Thursday, August 29, 2013

My Big Brother Is A Bottom

This piece was written as an original oratory. The idea is that high school students could memorize and perform it at speech and debate competitions. Not that they should.

Dear Ms. Delaney-St. Lamont,

I am Bennigan’s mother, Pepper. You remember me, don’t you? Pepper Hoffstrom. Well now, it’s Pepper Lancaster. Mrs. Pepper Lancaster. I know it’s been quite some time since we’ve seen one another and I wish it were under different circumstance that we were reconnecting. But as you’ve probably expected, I’m writing to request an in-person conference to discuss today’s incident.

Certainly, I will better understand why you reacted the way you did once we have our little sit-down, but just so you know, I’m still quite distressed after hearing Bennigan’s side of the story today. He came home practically in tears! I rarely see my son in that state and I’ve never seen him throw a lawn chair across the backyard like he did. What upper body strength, though. My husband thinks he should try out for the wrestling team when he gets to high school and see if the coaches can make something out of him. If you ask me, I think he might even have a shot at varsity if he can channel that strength into some Greco-Roman takedowns. But hey, I’m not a wrestling scout. And what do I know about athletics anyway, right? I just think my son has the potential to do anything, and if a spot on the high school wrestling team is in his future, then you can bet your flat, twice-divorced fanny that I’ll be the most supportive mother in the stands — wearing his letterman jacket and shaking one of those loud-as-blazes milk jugs full of pennies. But that’s just how things work in the Lancaster household. We support one another no matter what. Which is why I have the tiniest issue with how you spoke to my son today.

In case you were wondering, the answer is yes. We did see his show-and-tell presentation and we thought it was lovely. My husband even called it “informative” and said it was “just the kind of thing to get second graders thinking.” Oh, you remember my husband, Morty Lancaster, don’t you? You two briefly dated in college, correct? That’s back when we all ran in the same circle and I was seeing that studly architecture major with the squid tattoo; Mauricio, or Giovanni, or something European and greasy-sounding. Anyway, I remember when you dumped Morty because you supposedly walked in on him performing oral sex on one of his fraternity brothers. What a shame that was. Of course, I never believed the story because, at the time, I thought you were an obnoxious cow with the moral fiber and intelligence of, well, a cow.

At the time, that is.

Shortly after, I broke up with the greasy architecture student because he tried to proposition me into a threesome with his other girlfriend, and I set my sights on the wounded and slightly more feminine arms of Morty Lancaster. It took some real browbeating, but eventually, he gave in and took me to dinner at Winky’s Catfish Shanty. The rest is history. And now I’m Mrs. Pepper Lancaster and you’re Ms. Caroline Delaney-St. Lamont. We’ve come a long way, haven’t we? Even though your second marriage recently came to end and you’re basically exactly where you were in our college days: single and intolerant. Believe me, I can understand your frustration, what with your having to sit alone in restaurant bars after spending your days in a classroom full of second graders. But that’s no reason to take it out on my child. He’s proud of his big brother and he just wanted his classmates to know it. As you may have gathered before you berated him in front of his peers, Bennigan’s older brother, Hampton, is gay.

Now, Hampton has been “out” for nearly ten years now, and his father and I fully embrace the way God made him — ever since the day he made the big announcement at age nine. Heck, we were his cheerleaders! I’d take him to the salon with me to get his bangs shaped and Morty even taught him how to walk in heels. And speech therapy? Ha! That lisp was part of the package wasn’t it? Changing it would be like taking wings off a butterfly. And with our help, Hampton Lancaster grew up intelligent, cultured, skinny, prissy, judgmental, opinionated, witty, fashionable, and sassy. Just like his father. Then, when Bennigan was born, all stocky and stoic, and we knew that we had a little apple to compliment our little orange. Those two couldn’t be more different. And yet, Bennigan looks up to Hampton the way Hampton looks up to Jessica Lange. It’s really something special that you’ve tried to squash with you cankle-anchored feet.

And for your information, the booklet Bennigan made out of construction paper for show-and-tell was a gesture of love for his older sibling, and not an “inappropriate art project depicting deviant behavior.” Sure, the crayon drawings of Hampton and his boyfriend, Omar, may have been a little too honest for certain small-minded audiences — especially the one where Hampton is sitting on Omar’s lap. But couldn’t you have at least praised Bennigan’s artistry and interpretation of the male anatomy before chastising him in front of the entire class? Furthermore, I think it took some real creativity on my son’s behalf to come up with a title like My Big Brother Is A Bottom.

He might look like a pygmy moose, but that boy's got savvy for sure. And it really broke my heart to see him so crestfallen because, according to him, his teacher is an “oppressive bitch.” Normally, I would’ve reprimanded him for such language, but since the Lancaster boys drafted their “Free Cussing” amendment to the family constitution, I couldn’t infringe upon his freedom. This amendment passed shortly after Hampton’s “Right To Bear Bears” amendment — a real game-changer that led to our meeting Omar, a large, hairy, African American man in his late thirties, and Hampton’s lover. You remember love, don’t you? It’s that thing you’re looking for at the bottom of that glass of chardonnay. That thing that keeps slipping through your fingers.

But don’t worry yourself sick, Ms. Delaney-St. Lamont. Some desperate man with bad breath and bad credit will come into your life, and, God willing, open your eyes to the bigger picture. But for now, I’m going to serve your exboyfriend, my husband, Morty Lancaster dinner. Then we’re going to take our sons and Omar to a Tea Party rally and then maybe out for froyo.

Looking forward to seeing you again,
Mrs. Pepper Lancaster

P.S. Attached, you’ll find a booklet I made myself with pictures of Mr. Lancaster and me. It’s called, My Wife Is A Top.

Monday, August 26, 2013


“Who the fuck wants to see that?” whispers Joey, his lips nearly touching my shoulder. “It looks like grief porn.”

The trailer is for a movie about two little girls who go missing and what happens to their families in their desperate search to find them. People hold candlelight vigils and Viola Davis asks the detective, Jake Gyllenhaal, if he has any children of his own. It looks like a painful experience. “Not me,” I say. “If I wanted to be depressed and stressed out for two hours, I’d spend time with my grandparents.”

Soon, the movie will begin, but right now, I’m funneling Reece’s Pieces down my throat and bouncing my bare feet on the seat in front of me. I am wearing eight-year-old breakaway sweatpants, a backwards hat, and a t-shirt from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s African American Culture Committee 2009 Fashion Show. “I think I want a hot dog,” says Joey. “What?!” I say. “We already have nachos and candy.” Joey stands and asks me if I want anything. “Yeah,” I sigh. “Surprise me.” He leaves and I’m alone.

In the next trailer, Sandra Bullock plays an astronaut who gets detached from her space station tether and spins out into space. She gets smaller and smaller on the screen and the theatre gets darker and darker until room is the same pitch as it was when the lights first went down. In the interior nightscape, the only thing I can see is a pair of disembodied arms bobbing up the stadium steps to my left. They glow and I stare, moth-to-flame. But then, a burst of light shoots out of the screen and illuminates the theatre in digital sunshine. The title of the movie is emblazoned across the screen and shining out over the audience. It's like coming up to the surface for air. I quickly turn back to look at the arms, which are now attached to a full person; a man in cuffed jean shorts and a black tank top. He is standing still, mid-step, and looking back over his shoulder to catch the title of the film before ascending to his seat and settling in with the rest of us. In that moment, his face, lit up by the words of some designer who labored over the stroke and kerning of each letter, is a mosaic of black and white. And as quickly as it came, the luster is gone and he is reduced to a pair of arms again that float to a seat in the row behind me. And even though the trailer is over, and Sandra Bullock is lost in space, and a new trailer featuring home invaders wearing animal masks will begin shortly, my heart is in my throat. Because the person sitting behind me, the one's whose handsome face was illuminated by roaring light, used to be my boyfriend.

I don't see him very often, which makes seeing him now even stranger, because I ran into him a week ago in New Orleans. He was standing with a group of guys near a bar on top of which a middle-aged man in a thong danced. Alone, I marched up to him, pinched the fatty underside of his bicep, and shook it. I don't know why I did this. Maybe because it seemed like a smart balance of intimacy and aggression — like giving your younger brother a noogie or slapping your best friend on the back. But when I shook his arm, I didn't notice he was holding a drink, and vodka and cranberry splashed onto everyone around us. We stared at each other, too stunned to speak. Then, he made a loud glottal sound and stormed off to the bathroom without saying a word. I was left with his friends and began stammering. "I am. So sorry," I said. "I didn't see his. Ugh. Drink and I. Um. Wanted to. I'm Ryan. We used to. Um. Date a while back. But I'll see you later bye." I scampered away and didn't see him again that night. Now, a week later, he is here — in the same theatre as me, seeing the same movie as me, but not wearing breakaway sweatpants and funneling Reece’s Pieces like me. Everything about me is amazingly unflattering and somehow, he just managed to accidentally catch a ray of God's glory all over his face. Nothing is fair about this or anything that’s ever happened.

Throughout the movie, I’m mostly unaware he’s there. But every now and then, I’m haunted by the memory of the last time we saw a movie together. We were in this exact theatre more than two years ago, both of us dressed in button-down shirts and long pants. I don’t exactly remember if we were dating other people at the time, but I do remember that we weren't together anymore. Actually, we'd been broken up for nearly a year and we were trying to develop a friendship. A movie sounded like a good idea for a friendship outing. I’d wanted to see Inception, anyway, and I figured maybe we could just see it together. So I ironed an outfit and picked him up at his apartment. He was dressed up, too, but I wouldn’t expect anything less of him. He could always dress himself, even if the outfit included something I hated like vinyl drawstring capri pants. In the movie, he held my hand. And when it was over, we went home and had sex. And it would be the last time, except for once in February 2012 when we were drunk and angry with our boyfriends.

On my twenty-first birthday, when we were dating, he recreated a campsite in his living room with bungee cords, tarps, and handmade signs. He even lit a fire in the fireplace and fried catfish because he knew that fried catfish was my favorite food. We nestled into sleeping bags and watched What Dreams May Come; his favorite movie, not mine. But I didn’t mind. I’d never seen it before, but I thought it was beautiful and eerily complimentary to my favorite movie, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. We fell asleep in front of the fire, and in the morning, I collected all of the signs that were taped to the walls, one of which said “Beware of Badgers,” and placed them into the break-up box I kept under my bed. A few months later, I would feed each piece of paper into a fire while my new boyfriend stared at me and tried to figure out how to make me feel better.

A few weeks ago, I was throwing a party at my house when someone asked me how I felt about my ex’s new boyfriend. “Should I feel anything?” I asked. “I haven’t really talked to him in a long time, so I don’t know what kind of person he is, now. But if he’s anything like he used to be, I hope the new guy has the sense to bail sooner than later.” I thought about adding, “But I hope he’s happy,” but I didn’t. Because I don’t care either way. You reach a point when you stop wishing certain people well, and you feel ambivalent about their well-being. Wishing takes effort. And I’d rather focus that effort elsewhere. The truth is, we never got a happy ending. From the beginning, our love was furious and toxic, peppered with a few happy memories that still break my heart. I loved him with one eye open — always afraid things would fall apart and never sure how to hold it together. And now, he is sitting behind me. Close enough for me throw a fistful of candy at him. And if I did, maybe he would make a loud glottal sound and storm off to the bathroom without saying a word. Or maybe not.

When the movie is over, Joey and I go outside where the climate is warmer and the views are less cinematic. We’re halfway home before I realize I forgot to look behind me when the movie ended. But if I had seen him, I probably wouldn’t have said anything. I probably would've made eye contact and looked away before I could feel angry, or frustrated, or optimistic, or disgusted, or in love because none of this was supposed to happen this way, and he is a living symbol of my past that went on to have a future. He is the choose-your-own-adventure that went unread.

He is Chris Nielsen if he would've just stayed in heaven.

He is Joel Barish if he would've just met someone else after Clementine erased him.

He is Cobb's dead wife's totem that just keeps spinning. Spinning. Spinning. And then black.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

If I Were A Woman

If I were a woman, I wouldn’t feel paranoid or uncomfortable in Victoria’s Secret.

Instead of popping in once a year at Christmastime and running straight to the counter to buy a gift card for my sister, I could mosey and maybe even buy something for myself. Because I could. Because I’d be a woman. I would be nice to the sales girl with the pink measuring tape, and I might even ask her to take my bust size, because What Not To Wear taught me that many adult women are wearing the wrong bra. 

I’d go to mani-pedi parties, even though pedicures give me anxiety. As a man, I recoil when the aesthetician files down my little toenail, and I feel like I’d react the same way if I were a woman. But maybe the shared experience of a mani-pedi party might curb my anxiety because I’d be too distracted by dishing and mimosas to notice the girl with the paring knife jabbing into the gutters of my toenails. In nice restaurants, I’d excuse myself to the bathroom with two or three friends where I’d sit on the sink, reapplying my eyeliner and talking about everyone who isn’t in the bathroom with us, but I’d try not to say anything catty because there’s enough of that going around, anyway.

If I were a woman, I’d have grace and fucked up arches because I’d have been a dancer my entire life. I would’ve asked my parents to put me in ballet classes as soon as I could speak, and I would’ve dedicated lots of free time to perfecting my art. As a teenage girl, I would’ve stayed away from the boys my parents didn’t approve of, and when they set boundaries for me, I would’ve played ball and compromised. As a grown woman, I’d ensure that my relationship with my mother was not only intact, but also fruitful. I’d hope that she’d see the best parts of herself in me, and wordlessly congratulate herself on a job well done.

If I were a woman, I’d wear rompers, and jumpers, and slingbacks, and racerbacks, and halter jumpsuits, and harem pants, and hot pants, and headscarves, and bangles, and cuffs, and wedges, and hoops, and boots, and pearls, and lace, and crushed velvet, and sheer skirts, and leggings, and Mary Janes, and things with keyholes, and things with empire waists, and things with fringe, and things with beading, and things with red soles, and things that flare, and things that plunge, and things that billow, and things that sparkle, and things that zip up the back, and things that reveal other things, and maybe even a turban. I’d emulate the style choices of my sister, and Amber Champion, and my friend Kim, and this girl I follow on Instagram named Hope, and Rooney Mara, and ChloĆ« Moretz, and ChloĆ« Sevigny.

And I’d own a kimono. And I’d have bangs. And I’d cut them blunt.

If I were a woman, I’d be a feminist. I’d believe in the power of my sex and I would do everything that men told me I couldn’t. I would love my breasts, no matter their size, and I would never use my sexuality as a weapon. I would never say, “I get along with guys more than girls” because all women say that, and it always sounds like something to make men feel comfortable, but to me, it just sounds like gender betrayal. Speaking of which, I wouldn’t hate Anne Hathaway or Taylor Swift because all women hate Anne Hathaway and Taylor Swift, and that’s never made any sense to me. But, I’d listen to the same music and I’d read the same books that I do now, as a man, because I have awesome taste in music and books, and I don’t see why any of that would change if I were a woman.

If I were a woman, I would never cry over a boy because when I was young, my father pointed at the front door of our house and asked me if I knew how many boys lived outside that door. When I shook my head, he told me there were billions, and that one boy was never worth crying over. And although that happened in this life, the one in which I am a man, I hope that I would believe the same thing if I were a woman.

I would get married. I would get married in the same church in which I received First Communion and Confirmation. And the wedding would be Catholic, and my dad would walk me down the aisle, and my mom would cry, and I would make eye contact with her throughout the ceremony just for the reassurance that she was there. Later, I’d have kids. I’d have kids with the person who loves me, and I would feel privileged for the opportunity. I would have more than one, and I would pack their lunches, and read to them at night, and I would find a way to pay for soccer uniforms, and art supplies, and ballet lessons. And they would never want for love.

If I were a woman, I would want men to know how hard it is to be a woman, but I would never give anyone, male or female, a glimpse of the hardship in me.

But that's only if I were a woman.

Friday, August 9, 2013

The High Point

“Are you afraid of heights?” he asks.

“No,” I say. “I’m afraid of falling off of something really high.” He points to the nine-year-old in front of us and says, “It’s a baby ride. Look at her. She’s doing it.” “She doesn’t understand what she’s doing,” I say, biting my lip and maintaining an eye-level stare.

Above us, pairs of riders swing from suspended links of chain. They whoop and scream from their basket seats as the anchoring pole whips them through the hot Texas air like a cowboy and his lasso. “You can do it,” he says. “But if you really don’t want to, we don’t have to. We can ride something else, instead.” “Nah,” I say. “I can do it.”

The riders are lowered to the ground and released back to safety. Then, we, the line-occupiers, are ushered through the turnstile by a teenager in a blue polo with the words Pleasure Pier embroidered over his heart. His palm rests on a piece of PVC pipe with an orange ring of duct tape near the top that serves as his measuring stick for upholding the ride’s height requirement. “Can you take the outside seat, please James?” I ask. “Of course,” he says. He sits next to me, pulls the metal bar across his lap, and clicks the buckle between his thighs. I do the same, but my buckle doesn’t click. I panic. “This fucking thing won’t buckle,” I yelp, prying the buckle into the latch without any luck. “Fuck,” he says. “Calm down. I have you.” He reaches between his legs to unrelease his buckle, but it doesn’t click back. “Oh shit. It’s locked in,” he says. I squeal and bounce my knees up and down, shaking the both of us. Just then, another boy in a blue polo walks up to us, and upon noticing my unsecured buckle, reaches under my armpit and pulls out another buckle that stretches across my chest and into a latch under my other armpit. “This crotch buckle is broken!” I say. “This seat isn’t safe!” “We perform pre-test today,” he says from beneath a razor-thin mustache in a Pedro Sanchez accent. “You have fun. High-five.”

My eyebrows are so furrowed that my forehead feels like it’s being crushed. Next to me, James is trying not to laugh, but he’s not doing a very good job. Defeated, I high-five Pedro and he leaves. “He came to this country on a floating tire,” I say. “He doesn’t understand American safety.” James smiles and asks me if I want to hold his hand. I reach for it and the canopy above us jerks. My feet leave the ground and I’m ascending up into the air. I squeeze my eyes shut and I grip the metal bars on either side of me. Everyone around me is screaming. I can feel us being pulled higher. “It’s okay, babe!” James screams. “Just look!” I open my eyes. Between my feet and the pier is a 200-foot drop, and around me are panoramic views of Galveston. My muscles feel tight and cold, and the skin on my face is stinging with chilly waves of fear. The canopy rotates and we’re suddenly spinning out. Everything above my waist contracts into a tense ball. “I fucking hate this!” I yell. “This isn’t fun!” James screams back, “It’s not that bad! You’re being very brave!” We are falling horizontally through the sky in revolutions and then we are slowly lowed to the ground where my toes connect with the metal grating and I finally open my eyes.

For the rest of the day, we subject ourselves to jostling by way of carnival rides and bloating by way of beach food. James is a vegetarian, so we don't share anything besides hushpuppies at a restaurant where the waitstaff wear tuxedo shirts. He and I are wearing tanktops, but after walking half a mile along the shore, I pull mine off and twist it around my head into a turban. He looks at me when I speak, and he looks at me when I'm not saying anything. When I look at him, my eyes bounce from the tattoo of Max from Where The Wild Things Are on his right bicep to the clear, blue gauges in his earlobes. I study the tattoo of the mermaid on his left bicep and his eyes, which are wide and brown and wild. We talk about our parents, and our exes, and our shared taste in Fiona Apple and hushpuppies. We talk about the events that led to us here. I confess that our first date followed a blueprint by which all of my first dates are designed: dinner at Tsunami, a detour home for me to "change my shoes," then sex, then off to somewhere loud for drinks. He doesn't care. He tells me I'm handsome. I kiss him in front of a family of Mexicans who are barbecuing three chicken wings on the smallest grill I've ever seen.

"Can we walk down there?" he asks, pointing down Seawall Road. "Are my shoulders red?" I ask, turning my back to him and shimmying. "Kindof," he says. "Then we can drive," I say. "I have some aloe in my bag, but I don't want to blister." "I use aloe when I run out of lube," he says. "I used to do the same thing before I started buying lube," I say. "I don't really venture outside of the lotion section when I'm in a pinch," he says. "I don't use lube when I'm by myself at all, really," I say.

In last month's Birchbox, I received a pair of foldable shades that I've been wearing every day since. They broke in my hand while we were departing Pirate's Plunge, so James gave me his sunglasses and bought another pair for himself at a gift shop that mostly sold hermit crabs and t-shirts with Galveston written across the chest in Papyrus or Brush Script. "You don't have to do that," I say. "Keep them," he says, handing me his wayfarers. "I have new sunglasses now." He smiles and winks, and I suddenly have the compulsion to grab him by his big, tanned shoulders and screaming, "You're fantastic! Let's go on a hundred more dates!" But instead, I wink back and say, "Thanks, stud."

We have to take the ferry back to Crystal Beach and that's just the first part of our long ride home. We're salty, and sticky, and sunkissed, and tired, but I don't want to leave him, just yet. He plays Iggy Azalea's mixtape and then a best-of Aretha Frank album. "Come here," he says, and I unbuckle my seatbelt and lay my head in his lap. The bottle of Vitamin Water in the cupholder jabs me in the ribs, so I toss it into the back-back and curse at it before resttling. "This was one of the best dates ever," I say. He looks down at me from behind his cheap, but valiantly acquired gift shop sunglasses and says, "Yep."

"I'm going to write about this," I say. "Oh yeah?" he says. "What about?" "The high points," I say, dreamily. "I'll let you read it first, though." He looks at the road and pats my head. "So where does the story begin?" he asks. I look up at him and he meets my gaze halfway.

"The high point," I say.