Marriage has changed a lot since my wife and I walked into a River North church on a Friday nearly fifteen years ago. It’s a few years before 9/11. We’ve been waiting four years for this day, and it feels like we’ve done everything right. Planned perfectly. My family is here from Indiana, hers from Michigan, even the elderly ones we’re surprised are willing to travel, especially to the city. Tons of friends. It’s sort of a party. And it’s all for them, really. Admirers point to the brocade work on her dress, elaborate but plain. “We deserve this,” Marla says, smiling. Proud. My mother is here, fascinated with taking pictures of the weeping, bleeding Saints flanking the nave in rows between the stained-glass windows of the Assumption. In one of them, Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini—the first American saint, who lived and worked in Chicago, and after whom the eponymous (and infamous) housing projects were named—is shown landing in New York. Marla’s parents are here too, trying to keep out of the way, beaming and apple-cheeked. I nod at her mother, for whom I mainly agreed to a Roman-Catholic wedding. I’m more or less atheist, but Marla requested it out of respect for her mother’s deeply-felt devotion to the church. Afterward, we’ll go get stoned with our friends, drink too much, collapse on the bed, order pizza and watch old black-and-white movies, too exhausted for any wedding-night consummation. It isn’t important. We’ve always agreed on this, that there’s something more important than the fallen reality we’re forced to inhabit, with its continual suffering and loss. Our love for each other transcends it, stands for something greater, something transformational. I look over at her as we walk up the steps, and we share fleeting smiles. Her salmon-colored lips pull back over white teeth, the light at pinpoints in her eyes as they turn from me to our red-frocked priest, who beckons us down with a slow, calm motion of his hand. It’s our secret, this shadow of a smile as we kneel before God.
There’s too much to include. Too much time, too many experiences, too many collective moments. It’s impossible to try and get it all in here, so instead let’s just start with one night at the Rainbo Club in the late nineties. I’m sitting in a booth with my friend Jake who I met through a listserv about the writing of Thomas Pynchon. We’re talking through plans for a group reading of “Gravity’s Rainbow,” that notoriously difficult encyclopedic novel, when Marla walks in and joins our table. Jake introduces us, and I comment on a copy of a local art magazine she’s carrying. We talk for awhile about art, and the conversation turns to the great queer author Kathy Acker, whose “Pussy, King of the Pirates” we’d both recently read. “She just died,” Marla tells me. “Really? I had no idea. That’s so sad,” I say, and go on to tell her how my uncle Doug was one of the first people I’d heard of dying from AIDS, that it had happened just before the crisis went full-blown into gay scare mode. As an artist/writer growing up in Conservative Indiana, I’d spent a lot of time among members of the queer community, which I found much more open to lifestyles outside the dominant hetero-normative moral culture of the state. “My family shunned my uncle when he came out to us,” I explain to her. “Then when he died, nobody wanted to acknowledge him, because he’d died of a ‘gay disease.’ Nobody would even spring for a tombstone, there’s just a tiny plastic marker on his grave, about the size of a postcard.”
Something clicks. Our conversation goes on in this vein for the rest of the evening, with a clearly shared passion for social justice. I’m a feminist, disturbed by how our Western society treats women, our deeply ingrained culture of trauma. We discuss the Sermon on the Mount as a case against rationalizing revenge, about equality and the ideals of equal treatment that a commitment to nonviolence demand. We agree in a shockingly similar emotional way about the important things, the life things. It continues into the next night, and the next. Before long, we’re spending so much time together, I end up sleeping over. Eventually, we move in together. One night, we’re at a bar with a bunch of our friends, some of whom I’m meeting for the first time. I’m nervous, end up buying serving-trays-full of whiskey shots. I’m sitting at a corner table with Jake and Marla, and the room starts spinning, my head feels warm, and I throw up on the floor under the table. It’s so bad that I slip back against the wall, and down under the table, where I lay half-conscious, throwing up on myself for the better part of half an hour. I’m wearing a denim shirt and blue jeans, so the vomit shows up as dark splotches all over me, along with tiny flecks of half-digested food. A bloodbath of vomit. Lovely. After awhile, Marla crouches down under the table, coaxes me up and holds my hand as she marches me out past our friends to the car. I remember thinking to myself, “She’s the girl for me.” Much of our twenties blurs into a series of social engagements: keg parties, underground rock venues in people’s houses, Marla my partner in crime, living like aristocrats. We’re having fun together. We’re happy.
Fifteen-some odd years later. I’m standing in my robe, drink in hand. I’m wasted, high, my perception fuzzy, as if wrapped in cotton. Insomniac. Hypnagogic. It’s quiet. 3am quiet. As Fitzgerald put it, it’s always 3am these days. I’m listening to this oblique silence, swaying in the middle of the living room, when I notice a tiny sliver of broken glass on the rug. It’s a crappy brown shag rug, with long, thick strands, the sliver of glass caught in the perfect angle of golden glow from the lamp, a brilliant pinpoint of white light. I stare at it. It doesn’t dim, its light powerful and brilliant, its intensity almost intelligent, as if it’s looking back at me. I simultaneously wish it gone and am filled with a compulsion to stare back, to see past its qualities as light and deeper into it somehow. But it’s just a reflection of light in the room, and as I stare, I find myself thinking about the Princess and the Pea, of a little presence that changes everything. Swarms of light dance in my peripheral vision, then fade. Marla didn’t identify outright as bi or a lesbian when we got married, but all these years later, I’m still not sure how to cope with it.
Except to drink, and reflect on our moments together. I remember, sipping from my glass of whiskey, sitting silent in our car in an empty parking lot hedged in by dark trees. I’m looking at her through the dim sulfur overheads, and the shade of shadows they cast as we talk, shadow cutting across the shoulders of her soft brown leather jacket. Her eyes reflect small cut nails of light, brimming with tears, as she gazes back at me. “It’s this feeling of having it missing from my body,” she struggles to explain, eyes twinkling as she rolls her eyes down, then back up to me, her look harder, more impassioned. “I lived with him inside me for nine months, and now he’s gone and I’m so sad all the time.” How can I know in any complete way how she feels, what particular kind of acutely sharp kind of suffering this is? Childbirth. Postpartum depression. It’s clear what she’s telling me. I can’t. And she’s right.
Those first few months were harrowing for both of us, when Sasha didn’t sleep much, and neither did we. After her cesarean, Marla had to stay in bed pretty much the whole first week and then was pretty fragile for the next few. All the time, this little creature that can’t even open its own eyes, in shock and terrified, cries out for our attention until the exertion is too much and he falls asleep out of sheer exhaustion. It takes everything we have just to keep up with his needs. I don’t know how to deal with it. How does anybody? A deep split begins to form between Marla and I, earth shifting, like a tree splitting up from the roots. We grow apart. Over time, this sense of distance seems to increase, as though what snapped had been the start of a new universe, destroying ours in the process of its own ever-constant expansion. But it’s more than that. I try to rationalize by explaining how our entire concept of marriage has shifted, that when you have a child, you’re suddenly in a relationship with two people, not just one. It’s something that nobody ever tells you about marriage, how your love relationship changes with children. Except that’s not all there is to it.
I remember the moment I realized she didn’t desire me anymore. I don’t want to remember, but I do. It’s winter, late at night in the old house, flashes of lightning fill the room, but no thunder, just the stuttering brightness of electric white light. It’s a moment of a look, her eyes open and thinking, watching me as I move inside her, holding her arms down by the wrists. Flash, then dark. Dripping sweat, I stare back at her vacant gaze, checked-out, and she starts crying, suddenly filling me with a rush of frustration and sadness. I feel the familiar constriction in my chest taking over, of holding back a rush of emotion too large to be held in, that familiar burning inside the top of my nose, spreading out into the corners of my eyes. “I could only let another woman hold me down that way,” she explains. It feels wrong because I’m a man, she explains, as if I’m asserting a power over her that she doesn’t feel ascribed as a woman. Objectifying her. Rolling off onto the sweat-drenched sheets, I stare up at the ceiling, hand dangling at rest atop my heaving chest, room filled with flashing light. It occurs to me, laying there next to her, that it’s just nature, and there’s nothing I can do about it.
My memory fades into a long stretch of road as we drive to work the next morning. “We’re parents now,” we tell each other. “It’s time to act like adults,” Marla next to me in the passenger seat, always next to me. It seems like we spend half our days driving to and from work, endless hours on the road. We drive this same road every morning, drop off our son, stop for coffee on the way. Western Avenue. Argyle. Division. Peoria. Names constantly stuck in this in-between space of just trying to get somewhere. I start to drive faster. It scares her how fast I drive, revving up the Volvo, Le Tigre blaring, whizzing cavalierly past traffic, pushing the engine harder. Rrrr-rrrr-rrr. It helps soothe my generalized terror that we’ve crept onto the precipice of an unhappy life, one of shame and regrets. Is it shame that made her marry me? I ask myself. Some strange sense of duty? The gravitational pull of wanting to live a “normal” life? What bothers me most is that on account of some deep pastiche of pressure from her family, mixed with some abstract fear of social stigma, there’s a part of herself she has maybe resisted ever fully knowing. Days blend together. Home after work, we cook dinner, and I remember looking down at my wrinkly, dishwater glassy hands, prematurely aged. I towel them off. We’re watching “Boys Don’t Cry” on TV. Marla sits in the same corner of the couch, in her skirt and bare legs, hair a lighter shade of red than usual tonight. Sasha is standing there in his crisp, white diapers, fat Doughboy thighs seemingly unable to hold up the rest of his body, smiling as he’s—impossibly—holding himself upright, wobbling slightly, with nothing to hold onto. We laugh, and clap our hands. Sasha giggles. In that moment, it’s not about what we want anymore, what our sexuality means about who we are. It’s about him. It’s about providing the kind of safe space in which something like this can happen. It keeps us going. We cling to routine, ignoring the truth.
Four years go by, in which I (and we) mostly manage to keep the question of Marla’s queerness safely in the closet. Over time, the routine starts to focus into a weight as the passion slowly drains out of our relationship, the effort not to feel what I’m feeling so successful that one night, I’m staring vacantly at my computer screen, filled with images of sex workers. Stacks of old alt-weeklies all around me. Magazines. A flattened-out copy of John Rechy’s “City of Night,” open two-thirds through and resting face down on the desk. TV on in the other room, an empty, screen-lit presence, I’m fraught with the conversation in my head. I don’t want to leave her, I can’t just leave her. I’m arguing. Marla is what I love most about being alive. It’s been four months since we were last intimate, with more and more time between when we have sex, and when we are, it’s more and more devoid of emotion, reduced to a biological process not unlike eating or defecating. Simply the fulfillment of a physical need, and not much else. Maintenance sex. Bed death. As I sit reflecting on all this, the TV flickers behind me, volume all the way down, a sound not unlike falling snow, the sound of quiet voices. I know that I’m going to feel increasingly, excruciatingly more lonely, sad and afraid that we’ll just go on lingering in this inertia of pain and disappointment forever. Unless, I think to myself, there’s a reason not to. Shadow drifts across the wall in arranged, geometric masses, filling with waves and of color and light, moving away in a circular motion. I’m filled with yearning for a new life. Quo vadis? In the midst of that abysmal silence, a flat, clacking sound begins to fill the air.
Six months later. Day drifts into night, the tinny glow of the alley lights coming in slats through the open window shades. Nestle Crisp (not her real name) is sitting on my couch, noticeably thin legs in tight, faded blue jeans resting across my knees, her arms moving in a vaguely military-looking, puffy metallic green zipper-coat. She’s pretty. Maybe twenty-five, thin but not too thin. Marla is away with friends at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, Sasha visiting with his grandparents in Grand Rapids. It’s the sixth time I’m seeing Nestle Crisp, and as we talk, she lights a long white cigarette. I stare at the obsidian black crescents of dirt under her fingernails as she holds it up to her mouth, holding a cell phone between her cheek and shoulder, talking casually with whoever is on the other end as she counts the money, swiping through the stack of bills with the gentle, textured sound of paper zipping across paper. It’s all there. She snaps her flip-phone closed, slightly whipping her tawny, blondish-brown ponytail as she relaxes into the cushions, finding me again with her dark-lined eyes, lips thinning. “You want to do that now?” I ask, gesturing to the pink plastic laundry basket on the floor with a large bottle of Tide sticking up out of it. Laundry day. We’ve gotten so comfortable with one another, that this time she asked if it was okay to bring it along. “No, that’s fine. Afterwards.” she says waving it off. “Want to get down to business?” she asks, stubbing out her cigarette, pursing her lips to exhale one long, last stream of smoke. I nod.
We go to the bedroom, walking through the half-dark of the hallway. It’s remarkable the efficiency with which she slips out of her clothes, not even the slightest hint of self-consciousness as she braces against the bedpost to slip the panties down over her calves, one by one, then off over the heel of her left foot. She raises one knee to the mattress, shifting weight to that hip, snaps her Bic and tries to smoke from a metal pipe, but it’s tapped. “You out? Need a delivery?” I ask. “Mine is at 59th and Halsted,” she says, shaking her head no as she lowers the pipe and lighter onto the rug beside the bed. “Lay back,” she commands, clambering up onto the mattress beside me, small purple zipper bag in hand, and takes out a pack of metallic green Glyde condoms and a small four-ounce bottle of lubricant. It’s her way of easing into it, always cold and clinical like this at first, similar to a medical room visit, everything in its place. She tears open one of the condom packets, fishes out the small latex circle inside, and places it over the end of my penis, shifting down on her knees to unroll it with her mouth. There’s no communication, no talking as I watch the top of her head move up and down, pausing intermittently to pick away strands of hair that fall across her face. This goes on for about six or seven minutes, until I’m fully erect, and as soon as I am she asks if I want to fuck. I nod. She picks up the bottle of Ultra Glide, pops the cap, squeezes a dab into her palm, and smears it into her labia. We switch positions, Nestle Crisp firmly grasping my erection as she guides me in. I lean down on top of her as we fuck, taking in her earthy, outdoorsy smell, like sidewalk and trees. At one point I realize I’m holding her ankle so hard that her foot has turned purple. She reaches down, eyes closed, to place her palms across the bottom of her thighs, rocking back and forth until I feel myself begin to start throbbing inside of her, and it’s over. We never kiss. Kissing is largely verboten, with few exceptions.
Behind the glass of the dawn-lit windows, I stare out at the stacked bricks of the bared façades of the buildings across the avenue, still and unmoving. They seem to say something, these shabby brick structures, the air filled with the cheery, chirping song of morning birds. Nestle Crisp is in the bathroom cleaning up when I notice a small zipper bag beside her purse on the couch. I check to see if I can still hear the water running in the bathroom, then pick it up and open it. Inside is a hypodermic needle and maybe thirty small, empty plastic baggies smeared on the inside with dirt and white powder residue. Heroin. I stare at the kit awhile, feelings of sadness and worry cascading over me. It’s too much. I understand, but it’s too much. I can’t have this around. When she comes out of the bathroom a few minutes later, I help carry her laundry basket out to the car, and we hug. It’s a genuine hug, and we linger in it for a few moments, warmed by the morning sun. I never see her again.
It happened a few times before I could admit it to Marla. Sensing something is wrong, she secretly begins breaking into my email account, tracking my browser history. After Nestle Crisp, I’ve had to be more discerning about which women I see, and take to researching them prior to calling on sites like the Erotic Review, Room Service 2000 and eros-chicago.com. It doesn’t help the constant, sharp sense of guilt, and I start to feel as though I’m constantly on the verge of plunging headfirst into a clinical depression. This, of course, leads me to drink more as a way of self-medicating, to blot out these generalized feelings of panic and despair. They’re accompanied by hallucinations, usually quick movements in my peripheral vision. Shadows moving unnaturally, or the sense of another presence in the room when there’s no one else around. Ghosts ‘n’ stuff. I chalk it up to guilt. I stop eating, and start smoking more cigarettes. Too many, more than a pack a day. On the afternoon Marla decides to confront me about it, it comes as a relief, and I find myself staring at the glass ring she bought when we were on vacation in Venice for the Biennale, a large, round oval of brown glass that she’s worn nearly as long as her wedding ring. Scotomas move across my field of vision, little black holes threatening to swallow my world whole. “Tell me about the prostitutes,” she says, matter-of-factly. My first impulse is to deny it, but there’s no use. She knows. Anyway, I haven’t been trying all that hard to hide it. I want her to find out, to break past our wall of silence; I want to force a conversation about our relationship. I explain that part of the reason I’m hiring sex workers is that I won’t fall in love with any of them, that it’s purely physical. But this fact doesn’t help, it’s still brutal, the initial shock of truth. Still, it’s an infinitesimal bit better than our previous state of willful ignorance, and I’m genuinely relieved to have it out in the open. We talk about trauma, sex-positivity, s/m. Inequality. Judith Herman and PTSD. Concepts of embodiment, and strategies for depathologizing sex for a general public that doesn’t understand or even care about what happens in queer cultures. We cry, and less than six weeks later, I do it again. Afterward, I admit it to her again. Rinse, repeat. It goes on like this for awhile, but eventually, the conversation starts to open up. We talk for hours about open relationships, about the need to experiment with our sexuality, and she admits that she’s been corresponding with a stone-butch blogger in Portland planning a visit who is open to a tryst with Marla at the hotel where she’ll be staying downtown. “It’s just hard because I have a husband,” she explains. “When you’re viewed as a bisexual, they don’t trust you in the lesbian community, because everybody thinks you’ll just go back to being straight. Nobody wants to date you if you’re not sure.” Of course, I consent. And take a drink. Out of the corner of my eye, something small and furry dashes across the floor.
As time goes on, we open our relationship more and more. I begin to indulge my interest in sex workers more freely, and more frequently. For something so illegal, I’m surprised how openly call-girl prostitution is practiced in Chicago. There are numerous agencies here that have operated with relative impunity for decades: Secretly Yours. Polish Princesses. ECE Chicago. Mike the Assistant. Downtown Gyrls. It’s as much an open secret as the string of brothels Richard Pryor’s grandmother used to run in Peoria. It’s the American Way. Beyond the agencies, there are literally thousands of independent operators, students from the Art Institute, bank tellers, lawyers; one woman works at a famous theater company. Another is studying for her MD. It runs the whole spectrum. Mainly you meet in hotels, either out by O’Hare or in the Loop, in rented rooms safe for anonymous exchanges. It’s often the same routine. “Are you looking at our website?” Then, an exchange of information. Address. Name. Telephone number. Cash or credit? I learn terms like GFE, PSE, DFK, all the various codes, slang and colloquialisms for the vast and explicit menu of sexual services, offered a la carte. You become an expert at this underworld lingua franca. After awhile, if you’re in it long enough, you even begin to encounter people in your own social circles. One woman I know runs an art gallery in the city I’ve been visiting for years, another is a prominent sex-activist writer for Bitch magazine who publishes a literary journal I’ve written for, and who Marla will eventually meet through friends. At one point, my dentist is busted for allowing the use of condos he owns for the operation of a prostitution ring, and fixing the girls’ broken teeth. I feel like I’ve gone insane, that I’ve peeled back a layer of the surface of the world to this stranger, darker place underneath, where humanity writhes in the fullness of its insatiable fleshiness.
Six years go by. Seven. Eight.
I’m standing in the bathroom, shirtless, staring at my reflection in the mirror. I’m getting my first grays in the chin of my beard. My hair is sweat-grimed, the room stale-smelling. We’re in Amsterdam. I turn to look back at Marla fixing her clothes, pinching bits of lint off her dress, adding her usual finishing touches in her compact. Snap. Shut. Leaning in toward the mirror, I’m concentrating on the black depth of the corneas in the center of my eyes. One is definitely larger and more dilated than the other, even though the light seems evenly dispersed throughout the room. More dread. I close my eyes, phosphenes flooding my gaze as the after-light from the room fades. I look back for Marla, who has moved from my sightline. Then, as I’m still looking, there’s a knock at the door. “She’s here,” I hear Marla call after me. I take a minute. Sliding the shirt onto first my left arm, over my shoulders, and onto my right, I walk out still buttoning-up. Sitting at the end of the bed in our hotel room is Genevieve, a young, pink-haired Eastern European in a short, white skirt, tight green V-neck and white Chuck Taylors. She stands, walks over, and kisses me. “Ready to go?” she asks. “Ready,” says Marla, nodding, and we leave the hotel for a nearby pâtisserie. We order coffee and pastries, and choose a table on a terrace overlooking the main room. Marla sits across the table from Genevieve and I. “I want to pretend like you’re the couple, and that I’m a gay friend of yours,” she tells us, placing my hand on hers. Genevieve looks at me, smiling, and leans in for a kiss. It’s a long night.
After that, I start taking more and more time away from home, traveling for work. I miss Sasha terribly, the pain starting to feel more and more overwhelming, leading to more self-medication. I’ve specifically been flying to Berlin a lot lately, where prostitution is legal. One night, I’m in the city on a work trip, talking on the phone with Marla as I walk through Alexanderplatz toward the Fernsehturm Berlin, a high television-tower structure with a ball near the top that houses a revolving restaurant. I’m walking past at just that part of day when the sun shining on the steel tiles of the ball is reflected in the shape of a cross. “Why do you want to keep doing this?” she asks me. I don’t have a good answer. Our efforts at sustaining an open relationship feel like they’ve begun to falter, neither of us capable of managing the jealousy of sharing the other with anybody else. And still, Marla has not been able to fully engage with the gay community to the degree she wants while she’s still married to me. “Why? Because I want intimacy,” I stammer, trying to explain. “I feel so lonely and alone, but I just can’t let you go.” I tell her I’m contemplating suicide. Again. Our conversation becomes tense, and descends into a two-hour argument, after which we hang up, frustrated and unhappy. I feel deflated, emotionally exhausted. I sit on a swing-bench suspended on chains at the edge of the plaza, the summer wind blowing warmly, air bright with sun. Who am I? I hear my voice whisper inside my head, filled with an eager sense of anticipation as I sway gently, the metal squeaking with each forward movement. There are car sounds and children yelling and, as I’m sitting there looking off at nothing in the distance, I find myself looking out the corner of my eye at my shadow on the ground, watching it, but looking straight ahead. As I’m watching, I see the shadow of my own head move and turn toward me, looking back at me.
It’s not real, I tell myself. It’s not real. We stare at one another this way, swaying in the sunlight, filled with an intense longing to exorcise all this light, to make the shadow go away. I realize, in this strange moment, that the chair has stopped squeaking as I sway and I’m suddenly seized with the terrible, visceral feeling that I’m about to be killed. As this feeling first fills then spills out of me, the hair on my arms and at the nape of my neck stand on end. I give into it, trying to let this sense of terror pass. A blast of icy wind washes over me, my skin tessellates, runs cold and I’m filled with an overwhelming, urgent need to urinate. I stand up, cold and sweating, and hail a cab to Kaiser-Friedrich-Strasse 63 north of downtown, a little bar and brothel called La Folie. It’s a small, cruddy little place like any other dive bar, complete with faux-wood paneling. I press the buzzer outside the front entrance and the door latch hums open. Inside, there’s a small foyer and to my right, a box-office window where a middle-aged German woman with dark black hair collects my admission fee and hands me a key with an orange number tag that corresponds to a locker at the back of the entry hall. I enter the locker area through another door, strip and deposit my clothes in the assigned locker, taking out a small white terrycloth towel to wear. I wrap the towel around my waist and enter the main bar area. Inside, everyone is walking around wearing only these small white towels. I sit at the bar, and order a drink from the young bottle blonde working the door. “What does La Folie mean?” I ask her in my best broken German. “Crazy love.” She says, sliding me my drink.
Back from Germany, as I’m telling Marla about the brothel, she interrupts me. “We can’t keep going on like this,” she tells me. “I want your visits with the sex workers to stop. Next time you do it, I’m going to ask you to move out.” Pause. Silence, and I nod in agreement. It doesn’t take long. Three weeks later, Marla is away visiting her parents in Michigan for the weekend. My hallucinations have gotten worse, until I’m seeing out of the corner of my eye what I think is a rat or mouse dashing across the floor twice or three times a day. I know these visions aren’t real, so I’ve never mentioned them to anyone. I wish I had. Stubbing out my cigarette, I open the browser on my computer, pick a website, and send an email.
A few months after, we agree to separate, and I find and move into my own apartment a few blocks away so I can still be close for Sasha. It takes a few weeks to settle in, and the depression I’ve fought to stave off for years finally descends full force. It takes a few days of looking at the wedding ring still on my finger before I eventually decide to just take it off. I tuck the ring into the inner lining of my brown Tumi wallet. One night, out on a binge drinking spree, I’m at the 7-Eleven getting money. I slip my bank-card into the reader on the ATM, absentmindedly placing my wallet on top of the machine while I punch in my PIN. I’m nine or ten beers drunk, and a few shots of whiskey. Bushmills. Some Jagermeister. Tequila. I don’t remember. I just drink. And at that point in my binge, things have taken on the hazy blur of sleep, only illuminated by the dim light of the fluorescent tube overheads, and the light seems to blend with the noise of the people talking as they check out at the counter. Ka-chunk. Ka-chunk. Ka-chunk. The stack of twenties fall out…and as I’m looking at the bills, listening to the conversations behind me, I’m already yearning for another drink. I’ve wanted another drink since I had to slip off the barstool at Spyners, my new haunt across the street. It seems like the light is vaguely green in the dark night outside the door of the 7-Eleven, warm with a cool wind. I leave.
It takes me a day or so to realize that I’ve lost the wallet, and the wedding ring in it. I go back to look for it, but nobody has turned it in. Nobody dropped it in the mailbox, they probably simply took the money out and threw the wallet in the garbage. On that day, when I realize it’s gone forever, I’m too drunk to be aware of what’s going on when, after a few ill-conceived text messages, Marla shows up at my place with the police to make sure I’m okay. “Sleep it off,” they tell me. Afterward, I finally have to admit that my drinking is clearly a problem, one I will have to face on my own.
Four years after I move out, I’m in Washington, D.C. on a train to visit an artist from Winnipeg that I’ve been dating about six months. I’ve cut back a lot on the drinking, and it’s been two years since I hired my last sex worker. My hallucinations still persist, but are much more manageable than they were before. For the first time since Marla and I split up, I’m trying to embrace the idea of a real relationship, to accept love more than giving into the desire to be loved. In many ways, this cross-country train trip has been cathartic. Liberating. Marla has been dating too, and seems to have finally settled into a relationship with a woman who she’s been seeing for almost a year. It makes me happy that she’s happy. We’re not exactly friends, but with the help of a succession of therapists, we’ve managed to forge a solid co-parenting rapport that we’re particularly proud of, given the war-zone shambles of most divorced couples we know. And, of course, the shambles of our hopes for each other. Sasha is ten now, a happy little man, amused by the idea that he has two houses to sleep at. We both love him, and we make sure he knows it every day. In this way, our story still feels unique to me. It’s interesting too that, without having planned it, I’m standing in front of the Supreme Court on a weekend that the debate about gay marriage has taken over headlines in the national media.
I’m in the midst of a swarm of hundreds of protesters for both sides of the debate, milling around on the courthouse steps in front of TV news crews, strewn here and there with obvious members of the political class. “Isn’t it beautiful?” ponders a balding older man in a tailored, dark-purple suit and bowtie crowded in next to me. I walk down the row of people to a guy standing in the northern corner of the steps wearing dirty Carhartt overalls, hood drawn up over his head, three-day beard growing on his weathered face. He’s standing next to a cardboard sign filled edge-to-edge with minute handwritten scrawl, quotes from the Bible and lines about how homosexuality is an aberration of nature. “There’s no laws made except those made by God,” he says to me as I’m staring at it. Even God makes new laws, I hear myself think. Not ten feet from him is a line of young people, men and women in their late teens and early twenties, wearing shorts and flip-flops, decked out in rainbow-colored hats, smiling and posing for photographers. I can’t help but wonder, had gay marriage been more on the table when we met, if Marla and I could have avoided so much suffering and self-doubt. I take a picture of the row of kids, and text it to her. “Check it out—gay marriage at the Supreme Court!” I write to her. “Soooo gay!” Marla writes back, with a little smiley face next to it. I laugh.
Names, dates and identifying references have been changed.