There is a picture of my mother holding me on the morning of my birth. It was the middle of summer. They say it was the hottest day that year.
Later, my first word was ball. I was chubby with blonde, wispy hair and my older sisters dressed me up in leotards so I could be a part of their home dance recitals.
I grew up on a farm, but I was not a farm boy. The most I did, I helped pick strawberries. Sometimes, I fed the sheep clover. I was once taken to see the baby chicks. They moved like a blanket of fluff. They sounded like a million yellow phones all getting text alerts at once. We had puppies and I had an imaginary friend whose name was Johnny. We set a place for him at the table. On Sunday evenings we watched Disney movies and my parents droves us miles on gravel roads to go trick or treating. We had a slid-n-slide and I went to church and Sunday school. My mom would pull me and my sisters in a red wagon to the end of driveway to get the mail.
We moved to town when I was not more than seven or eight. There were cattle beyond our fence in the backyard and I made friends with the boys down the block. Dale, whose dad was a highway patrolman, and Bob, whose dad was the principal at the public school. We played basketball in his driveway and Tecmo Bowl. Bob used the 49ers and I used the Bills. But Ronnie Lott was so fast, I always lost. Down the street was my elementary school, and because I didn’t smell, I made friends with everyone. In the summer I played Little League and rode my bike and swam at the pool. As much as I could, I played catch with my dad. He had cows in the country and I held down the calves as he cut off their testicles. When I got older they called me E.T. because my head was oblong. In the fourth grade I got my first mechanical pencil and I was curious so I pushed the lead inside my palm to see how far it would go. The spot it left remains. On weekends I was driven to my best friend’s house in the country and we played sports and video games. In town, my middle sister and I had a fort we called Calypso, named after a John Denver song. I once threw my oldest sister’s Chicago tape against our brick fireplace. Neither of us can remember why. In my room, on the wooden dresser with the mirror, I had three figurines: Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan. But I wanted to be a professional baseball player. I could not understand math. Speech therapy was once a week and my lisp lessened, but no one in my class forgot.
When I was 12 my dad drove us, my sisters and my mom – who was a teacher – six blocks to the big building. On my first day of junior high I did the Fresh Prince high step. A wrestler – who never lost – imitated my move for the study hall. It made me understand it had been a silly thing to do. I came off the bench in sports, starting once at basketball, but I was quickly winded. I have beta thalassemia minor, I told everyone, if it was the major case I’ll die. I sang in the choirs, at school and church, and as I got older I played football, but my head was too big for any helmet. They had to order a special one. My junior year I gave Maggie a zerbert. Her brother was the biggest on our football team. He lifted weights at 12 and was the son of a milk farmer. The day after I did it – the night before we’d been playing Truth or Dare at Bob’s house – I came in for first period choir and Marvin, who gave me wedgies, and Aaron, who gave Tim the impossible sit-up, and Cody, who always asked if I filmed my sister naked and masturbated to the films, were making slobbering noises. It was because of the zerbert, but more than that, it was an allusion to my lisp from years before. My senior year, my best friend drifted to drugs and I drifted to God. I became friends with the kids from the private school where the Mennonites went. I wore Beck t-shirts and periwinkle-colored pants and dated the hottest girl from the private school, as it was said. We watched Shawshank Redemption one summer night and I kissed her nipples, then we broke up after she wrote me a note and Kim, our friend, delivered it. It was the first time I heard the phrase “we’re better off as friends.” I went to senior prom with another girl from the private school and also qualified for state in golf. There were trips to Sioux Falls for movies with Even and Paul. Things were easy.
I attended a land grant university two hours from where I was born. My second semester I had a beer for the first time and the same night found myself in a lofted bed with a woman. We did things I had always wanted to do. But my life was over. She was pregnant, I just knew it. So I prayed and there was no baby and I devoted myself to Him. I didn’t kiss another for six years. I wrote for the student newspaper and was the music director at the college radio station. I wanted to write but didn’t change my major because it didn’t matter. God could use me anywhere. I went on a summer project in Colorado where I proselytized to strangers. The next summer, the fall before I student taught and graduated, I interned at a Christian music magazine in Texas. That was the time I was addicted to porn and believed God punished me by making me go bald each time I looked at a naked woman on the internet.
I worked as an in-school suspension supervisor after college and wrote for Pitchfork as a newswriter. After that I moved to Nebraska where I worked at a group home and fell in love with a houseparent. I would never feel as strongly for another for as long as I lived, I knew that as much as I had known anything. I worked there for a year and for another after that I thought about the houseparent as I worked at a group home in Sioux Falls at night and at a package delivery company at day and played video games in my spare time. I was isolated, wanting to die. Everyone was married or getting married and that’s when I met the second person I would fall for. From Alabama, we found each other on MySpace. I visited her in the south and we did more than I had ever done without clothes. When I got back to my place in Sioux Falls she texted to say I was not the spiritual leader she was looking for. That day I went to my sister’s house, and as I hugged her I cried longer than I thought I could. After that I met my first hipsters, but they didn’t take. I needed to be free from the ones having children and the ones doing mushrooms in pastures. My editor from Texas lived in Seattle and was no longer a Christian, and as I drove to Spokane, WA from Sioux Falls, SD in one day I listened to a book on tape and decided I wasn’t either. But before I left, I was with someone. She worked at the group home and was half-black and half-white and had the most amazing backside I had seen or ever will, I have to imagine. But how could I have known that then.
In Seattle I met house-builders and volunteers and people who grew backyard gardens. They whittled wood and drank wine and played Frisbee and kickball. I met also met the one with curly hair, and other women, and they were interested in me as more than friends. I wandered into their beds, and by the fall of that year the one with curly hair had enough. She moved away for school and I thought I didn’t care. I started writing again. I wanted my own work this time, a novel to take down Joshua Harris. My Blankets. It took six months and I submitted it to agents and small presses and received two letters of interest, one being from a vanity press. I worked at the same package delivery company and hoped to be promoted as my house-builder friends began to pair up and move to the suburbs. I dearly missed the one with curly hair. I got fatter and balder. I gave away my car. I moved closer to home.
In Minneapolis I lived in the attic of my friend’s house. The first day I arrived he was eating a 50 piece chicken McNugget meal. I joined a gym the same day and I bought a car soon after that. It drove me to my temp job I hated more than any job I’d had in my life. My itinerant life, I had no connections for a career. I studied for the GRE then started a blog instead of taking the test. I online dated and met a good person who I would break up with twice, once in person and once over email. I quit the temp job where I watched bottles of medicine go by alongside immigrants from Laos and Somalia and started working at Barnes and Noble in the shipping department, and I online dated. Over the next years I saw maybe 100 or so people. One of them was a dark-haired Jewish woman from the east coast who had just graduated from Carleton. I wrote a story about how things went with us and I sent it to her, then she deleted her profile and reinstated it a week later. It went like that a number of times with a number of other people. I began to submit my writing again. Not to agents but to local blogs. I was encouraged by an editor, after my 5th or 6th rejected submission, to submit to Thought Catalog. So I did, and after several rejected submissions I started writing for them. I quit my job at Barnes and Noble and just wrote, without a day job, for the first time in my life. I submitted short stories to journals. After all rejections came back, I started working at a steel factory. I stopped writing and began to feel being published was for other people. I stopped online dating. I went to a wedding in Charleston and met a resident in psychiatry in Milwaukee. I quit my job at the steel factory and moved in with her.
Here in Milwaukee I start writing again. I had amassed hundreds of blog posts for some reason, 30 short stories, two novellas of around 50k words, and three mini-novellas. I don’t know what I could call them, they’re about 20K words. I begin to submit my stories again. I join another gym, this time an organized class. The psychiatrist and I begin to talk of marriage.