Meow

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Clutching my roasted eggplant veggie wrap and my hot coffee, I took a seat at the picnic table underneath the giant spider, setting myself in the shady part underneath the spider’s abdomen. The Santa Fe sunshine was perfect but bright, and I wanted to read.

A few minutes later, an older man, in his mid 60s, sat across from me. He was tall and thin, almost wirey, and he had a close-cropped grey beard and a floppy sunhat. He had a plate full of meat, rice, and potatoes, and a bottle of Orange Crush.

“Whatcha reading there?” he asked me through a mouth full of food.

I showed him the cover of my book, a mediocre autobiography by Elvis Costello, and smiled.

“Ah, he’s one of my favorites. And whatcha eating there?”

The conversation flowed easily from there as the man, overly friendly, asked several questions. He learned I was visiting from Salt Lake City, that I had a boyfriend and kids back home, that I had recently written a book, and that I was a social worker. He seemed astounded that I enjoyed taking little weekend furloughs for myself in unfamiliar places.

“Me, I never really planned on living here. It just kind of happened that way. I spent my career in California as an engineer, surveying land for big projects, and teaching at a few universities while my wife spent her time in education. We raised some kids, they moved away, and we wanted a fresh start. We came here for a visit, and we just kind of never left.” He took a large bite of potatoes and a swig of orange and kept going. “Now I spend my days doing stuff I love, and so does she. This place is weird, right? It’s perfect. She’s off painting this morning, and I just took an improv comedy class that they have down the road every morning. It’s all retired guys, and most of them are gay. Hell, most of Santa Fe is gay, which means we have the best neighbors.”

Then he seemed to remember where we were, and he indicated his fork at the giant spider above our heads, then over toward the other giant statues nearby, one a large metallic wolf, the other a building size robot smelling a flower. “And what do you think of this place? Did you go in? Tell me you went in.” I nodded, smiling. I always tend to get slightly quieter around those that are loud. He kept talking. “I’ve never been in. I’ve been meaning to. I just like to come down here on Saturdays after improv cause the food trucks are fantastic. But what was it like in there? What is Meow Wolf? I still can’t figure it out.”

“It’s… hard to explain,” I said simply, and I tried computing a way to explain it simply. “Have you ever taken your grandkids to McDonalds, to the play-land there? They climb up a series of platforms and end up in a big blocky room that has three different exits. One leads into a tunnel that winds up in a fake car with a plastic steering wheel; one leads into a room with an interactive tic-tac-toe game; the third has a slide in it that lands in a ball-pit at the bottom. Conjure that image, except multiply it by a thousand, and make it big enough for adults.”

The man listened intently as my voice rose in enthusiasm. “It was so weird. I felt curious and full of wonder the entire time, and I was in there for over three hours. They have this whole storyline that they tell you about a family that has gone missing, and then you go in to explore their house, except that their house has been hit by a reality-altering alien entity and all of the rooms are portals into little Twilight Zone dimensions. There were over 72 different rooms connected in the most bizarre ways, and all of them are interactive art displays.”

“How strange,” he said simply as I continued.

“Like I went in and saw the house and I read the family’s mail in their mailbox, then I went down a sidewalk and turned a corner, and suddenly I was in a passage of neon trees with fish swimming in the tops, and past that was an alien ship. Then a minute later, I found this narrow spiral staircase that I could barely squeeze myself through, and at the top I had to push this door open and it made a woman scream. Well, I climbed through the door and looked back and realized I had climbed out of the washing machine that was in the family’s home on the upstairs!”

The man listened as I continued describing the house. The family photo albums, the bizarre images in the mirror, the portal in the fridge, the room of robot hands, the cartoonish room, the mechanical hamster, the harp made of lasers that I actually got to play.

“But then about a thousand kids came in all at once, and I realized I was ready for lunch,” I laughed, noticing the four school busses now parked in the lot.

“It sounds like you need to bring your kids back here,” he laughed.

“Oh I had way more fun without my kids today,” I admitted. “But I would love to bring them back here.”

“You really seemed to have fun in there! I’ll have to bring my wife back next week.”

“You should!”

Out of words for a minute, we both cleaned up the last of our plates, A silence hung in the air, and I looked forward at the Santa Fe skyline, rolling hills in the middle of the desert. Despite how busy it was, I could see green everywhere, and I realized how many birds were singing.

Then the man burst out with one loud laugh. “God, Santa Fe is weird!”

“It really is!” I laughed back, excited to explore more.

“And it’s perfect just the way it is,” he said, excusing himself shortly after. He got on his bike and rode off, past the flower-smelling robot and into the dusty roads beyond.

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Comic Book Nerds

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“So, you work for Marvel Comics?”

I nod. “Yeah. Well, I used to.”

The girl is heavyset, wearing a Cookie Monster hoodie. She has acne, and she looks at me suspiciously as she takes bites of a pretzel. A few crumbs scatter off of it, landing on the books set up on my vendor table. “I bet I could beat you in a trivia contest.”

I give a small smile, but I’m annoyed. I would expect her to be excited by the Marvel connection, most are at least mildly impressed. “Well, please don’t eat over the books here. But go ahead, I’ll try out some trivia.”

She shoves the rest of the pretzel into her mouth. “I bet you can’t tell me what Northstar’s real name is.”

A few other customers walk up to the table, casually looking. I greet them. “Sure I can. Jean-Paul Beaubier.”

Her eyes narrow. I’ve made her angry. “Well, what super hero team was he on?”

I laugh. “Alpha Flight.”

She steps back, arms folded over her chest. “Okay, fine, well, which character besides Steve Rogers has been Captain America?”

I cock my head to the right. She was being downright obstinate. “There have been many. The Patriot. The Spirit of 76. Bucky. USAgent. Roscoe–”

“Okay, okay. Geez.” She turns and starts walking away.

“Thanks for stopping by!”

I love comic book conventions. They have this visceral energy about them, this ‘let your freak flag fly’ mentality. Fans will pay 20 to 50 dollars just to get in, then they will wander among the hundreds of tables, looking for their favorite books and artists, ready to spend hundreds of dollars on the things that they love. Conventions are often divided up into various sections, representing movies, television shows, video games, books, anime, action figures, and comic books. Hundreds of vendors and artists will print up materials featuring favorite characters, none of it authorized by the official companies, and fans will go nuts, paying cash to pick up their favorites. T-shirts, posters, sketches, small toys, and prints of every character that comes to mind from Deadpool to My Little Pony to Ninja Turtles to He-Man to Batman to Adventure Time.

I’m set up at my little booth in the middle of a row, my table covered with merchandise. Half of the contents on my table are Marvel books I worked on, back during my college years, Official Handbooks and Files of various kinds, as well as trade paperbacks that I was in on the planning process for. On the other half is my original comic book, the Mushroom Murders, a book I’m hugely proud of, that I planned and organized myself, working with an amazing art team. The Marvel works bring people to the table, but it’s my book that I’m there to promote first and foremost.

“Excuse me, did you write all these books?” I look up and my eyes widen at the woman in front of me. She’s dressed like a slutty version of Jessie from Toy Story. She must be fifty years old, with thick make-up and a whole lot of cleavage showing.

I smile. “I did, yes.”

She picks up my graphic novel. “What’s it about?”

I give my practiced sales pitch. “It’s rather like Law & Order meets Army of Darkness. It’s a detective story with supernatural elements and a lot of twists and turns.”

She gives a broad smile. “I’ll take one if I can get an autograph of the handsome author and a photograph with you.”

I sign the book, she takes the picture, kisses my cheek, and hands me the cash before walking away with a wave.

I love the people at conventions. So many of them dress-up, some in costumes they have worked on for ages. Bearded men in Wonder Woman costumes, super fit Superman, Deadpool in a business suit, baby Mystique, toddler Aquaman. Groups of friends will coordinate costumes, so that six members of the Justice League will be roaming together. Some costumes are so elaborate, they must cost several hundred to make. A man walks by dressed as a real looking Galactus, holding the planet Earth in his hands; a mechanized Sentinel walks by; an R2-D2 constructed of Legos stops to beep at my table, his owner behind him. I am constantly snapping photographs.

A 20 year old Asian young man stops back by the table, his smile wide and infectious. He had stopped by yesterday to chat for an hour before buying my book and rushing off. “Chad, hey!”

I stand and shake his hand. “Hi, Allan, welcome back.”

“You remembered me! That’s so cool!” He pulls open his backpack and pulls my book out. “I have to get an autograph! I finished the book and it was so amazing! I want to get an extra copy for my mom!”

These brief encounters at conventions make the whole thing worth it. Conventions are exhausting. It feels like three straight days of McDonalds’ rush hour in a row, working these. Constant smiles, handshakes, sales pitches, greetings, all while sitting in one hard back chair, grabbing food or bathroom breaks whenever possible. Most fans wander around a bit suspicious, browsing the merchandise but feeling like everyone is trying to get their money and attention (which in fact they are). Many are waiting to see their favorite writers, artists, or celebrities on various panels or for autographs. Some celebrities go from Con to Con, living off their fame. Lou Ferrigno charges 40 dollars per autograph, characters who were on the original Power Rangers or Star Trek, thirty years and forty pounds later, still find fans to greet.

But these brief encounters, like the one with Allan, make it all worth it, seeing someone enjoy the book I worked so hard on.

I look down the aisle at the other vendors. The man to my left draws beautiful sketches for 15 or 20 dollars each, commissioning specific pieces for those who pay him. The woman to my right has a table full of steampunk jewelry she has hand-crafted. The man across from me has his original art splayed over colorful T-shirts.

Allan rushes off, promising to bring his mom back later just as a woman with pink hair steps up to the table, dripping the ice cream she is eating on to one of my books. As I clean it up, I look up at the clock, realizing there are six hours left today. I sigh, a bit sleepy, just as a family (father, mother, and three kids) walk by, dressed as the characters from the Thundercats, the baby dressed as Snarf, and then I’m grinning again.

I love comic book nerds, and I fit right in.

Green means Go

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“Well, it isn’t that confusing. I was married to Mom and we had you two little monkeys. And then mom and me got a divorce, so we live in two houses and we both love you both.”

I look at the rear view mirror, which reflects the face of my six year old son, J. His brow is furrowed in frustration. “But you like to marry boys, so why did you marry a girl, then?”

I smile and sigh. He has so many questions, that one. To him, the idea of ‘marrying’ someone is the expression of love. He’s really asking, ‘if you like boys, why did you marry mom?’ “Well, we’ve talked about this before, son. Do you remember why I married mom?”

He nods, looking down at his fingernails. The light turns green and I move the car forward. “You married mom because you loved her and you didn’t think it was okay to marry a boy, so you  married a girl.”

“Yes, that’s right. You have a very good memory.”

“Yeah, but why?”

I shift my eyes to my three year old, A, strapped in to his car seat. He has my furrow, the same way of scrunching his eyebrows down to give off an excellent look of consternation. Though two years and nine months younger, he weighs almost more than his petite older brother.

“Why what, A?”

“Why didn’t you marry a boy?”

I had thought it would be a few more years before they started asking questions like this. J had been only 3 when I came out of the closet, finally and officially, and A hadn’t even been born yet. They’ve basically always known I was gay. They have other gay family members, they know many of my gay friends, and having a gay dad will be a completely normal part of their upbringing. They would never recognize the man that I used to be.

A few memories flood back into my mind; the Priesthood blessing I had asked for as a missionary that I believed would finally cure me; the hours spent in therapy, asking for help with being attracted to men and being treated for “porn and masturbation addiction” even though I wasn’t addicted to porn or masturbation; the night that I told Megan that I was gay, after years of dating her, and her nodding that she understood–that was the night of our first kiss, my first kiss, at age 26; (I didn’t kiss a boy until I was 32).

Then I think of the first few weeks after I had come out, and how I had very briefly considered taking my own life, believing at the time that my sons would be better off with no father than a gay one. I look back at them now and think of all the confusion they would have have had without me in their world. All these questions they have now, they have me to ask; what kind of questions would they have if I wasn’t here.

I think of rocking them when they were infants, cuddling them when they were toddlers. I think of the stories, crayons, and toys; the trips to the zoo, the aquarium, and the aviary; the wrestling matches, puppet shows, dance parties, and dragon fights. I think of the early morning feedings, the diaper explosions, the projectile vomit, the emptied cupboards and crushed crackers and spilled juice cups. I think of Christmas mornings and Halloween nights and Easter eggs and Valentines and Independence Day fireworks.

“Dad, I said why didn’t you marry a boy!” A shouts, playfully yet sternly, impatient for an answer.

“Whoa, be patient!” I pull up to another red light. How do I answer such a complicated question to kids that are 3 and 6? “Well, I grew up in the Mormon church, and they said that marrying a boy was bad, and that boys should only marry girls.”

A wrinkles his nose. “Well, that’s dumb.”

I laugh. “Yeah, I guess it is.”

But J still looks very serious. “Wait, but Mommy wanted to marry a boy and you are a boy.”

“Well, yeah, but mommy is straight. That means she wants to marry a boy who wants to marry a girl. I’m gay, and that means I want to marry a boy who also wants to marry a boy.” I am tempted to change the word marry to love, but decide that isn’t necessary right now.

The light bulb of understanding comes on over J’s head as it all clicks together. “Oh, that makes sense.”

A nods. “Yeah, that makes sense.”

“Well, good.”

The car is quiet for a moment as we get closer to our destination. The radio plays softly. I look up to the mountains in the distance, covered in snow, the sky filled with clouds above them. It is an absolutely beautiful day.

“Well,” J starts, thinking for a minute. “When I grow up, I think I’ll marry a girl. Maybe Hannah in my class.”

“That’s a great plan, J.”

He continues. “We can get married when I’m 25. We can have a boy and a girl and name them Tad cause it rhymes with Chad and Dad. And the girl will be Aloy.” I feel tears come to my eyes unbidden. Aloy was the name of my grandmother, the name I had selected if J had been a girl. “And we will have a rabbit named Sunface, and we will live in north Idaho because it’s so pretty, but not in Provo cause it is too hot and gross. And I will be a Wendy’s chef.”

I laugh out loud at his little plan for the future. “That sounds like a great life, J.”

Never one to be one-upped by a story, A pipes in. “And I’m not gonna get married to a boy or a girl. I will just live in a hotel with nine million dollars and I will have a dog named Loki and I will be a mighty hunter. Or maybe I will marry one boy and four girls and have nine million kids instead.”

The last stop light turns green, and I pull into the parking lot at McDonalds and both boy gave out a whoop of joy at the thought of Chicken Nuggets and milkshakes, and I think, no matter the wayward path it took me to get here, this is a pretty good life to have.

I think of all the years wasted at red lights, and resolve, again, to seek out the greens. It’s time for forward motion.