and they are here and they are together and with the full wisdom of what it means to let go of the history of what should be and into the present of what is I blow out the candle

and I join them

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.”