Cartoon Devil

October 2015

“I’m here! Plaid shirt and blue jeans, corner table, what can I order you?”

I had butterflies when I sent the text message. I hadn’t been on a date in a few months and it was nice to be back on the market. I was so, so sick of dating. It exhausted me. Maybe I was picky or impossible, or maybe I kept hoping to find that unobtainable unicorn out there. I wanted someone with a job, who took care of himself physically, who was good with kids, who was charming. I also wanted someone with some self-confidence, and a sense of humor, who was out of the closet, and had themselves figured out when it came to their family and religion. Utah was so full of these guys who didn’t like themselves, who berated themselves because of their religious upbringings. They were the way I used to be, but once you have got your own shit together, there is nothing quite so threatening or annoying as someone who hasn’t.

By this point, four and a half years after coming out of the closet, I’d had dozens and dozens of terrible and weird dates. Admittedly, sometimes I was the terrible and weird date. I went through a phase where I was too codependent, or where I expected others to put in all the effort while I coasted along. I fell in love too quickly a few times, and fell apart too quickly a few others. I even turned down a few really amazing guys in the hopes that I might find something just a bit better out there. But I was now ready for something to stick, to last more than a few weeks. I think seven weeks in a relationship had been my longest record since coming out, with someone who was 14 years younger than me, but that hadn’t worked out either; he moved to another state to go to college, and there was no way I could do long distance while I had two little kids.

And so, for a time, I had given all of my energy to just being single. I focused on my career, my hate crimes research, my blog, and went to the gym. I took myself on dates and little trips. I spent time with friends, I hosted my own movie nights, and I, of course, spent every possible moment with my incredible sons, at this point ages 7 and 4, two little men who delighted me constantly. They were with me every other weekend and a few nights per week. I loved my time with them, but I also grew to love my time flying solo.

Tonight, this was my first attempt back into the dating scene after over two months of focusing solely on myself. I met the guy over OKCupid just days after I’d reactivated my account. My first impression of his pictures elicited an out loud ‘DAMN!’ I sent the first message and he answered within minutes. He was witty, funny, handsome, employed, cute and fit, but in that guy-next-door kind of way, not in that ‘I stare at myself in the gym mirror for ten hours per week’ kind of way. And then on day three of chatting, I invited him out for coffee. He responded with enthusiasm, in an “I thought you’d never ask” kind of way. I hired a babysitter, got to the coffee shop ten minutes early, and texted him promptly at six that I was there.

6:10 rolled around. 6:15. 6:20. No message, no word. People played chess at a nearby table. Other people studied. We were getting past the point where it was acceptable to be late without some sort of notice. I sipped my decaf coffee and waited, wondering if there were too many red lights maybe, or maybe he’d forgotten an appointment. But maybe he was just standing me up. Lord knows this wouldn’t be the first time.

Finally at 6:32, my phone dinged. I grabbed it in a hurry. The text said, “This is terrible, but I can’t do this. I went there, but I couldn’t go in. You’re a good guy, Chad, but I’m still in love with my ex, and this isn’t right. I’ll understand if you never want to talk to me again. Best of luck, Chad, I don’t expect to hear back from you.”

I felt my upper lip rise into an involuntary sneer, and my nostrils flared with frustration. And then I set my coffee down, put my head in my hands, and… pouted. The old interior voice I had worked so hard to contain came back with a vengeance. All of my demons came back to the surface.

You’re pathetic. You knew it would be like this, but you tried it anyway. There are no good men out there, none. And if there were, do you think one would want to be with you? A guy who waited until he was 32 to come out? You have two kids, you’re in debt, and you are hardly in the best shape of your life. Why would he want to be with you? And of course you’d pick a guy who is still hung up on some guy. If there’s a pathetic guy out there, you’ll find them every time, it takes one to know one.

I lifted my head, pursed my lips, furrowed my eyebrows, and said, “No!” out loud, but not loud enough for anyone else to hear. That voice inside was dark. It was that little devil that appeared on Bugs Bunny’s shoulder in the old cartoons. I instead willfully gave voice to the angel, invisible on my other shoulder.

No! You’re a good guy, Chad! You get to be happy! You don’t get to beat yourself up for trying to find someone! Now you don’t give a second thought to that loser. You live for you! You hired a babysitter, you can do whatever you want tonight, you just enjoy your own company.

Yes. I would do that! I would take myself on a date! Fuck that guy. I was allowed to be happy.

I tossed my remaining coffee in the garbage, marched myself right outside, and noticed the movie theater next door. I would do that! I would go to the movies! I triumphantly entered, got the attention of the man behind the counter, and triumphantly said, “I’ll take a ticket to whatever movie is next, please.”

I was in the Tower, an old indie theater with broken seats, sticky floors, and a balcony. And I was about to see a movie at random, this was my kind of adventure. “And I’ll take that bag of popcorn,” I said.

The ticket agent explained that the next movie would be the ‘Oscar Animated Shorts’, or short cartoons that had been nominated for an Oscar in the upcoming season. I had a night out and I was going to see… short cartoons, apparently.

The devil returned. Oh my god, cartoons, you loser! It’s a Wednesday night! You’re going to the movies by yourself on a Wednesday night and you’re going to see cartoons! You could be doing that with your kids! You’re going to die alone!

No! No, no,  no! You are brave and courageous, and you are doing something nice for yourself on a hard day! You are a good person who deserves to be happy!

Apparently unable to see the talking devil and angel versions of me on my shoulders, the ticket agent took my money and handed me the random bag of popcorn I had pointed to. Then I noticed the flavor. Coconut curry. Well, what the hell.

The movie was starting in 15 minutes, he said. I went in and took my seat, my brave face was on. I was determined to enjoy myself this evening. I opened my phone and played some Pokemon Go  as I sat there, feeling like a real winner. I would watch cartoons and play Pokemon Go and eat Coconut Curry popcorn instead of bantering with a handsome man like I’d planned. Positive self-talk was working!

In minutes, the lights dimmed and I looked up to see the screen come on. There were multiple previews for upcoming indie films, and none of them looked interesting. As the film prepared to start, I opened my bag of Coconut Curry, and it gave off a loud crispy plastic sound. I quickly looked up to make sure I hadn’t disturbed anyone. Then I realized there was no one else in the movie to disturb.

Oh my god, you pathetic loser! You are in a movie theater, seeing cartoons, after getting stood up by a date who is still in love with his ex, on a Wednesday night, planning to eat an entire bag of popcorn, and you’re the only one here! What the hell is wrong with you! You’re going to die fat and old and alone, who lives like this!

No! No, you are a brave and beautiful soul who deserves the very—

“Oh, shut the fuck up,” I told the angel voice. I grabbed a giant handful of salty disgusting popcorn and shoved it into my mouth until my cheeks puffed out, and then I ugly cried as a Dutch cartoon called ‘the Single Life’ started on the screen.

All your Moose-Bucks

“Wait, why Saskatoon?”

Every Canadian who learned who were on vacation from America asked us this question with shock, in a way that showed that they loved their city but they wouldn’t understand what would bring an American there. (I think it would be like a person from Ogden, Utah wondering why a man from Australia had chosen that particularly city for vacation, it just didn’t compute.)

Even Sonja, the kind Canadian woman who worked the WestJet check-in counter at the Saskatoon Airport, wondered why. “What did you even find to do here, if you don’t mind me asking?”

We’d done lots of things. Live music, beers, nightclubs, art galleries, live theater, long drives through the lush Saskatchewan farmland, historical exploration in small resort towns, long walks and talks, exploration of local neighborhoods and universities, coffee shops, and window shopping. It was difficult to explain that we’d chosen it to see a different side of life in a different place, somewhere far away but somehow just close enough to home. And in Canada, familiar to the culture of the United States but just one parallel universe away, with customs and currency just one degree off from the familiar. A place where people spoke the same, but the vowels were just a bit longer, giving an almost Irish lilt to the accents. (Example, instead of home, they say hohme, the oh just a bit longer.)

Sonja understood. “It sounds like you just chose a city with a great and unique name. Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.”

I gave her a wide smile back. “The best name. And a place I’ll probably never make it back to.”

Adapting to the culture here had been mostly easy, with just a few rare exceptions. Without WiFi accessible on the phone, due to international data plans, we’d been left to use an ancient GPS in our rental car to get us places, and in at least one case it directed us to a spot around 160 kilometers away from where we’d needed to be, keeping us in the car an extra 2 hours to get back to where we needed to be. (But we’d seen an awful lot of wheat fields, flat horizons, and farm houses along the way, even stopping for some Rum Raisin ice cream at a random business built on a field, and served by a lovely woman with terrible teeth).

One day, we’d visited Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan to take some old tours of the city’s tunnels, built back in the 1920s and 30s, one about Al Capone’s alleged boot-legging business and one about the mistreatment of Chinese immigrants for decades during the construction of the local railroads and the years afterwards. The tours had been run by local actors, all short and squat, who mostly seemed bored with their jobs as they recounted fascinating history in a character voice. Yet parking in Moose Jaw had been impossible. Most places in the province had allowed us to use credit or debit cards to pay for parking, but this city only had old-fashioned parking meters, and we had to stop into several places to first get Canadian dollars, then to make change for Canadian quarters. (Now I have a collection of Canadian coins and bills, what seems like play money with pictures of British royalty on it, in my wallet, and I’m not sure what I’ll do with it).

We’d gone to the two local gay clubs on Friday and Saturday nights, to see what the local culture was like. One Friday, at Diva’s, we had been the only ones at the bar, and finally left at 11:30, baffled. But on Saturday, at Pink, the bar had been packed with men and women in flannel, all with thick bushy hair, some even in mullets, wearing styles that were reminiscent of the mid-1990s in Idaho and Utah: backwards ball caps, cigarettes tucked behind ears, baggy jeans, and hoodies over untucked flannel shirts.

We’d seen a local play, a first viewing of a production written by a local gay man, one that featured gay parents struggling to raise a son with schizophrenia all while getting in touch with their own roots. It had been moving and wonderful.

We’d watched a local band, the Royal Foundry, a husband-and-wife pop/folk duo whose songs are newly gracing radio stations across Canada, give an incredible concert for a group of 30 people in a small jazz club. The singers’ parents and grandparents had been in attendance, and we’d clapped and tapped our feet to their incredible energy and music, sipping on Old Fashioned drinks and continually commenting on how amazing the band was.

On Sunday, I’d taken hours to walk through the rain through the local University of Saskatchewan, weaving in and out of buildings, watching students study and write in quiet corners of the library and classroom buildings. I read the placards about local Nobel Peace Prize winners, and had admired the “collegiate gothic” style of the buildings. It had been beautiful, and filled me with a longing for my academic days.

We’d been picked up and dropped off by a Vietnamese immigrant, whose car we had rented for the week through a phone app. Nguyen, as he’d asked to be called, talked about this Christian family in Viet Nam, black-listed in their home town for being Catholic. His parents had worked for years to afford a Western education for their son, and now he was here working on a PhD in business, in his sixth year of school. He discussed his “maybe girlfriend” who lived hundreds of kilometers away, a girl he was interested in because he had met her at a college Bible camp years before.

So why Saskatoon? For all of those reasons. These random encounters. The music and art and theater, the rain, the buildings, the farmland and history, the never-ending niceness of the locals, and the wonder that we’d had this weekend to explore and be parts of these things.

When we first landed, my best friend Tyler and I had laughed that we didn’t understand local currency, and I’d joked that they must use Moose-Bucks.

Now that we were leaving, Tyler asked if ‘d wade the experiences in, if I wished we had gone somewhere different instead.

“I wouldn’t trade them,” I said with conviction. “Not for all my Moose-Bucks.”

moosebucks

Shakespearean ghosts

Cedar1

My favorite part of any theater production is eavesdropping on the crowd at the end. Here are a few snippets of conversations I heard on my way out of Henry V last night.

Oh, well, that was pretty wonderful. Just about a half an hour too long!

So wait, why was that French girl not speaking English when all the other French characters were speaking English?

I loved it. I absolutely loved it. I was living for it all the way through.

It was good. Yeah, the sets were pretty. I didn’t really get the storyline, but that’s not that weird. It’s Shakespeare.

They needed air-conditioning! My back and rear are all sweaty! But I stayed awake!

Shakespeare! That was brilliant! Have you seen the other Henry plays? You have to see all of them. I have copies if you want to read them.

It was a perfectly beautiful evening after a hot day, a light summer breeze blowing; Cedar City had reached 100 degrees today earlier. I walked down the stairs from the large outdoor theater, where the play had been performed down in the center with the audience sitting on raised seating all around.  No one seemed to be in a hurry, which I noticed quickly; Americans always seem to be in a rush to leave places.

I walked through the Shakespearean statues, quotes on the walls. There were separate theaters here for the Shakespeare festival, and a nice center venue for refreshments and green shows, lounging in the grass in the hot sun for conversation. I walked around the perimeter of Southern Utah University, all long shadows at this time of night. And then I kept walking.

I felt a bit haunted by history, after a day of heavy, and somewhat emotional, research. The ghosts were there. Not actual ghosts, of course, but the presence of those who have come before and all the stories that must be told. Then I smiled as I realized that was perhaps the perfect mood to have seen Henry V in. Shakespeare would want me to feel haunted right now.

Based on actual historical events, Shakespeare wrote a series of less popular plays about the various Henrys in the history of Great Britain. This story had unfolded with a powerful undertone of conquest and righteousness and destiny in it, underlying the entire production like a steady and distant percussion. The set had been simple and beautiful, all dripping candle wax and flowing banners with sigils and shiny gold. The costumes had been elaborate, golden crowns and swords in scabbards and thigh-high boots. And the casting had been wonderful, the actors with booming voices and conviction behind their words and fully formed relationships there on stage.

As I walked, I thought of the pride and arrogance of rulers. Toward the end of Henry V, the king reads scrolls of the deceased in battle, accounting the numbers of soldiers and peasants quickly, then taking time to read the individual name of each fallen lord. Pride and ego on both sides led to war and bloodshed. The play was full of underlying intrigue; a soldier hung for robbing a church, three of the kings closest allies caught in an assassination plot, a wife bidding a husband farewell knowing that she would never see him again, the most innocent character being tragically killed just as the conflict subsided.

I found a particular vantage point and watched the stars in the night sky over the rolling hills. I felt the heaviness of it all for a moment. Talent and ambition, pressure and worry over what comes next, tragedy and lives cut short, streets walked by people day after day and generation after generation. And then I thought of this single production, nearly three hours of brilliant theater, that brought together the lives of actors and attendees, hundreds of people in one room all moving on now to their lives, night and then day, all of us writing our own stories.

And I grinned as I remembered Henry V in the play telling his men, “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.”