Less Than Butterflies, No. 18, Pt. I
I don’t want to say his name. Isn’t that stupid? Like he’s fucking Voldemort or something. Like if I were to spell it out here three times consecutively, he might appear, slap this computer from my lap, and tell me to stop talking so candidly about him to a bunch of people I’ve never even met. But here’s the truth: I could say his name once, I could say it three times, I could shout it from the highest plateau and then spin around in a full 360-degree turn and look for him and he still wouldn’t show up.
I learned that the hard way.
Or maybe he would … show up, that is. Maybe I’d shout it so loudly that he couldn’t ignore it anymore. Maybe he come crawling up that rocky terrain, fingernails peeling back, hands callusing, and skin cracking in the hot, high altitude. And when he finally made it to the top, finding me standing there, alone on a mountaintop, crying tears of blood, arms wrapped around myself because I need to feel the touch of something — anything — maybe he’d finally say something.
But the question remains: do I really want him to say it?
What would be more heartbreaking? I’m genuinely curious. Standing atop that mountain all alone certain he’ll never come? Or having him show up just one more time to tell me the thing I can’t bear to hear?
And why do I care?
When I think back over it all — and I do mean all of it — I catch just glimpses of things I was too busy obsessing about to see before. They weren’t fragments in the peripheral; they were translucent or small or easy to miss. They were boulders painted pink and purple and cotton candy-blue. They were enormous with warnings painted on them like signs on backyard fences cautioning intruders of dogs. They were flashing road signs with arrows pointing me into the right lane from the left so that I wouldn’t crash. Only, I couldn’t see them to get over because I was barreling so quickly toward them that I crashed anyway. I was catapulted into the sky and smacked down on the cement and left alone for dead while the traffic that had been paying attention moseyed on by in the right lane because they’d seen the signs I hadn’t.
But just because I crashed and burned and bled doesn’t mean that the signs weren’t there from the very beginning. But they were little things I wouldn’t have noticed if I weren’t really paying attention — at least at first — like not asking me to watch the dog while he was out of town or suddenly having to check to make sure he had no plans after I’d invited him somewhere when he’d never had any plans before. They came as requests to take him shopping for new clothes because he wasn’t quite sure how to dress himself, and those were followed by him buying new clothes all on his own. They appeared in text messages that were so urgent to him that he’d check his phone minute-after-minute and having to leave events early with no explanation at all other than he had to go.
The signs were there, and I was lying before when I said I didn’t see them. After all, they were traffic lights and cotton candy-colored boulders and skywritings and billboards and mushroom clouds and musical numbers accompanied by choruses and dance ensembles. But I ignored them.
It was easier to ignore them.
There’s something I do every night when I lie down to fall asleep. And it may sound stupid or maybe I’ll just sound stupid for thinking it’s going to sound stupid because maybe lots of other people do it, too. But I get in bed, and I lay my pillows out just the way that I need them so that I won’t wake up with a tremendous pain in my neck. Then I slide between the sheets and I pull a person-sized body pillow close next to me. And I don’t hold it, but I do lie next to it close. And as I toss and turn and think about all the things I have to do for work the next day, as I check my phone obsessively for an advertiser email or a columnist’s newest edition to land, I slowly find my head gliding onto what would be that pillow’s chest if that pillow were a person.
And sometimes I talk to it. Sometimes I swear to God I can hear it asking me why I’m not sleeping or what I’m looking for in my endless emails and text messages. And I look up at it, as if it is a person, and I place my phone down on the other side of it, and I tell it all about my day, and the things I have to do tomorrow, and what my friends are upset about, and what events I have to go to for work that weekend. Then I’ll start apologizing to it … for not being more present, for working too much, for crawling into bed well after two because an article needed editing before the morning’s turn or because finishing a video’s edits would save me the time the next day. And usually as I’m talking to it, I fall asleep.
Just like that.
Because if I don’t stop talking I don’t have time to hear the silence and realize that there’s no one there talking back to me.
I am 6’3”, and I weigh 250lbs. I have always struggled with my weight. When I was in high school, I ran seven miles every morning, and I ran seven miles every night. I would eat full meals — anything that I wanted — it was the taste I was after, really. Then, I’d go upstairs to the bathroom, or down the hall depending on where I was, and I’d stick an old toothbrush I kept wrapped in a napkin in my backpack down the back of my throat and I’d vomit into a toilet. Sometimes I wouldn’t even have to do that. If I was down there on my knees and I thought hard enough about the dirty bowl I was sticking my face into and all the crap I’d eaten just moments before, I could sometimes disgust myself into throwing up without ever lifting a finger.
I was in amazing shape.
When I was 17, in an effort to keep my weight under control, I got hooked on Adderall I’d steal from my mother’s prescription bottle, or from my friends’ younger brothers’ and sisters’ bathrooms, or that I’d buy from the college kids I used to do theatre with at the local community college. When I was 19, I was drinking heavily. Wine during the week. Vodka on the weekends. And by 20 I would’ve downing rubbing alcohol if it helped me ignore the fact that I was dating a girl four years my senior who thought it was okay to pressure me into having sex with her by crawling naked on top of me and slipping my hand down the front of her wet underwear and by telling me how bad she wanted to feel me pounding between her legs. At 22 I was still drinking, but when it came to drugs, the only thing that could quell the anxiety I had every time I walked into a room and believed that everyone knew I was gay before I had the chance to tell them was a handful of Klonopin or Xanax — whatever I could get my hands. Then, at 23, I wasn’t working hard enough and I had to forgo the downers and start snorting cocaine off the counter of the bar bathroom or a key in the stall if someone were pissing beside me.
Well … I didn’t have to do anything, I guess.
When I was an infant my father left my mother, and the next memory I have of him is him calling me from Milwaukee where he was visiting his sister, Katherine, promising to take me to some place that had people dressed up like Pikachu and then never showing up. He popped back in around the time I was 8 or 9, and he took me to a Toys “R” Us with his father — who actually turned out not to be his biological father because his mother had had an affair with an undocumented immigrant she had smuggled here from Mexico. He told me I could pick out any one thing, and I remember seeing a Sabrina the Teenage Witch PC game that he paid probably way too much money for, then taking it back to the desktop at his rental house on a bad side of town and playing it while he and the woman who would someday be my stepmother watched Austin Powers in the living room. After that he popped in a few times until I was a teenager, then decided he’d be a more active and involved parent. I spent some weekends with him, and even a summer or two, and when he and my stepmother sat me down to tell me she was pregnant both the first and second time (with my brother Taylor and my sister Emma), Melissa looked at me — I think we were at an Olive Garden both times — and said, “We have something to tell you,” and without catching her gaze I muttered, “You’re pregnant.” Both times.
She had no idea how I’d known that, and honestly neither did I.
The first time I had sexual contact with a man as an adult was after rehearsal for my first TV show, when I’d downloaded an app and had hoped that I could just get the process over with so that my nerves about sleeping with someone of the same sex would settle. I’d had sex with many women — too many women, if you ask me — but somehow every time I’d prepared myself to see it through with a man, I’d lost my spine. So after drinking a shit ton of cheap beer I had in my car at 18-years-old, I drove not far from my house and met a nice, slightly-older, Black man whose wife was working the night shift in an emergency room and cautioned me to be quiet because he had two sleeping children upstairs. He sat me down on the couch and made me watch half an episode of Family Feud that was in syndication with him before getting down on his knees, unzipping my pants, asking me why I wasn’t wearing any underwear, and giving me what was probably the most amazing blowjob I’d ever had in my life. He even swallowed and asked me if he could take me into he and his wife’s bedroom so that he could fuck me.
I ran from his house and cried with shame the entire drive home.
When I was seven-years-old, a boy named Blake moved to my neighborhood from Huntsville. He didn’t talk to anyone and he was the second new kid in our class that year after another boy named Aidan whom I’d one day grow up and name a character in my third book after. Will sat not far from me, and–don’t ask me why–he’d finally talked to me a bit overzealously and told me where he lived. When we discovered it was only a block from my own house, he invited me over that afternoon and I remember my first pang of anxiety because seven-year-old me looked at seven-year-old Will and knew that I was feeling something inside of me that the other boys were feeling for girls at that age. So, that afternoon, I got on an electric scooter my stepfather had bought my brother and I for Christmas the previous year, and I drove it around the block toward his house. As I stared at the strip of paper that he’d written his new address on and tried comparing it to the new builds on that side of my neighborhood, I hit something in the street in front of me, lost my balance, and flew off that scooter before landing in a driveway. A kind man came down the drive and extended a hand to me while simultaneously picking up the scooter from beside me.
All that man said to me was, “I’m Will’s dad,” and then, “And you must be Anthony.”
The summer before ninth grade, my mother had already found gay porn on my laptop and I was living in fear of what happened if I’d pursued these urges any further. But she had just coupled with a man who would later be her third husband and we were moving from my hometown of Spring, TX, up to the Kingwood to be nearer to her sister and her then-husband. One night while my mother was working, an old friend I’d once played baseball with had come over to help me finishing packing while she was unable to. Instead of packing the house, we drank a bunch of liquor that we’d found in the freezer, watched porn on our separate laptops and jacked off on opposite ends of the couch, and then raced down to my apartment complex’s pool and went skinny dipping together. I was so nervous about another person — even at 14-years-old seeing me naked, but this old friend of mine held my hand and smiled at me and once even kissed me before we grabbed our clothes and ran through the dark apartment complex naked together toward my flat. When we arrived back, I went to the shower to wash the chlorine off of me and came back to find him going through his mother’s phone which he had borrowed for the night, where he discovered a text message argument between his parents about the affair his mother was having after having lost a great sum of weight. For the rest of the night, as I packed a little here and there, my friend read those text messages over-and-over again then asked me if I wanted to go to bed. We crawled into my mother’s king-sized bed naked, and he asked me to masturbate, to which I obliged, and he did right beside me over the comforter. He asked me if he could taste my ejaculate, but I instead pulled the blanket over me and pretended to be asleep. About a half hour later, he was masturbating again as fourteen-year-old boys seem to do at a constant rate, and he reached one hand out to touch me, and I let him because I wanted him to. I touched him back, and we masturbated together again-and-again for hours that night, slowly getting closer to each other, slowly letting our hands navigate one another just a little bit more, and finally wearing each other out. When we were done and the sun was beginning to come up through the window blinds, my friend cried about the end of his parent’s marriage and I held him and let him kiss me and kissed him back.
My mother was so angry the next morning when she realized the house hadn’t finished being packed.
A few months after I’d broken up with the girl who had been molesting me, I was off in Brenham over Father’s Day weekend at the wedding of a coworker who had been known for getting around the office, and the city, and probably most headboards throughout the United States. I commended her for that. That weekend, Alice joined me and we were to stay in a crappy hotel down the hall from my new friend Rita and her husband, Jason. Rita had cerebral palsy and hydrocephalus and the only wit I’ve ever encountered in this world sharper than my own. We drank before the wedding, and then we drank through the wedding, and then at the reception we waited anxiously for the toasts to be over so we could drink our goddamn champagne before going out on the patio to smoke cigarettes and talk shit about the groom. My friend Georgia showed me around the historic and boisterous hotel the reception had been held at with its limited number of rooms where the wedding party was staying. A podium carved in the shape of an eagle sat in she and her husband’s room, and atop it there was an open bible with a highlighted quote about man not lying with man as he would a woman. I spat on it, then walked toward the bathroom to find a clawfoot tub that I sat in for several minutes before Georgia told me we needed to go back down to the reception as she’d only come up to grab a fresh pack of cigarettes. Downstairs, I stole a bunch of flowers and then Rita, Jason, Alice, and I went back to our less-elegant hotel and sat on the outdoor stairs smoking and drinking vodka and crying over stories of how Rita had survived 10 brain surgeries in one year. The next morning, Alice and I woke up as hungover as we’d ever been, and then we drove down to Magnolia so that I could have brunch with my father, his other two children, and my stepmother for Father’s Day. Alice left me there where I’d parked my car, and I enjoyed brunch with them not having showered that morning, wearing an old Wicked t-shirt, donning thick-rimmed black sunglasses, and probably smelling like the vodka that was pouring out of my skin. Afterwards, we went to visit Melissa’s parents and I had to leave to be at work early the next day. I asked my father not to forget to pay the back child support he’d been giving me directly every month and he said he would on his next payday before I rolled out of the sketchy neighborhood in my old Kia Rio Cinco and back home.
It was June of 2014, and my father never answered a single text message or phone call after that. I haven’t seen him since.
I stopped running about a year out of high school when I woke up in the middle of the night unable to move. I cried out for my grandmother, whom I lived with at the time, but she didn’t come. For hours I had to lay there in pain and unable to move until the next morning when someone found me and took me to the doctor, where a few x-ray techs carelessly flopped me onto an x-ray table and shouted demands atme as if I were mobile. The doctor reviewed the films and he explained to me that I was born with a condition called spina bifida, and then went on to lecture me about the three different forms it appeared in. The most mild form, spina bifida oculta, was something that I had been living with all my life. Spina bifida literally translates in Latin to a spine split, and is usually characterized in its more severe forms by the spine and spinal cord not forming properly before birth, sometimes creating a sac full of fluid in lieu of the closing of the spine. In my case, it simply meant that a couple of my vertebrae were malformed. In most cases, spina bifida occulta is asymptomatic and most who have it live their entire lives without ever knowing. However, in more severe cases such as my own, symptoms appear in the form of extreme back pain and foot deformity, as well as irregularities with urination. As it turned out, the high-impact activity of running 14-miles every day for three years of my life had made the condition worse, and I was instructed to never run again for sport, especially not on cement due to the fact that it could further damage my spine. My doctor encouraged me to utilize an elliptical and to strengthen my core muscles so that I wouldn’t use my back so strenuously when doing every day activities. I gained 60 pounds and only recently began to once again approach the weight I was in high school, still with another 15 pounds or so to go before getting there.
But even on the best drugs, you hit a plateau in your weight loss at some point.
Sometimes when I’m lying with the body pillow and pretending it’s a person, I imagine a specific person lying there with me. Sometimes it’s Ezra and I imagine that he’s doing what he normally does when I’m talking to him — listening, analyzing, straying. Recently I’d gotten into the habit of thinking it might be Mason; but when I think of Mason I can only ever imagine how fucking intense my sexual feelings are for him and often end up masturbating and then crying over how badly things went the last time we hung out together. Before, when I would pretend it was Ezra, it was never about sex. I felt a closeness to him in our friendship that just made him an easy person to pretend to be talking to when he really wasn’t a person at all but a body pillow. It also seemed like something he wouldn’t judge me for doing if he ever found out about it. After the first time I held his hand back on my birthday, I would sometimes slide one arm under the pillow and one arm over and pretend it was his I was holding, and again not even entirely because I wanted anything particularly romantic from him — especially not after what he did to me on my birthday. More so, I wanted to feel that closeness just a bit stronger, feel like someone was there. For a while being Ezra’s friend was nice because I was one of the very few that he had in the city and certainly the only one he really ever spent any time with. But lately, as I begin to grow suspicious that he might be keeping something from me, I feel foolish doing this — talking to him when he isn’t there — holding my own hand — falling asleep on top of the chest of the body pillow and dozing off into a dream state where he may show up, as well. I should’ve felt silly doing it from the beginning, but it was a mechanism of comforting myself through a long and belabored attempt to keep myself sane while suffering the lows of my manic depression for months at a time. Now, when I find myself beginning to do this, I have to go back to one of the men I have been intimate with before on any level because at least I don’t feel stupid — at least it’s not something I’m concocting out of desire, but rather something I’m doing because it’s already happened once before. The closest I’ve ever come to really cuddling with Ezra was the time we held hands for just a few seconds and after I’d been raped and he’d stayed with me in my hotel before Pride and let me lay lightly against him in our hotel room bed. And while the men I force myself to imagine in his place never provide me the same comfort, I do so in an effort to not get lost in romanticizing something that will never be and getting hung up on him again like I did for so long before. Because if he is hiding something, I think maybe it’ll hurt less when I inevitably find out if my imagination has gone to such extremes.
Even if only from sitting on opposite ends of a very long couch, I miss being comfortable with him.
When I was finally out to my friends and living in the Woodlands, I realized that I had fallen in love with Blake and that I’d had these feelings for him since the time that we were kids. The girl I’d been dating who shoved my hand down her underwear to try to arouse me had never liked him, because we were very tactile best friends and she was jealous of how he’d stand behind me and wrap his arms around me while I leaned back into him. I still can’t help but think to this day that Blake was — at least subconsciously — a little bit in love with me too. We were the only two people in each other’s lives that had been consistent with one another now for fifteen years, and when we were together there was no shame or embarrassment. We were just the two of us. We could lie in bed holding each other, or holding hands, or exchanging gentle kisses on shoulders while lying beneath the sheets in just our underwear. We spent Christmas morning together a few times, and I’d get up and cook for him and he’d open presents and I’d get so lost in thinking how lovely it would be for us to spend the rest our lives that way. Only, by the time I’d come to realize what these feelings were, he’d become engaged to a woman I wanted to hate but couldn’t and their wedding is just a few months down the road now. Still, loving Blake was one of the most joyous and heartbreaking forays of my life. I’d cry when he’d leave me, unsure as to when I’d see him again, and he’d embrace me and hold me there for as long as he could before I’d make him let me go. The last time I saw him while driving through Huntsville, he sat me in a recliner in his living room and sat himself at the piano against the wall so that he could play me a few songs from a recital he’d had a few months before that I’d been unable to make it to because I’d gotten a flat along the way. The worst thing about it was that for someone who began playing so late in life, he was actually really quite good, which made me a bit jealous. I remember looking at him and remembering that even seventeen years later, I was still in love with him, and that every little thing he did even just a tiny bit well was like moving mountains to me. He couldn’t possibly not impress me. So when he was done, I pushed him over a tad on the piano bench and went to sit down beside him, my skin sprouting goosebumps the moment our shoulders touched. Then I touched the keys of the piano and began to play him Adele’s Someone Like You, and when I sang it to him while I played, looking him in the eyes, and trying not to let him take my breath away, I meant every single word of it.
He asked me to be the best man at his wedding.
While officiating a wedding for a lesbian couple that I’d been friendly with for a while, I’d been in Galveston with Hope, Derek, Derrick, and Alice and had been drinking since about 10 o’clock the night before without any sleep. The brides were running late and we were stranded on the hot beach with nothing to do but drink more when I received a mysterious Facebook message from a face I recognized but had never seen in person before. The person messaging me looked about my age and asked me if I was Marcus Ramirez’s son, to which I explained that I was but wanted to know why he was asking. When he replied to tell me that he believed himself to be my older brother, I nearly had a meltdown right there on the beach before noon. I cried for hours and realized there was no arguing about it — this young man had my father’s face and his story was too accurate to have been falsified. He was my brother. Later after a few weeks, Jacob — that was his name — and I finally met at Barnaby’s for dinner and exchanged stories of our childhood, to the point where I learned that we grew up on different sides of the same highway intersection and may even have gone to school together if not for the fact that that intersection divided the school districts. He was a year older than me and did quite well for himself and was only trying to get to know himself better. He met my friends and they all loved him and he and I began a nice relationship, albeit one that was often punctuated by great lengths of time. I was happy to have had him find me, but my rage for my father swelled inside of me to the point where I let his wife know about this secret child she’d never heard of and cursed my father in a lengthy, angry, and drunken text message for keeping him from me my entire life.
As it turned out, my mother knew about Jacob the entire time.
Speaking of my mother, she and I grew up more like siblings than we did mother and child and to this day she has trouble reconciling that within herself. I moved out when I was 17 and our relationship was certainly better apart than it had been under the same roof. As a child and teenager after she and her second husband split, my mother would disappear to work nights at the hospital and leave me with my two younger siblings to take care of until she returned at God only knows when. She met a man she remains married to to this day, and they now have three more children. But back then I’d stay up watching old DVD box sets of Grey’s Anatomy in a house she’d rented in Klein waiting for her to return. She’d never answer her phone or text messages during this time, and was often out with that man who I was told was doing a lot of Molly back then — though, who am I to judge? — then moved us in with him shortly after. My siblings and I often slept two and three to a bed. My brother Kyle, who is three years my junior, and I shared a bed until we were both teenagers in high school. When there was a man in my mother’s life, there was little room for her children that came before that man; and when there wasn’t a man, there wasn’t time for us because she was out looking for someone to fulfill her. I often worry that I might turn out just like her — constantly waiting to be loved by someone. But the difference is that I don’t have children to shirk off my responsibilities onto, and I don’t have my nonexistent eldest cook meals for them, and walk four miles to and from the bus stop because she didn’t have the time to call the school district everytime we moved — 15 times over the course of four years — and let them know we’d relocated so that I could board a nearer bus. I wouldn’t make my children clean the floors and kitchen and bathrooms that were already spotless until the early hours of the morning, then wake them to go to school shortly there after, having neglected to let them do their homework — nearly failing — because she was obsessed with constantly reorganizing her house because she was taking too much Adderall. I remember being in ninth grade and crawling into bed at 4 in the morning after scrubbing the floors on my knees and taking my socks off my feet for the first time because my stepfather wouldn’t let us walk around the house without them on and thinking how nice it felt to just be off of them, even if I had to be up for school in two and a half short hours. I remember her having a child when I was eighteen, whom I cared for because she was depressed that her husband — who has since come back — left her, then impregnated her again, stayed away, impregnated her again, and finally stuck around. I remember staying home from school one day for no reason in particular and looking for her to ask where she wanted me to put her laundry I’d been doing only to find her passed out in a puddle of her own blood on the bathroom floor where she’d just had a miscarriage.
I want to be a parent someday. But I think I might be too fucked up to be one.
When I found out my grandmother was in renal failure I was spending time with my roommate and her straight best friend that I had a massive crush on. I was high as a kite and we were watching stolen cable soccer in his living room. I stepped out onto the balcony to smoke a cigarette with my roommate and answered my phone and flew into a panic. My friend Max was there, too, and she immediately drove me to the hospital to find my grandmother — the person I was closest to in the world. She and I worked for the same medical practice she’d gotten me a job at to put myself through college, and as her condition worsened, I took on the task of working forty hours of my job per week, plus an additional forty of hers so that she could remain on the payroll and wouldn’t lose her insurance. The weekend that she died, my mother had gone out of town camping with her husband, and I’d stayed at my mother’s house where my grandmother was living at the time to watch the three younger kids and to make sure my grandmother was okay. We watched Sandra Bullock movies and ate Popeyes and laughed and for the first time got to spend time together without thinking about the fact that she had one of the rarest kidney diseases known to man. I took a phone call on the back porch — much like I had the day I found out she was sick a year before — and she told me she was going to take a nap. The children wanted to lie down with her, to which I objected so that she could rest and wake to do her dialysis a few hours later. But my grandmother obliged and said they could lay with her, which gave me time to start cleaning my mother’s house, which was a total disaster. A few hours went by and my aunt had stopped in to say hi. We could hear my grandmother snoring from the other room and the kids were now up from the nap. When my aunt left, I went to wake my grandmother for her dialysis, but when I turned on the lights and called her name, she didn’t wake. I ran to her side of the bed, her breaths short, sparse, and shallow. I immediately called my aunt back over, then 911, and began doing chest compressions on her until my aunt returned a moment later followed by the ambulance. She was put into a medically induced coma at the hospital from which she would never wake. I didn’t leave the hospital for those four days while we waited for the doctor to let us know what was to happen next. But because her brain had been without oxygen for so long, she was pronounced legally brain dead and had to be taken off life support. I didn’t shower or sleep over those four days, and I probably wouldn’t have eaten either if Alice hadn’t showed up every day and forced me to do so. Then, when she died, my life suddenly looked different. I wasn’t the same person anymore. No one that knew her was. She swore up and down that no one would come to her funeral, but the church was so packed with people — well over 200 — that strangers I’d never met were crammed into the back for what turned into standing room only. And as much as I loved her and as important to me as she was, I’ll never forget the thought that I had when the paramedics asked me to leave the room that I’ve never confessed to anyone:
If she dies, can I finally come out of the closet?