So yeah, the abyss

I tell my friend B that I’m gay in the parking lot outside the library. We can’t go inside because of the pandemic, but he doesn’t have wi-fi at home so we split our time between the 24-hour diner near me and in his car at the library parking lot. He catches up on his YouTube subscriptions on his phone and I stare into space weighing which words to use and what order to put them in.

I wait until his video ends and then tell him, “I think it would be easier for me to be gay.”

He doesn’t look up as he scrolls through for his next video. “Oh yeah?”


He finds one he likes and clicks on it, but presses pause before it begins. “What do you mean easier?”

I don’t know why I settled on that syntax. It’s like when you’re trying to say two things at once but they come out jumbled. Instead of “I wish you all the best” or “I wish you well,” what comes out is “I wish you all the well.”

What had I jumbled here? “I think I’m gay” and “It would be easier for me to…” Easier for me to what? Tell him first than someone else? That part is certainly true.

I’d need to workshop my coming-out before I told anyone else.

“I mean to say,” I begin, but he interrupts with, “Good for you,” because he gets it anyway. Or because he’s straight, and he’s never had to — or needed to — think about whether or not he isn’t.

I told B that I wasn’t cis before I told him I was gay. He was taking me home from work almost a year earlier, in the Before Times. In my mind, I was doing my best work balancing I value your time and I need to tell you something, as in I planned to thank him for the ride after doubling our driving time leading him on various detours.

Around the time he should have been dropping me off, I told him, “So yeah, I’m not a woman.”

We were coasting down a hill, probably ten miles over the speed limit, the frantic relief of the drop after the roller coaster takes you up, up, up to the top of the track before letting its newfound momentum take over.

Instead of exhaling, the worst behind me, I added, “I don’t think I am, anyway.”

B stops all the way at stop signs, like I do. I could almost hear the brakes screeching, if only figuratively, after seconds of my words hanging between us. We didn’t pull ahead right away.

Instead, he turned to me and went, “Cool.” He nodded as he said it, making brief eye contact, then returned his gaze to the road and drove forward again.

It would be easier for me to…

Maybe “easier” isn’t the word. The people whose hurts linger the most are just like B, after all. They’re cis, straight, white, men; they’re me with the colors inverted.

People like B don’t ask questions about pronouns or how to refer to me in mixed company because they don’t ask anything. If something doesn’t apply to you and you never take the time to teach yourself about it, it’s very easy not to care. It hurts, before I jump in and remind myself it doesn’t have to.

It’s a manageable hurt because it doesn’t make me question who I am. The act of cis, straight people nodding and driving ahead, or pressing play on their video, it sucks in the moment; but all in all, it’s fine.

It would be easier for me to be hard on myself.

I love having fellow trans friends and queer friends. We don’t have to speak it to know we’re all in something together. They’re welcoming and validating and nice and I try to reciprocate it except when it comes to myself. I invalidate my transness and my queerness all the time. I am absolutely, one hundred percent sure I am trans and queer, but every time I come across some aspect of the trans, queer experience that I’ve never heard, I feel left out. When other trans people can clearly and comfortably articulate their thoughts on gender, I wonder if I’ll ever get to the point where I even know myself well enough to be able to speak about more than me.

That’s when I wonder if it would be easier for me to just not care, like B. Like, I will embody anyone’s favorite meme about not being perceived if it means the part of myself that finds it easier to choose shame and isolation over broadening my own knowledge can thrive.

Or maybe it would be easier to stop letting people like B in at all. Maybe I should have walked home, used my own wi-fi, let myself be vulnerable to people who would intimately understand instead of people whose only validation stems from ignorance.

It would be easier for me to cast away my own shame than reassign it to others who cannot appreciate the burden.

Image description: A screenshot from the animated show Neo Yokio. Kaz Khan, a young Black man with pink hair, sits dejected on a park bench holding a giant Toblerone on his lap.

Counting to infinity

Originally published April 11, 2020

As of sending this letter, I haven’t drank in 131 days.

Sometimes, I don’t really know why I’m counting. When I think about it too much, it feels disingenuous. Like I’m co-opting the triumphs of actual recovering alcoholics. I have never considered myself an alcoholic — whether that’s because I’ve always been able to transition away from drinking without any adverse physical or mental effects, because I’ve always seen my drinking as more of a habit, or because it’s just ground I don’t feel is mine to intrude on — and I’m not collecting chips, I don’t have a sponsor, anything like that. It’s a choice I made, to stop drinking. A choice influenced by convenience, namely that the day I stopped was the day after the last time I didn’t have to pay to get drunk. I just drank to excess that one day and haven’t done it since. No big fanfare.

But still, I’m counting the days.

And in those days, I’ve felt… something different, since stepping back from drinking. No matter how little I felt a part of this country’s hugely problematic culture surrounding alcohol, participating in it at all meant I was in it. I couldn’t see for myself the extent of what I was part of until I fully removed myself from it.

I think about this BoJack Horseman quote a lot:

You know, it’s funny; when you look at someone through rose-colored glasses, all the red flags just look like flags.

And it’s not a perfect match, I know, to what I’m describing. But in a way, I think it does demonstrate how easy it is to go from “I am a regular drinker/a social drinker/a casual drinker/a not problem drinker” to, well, worse.

Far be it from me to decide what each person can handle individually when it comes to drinking, the most basic fact remains that drinking alcohol is… not good for you! I am not doing anti-alcohol evangelizing here! That drinking occasionally in moderation won’t kill you and that drinking is objectively bad for you on some level greater than “not at all” are not mutually exclusive.

Unfortunately, that “something different” I mentioned? That’s me, right now, just over four months into this, mentally having trouble finding the grey areas between “my friends neutrally talk about drinking on social media” and “I would prefer to avoid alcohol in any form, including discussing it.” My list of muted words on Twitter has exploded, and now includes things like “drunk” and “beer” as well as “Untappd” (the drinking social media app) and “tipsy” (a word I’m not sure anyone my age uses, but what if they did one day?).

Since this whole pandemic thing kicked into high gear, it’s gotten worse. The number of times I’ve seen a Facebook status along the lines of, “Heading to the liquor store for some essential grocery shopping!” accompanied by a cry-laugh emoji and a photo of a shopping cart full of different beers and liquors has just made me feel so defeated.

Initially, I thought I was overreacting. You know that subreddit, IAmVerySmart, that makes fun of people who are just trying way too hard to make absolute sure people know they’re smart? That’s how I felt. There was no way my discomfort was a legitimate reaction — this was just me being waaay too good for these people. (Anyone who knows me well knows I love putting myself on pedestals like that!)

But I think when you’re trying to make a clean break from something like drinking, some discomfort is normal. When you’re coming to terms with the fact that maybe you were a bigger problem drinker than you realized, and you’re seeing people repeat your problem behaviors and present it as a joke for their friends, but you don’t want to step in and say something because (a) surely it’s not a problem for them, (b) who am I to decide how anyone should be coping right now, and (c) everyone knows that drinking isn’t good for you and grown adults don’t need reminders of that, it’s hard to watch, even when your panic has the same script every time.

It’s a work-in-progress, is what I’m saying, this part of me. It’s still new. And as I’m seeing casual “it’s 2 p.m. and I’m drinking at work!!!” social media posts (get it, because they’re working from home), I can’t help but think about how this particular brand of uncertainty that includes alcohol parallels with my own uncertainty that doesn’t.

I saw a tweet earlier today that went, “Next time you’re tempted to say “This is a marathon, not a sprint” – remember that in a marathon, you know where the finish line is. This is more like being lost in the woods and there are bears.” And it’s true — we’re not counting down to the end of this thing. As many projected end dates as our federal, state, and local governments are throwing into the universe, they’re all too soon. We can say how many weeks we’ve been sheltering in place (or, um, self-quarantining, if you’re “lucky” enough to live somewhere where shelter in place is not a thing), but we can’t say how many weeks until we don’t have to do it anymore.

Maybe that’s why I count my days, all 131 of them — to try to put any kind of positive spin on the uncertainty I can control. I’m counting up, infinitely, so I have some sort of tangible record of what I’ve accomplished. It’s still so scary, because if I go at this for the rest of my life, I can’t know how many more days will be tacked on. But, given the circumstances, the scary thing is the best thing I could be doing.

Here’s to Day 132, and every day after that.

How “Lady Bird” inspires me to keep writing “unlikable” semi-autobiographical characters

(Note: Spoiler-wise, I don’t think there’s anything here that isn’t referenced in a trailer or review of Lady Bird. Let me know if this ends up not being the case and I will happily edit the post.)

I’ve written five novels, three of which feature high school-age girls navigating life, the inevitability of change, and the tumults of coming of age. The first time I workshopped a few chapters of one of them, my peers’ main feedback was that they didn’t like my protagonist. She was realistic, they said, but also annoying, uncaring, and most of all, “unlikable.” Inevitably, I’d reveal that this character was semi-autobiographical, based on myself in high school, and half my workshop would stare blankly, and at least one person would apologize.

This comment didn’t really bother me, all things considered. I didn’t need the apology. I know that in high school, especially, I could come off as possessing any of these three characteristics. This criticism wasn’t reflective of me now, but more likely the way I wrote her. However, as I’ve recently learned, a big reason for not being able to write unlikable yet relatable characters to the standard I wanted was that I’m not Greta Gerwig, the writer-director of Lady Bird.

In trying to cram all the good things I’d like to say about this film into a spoiler-free paragraph that will provide context for what I’m about to discuss, here’s what I’ve got: It’s incredibly well-written, but not forced. There’s no “how do you do, fellow kids?” about it; the teenagers sound like teenagers. It’s fast-paced, but each scene feels entirely fleshed out and also necessary, even the ones that are only a few seconds long. The characters and settings and storylines alike are given the right amount of attention for the story that’s being told.

Music⚡️Band 4 lyfe.

My main impression, though, was something I was instantly convinced of while watching for the first time, that I ever-so-eloquently put into words upon exiting the theater: Gosh, this is so real.

And the basic “real”-ness of Lady Bird is no coincidence. Reading about Gerwig, I learned about the similarities she shares with the titular character: they both grew up in Sacramento with a nurse for a mother, they both went to all-girls Catholic high schools, they both attended college in New York City. And then I read this quote of hers in a Rolling Stone article about the film:

Writing this character was an exploration of all these things I didn’t have access to or I couldn’t be. In that way, it almost felt like this fairy-tale invention of a deeply flawed heroine, but one who I admire. I think she shows courage and a lot of character even when she’s flailing.

Reading this is when it clicked: Lady Bird is the young-adult novel—and more importantly, the protagonist—that I’ve always wanted to write.

Can I also say that it’s the first time EVER that a film protagonist has shared my name and I haven’t recoiled in horror by the end?

I don’t exactly have escapism fantasies of returning to my senior year of high school. But in all of my novel-length works that feature teenagers, I’ve based characters, places, and even conversations on my own experiences. For example, as a 17-year-old, I didn’t think that I could get into a college in New York City, so I sent a character to a small liberal arts college in Vermont that mirrors where I first ended up, Gonzaga University. If I write a best friend character, she’s almost certainly based on one or two of my actual closest friends from that time—that way, I can draw upon our most naïve conversations, our most trivial arguments, and our overall friendship dynamic (how often did we see each other? were we huggers? did we mostly hang out right after school or plan activities for the weekend? and so on).

And it’s not that I can’t write “original” characters or scenarios. In fact, seemingly like Gerwig, I use my own experiences to set the tone for my stories, whether it’s a small town like the one I grew up in or a “borrowed” character or two, before introducing new ideas. To me, this kind of freedom isn’t restricted by the limitations of place or people I’ve set, but is in fact made wider by my extensive knowledge of the universe I’ve established. Being able to draw from my own life in order to tweak a scene or a line of dialogue and make it more authentic is a fantastic privilege.

I can’t describe well enough how empowered I felt after each time I saw Lady Bird. Here’s a writer-director who’s come up with a character, and a mother-daughter duo, who cycle between BFF-style bonding and familial bickering in the way that only mothers and daughters can, but who, more than that, are allowed to be as “unlikable” as they want. My favorite part is that what Gerwig has accomplished with Lady Bird and her mother has spurred reactions online ranging from enthusiastic relatability to abject annoyance. Which, not to compare the execution but rather the basic content, is pretty much how my own foray into the young adult genre has gone. My main shortcoming, though, is not letting my characters know well enough that they can be wholly unapologetic about their real-life qualities. Just because it’s fiction doesn’t mean it has to be fake.

Worth it.

Finally, I’d like to talk about the reason I’ve seen Lady Bird five times in the theater (as evidenced by the above photo). And best way (or at least, the way I’ve chosen) to do this is to list my general thoughts going into each viewing:

  • 1: My sister said I’d like this. I’m a big fan of Saoirse Ronan. It got good reviews. Why not?
  • 2: I know someone who MUST see this movie, and I enjoyed it so I won’t mind seeing it a second time.
  • 3: I’ve decided I want to write something about this lovely, lovely movie. But what? (Here’s where I realize that it’s very much like a young adult novel.)
  • 4: No, seriously, what? (Worth mentioning: this is the first viewing where I cried almost all the way through. I knew all the jokes and the emotional moments and what happened and whose performances would affect me, and it all hit me at once.)
  • 5: Here’s what I want to write about. Here’s how I want to view the film this time around; what I want to get out of it. And look, it’s only $6.

A fifth viewing may have solidified the topic I’ve chosen for this particular writing, but it still only scratches the surface of my attempt to learn more about and begin to emulate everything I love about this film, this script. I want to nail Lady Bird’s voice in my own characters. I want to learn to balance the unlikability of teenage characters with their (nostalgic) relatability. I want to balance how high schoolers present themselves with how they think, how the things that they never tell anyone influence how they see the world. I want to be able to write a mother-daughter relationship that takes the inherent volatility, love, and “like” and makes it feel effortlessly real.

It’s always been somewhat therapeutic for me to almost “rewrite” my teenage years through my characters, whether it’s working out a part of my personality that I was never able to figure out then by finally putting it into words, or so pettily finally getting to say what I wanted to say in a ten-year-old argument with a friend that hasn’t left my memories. But now, thanks to Lady Bird, I have a new wish for my future as a writer: I hope that I can develop the confidence and the skill to have my own characters reach out to others in the way that Lady Bird‘s have to me. As long as they’re well-written, then the more unlikable, the better.

All Lady Bird screencaps come from the trailer, which can be found here.