Even my mother couldn’t utter the word the night she told me they found something on her liver. It might be nothing too, I remember she told me, trying to keep it light. She worried I might be upset. Or possibly hoped I would be, so she could shift her worry onto someone else, where it might feel less terrible. She fixed things for us; she would never burden us she promised. I know I didn’t cry. I couldn’t burden her with my grief. I told her I’d help however I could or she needed. I hope I did. Honestly, I only remember where I stood–in the empty lot through which I took the dog down to the river. We were close to the fence where the dog often smelled the wild, delicious weeds out of which quick bodies sometimes suddenly exploded from. Everywhere, spring kept opening its windows, its tents, its doors. Some things become enormous with silence: memory, the moon, the phone’s meshed microphones. Some silences get covered up so quickly you don’t notice.
Until she told me to stop, I telephoned my mother every evening the first month while I took the dog on his rounds. I thought to myself, now I must grow up.
Adults had cars, houses, money. Why didn’t they smile more? It was a mystery why they were so often angry or unhappy. When they said the word “work,” it sounded like a hammer does driving a nail deep into thick wood. We wanted their powers and to avoid inheriting their tempers, which sometimes came at us, snarling and full of threats. The older you got, the closer you were to dying, we reasoned out; still, all the keys to feeling satisfaction, we were told, were things adults got: a family, a paycheck, unconditional loyalty and love, respect. Sometimes seemed to me as if they’d never had childhoods, or as if adulthood required amnesia. Was that the price of their power? Sometimes they yelled and smashed dishes, until anger was what they were. Coffee in the morning to jazz them awake in dark kitchens. Drinks at night to dull their exhaustions, the questions, the other lives they might have lived.
One day, weeks after my mother told me her diagnosis, my dog Bailey woke up blind. I didn’t understand it at first; I just thought it was odd how long he took to get his dark brown self off the navy blue bed. I didn’t see anything wrong until he got to the stairs and wouldn’t run down them as he normally would. He stood at the top and tilted his head at an angle that seemed weird. (On rainy days we played ball on those stairs; I’d throw it upstairs and he’d fly up after it, bringing it with him for a treat and another round.) Buddy, I said from the bottom, but the sound was wrong, was a question. I walked up, sat down near him. His pupils were darkly dilated with something like a sliver of film on the inside of his right eye, as if something had slid out of its proper alignment in there. There was a blood-red light behind it too. Still, his tail wagged. When I saw the danger I froze, as I do, to resist falling apart. Either I lugged him down the stairs in my arms or I helped him find the first stair and we went slowly down the rest. It is all a blur to me now how we did it and then how we went about our walk as usual. It was a blur to him literally. We walked as if nothing were wrong, as if things would fix themselves. We got far. There was still smell, sound, and feel, I guess, to navigate by. He peed and pooped and I bagged it and threw it away. But here and there he’d trip over a break in a sidewalk he’d jumped over a thousand times. I grew terrified. I need to be exhausted sometimes in order to do the right thing, to move. By right, I mean adult, sensible. Finally, I got out my phone, told the vet I had a problem, we’d be right over.
I’ll come back to Bailey later. (He comes back to me often.) It’s how one goes on that interests me, after loss, the surprises in learning to live after. You survive; then what? You grow up. A life you thought was so central to your life stops living but you go on. Sometimes you have only the lost one’s voice left. It appears in your thinking; you hear yourself speaking its phrases, its frustrations. They’re yours now. Sometimes you have photographs, movies, piles of clothes, whole houses you have to sort through, arrange, re-organize, give away, sell, burn. Sometimes you have only a collar or tags. After the loss, an avalanche of other losses, a legion of little absences others will call memories everywhere you look. You sip tea from your mother’s favorite mug most mornings. You get receipts for your taxes. You make shelf-space. Sometimes a happy (guilty) liberty results, especially if you were a care-taker. You feel free to leave the house, answer the phone, go see a film without calamity resulting. You may realize you’ve been using the lost one as an excuse to erase yourself. It can take a while to remember how to walk straight, how to run, kiss, cook a meal for one, how to be visible again, without crisis, without constantly being on fire. I grew heavier.
What is writing’s worth in all of this? Why turn to Oulipo and lipogram? Who could I talk to but a blank wall? What did I want to finally vanish? Or was it simply distraction? How to go on, past what I thought was so vital you could not form a word?
Until it turns out, you can. Salt and sugar, flour. Spoon. That laugh. That wag. That stink of gas and oil on his sunburnt hands. In a hospital room full of snowlight and, at last, compassion. Arranging sorrow into a kind of song. A mollusk making opals out of plain sand and saliva, out of what disturbs a kind of joy.
Shark, starfish, cod, dolphin, shrimp, crab, Finback. Aardvark, pangolin, lark, quail, flatworm, diamond.
Call it joy, anyway. And pray a world unfolds from what you can say. In which no hands stay lost.
Behind the blonde dog ophthalmologist, there was a corkboard crowded with what I misinterpret as smiling dog photos. She has been looking deeply into Bailey’s strange eyes. When she looks at me, she says Bailey’s sudden blindness might be cancer but she can’t be sure. With a start, at the same time, I realize the dogs in the photos behind her are all blind in one or both eyes: so many dogs’ eyes sewn shut in the horizontal slits. Their noses tilt up toward where a camera clicked, smelling metal maybe, a quick sour reek, possibly battery acid, an assembled blindness that resembles sighted dogs simply looking up into a bright sun, normal dogs luxuriating in such warmth they want to shut their eyes, like dogs asleep standing up. It is horrible to see. I think the photos’ surgical symmetries are meant to reassure me: the wag will live. I have not heard much that the doctor has said since she said except cancer, I admit. Nor has she paused long enough to suggest she expects me to answer. She just wants permission. Her scopes are expensive and polished, rubbed to a high hygienic shine. There are payment plans with no interest, she says. She changes to “excision” rather than “eye removal” or the even worse “enucleation,” which is the only way to do a biopsy, the latinate to cover the cut and scoop and blood. It’s clear I’ll have to make a decision, and I can’t wait too long in case it’s a mass. She assures me the dog will hardly notice, is most likely now in pain he might not be showing. Dogs are stoic creatures and will hide hurt, she says. Which is when she says she has a dog at home who has lost an eye who is now like any other dog. Sight is a dog’s third sense, she says. Behind her on the wall that corkboard, those color photos, those dogs whose eyes have been lost and sewn shut. I am having a hard time looking her in the eyes. She can see I’m not ready. In the meantime, she gives me daily drops and a script: something to relieve any swelling. It should help while I decide. Back on the leash, Bailey twitches, impatient, grows intent on the white light at the door’s bottom, where shadows occasionally move, nails click, tags jangle, another name is called.
You’ll know when it’s time I was told. I was not told how I would know. I was also told about several credit plans. One had zero interest for a year. Was I an adult when I applied for that and was approved? I hoped the space it afforded me would help me be less anxious about when it’s time. I could ask questions. I could make jokes. I could pretend I had a year.
I can remember as a kid a world full of mysteries, new species being discovered every year in nameless forests, islands, countries. Now, around us a Great Grief, as Per Espen Stoknes named it, is going on, an enormous extinction of species. Nameless species disappear and no one notices until a large creature we need falters. We are consoled occasionally: a large woodpecker we were sure was dead is found once again in Arkansas. Are our forests altered suddenly? Is our language given new wings? Can we use “ivory-billed” now as an adjective for a body returned after being given up on, a dazzling form come back quietly to existence?
We don’t know any truth except that death scares some and doesn’t others. We must have and can’t have death. “[M]y strange and monstrous treasure,” Helene C. called the death of her father, her only “asset” to make a novel out of. Here are some reasons to go on, we say, and call the forms art. We fear agony: to be burned, to choke to death, to feel one’s nerves turn to wasps, to be eaten and awake, to be stabbed, to be broken open, for our hearts to spasm, to be smashed after a long fall, to be suffocated by one’s own blood, to be tortured. What do non-humans know of such fear? We can only guess. One cat of ours crawled underneath the porch next door after he was run over by a car. No one knew he was there. He wanted a place to be alone, maybe to catch that last breath that never returned. Every adult we knew understood. Some people shut down around a loved one’s last days. Others act fast, almost thoughtlessly. Selfless, we call them.
I (somehow) forgot an incident recorded in my notebook that happened days before Bailey went blind:
“It’s been weeks now that I’ve known that my mother will die. That her time is limited. This morning, around 4 am, my dog Bailey has begun another round of ear infections. Or something. He shakes his head all the time, and this morning he has decided to do it noisily.
It’s impossible to sleep through it. I get up and get his specially medicated ear pads from the white cabinet in the bathroom and I hold him while I swab out his ear. The pad itself is smelly, the reek of boric acid I’m assuming, which is its main ingredient. The pad is full of it, soaked with it, and as I fold it and try as gently as I can to slip it into his tender ear, he pushes his head against my fingers. He moans a bit as I begin to move the pad around, squeezing it so some of the medicine dribbles down in the other infected areas.
On one hand he hates it but it also seems clear he loves it as well. The howl he begins to make is hard to differentiate as pleasure or as pain. I slowly and gently massage the base of the ear area, which sloshes and squeaks under and between my fingers. It’s clear that he hates this—his body is stiff in my arms—but he is also again pressing his head into my hands very hard. He knows that he has to do something, he knows that something has to be done.
My hands stink of the medicine by the time we’re finished. The swab comes out of his ear gunked up with brown stains, oils, waxes. I don’t honestly know what it is, although it always seems promising to have the swab come out looking as if you’ve gotten something, as if you’ve done something.
He spends the next two hours in a weird wandering state, pacing the house, constantly shaking his head, trying to shake the discomfort from his head. I tell him to lie down about a hundred times in that first hour. I grow sullen and angry in the second and actually snap at him a couple of times. If he could only settle down, I think, and let the medicine work!
At some point, because I’ve yelled at him for pacing around the living room while I’m trying to write (because now I’m up and trying not to waste the morning), he quietly climbs the stairs and goes back up to the bedroom. I hear one weird howl up there that suggests he’s trying to fix the problem by putting his own back foot into the infected ear, that howl that becomes a yowl, then a moan, then a cry of pain without any mistake this time that there might be some pleasure in it, and then that’s the end of it.
I am, I think, a terrible caretaker. I have no patience for the way discomfort refuses to vanish, for the way the body cannot easily be healed, for the impossibility of quiet. I like to fix things. I like easy answers and tidy borders.
None of the things that illness allows. Illness demands you put up with its schedules. The birds aren’t even up yet as I write this. Bailey’s gone out twice—once to actually pee and once to wander around apparently, shaking his head.
But what else am I to do? He came down a few minutes ago to drink some water. Now I can hear him sneaking back upstairs still shaking his head, still moaning a little, whining a little. He doesn’t know what to do either.”
How could I have not remembered this as the first stage of something serious? Answer: I didn’t want to. How could I have been so blind to his suffering?
When his face swelled up, after they removed his eye? When he had to be held for observation over night because they couldn’t stop the blood that seeped from the wound, which turned out to be an allergic reaction to the anaesthesia? Overnight turned into days. I wept on the phone with two different vets, for more days, stood against the wall and wept, wanted to steal into the vet’s and fold myself up with him in his cage where I imagined he howled with loneliness, no one to soothe him, pet him, calm him down. I threw the I Ching, bibliomanced with pennies. It advised me to do nothing. I read the results in different translations. Stay still, one said. Don’t move, said another. Movement without clear reason should be avoided. When to move, when is movement correct, not merely reactive or restless or desperate? The consequences were all horrible: his fear, my worry, his death alone and behind bars. Nobody had yet said what the problem was. (Nobody would say until after thousands of dollars had been spent and I stood before the last young vet who said “lesions” out loud, reading his chart while I signed the put-down papers. It had been clear from his biopsy, she said. It had been written down somehow months ago. Had I not heard it? Had it not been said?)
When, after stabilizing after the biopsy, Bailey came home with steroids, which gave him one last month before he began turning to the right strangely, began wandering into corners and getting trapped there? When we stopped worrying about where he evacuated his bowels? When inside and outside were no different finally. When I slept on the floor beside him. We went out to pee in the middle of the night, when it was quiet and there was less light to miss. Sometimes I peed beside him in the shadows. The nights were not without joy. We sat in the night-grass of an abandoned lot. When I lost sleep, time, sense, my temper twice. When I had had enough. When he could not get his head out of the corner. When there was no more wag was when. Then, I did feel finally it was time.
The day I knew, I took my dog to the park so he might sniff grass and sit in sunshine one more time. We sat in the grass with a view of the city. Traffic buzzed beneath us. I wore my dark RayBans. We were very quiet. I said goodbyes in my head to keep from crying. As if it were any other day. For him, I said. At the Vet’s, they passed me the papers to sign. They ushered us into the room. I sat with my good dog who had stopped being nervous about anything. The technician went over everything, this and then this and then this. They took him away to find a vein, to inject an anti-anxiety drug, to weigh and make sure it was the right time. I was afraid they’d return and say not yet, take him back home. Maybe I hoped. But when the vet came in, heard the story, read the notes, she said, Yes, yes, I think you’re right. Do you want to stay? And I said yes, because I was afraid. We sat together on the ground with him and she gave him the injection, my good dog, and then he was gone, was now a dead weight, soft fur. It was so fast my first thought was Why don’t we do this for humans? Before the grief washed over me, undoing me. Everyone was so sorry. Sign here. And here.
It was hard to be visible for the next few days. I drove around a lot wearing sunglasses that were an old prescription but still served. I stopped at a local diner and ordered the soup and salad bar. People I knew always went out for lunch when a person died; it was what we did. It was part of the job. After talking to the funeral director, after the plans and phone calls and picking out the suit or dress or urn, we ate. What do you do for a dog you rescued and then couldn’t save? I was glad it was still August. I didn’t have to teach anything to anyone. How do people with jobs go through this? I wanted quiet. I wanted to stop freezing.
I did pray. To The Great Mystery, whom we pray to where mercy seems withheld. As we feel its white sharks circle our amazed feet. I prayed to forgive its limits. Its jerks. Its withdrawals like a lover who cheats with shadows, with excesses elsewhere. For weeks, I grieved sideways, by refusal of this or that. I made myself practice survival, made these reverse-alphabets of grief, a letter at a time. This is the result, made to be read by but without love for a reader, a queer art for my sake.
I was what Bailey had day and night. I let things happen which I regret even if I had little else but trust in the veterinarians with their plaques and degrees. I walked him under the Milky Way, in the weedy grasses behind a few dead buildings, where we sat and just breathed in the darkness, the earth’s ancient, white satellite like a streetlight waxing and waning like a thing thinking, debating, keeping us quiet with its brilliance. I dreamed we heard its musicks, evening’s arrivals, the sunlight’s tail in its jaws. The stars didn’t have any better ideas than we did what the future held. We sat there in their crazy light, wishing.
Sometimes it’s a loss you hadn’t counted on counting for anything that moves like a chilling ghost throughout the warm air of your life, someone or something lost you thought easy to dismiss or forget about. The grief shows itself in odd moments, when you’re folding socks or raking leaves. What am I missing, you ask yourself? He was nothing but trouble, or she drove me crazy. My life is so much better now, isn’t it? Because every loss throws shadows of what could have been, that enormous thing you may have been quietly, even unconsciously waiting for all your life, is gone now. I wasn’t glad to see my father die but I was glad to know he couldn’t hurt anyone anymore. Still, I would now never have a father I could admire. I grieved that bitterly. I miss my mother all the time but her death was so nearly a work of art it seems dishonorable not to admire it. She had control until the very end, just as she wanted. I cried more over Bailey’s suffering few months than I did over either my father or my mother, whose deaths were fast and all theirs, his fault or her intention. Maybe what I suffer is my inability to outwit his suffering; it’s a wish at the heart of everything I set out to do as a writer, to turn my life into something that resisted amnesia, dementia, erasure, death. To avoid the costs of adulthood. Maybe that idea was in danger of becoming a delusion and so needed to suffer a grounding. Once, in high school, one of the handsome athletes a few years older than me was nearly killed in a car accident. I sent him a card telling him how much we all loved him; my grief was embarrassingly overwrought but I couldn’t believe his beauty hadn’t saved him from suffering. Oh, Adonis, I might have written him. Oh, Hyacinth. Oh, James Dean. Which is to say, Oh Jesus and Oh Shit at the same time. I loved that dog. His death almost killed me.
The morning, about three weeks later, I was scheduled to meet the dog I have now, I woke from a dream of walking Bailey and a new puppy down a brick sidewalk. At one point their leashes got all tangled and neither of them would stop walking. I pulled them to a stop. When I looked up from untangling the puppy’s leash, Bailey was standing in the middle of the road, still on leash, with cars approaching. I’d dropped his leash without noticing. I looked around at the other pedestrians and said, “How can I get him out of the road?” He wouldn’t budge. Suddenly I yelled at him, “Bailey! You’re dead to me!” and started wailing in the dream. Keening.
Woke up and just kept crying for a while. It was a relief to let sadness out.
I decided to spread Bailey’s ashes at Frick Park, around the bushes and down the one big hill where he used to love running off-leash, wild, right down to the public water fountain at the bottom, where he’d eat a little mud. I used to yell at him all the time for that.
I stand up some dawns and almost call the name of the dead dog. Then I take a second. Bailey’s ashes melt into the dazzling soil. Ma’s ashes we let fall into the cold waves of the Atlantic Ocean off Cape Cod so she might be liquid, among whales, as she wanted. My dead dad’s body was laid finally in his second wife’s family’s plot. The bodies have vanished, out of my hands now. The deaths I thought might kill me have passed. Begin again, I say to myself. It’s almost a joke. Count the living whose names have heat, whose bodies can be touched, talked to, can shock with independence, that things that signal life.
What do I know? Nothing. By which I mean nothing certain. When my mother wanted to make fun of our family, we were the Kettle Family, which meant Without a Clue. I laughed along even though I never watched a movie they made. Maw and Paw Kettle were mythical to the generation before me. They lived through every horror life the Twentieth Century threw at them. They were awful, but “unkillable” to quote Ezra Pound on the poor. Death never really touched them. Their idiocy kept them from knowing they were already dead.
Maybe the problem could be imagined another way: we were afraid there’d be no better life; therefore, we didn’t try for one. All that tv comedy covered the fact that work and patience and love could not deliver heaven, joy, freedom. There had been and would be violence done, and graveyard after graveyard full of good people.
Grief can become a cross you can hang yourself on, if you’re so inclined. When I came back from each funeral and saw friends, I made awful jokes, ones I hoped signaled a jagged sadness and no need for consoling. I grew angry when friends asked me “how I was doing,” as if releasing grief would be easy, a sign of real loss. I never broke down, which for some seemed odd. Long quizzical silences happened. Soon, I found my sadness gave me a power: people would leave me alone. I could make a field around me, a space I could feel myself again.
And I ended up finding a number of colleagues who had survived as well. Some people’s losses were incredible, I learned. We make a club of knowing smiles as we pass now in hallways.
All of this seems long ago most days. I wake to the warm weight and breathing of my partner and slip as silently as I can from the covers. I seem to have inherited my parents’ tendency to wake before daylight. I like to sit in the early dark silence; the fact that my partner knew this, saw it, didn’t fear it, was one of the reasons I wanted to marry him. He’ll sleep longer. The new good dog, Andy, hears my creak on the stairs and slides off the sofa, stretching his long body as he does. When I appear he shakes and yawns and wags his tail. He is an excellent dog, smart, handsome, calm. I’m already grieving his death somewhere.
Let go of that, says one teacher, Pema Chodron. I know it already. Some things can’t be helped. Still, I try to worry the death of everything I love. At least I write it down and away from my body which needs to live. So many things are trembling with extinction. The bees. The frogs. Cod. How to go on? Thich Nhat Hahn calls it Interbeing, that we exist together. There are ways to everything by imagining one thing’s disappearance.
I try to remember the word Qi, which I always forget in Scrabble and hate when my friend Liz lays it down. It stands for, the dictionary says, the energy in everything. One small thing whose absence freezes everything.
I keep asking myself in each one of these paragraphs what do I think I’m doing here, what I thought writing would bring to me. I kept journals because I was sure at eighteen the Nobel Prize committee would want to see how I turned the plain water-speech of Western New York State into one dazzling miracle after another. Champagne! Money! Stars! What I earned has so far been enough quiet to keep a life in. As the kids say, I am beyond grateful.
There is no easy solution to the ache of loss and guilt. Some declare their loved ones to be divine, undead, unkillable, deploying them as characters the rest of their lives for a variety of lessons. As in, they’ve gone on ahead, greeted by the rest of their family; they’re still looking over us. That’s the easy out it seems to me, a path I am trying to avoid. The relative pronouns they represented disappear from use. I can’t ask important questions any more of the family I used to have. I could give up. I am hoping to reinvigorate the language, in order to go on.
The truth is, the ones you loved will always remain beyond your power to understand. Sometimes you can evoke brief moments where their depths roar again. It can drive you crazy what you’ve lost. Or you can say to yourself, I’ve always invented them, they were mostly inventing themselves when I knew them. You can go back to the work of writing down what you remember. For me, I try to feel them again through description until a crack develops; or maybe I mean a blank place where no handhold is. That’s where I look for the pick and the chisel and the broom of the word. It’s a delicate work sometimes to sort dull quartz from love. You just try not to lie to yourself.
Helene Cixous writes that the death of loved ones “gives us the end of the world; to be human we need to experience the end of the world. We need to lose the world, to lose a world, and to discover that there is more than one world and that the world isn’t what we think it is.” The end of the world of birth-fear. The end of the world of birth-love. The end of the world of simple, animal companionship. Who, now that each of those is over, am I? Writing doesn’t have to be all memorials. It is also the work of beginning, of questioning. Job and zoo. Orgiastic dance and sepulcher. What can I do with what I know now?
One morning after all the deaths, I woke up and wanted to be touched again. It was even more specific: my skin wanted another man to touch it. The request came from my right side, the little area where my ribs stop and my waist begins. That skin wanted a lover’s hand on it again. Even more specifically, I was lying in bed on my left side, facing the windows at the front of the house. It was light out because I remember looking at and seeing that part of my body where I felt the request. I may have touched it myself to make sure it wasn’t an itch, the dog, a rash decision. It was the beginning of winter in Pittsburgh, around Thanksgiving, 2013. My skin was as pale as ginger ale. The request was Adamic: an urge in the ribs to seek connection, not to feel orphaned.
It didn’t startle me. Nor was it a sadness. It was more like a memory than a ghost or a phantom limb. It was something like the time, ten years after the two dogs I’d grown up with had been put down, I woke up to the feeling of them stepping up on my bed–the weight of them, the quiet settling down of their bodies. I rose up immediately to see if they had indeed reappeared. I would have given almost anything to have them back then. But there was nothing. Not even the cat. They’ve never arrived so physically again; it may have been the flaring out of an old muscle memory I’d stored in my legs or feet. If I believed in ghosts, I’d say they were ghosts.
What I felt that November morning wasn’t that kind of memory but new desire. It was like waking up from a nap on the couch to find your foot unexpectedly warmed by a square of sunlight. Maybe it was a ghost of hunger, if a ghost. Maybe hope. It’s hard to know what the skin conducts other than electricity. We name it other things–ghosts if goosebumps rise, danger if hair lifts, desire if heat.
After eight years of living alone, of enjoying not having to think about desire at all, the arrival of such a specific request might well have come from a supernatural source, the signal was so clear. It was as clear as hearing a line for a poem in the shower. It was of a class of feeling that required a response, the kind of feeling I’d trained myself as an artist to respond to–something else needed to happen, in other words. It was the kind of response that wouldn’t stop until it had been attended to, given an airing, a chance to speak. Something in my body had bought a ticket to the future. This was the first sign I remember. It was very simple on one hand. I think I might even have fallen asleep afterward but the days afterward were all changed by it, by the signal that my body was interested in living again, of being loved.
My mother had been dead then for about nine months. My good dog Bailey for two years. Andy, at two and a half, had just started sleeping by himself in a chair downstairs at night. It’s probably not a coincidence that it took me a full gestation period after my mother’s death before I could allow myself to be alive again, return from the underground chambers where I’d been writing and rewriting poems about the process of her dying.
The metaphors are many for the experience. What is it that moves the cicada up from the roots? A door opens. A touch on the shoulder, a tickle in the ribs, a brush or pressure on the ankle from ghosts, loss, memory? “Then, suddenly–” the writer writes because the plot needs a push. I knew finally that I could change my life. I had given up, I thought. I was done with living without.
Jeff Oaks’ most recent chapbook, Mistakes with Strangers, was published by Seven Kitchens Press in 2014. A recipient of three Pennsylvania Council of the Arts fellowships, Jeff Oaks has published poems in a number of literary magazines, most recently in Barrow Street, Field, Nimrod, Superstition Review, and Tupelo Quarterly. His essays have appeared in At Length, Creative Nonfiction, Kenyon Review Online, and in the anthologies Brief Encounters: A Collection of Contemporary Nonfiction, and My Diva: 65 Gay Men on the Women Who Inspire Them. He teaches writing at the University of Pittsburgh.