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"Reno Highball"
by Daniel Friedman

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Alyson Lie
Catamaran Literary Reader Editorial Assistant

Flying Steadily at Low Altitude:
A Third Person Memoir in Progress

In the neighborhood of this middling-sized California seacoast town where she lives, (according to her own unofficial population assessment), there are mostly sole-parenting mothers and their young sons, well behaved young boys who bike to school with their young friends, sharing stories along the way about recent purchases of cool sneakers, hard-won advances in popular video war games, opinions about other apparently less cool school chums.  The mothers communicate with their young sons in whiny, semi-hysterical tones of encouragement.  One can detect the intense apprehensive desire in their pleadings that these boys somehow manage to grow into well-adjusted, capable young men—which, of course, remains to be seen.
            The mother in the tiny bungalow next to the tiny bungalow where she lives on this small cul de sac of similar, small, tightly packed bungalows has two sons:  one, elementary-school-aged; the other, a young boy with apparent neurological deficits who sits in a plastic wash tub in the front yard, splashing, blowing bubbles, and making sounds somewhere between a bark and a frustrated growl—what she supposes to be his vocalization of joy.
            There are plenty of dogs in the neighborhood, either walking sheepishly beside their masters down the street, or racing back and forth in their fenced-in plots, barking viciously at dogs, mostly leashed, but some unleashed, passing by.
            There is one father on the block who plays lacrosse with his young daughter in the middle of the street late afternoons, generously offering words of encouragement:  “Good!  Good catch!  Good throw! Good one!” while her toddler brother chases a lazy cat walking by behind them.
            In the cluttered, overgrown lot on the corner of the block, several men—who appear to be retired members of a motorcycle gang—pace around and yell at one another, looking for something to do, something to fix, or take apart and leave unassembled.
            In this town there are tons of pick up trucks, mostly black Toyota Tacomas, barely used, kept in mint condition.  Not trucks, really, but cars with an empty cab in back—a contingency vehicle, just in case:  In case I see somthing large I want; In case I need some extra money; In case I need to get the hell out of here; In case The End comes; In case I happen to fall in love with a pair of young, Nubian goats.
            There are lots of older model cars, too:  old VW bugs and campers, and vintage, gas-guzzling, fume-spuming Fords and Chevys.  Of course, the remainder of the cars are gray, Toyota hybrids with requisite bumper stickers:  I Love Ferrets and I Vote.  Save the Universe.  Coexist.  Don't Believe Everything You Think. 
            All the women here sport tatoos: tramp stamps, flora, hummingbirds.  They wear tight jeans, hoodies, and sandals.  The men have tatooed sleeves, wear loose jeans, (or tight ones), and hoodies. 
            Everyone here is either lost or found.  Seekers, finders, homeless, or settled, however impermenantly in their bungalows, garages, huts, tents.
            Everyone here who isn't a card-carrying anonymous member of an abstinance group drinks red wine, grown, vinted, and bottled locally.
            There are a lot of people here who still smoke tobacco, and a lot who don't.
            A lot of people here smoke pot, though not everyone admits it.
            She is able to formulate all these pithy, unofficial observations about this town because, like over ten million other Americans (according to the Bureau of Labor Statitstics for December 2013), she is unemployed.  But, she is quick to add, not for lack of trying.  She has sent out nearly a hundred resumes, interviewed for jobs at cafes, grocery stores, non-profits, for profits, and the local library.  Nothing.
            A recent emigre from the Boston area—a place she is quick to share, was determined by researchers at the University of Michigan, to be the least friendly city in the United States—she is intelligent, kind, cooperates well with others, has a Master's Degree in English from New York University, and has raised two, intelligent, creative, well-adjusted boys, turned capable, sweet, young men.
            (If you happen to read (or hear) this, and know of a job in the vicinity of 36 degrees, 58 minutes, 19 seconds North, by 122 degrees, 1 minute, 35 seconds West, let her know.)
            Meanwhile, she takes solace in that sad statistic—10 million—the entire population of Michigan, say, or Ohio, all out of work, like her, living on hope and unemployment checks, food stamps, welfare assistance, handouts from friends and family, engaged in hourly skirmishes with despair, thoughts of suicide, and maybe even homicide.  Maybe... if just the right person were taken out, things everywhere would get better.  Who would that be?  Some prominent politician who takes pleasure in denigrating the poor, the needy?  A CEO of a bank, an investment firm, one of the callous, young financiers who helped engineer this epidemic of poverty.  Lucky for her she doesn't own a gun.  Lucky for her she stumbled upon the Buddha and his deceptively simple lesson that life is suffering and the answer is non-attachment, letting go, surrender, and, against all odds, rooting one's thoughts in compassion, forgiveness.
            When she first arrived in this patch of Eden on the bay, (where, incidentally, she'd spent 10 years of her youth navel-gazing and acting in community theater), she was over-brimming with optimism.  She had, in fact, a few months earlier, been hospitalized and diagnosed with hypomania, also known as bi-polar II.  Upon hearing this, she asked: “What's next?  Tri-polar III?”  Her psychiatrist—the sort of professional unfazed by a sense of humor—just sniffed and sent her back to the group session on cognitive behavioral therapy.
            The way she saw it was:  after living twenty years in the pressure cooker of Boston, famous for its baked beans and functionally depressed, she'd, on her own, arrived at a psychological breakthrough resulting in a parting of clouds; her spirits rose, and rose, and continued rising, freeing her from all her false doubts and self-hatred.  She fired her psychotherapist and her psychiatrist and was promptly “red carded,” sent to a mental ward in Everett, MA where she became a celebrated non-compliant patient, prone to long, theatrical diatribes delivered while pacing back and forth in front of the nurse's station. 
            After eight days of this, she relented.  She was doped up on Depakote, and sent home to rot.  Once home, she tossed the medications and concluded that she must leave this humid cesspool and return to California, her adoptive home state, and there regain her healthy, philosophical point of reference.
            She gave up any pretense of returning to her job in the public affairs office at a major New England LGBT civil rights law firm, said good-bye to her oldest son, a film maker in Cambridge, phoned good-bye to her youngest attending college in Vermont, and hopped a Greyhound bus, bound, eventually, for California. 
            Despite the soul-crushing experience of rudeness and incompetence witnessed nowadays on a Greyhound bus ride across country, she arrived with some vestiges of her delightful hypomania in tact.
            Fully weaned from all the psycho-pharmaceuticals she'd been prescribed for the past sixteen years, she now relied only on her spirit and the modest consumption of espresso, the occasional drink, and combustible intoxicants to keep her afloat.  She hung out in bars, cafes, and dance halls.  She danced up a storm, found old friends, made some new ones.  She performed at open mics, playing mandolin and singing Leonard Cohen, introduced herself as the town's self-anointed faerie queen, a hypomanic exiled Cantabrigian gender queer.  Yes, gender queer.
            She was born a boy, and discovered one fateful morning when she was four or five and slipped on a pair of her mother's high heeled shoes, that she was not like other boys—or girls, for that matter.  It was a terrifying realization that she kept to herself for twenty years until one day in late October she told the woman she was living with about her life-long predilection.  This secret was kept between them—the practice limited to moments home alone and Halloween parties where she'd show up disguised and unrecognized by those who knew her otherwise.   It would be another twenty years until (under the will-instilling effects of anti-depressants) she decided to end the tawdry secrecy and “come out” to all, including her two young sons.
            She moved to a small attic apartment a few blocks away and shared custody of the boys, told them that despite her appearance, she would always be their father.  It was not easy—sea change never is.  She lost her job, engaged in a seven year discrimination battle in the civil courts, interviewed for scores of jobs and never got an offer.  She had numerous nervous breakdowns and ended up on disability. The medical and psychotherapeutic communities supported one's finding congruity for gender variant people, but society would never be comfortable with it. 
            She'd only been working a year and a half at the LGBT law firm in Boston when she flipped out again—this time gender wasn't the issue, she'd say, but her genius.  She took time off to make a short film with her sons, write a full-length screenplay, perform at clubs in Cambridge and Boston.  She went four days without sleep and began to evidence signs of her hypomania at work, talking out loud to herself, sending admittedly insouciant emails to the human resources department when she was denied reasonable accommodation in the form of her own office.  She was given four months unpaid leave and told she couldn't return unless a psychiatrist reviewed her case and made the recommendation that she was able to return to work—a risk that none of the psychiatrists she dealt with were willing to take.  So... she would take her genius and leave this stodgy hellhole for the left coast where, if nothing else, she knew and loved the geography. 
            When she told her old friends in California that she was coming back, they warned her:  It's not the same anymore.  Things have changed.  There's crime.  People aren't as nice. 
            Now that she's here, she'll admit that some of the warm fuzziness of the town has faded.  But, she argued, waves of the Pacific still crash against the cliffs, sending cooling sprays of sea foam skyward, sea otters still frolic in the kelp beds, pelicans glide by stoically like winged dinosaurs, then suddenly fold their wings and plummet into the ocean for sardines while marauding sea lions scramble for the leftovers, the monarch butterflies, though fewer in number, still make their yearly visit on their migration from Canada to Mexico and swarm in eucalyptus groves. 
            The fact is, yes, things and people have changed.  She certainly has.  But everything and everyone are still recognizable.  Vestiges of the past—both good and bad—haunt us all.
            The ones who are truly justified in complaining are the Ohlones—those crafty caregivers of nature who inhabited this Eden for thousands of years thousands of years ago, never foreseeing the tactless idiocy that white men would inflict on their home.  Let them bemoan the loss of tons upon metric tons of primeval redwoods, the loss of peace and quiet—and their lives. 

Despite her faults, failings, and life's missteps, she would take comfort in the fact that, since her first breath at birth in what she called: “a scum puddle next to a slag heap of corten steel in the backwaters of rural western Pennsylvania,” she had a rather unordinary, even “trippy” mindset, spirit, and now, thanks to the magic of hormone therapy, a body to match.
            She was tall, or better, statuesque.  Slender, but shapely, both graceful and disarming.  She had soulful, hazel eyes, and a smile that would melt even a bible-thumping, neo-fascist's icy heart.  Men—or at least those boorish enough to telegraph it—would turn their heads and zero in on her when she entered a room.  She has found hastily hand-written notes and freshly picked wild-flowers on her bicycle parked outside grocery stores and cafes.  She never really let these advances go to her head, knowing that if they knew who she really was, and had been, they'd respond with violence rather than amour. 
            The irony was not lost on her that the only man she would develop a brief, mutual attraction for was blind.  She met him at a pub downtown.  He looked like Donald Sutherland's younger, hippie brother with long white hair and white trimmed beard.  Both were prone to flights of silliness, a deep appreciation for soulful music, both compassionate, intelligent, and capable of sincere, meaningful conversation.  A former mechanic, motorcyclist, and sound engineer, he now only had 6% vision, and that only at very close range.  She would arrive at this apartment, having put on a nice summer dress, applied eye make-up, and soft mauve lip gloss only to realize that, of course, he couldn't see her.  To him, she was a blur of color and flesh tones, and her soft, soothing tenor voice, her throaty chuckle—that was all.  Sex was slow to start and then tentative since he was racked with pain from back, neck, and leg injuries from motorcycle accidents, and one 16 foot fall into an excavated building site one night walking home after running out of gas in a deserted part of town.
            There was that... and his occasional Shakespearean outbursts, pacing about his apartment, railing against his ravaged body, all the broken bones pieced back together with surgical hardware, his lack of sightedness.  Once, the happy-go-lucky darling of the world of Volkswagen repair, with hundreds of customers, mostly voluptuous, patchouli-scented women, a man who worked with his hands and eyes, dealing with micro-metric tolerances with the painstaking care of a watchmaker to insure these ubiquitous little machines he loved were in working condition and the owners safe as they drove off, this man was now reduced to a clumsy, old invalid.
            During one of his fugue states he turned to her and said:  “I don't even know what you look like.  Come here, over here in the sunlight.  Let me look into your eyes.”  She went to him.  He took her face in his hands, peered into her eyes, first the left, then the right, his own eyes beginning to tear up, and in his soft, wavering baritone, said:  “There's no judgment....  None.”
            She would try to encourage him.  One day, she said, they would hop on his classic Black Vincent and ride out to the coast; she would hand the controls over to him and they would ride blind on the highway heading north.  She would place her finger on his spine and guide him with her touch, put her hands on his hips and signal right or left with a gentle squeeze.
            The relationship would not last.  As they grew closer, he would open up more to her, revealing deeper levels of anguish, and she would become overwhelmed, flooded with his misery.  She was too careworn herself to be his caregiver.  She left one day, mailed him the key to his apartment and stopped calling. 
            Months went by before she reached out to him again.  She called, left messages.  Finally, when he picked up the phone, she was shocked by the sound of his voice, so ghost-like, sepulchral.  The tiny pin-hole of vision he'd had was now gone.  She tried consoling him, offered to come and visit, to take him for a walk downtown or to the beach.  He said he'd call, but she knew he'd given up, knew there was little she could do to help him.

As days and weeks and months wore on, after countless snubs and rejections from employers flooded with hundreds of applications for even the shittiest minimum wage jobs, her optimism began to evaporate.  Despair, once again, began to loom in the periphery of her thoughts.  Her dreams began to swarm with one anxious scene after another in surreal dissociative tableaus.  Once a hallmark of her capital “D” depression, she would awaken with a pervasive sense of hopelessness.  In the past, this cloud would follow her throughout the day, any sort of joy totally inaccessible, her conscious state fully buying into all the dread her subconscious was able to dream up. 
            This time around, she refused to let fear influence her.  This time around, thanks to: 1. having so recently experienced the delightful stratospheric high of hypomania, witnessed the promise of her brain pan functioning in all its glorious creative, cognitive, and reasoning potential, and, 2. her exposure to the simple, psychological soundness of Buddhism, she refused to let her anxiety get the better of her.  She would not rise from bed until she'd discounted the emotional hangover, pushed the albeit justified fears and apprehensions aside, cast them off as meaningless artifact.  Where before she had been ruled by her emotions, she would now rule over them.  This became her practice, her discipline at night before falling asleep, mornings before her first cup of tea, and sometimes, hourly during the day, simply saying “no” to despair.  She just wouldn't let herself go there.  She would admit this solution was almost embarrassingly simple, the subject of songs she remembered from childhood:  Johnny Mercer's “Accentuate the Positive,” Louis Armstrong's “What a Wonderful World.”  She would abashedly admit that her philosophy had now been reduced to the content of a bumper sticker, or a refrigerator magnet.  She would neither be depressed, nor as she had once described herself, a “bliss ninny.”  She would not rely on substances of any sort to alter her mood.  She would not let clinicians get near her psyche.  Until she found some means of income, a more permanent home, felt herself settled comfortably in this community, she would describe her mental state, not as happy or depressed, but: “flying steadily at low altitude.”

End

 



Alyson Lie has been published in an anthology on gender issues and has written for Peacework
Magazine
, The Review Review, and dot429.com.  She received her master's degree in English with an emphasis in Creative Writing from NYU and her bachelor's in English/Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. She has been editorial assistant at Catamaran Literary Reader since May of 2013. 

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