Who’s Johnny

Yesterday I spent a few hours rereading (skimming) the manuscript and I really need to stop being self-deprecating; as a whole, it actually holds together very well and there are some mistakes and loose ends that I did manage to catch; but overall, it’s a very solid, workable first draft and I am enormously pleased with it. I’ll probably do some more futzing with it tomorrow–time-lines and so forth–but I think with the notes I made and a very strong eye to line editing, I can have this finished by the end of the month after all.

HUZZAH INDEED!

I also went over the final edits for my story “The Silky Veils of Ardor” and approved them for editor extraordinaire Josh Pachter, and send them off. Yet another huzzah! This pleases me to no end, Constant Reader, you have no idea. I was, as always, deeply concerned about the novel manuscript; I’m not certain when and where and how I developed this horrible mentality (an off-shoot of Imposter Syndrome or simply another deeply psychotic self-loathing version of it) that everything I write is terrible or garbage or whatever negative thing I can possibly think to say about it while in process; maybe it’s the familiarity and closeness to the story, knowing what I want it to be and what it’s not turning out to be on the page as I struggle through the first draft, but I’d hoped to avoid that with writing this book. This is why I went off deadline for the first time since 2001; so that I could take my time (other than my own personal deadlines) and not feel rushed to finish. My usual methodology for writing a manuscript evolved into writing on deadline and going back, when stuck, to the beginning and revising, with the end result that I usually wrote the last chapter or two the week (or days) before turning it in, and almost always after the original deadline. The end result of this was, to me, that the first two-thirds of my books were often rewritten, revised and polished repeatedly, while the final third maybe got a good going-over maybe once; which quite easily produced the mentality that my work fizzles out at the end rather than delivers.

Obviously, it never crossed my mind as a possibility that that final third of the book needed less work than the first two-thirds precisely because so much work went into the first two-thirds. When I reread my novels now, they seem seamless to me as they move from beginning to end; there’s no place where I can ever identify as definitely being, ah yes this is where I had to start rushing. In other words, it’s part of the self-loathing that comes from a lifetime of self-deprecation, the mentality that if it’s better if I point out my own flaws in a gently mocking, funny, amusing manner before someone else does it in a more cruel fashion.

As you can tell, the part of Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette that had to do with self-deprecating humor resonated particularly strongly for me; this notion that I can head off humiliation at the hands of others if I voluntarily humiliate myself first, and that way I can be queer in public with a slightly higher degree of safety. I shall continue to reflect on this, think about it, blog about it more–but the truth is, self-deprecation is really not a good thing. Humility, the knowledge that your success is not only the result of hard work but also involved a healthy dose of what can only be described as sheer luck–whether that’s simply timing or whatever else it might be–is a completely different thing from self-humiliation. I know I’ve always been incredibly lucky with my career; most of it has benefited from being in the right place at the right time or making the right connection at the right time, but none of that would matter without the work. 

If I hadn’t done the work–if I hadn’t written the books or the stories or edited the anthologies, none of the timing would have amounted to anything. So I need to stop allowing myself to think that luck is the sole source of my writing career. Yes, luck did, and has, played a part in my career, but it wasn’t all luck. And there’s nothing, nothing, wrong with allowing myself to take a little credit for the work I’ve done.

It’s really kind of sad that it’s taken me this long to get here–and I’m still not completely here; my default is automatic self-deprecation, and I’ve got to stop that. It’s certainly not healthy, and it’s certainly not helpful in any way.

The final story in Promises in Every Star and Other Stories is “Someone to Lay Down Beside Me”:

“You really see some tragic drag in this place at four in the morning,” Dennis said, shaking his head. He said it a little too loudly, and I glanced over at the counter nervously. He rolled his eyes and smiled at me. “Don’t look so worried. She didn’t hear me.” He looked over at her with disgust on his face. “Besides, she’s so fucking wasted she doesn’t know what day it is.”

He plucked a packet of Sweet ‘n’ Low out of the little caddy next to the ketchup and mustard bottles, and shook it a few times before dumping it into his red plastic cup of iced tea. He took a big swig before using a paper napkin to wipe beads of sweat off his forehead.

It wasn’t quite four in the morning, but I wasn’t going to be sleeping anytime soon. The digital jukebox was blasting a remix of Rihanna—“Only Girl in the World,” which weirdly enough seemed like the appropriate soundtrack for episode of The Real Housewives from Hell playing on the flat screen television mounted on the wall I was facing.

I wiped my own forehead with a napkin. It was hot in the Clover Grill and the air seemed thick and heavy with grease. Burgers were frying on the grill, and French fries were sizzling in the deep fryer. The smell was making me more than a little nauseous. I didn’t know how Dennis could possibly eat anything. I felt a wave of nausea coming on, so I closed my eyes and took some deep breaths till it passed. My lower back was aching, so I turned in my chair and put my back up against the wall. We were sitting at the table in the absolute back, and Dennis had his back to the front door. I put my feet up on the extra chair at our table and leaned forward a bit, trying to stretch the ache out of my back.

I took another big drink out of my red plastic cup of water and couldn’t help smiling to myself. I recognized the tragic looking drag queen sitting at the counter. I’d seen Floretta Flynn perform any number of times at various clubs in the Quarter. She was one of the better drag performers in the city, and was actually quite funny. She’d been hostess of the show we’d caught earlier in the evening at the Parade, while we were waiting for our dealer to show up. She’d clearly had too much to drink since then—Dennis swore drag queens were always smashed when they went on stage, but I couldn’t tell.  It was obvious now, though. She was seated at the counter on one of the revolving stools, leaning against a hot muscle boy who didn’t seem quite as wasted as she was. Her massive 1970’s country-singer wig was askew and her lipstick was smeared around her mouth. Her mascara was also smudged around her eyes, and it looked like she may have tried to wipe off some of the foundation and rouge on her cheeks. Her bright red sequined dress looked dirty, and she’d spilled something down the front of it.

This story was written for Jerry Wheeler’s Dirty Diner anthology; I’d written the beginning years earlier, based on the exact same conversation I had with a friend at the Clover Grill around four a.m. as we stopped to get something to eat on our way out of the Quarter. I originally saw this story, when it was conceived, as part of the ‘four-friends-in-the-quarter’ book The World is Full of Ex-Lovers; and it really ties in with some of my other stories about the same characters; though I’m not sure anyone else ever made the connection. This story has a theme that I’ve returned to over and over again in my fiction: finding validation after rejection.

That particular theme also calls for some further reflection, frankly.

And now back to the spice mines.

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I’m Your Man

Well, the first day of vacation passed without too much of note occurring. We grilled out for dinner–burgers and cheese dogs–and watched It on HBO; I cleaned and started organizing the kitchen; we watched a few more episodes of Big Mouth on Netflix-, and oh yes, Paul spent most of the day watching Wimbledon. I was most pleased to spend a day relaxing (and yes, I find cleaning and organizing to be relaxing; feel free to sue me), and will probably spend today doing more of the same, in addition to going to the gym and doing some writing and answering some emails. I keep thinking today is Sunday, which is also kind of funny–evidence of how nuts the mind can be; I kept thinking yesterday as Saturday. I need to revise my short story for submission to Cemetery Dance (yes, a long shot, but it’s a bucket list thing and I am going to keep trying every year until I actually get in) and in other bizarre news, I also managed to start writing my next book yesterday. I didn’t intend to; but I just felt like I needed to get that opening written down. It’s been swirling in my head for months now, and getting started neither took a long time nor was it particularly painful (what’s going to be painful is rereading the Scotty manuscript, which I am rather dreading).

Here it is:

The summer I graduated from high school my mother ruined my life.

Okay, I’m exaggerating. Mom says I do that a lot—well, that, and that I’m melodramatic. When I tell her being called a drama queen by my mom will make a great story for my future therapist, she just gives me that look and says, “The prosecution rests, Your Honor.”

This particular book is going to be vastly different from anything I’ve written before–I am being most ambitious in my thinking with this one–and I am also writing about a kind of character I’ve never really done before–oh, sure, gay teenager, to be sure, I’ve done that multiple times–but he’s also the only child of a incredibly successful attorney single mother, and the tricky part, the part that’s kept me from writing this book, which began as a short story called “Ruins” about thirty years ago, was I simply could not figure out how to get my main character to spend the summer in rural Alabama, which I have finally managed to do.

Also, yesterday while I was cleaning and organizing–and really, this is the best way to have this sort of thing happen–I kept getting ideas on how to fix and repair the Scotty novel. There really is something to writing an entire draft from start to finish, even knowing that it’s sloppy and you’re leaving things dangling or starting threads that you don’t see through to fruition, as opposed to going back and revising as you go so that by the time you reach the end, you’re past deadline and you don’t get to revise or rewrite the end, or have the time to go back and do much fixing once you’ve finally devised the end. I’ve always been paranoid about that with my Scotty books, which is kind of how I’ve written them all since Mardi Gras Mambo. But if 2018 has been about anything, it’s been about going back to the beginnings and remembering how I used to do things, and going back to my original systems has really been helpful when it comes to writing.

And I got to say, I love that very much.

Next up in Promises in Every Star and Other Stories is “Wrought Iron Lace”:

The guy who just moved in across the courtyard is gorgeous.

 I would guess that he’s still in his early thirties, maybe still the late twenties. Since I turned forty it’s really hard for me to judge age. Twenty years olds look like babies, fifty year olds look forty, and that group in between I just have no fucking clue. I watched him move in the day after I came home from the hospital. I have three pins in my leg from the car accident, and I have to keep it elevated as much as possible. I can’t stand on it yet, even with crutches, so I have a nice loaner wheelchair from the hospital. Friends are running errands for me when they can, and checking in on me to make sure I’m not lying on the floor in the bathroom helpless. I don’t think I’ve ever spent so much time at home by myself ever before. It’s amazing how little there is to watch on television, even with eighty cable channels. Is there anyone left on the planet who has not seen the movie Sixteen Candles? Why do they have to keep airing it?

It was a Saturday, and if ever there was a day of television hell, it’s Saturday. There’s nothing on, at any time of the day. I don’t really care that much about billiards, snowboarding, or timber-sports, thank you very much. I knew that the vacant apartment on the other side of the courtyard had been rented, the lower one, but I’d forgotten someone was moving in. My apartment is the second floor of a converted slave quarter, and my balcony has a view straight into the living room and bedroom windows of the lower in the back of the main house. I had seen the young lesbian couple who had lived there naked in the bedroom entirely too many times, and had trained myself not to notice those windows.

What can I say? I was bored, bored, bored.  It was eleven o’clock in the morning, I’d been up for three hours, and I wasn’t expecting anyone to come by again until two o’clock. I put a Jewel CD on, and pushed myself out onto the balcony. It was a beautiful October morning, the sky blue, the sun shining and warm, but none of the humidity that made New Orleans almost unlivable in the summer. There was a stack of books on the balcony table, and I figured this enforced captivity was a pretty good time to catch up on my reading. On top of the stack was a hardcover with two incredibly pretty young men giving each other the eye on the jacket. They were fully dressed, so I knew it was a romance rather than some porn. The sex would be soft-core, the characters fairly two-dimensional, and the problems they faced would be most likely vapid, but it would while away some time without requiring a vast degree of thought.

The door in the gate opened, and this guy came in. Wow, was my instant reaction. I put the book down on the table. He was wearing a black tank tee, tight black jean shorts that reached almost to his knees, with the bottom inch or so rolled up, and calfskin ankle boots with heavy socks pushed down on top of them. He was wearing a black baseball cap with the fleur-de-lis emblem of the Saints on the front. He had a key ring in his hand, and he walked right over to the door of the vacant apartment and unlocked it. When his back turned to me, my jaw dropped. He had without a doubt the most beautiful ass I have ever seen in my entire life. It was hard, it was round, perfectly curved. It was an ass to make men weep, an ass that belonged on an underwear box, an ass that could launch a thousand hard-ons.

I lit a cigarette.

A couple of other guys, muscular, attractive enough but nothing like the first, came back carrying boxes. Any other time, I would have probably been attracted to either or both of them, but the incredible beauty of the first boy (I found myself thinking of him as a “boy” strangely) made them seem like the girls who don’t make the Top Ten at Miss America. I’m sure they were used to it–it probably happened to them in bars all the time. I sat there for several hours, watching them move boxes and furniture, occasionally breaking to have a beer or a smoke break at one of the iron tables in the courtyard. The also-rans eventually removed their shirts, displaying fairly nice torsos, one with some hair, the other completely smooth. Again, under ordinary circumstances I would have been fantasizing a pretty damned vivid three way scene. If I could walk I’d be down there helping, flirting a little, feeling them out about trysting. I would watch the sweat glistening on their bare skin in the sun and wonder how it might taste, if their armpits were becoming a little smelly perhaps from the sweat, if their underwear was sticking to their asses. But my mind was solely on my new neighbor, hoping that he too would take his shirt of, give me a glimpse of his chest and back, maybe the waistband of his underwear showing above his shorts. It never occurred to me that they might be aware of me, the aging man in the wheelchair up on the balcony watching them hungrily without even saying hello. I never saw them look up or give any indication they were being watched. For all I knew, when they were out of sight on the street taking stuff out of the truck they could be laughing their asses off at the perv on the balcony, thinking he’s hidden behind the  wrought iron lacework. But if that were the case, it wouldn’t have mattered to me at all. I could not tear myself away from watching the boy in the black tank tee.

I wrote this story for an anthology called  A View to a Thrill (finally! I remember the anthology!) which was about voyeurism. Voyeurism always reminds me of Rear Window, and so I wanted to do a kind of Rear Window take on a gay erotica story; without the murder, of course.

When I first moved to New Orleans all those years ago, I always wanted to write a book about a group of gay guys–friends and frenemies–who all lived around a courtyard in the French Quarter and their quest for love and happiness and success; kind of Armistead Maupin meets Jacqueline Susann, using the same structure of Valley of the Dolls–one older character who’s already at the top of his game and owns the buildings, and the three younger ones who become unlikely friends/frenemies on their journey. I called it The World Is Full of Ex-Lovers (a play on two Jackie Collins titles), and from time to time, I found myself writing short stories about these guys. “Stigmata,” which was my first or second non-erotica short story, was about these guys; so was “Touch Me in the Morning,” the story I wrote for Foolish Hearts and had completely forgotten about until I took the book down and looked at the table of contents. I’ve got a lot of first drafts and partial drafts of stories written about these guys and their courtyard. One of the things I love about New Orleans is how, in rental situations (like the one I currently am in) you find yourself in a kind of enforced intimacy with your neighbors; one that you tend to ignore for the most part to maintain the illusion of privacy.

I even used the concept of the French Quarter courtyard with friends living around as a key component in Murder in the Rue Dauphine.

Maybe someday I’ll write that book. You never know.

Anyway, I digress. As I was pondering my ideas for a voyeur story, what better setting than a French Quarter courtyard that a number of people rent apartments around? I broke my character’s legs and gave him the upstairs apartment in a slave quarter/carriage house in the back of the courtyard, who observes a really hot young man moving into one of the apartments in the back wing of the main house, through the wrought iron lace of his balcony. I think the story turned out well, and I’ve always been pleased with both it and its title; in fact, when I thought about collecting the erotic stories together originally the book’s title was going to be Wrought Iron Lace and Other Stories.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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Borderline

Saturday morning. I have a lot of writing to do this weekend, and a lot of cleaning, My kitchen is a mess, but I made progress on the living room last night while reading Ivy Pochoda’s Wonder Valley, and am now reading How the Finch Stole Christmas by Donna Andrews. It’s a lovely comfort read; I love Andrews’ series, the characters, the lovely life of the small town of Caerphilly, where everyone cares about everyone else and has no problem stepping up when needed. It’s an idealized world that I wish were real…and Andrews’ Christmas novels are splendid; this is her fourth. It somehow seems apt to be reading an Andrews Christmas novel during the season,

It’s chilly in the Lost Apartment this morning, and I am washing all the towels (it’s a long, OCD related story, don’t ask) while I wake up and warm up with coffee. I am going to a Christmas party this evening; the first of the season, and one of my personal favorites: my friends Pat and Michael’s, with a splendiferous view of downtown New Orleans and Audubon Park. (I always try to take pictures from their balcony with my phone, but they don’t always turn out so well.) I need to finish that short story today, which reminds me of something really funny. The other day I said I hadn’t written a story for the second Lambert-Cochrane anthology, Foolish Hearts, and then yesterday when I was cleaning and reorganizing books…I saw two copies of Foolish Hearts sitting on one of the shelves in the bookcase where I keep my copies of  my books and anthologies I’ve been in. I literally did a double take; what on Earth? What story did I write for that anthology? I took one of them down, flipped it open to the table of contents, and there it was: Touch Me in the Morning by Greg Herren.

Two days ago, I would have bet anyone a thousand dollars that I never finished the story “Touch Me in the Morning” nor contributed anything to Foolish Hearts.

Kind of makes me wonder what else I’ve forgotten.

I woke up alone.

It wasn’t the first time, and it most likely wouldn’t be the last, either.

I could count on one hand the number of times a guy had spent the night with me—genus gay pick-up always seemed to slip out in the middle of the night, desperate to avoid that awkward conversation in the morning, with the exchange of phone numbers that would never be dialed.

Yet somehow, against all odds, I’d hoped this time somehow would be different.

I lie there in my empty bed, eyes still closed, with daylight bleeding through the blinds. I chided myself for having hoped, for even taking the moment to wonder if maybe he was in the kitchen making coffee, or in the bathroom. When will you learn? I thought, softly pounding the mattress with a fist, life isn’t a Disney movie—your prince may not come—stop being such a hopeless romantic.

But was it so sentimental, too much to ask, to want to wake up with his body spooned against mine?

I was time to face reality. I couldn’t hide in bed all day, so I pried my eyes open. My lashes were gummy, and my head felt like it was hosting a heavy metal battle of the bands. I sat up in bed and fought a wave of nausea as I lit a cigarette, not yet having the energy to go to the bathroom and brush my teeth and splash water in my face first. My stomach lurched against the combination of the taste of the smoke, the fur that had grown on my teeth, my swollen tongue, and the aftermath of too much alcohol and tobacco from the night before.

God, I’d been drunk.

Maybe that was the best way to play it. Too much alcohol added to smoking too many joints plus the depression from being dumped for the umpteenth time this year—wouldn’t that justify just about anything short of committing murder?

I closed my eyes and groaned, wishing I’d had the sense to die in my sleep.

How could I face Dennis this morning?

I looked at the clock. It was ten thirty. I closed my eyes and thought about it. He always taught an early morning aerobics class at six on Mondays, and then trained clients until about eleven. He’d be free after that until the late afternoon, and always came home, usually taking a nap to rest up for the next round of classes and clients. Maybe that’s why he left, I rationalized. Of course—he had to go to work, and I had been sleeping the sleep of the damned, the drunk, and over-indulged. Maybe he’d tried to wake me up to say goodbye before he left, but I was too unconscious to wake up.

There might be a note in the kitchen.

I remember when I wrote this story to begin with; I have absolutely no recollection of finishing it or revising it or anything, seriously. It was part of a series of interconnected short stories I was writing about a group of gay guys who all lived around a courtyard in the French Quarter–the courtyard I actually used in Murder in the Rue Dauphine and my story “Wrought Iron Lace”–which I basically was hoping to turn into a book called The World is Full of Ex-Lovers. That book, obviously, never happened.

And now, back to the spice mines as I wonder what else I’ve written and published and forgotten.

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