Only the Gentle, Only the Strong by Samuel J Fox

James walks into my dream. He’s wearing his flesh tight white t-shirt and denim jacket. He’s got his Wranglers on covering over his shit-kicker cowboy boots. He sits down and we chat about the weather, how it’s too cold for riding iron horses. We talk about his acting. How it’s lonely. Alone with an imagination concentrated on by sheer will and no one seems to understand how it drains a man to snap out of the act. I try not to notice that his fly is half open. I ask him about his trip to visit Brando. He remains silent and firm. He lights a cigarette. His lips: scratched rose quartz. He blows out a little storm cloud complete with lightning. He says he wants to show me something. I wake as thunder roils outside my window just after James Dean leaned in to kiss me.

I head to Fancy’s normally in the late hours of Thursday evening. It’s a shitty dive bar and no one there is fancy. It is there I met Robert, or Tatum as most call him. A muscular, walnut-cream skinned man with a megawatt smile and thunderous laugh. He sings karaoke on Thursday and we grab some Bud Light Platinum together and sing into the night. I can’t tell him. I can’t tell him that I look at his arms. I can’t tell him I look at his hands and marvel at how gorgeous they are. I can’t tell him that, when we embrace goodbye, I smell his cologne and long to take him home if only to lay on my bed. I am new at this whole being bisexual: not that it is new, but acting upon it. My whole life I had dated women, which are still attractive to me. However, I’ve never done anything but kiss boys in secret. Behind bleachers. In closets at parties. Near the dumpster at Starbucks. I don’t ever know what to do with my hands. I had always known I was attracted to men and women, but could not release myself from this box that might as well be a coffin.

I certainly can’t do it here, at the dive bar, where rednecks abound and racial slurs get slung every once a weekend. Where I know regulars whisper faggot at my back. Where beer bottles always have the potential to become weapons broken over the head. I hug Tatum goodnight. He’s a head taller than me. He hugs me tight. And we return to our separate lives: me in my denim jacket and him in his white hoodie. We return to our separate lives and the potential for the miracles dies.

James is shirtless. In my dream, we are making out slowly, with the tenderness of foxglove fluttering into one another underneath the examination of the wind. He presses back and says Have you ever wanted to be who you are but know that you can never do such a crazy thing? I think of all the times I stayed hidden, masked by a darkness I made myself,in order to hide the face I wish I could show. He says have you ever wanted to touch someone simply because they are close enough to God that, were you to, you could feel God’s skin? In my dream, he removes my jeans. The blur of bodies pressing into one coincides with my waking. I roll uncomfortably forward to sit up. Between my legs, a reminder of what I am.

My ex-girlfriend grew up in Marion, Indiana.The distance of one town away from where James was born. I imagine the ghost of him roaming the same streets she does today. I imagine they cross paths. I imagine her, the perfection of her smile, the subtlety of awkwardness in her gait, the tilted wide framed glasses and I miss her. I often times text her that I do. I often tell her I still love her. She’s five hundred and eighty four miles away. The distance is enough that my promises feel hollow. The distance is enough that I feel time stretch into a slurring of dreary autumn days. She says she may fly out in January to come visit. How do I tell her that everything physical about me is a lie? A façade. A masquerade of manliness at my fingertips that I can pull off whenever I want? She might already know: it seems most people could see the seams in my costume even as early as high school. I have to confess: I love the world, the people in it, more than I will ever love myself. I have to confess: I love the prospect of dying one day, in the far future, most likely alone. I have to profess: this world is cruel, but being an actor in one’s own life must be the cruelest season of doubt.

Erin walks into my dream. Finds me laying on my bed crying. She’s dressed in all white, veil included. She’s wearing a ring I promised her: not diamond, but opal and emerald. She stands in the doorway clouded in the backdrop. She smiles a radiant attempt at confidence. I’m naked. She says that I overslept for the wedding. You know, you could be anything you wanted; you could have chosen to be with me. She slips off the bridal gown. She loosens her corset. She slips off her long, silk socks. She only leaves a bow in her hair, a silver thread. She climbs on top of me. Rests on my stomach. She leans over me, her hair pouring over my cheeks. She says I know the world is a hemorrhage, a hot mess, of vanity. I know the cost of loving you, and I allowed it to crucify me again and again. You must understand: I was waiting for you to do the same. I look up at her and say that I do bear it. I want her more than I ever wanted anything: poetry, wealth, independence, even untimely death. I smell cigar smoke. In the corner, James sits in his white underwear. He cracks a crooked, yet humble smile. He looks me in the eyes and says Damn it, kiss her already.

There’s a music sometimes in the way I sob. It’s rhythmic and I don’t mean it to be a fugue. Sometimes, music is the closest we can get in expressing the soul. My soul sounds like lawnmowers and bluegrass bass lines. My soul sounds like a noble attempt at Delta blues. My soul sounds like a lone wolf howling behind taps. My soul sounds like a decrescendo of castanets and trumpets. No matter how I phrase this, there is always the aspect of an eerily somber realization that I am alone. To be what I am is to be misunderstood. To be any kind of artist, or creator, or affluent Other is to speak a language morose with the tinge of self-harm. And yet, I still choose this. I wouldn’t choose anything else. I write down what I feel. I sometimes surprise myself. I sometimes scribble onto a blank page a window in which I look out into the world and only see possibilities that, whether they come or not, are painted with the color of God’s laugh. I often think God too can get lonely. I often wonder, if God didn’t do this, the creation and the abandoning, because we are the art he was most proud of forming.

I’m playing guitar. In my dream, I’m naked and the guitar sits in my lap. I am sitting in sunlight and the air smells like dry cotton. James is sitting, also nude, across from me on a porch swing. Our voices are silent and the only sound is the guitar that fills the void of the yard. I realize we are sitting on a veranda porch, one I have seen only once, in a picture of Erin’s home. She, in fact, steps out of a flower patch next to the porch. She is only wearing gardener’s gloves. James looks into the nonexistent sun and smiles. Erin walks over and, as I finish the song I am plucking, one I wrote in a time when things were less complicated than they are now, she sits on the railing, and crosses her legs. Play it again, Sam. I begin the song again and she leans forward and stops me. No, play the other one again. The one pulsing underneath you. I look at her confused. I try to play the song again, but again she stops me. No. James says, she means the song you’ve always wanted to play. Play that one and play it loud. Erin kisses me on the cheek and disappears. James remains, like a marble David, poised on the porch swing. Play the way you’ve not lived your life. Play that song and play it loud.

Somewhere, she’s waiting for me to confess. Somewhere, freedom and the sense of reckless abandon is sitting on a bench at a Wesleyan college campus with arms crossed. Somewhere, is an ex-lover who has no idea I’m bisexual and who has no idea that I will never really heal from losing her. I would intend to tell her, or, maybe, she already knows. All I know is that, I daydream of walking up to her in a denim jacket and distressed jeans and plopping down next to her. I’d hand her a ring. I’d hand her my tattered, hole-ridden heart. I’d hand her my last name. I’d hand her my life tied to a thread as though attached to a balloon. I’d tie it around her little finger and say I really don’t know who I am, but it really doesn’t matter . . . I’m still trying to find the courage in my life to be tender. I want you to teach me both. However, I can never do this. Somewhere between her depression and my refusal to let go, somewhere between my memory of her and my memory of what it was like to be with her, we lost it. The thing we named love. I know I can no longer strain my voice sobbing. I know I don’t have to frame every picture, every artifact of our indelible past, every piece of her art that ruptures the present moment into slipstreams of the past. I do not have her anymore. Must I move on or can I feel this sorrow one last time before I slip on my denim, my shit-kickers, my masculinity, and learn to love who I am if only to keep moving forward into the next moment.

James is leaving my apartment. We’ve dressed and Erin is laying asleep and wrapped in a blanket. The three of us had just made love. He hands me his jacket. He slips on mine. He looks at me and says thanks for the good time. Stay and be kind. Stay and be noble: the world can learn to believe in you just as you can learn to believe in the world. I ask him if he’ll ever return. He turns and looks in the mirror beside him and reflected back is my face. He says I don’t even think I’m leaving. The only difference between us is our stories. So what death is always a hair’s breadth away? There is always the possibility that life becomes what we’ve always wanted to make of it. I kiss him goodbye. His hand slips down the nape of my neck and I see him wink at Erin behind me. I lock the door behind James and I hear, out of an open window, the sound of a muscle car revving to life and fishtailing away into the fog.

There is a kind of pain that only nostalgia harbors. Most anchor themselves in it and forget to live their life with the remaining fury they hold onto and, instead, live their lives hearing the sound of their own voice and hating what has become of themselves. I deleted her text messages. I have kept all but her. I will admit, I do not know how to do this uneven balancing act of living. I think the pain is what kept me alive more so than the joy of feeling close to Erin. It is too late to confess. It is too late to patch the hole that has become an almost depleted well I have drawn from for so long. Instead, I will leave it. I do not have the courage to seek for love in the state that I am. I continue to dream of her, to dream about either loving or being James Dean. But, I am not what I dream. I am what I become after what I have done. These days, walking alone in the brisk winter, the rustle of leaves beneath my boots, my shadow cast in front of me, I realize I am meant to be alone if only for a brief period of time. I keep my hurt bandaged, but unravel it alone. I keep my dreams written down. I remind myself there are so many possibilities to live if I can only accept that failure is the most marvelous tutor. Only the gentle learn to be truly strong. Men don’t like to accept that they hurt: some brave stupidity that would have them rush into the bedlamof life and die in misery. No: I will be gentle still, even in ineffable anguish. I will be strong regardless of whatever definition the world strains to constrict me inside. I will learn to love myself: and this, in whatever season of hell it may be, is the truest and longest discovery of a lifetime.

Samuel J FoxSamuel J Fox is a bisexual essayist and poet living in the suburban South. He an editor for Bending Genres. He appears in places such as Grimoire magazine, Maudlin House, and Muse/A Journal; he is forthcoming in Quail Bell Magazine, Free State Review, and Sooth Swarm Journal. He tweets @samueljfox.



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