My Mighty Meekness
The Sympathetic Public
MY MIGHTY MEEKNESS
by Brian Alessandro
Since March, when my husband and I left our apartment in Chinatown and took shelter in his childhood home in Roselle Park, a quaint suburb in Union County, New Jersey, I have lived with him, his 66-year-old mother, his 93-year old grandmother, our three-month-old puppy, and a host of 40-year-old memories I’d done a good job dodging when diversion was still available. As reality and then cabin fever set in, I began doing what I do best—submitting to unspoken self-abasing questions about the usefulness of my passivity. Weren’t we all assuming a passive mode by submitting to mandated social distancing? I have the time and tend to sabotage commitments; so I revisit ghosts.
For most of my life I excused or ignored this weakness. Maybe there was a part of me that believed I lacked mettle. Maybe it was a fetish, masochism, copulative capitulation. Maybe I suffered from a martyr complex, I hoped. Noble and selfless, sacrificial, in a Christly mode, a product of parochial schooling. Draconian nuns, roaming priests, and the eunuch they engendered. Such a stance, ineluctable and faultless, at least suggested a form of bravery and agency. Anything but the shameful truth. Admitting to a lack of assertion, an inability to claim a path, to be so readily open to exploitation, a willing victim of manipulation. A victim. I’d never thought of myself as anyone’s victim. Every one of the men who took advantage of me did so with my consent.
While my husband orders groceries for us and for his mother and grandmother and brother, who has a newborn, I think about the tattoo on my back, a Chinese character. I was 19 on vacation in San Francisco. The character means “Ambition” or, as I was told by a Chinese friend, “Power.” It wasn’t meant to be ironic.
My husband’s grandmother plays with our puppy. Her mighty, frail hands cradle the six-pound dog in her lap. Across from her, my husband spends three hours refreshing his Amazon Fresh order until it goes through and he’s able to secure a delivery time for her. She had been determined to shop herself, but my husband provided. My husband, the man who made all the others before him feel like the overlong preface to a great book, always provides for his family. Something I used to do. Before I burned out.
“I have to take care of everyone now,” my husband says, placing an order for his brother next.
We accommodating personality types are viewed as disordered and inadequate in the West. Cultures of machismo and aggression and individuality and righteous seizure of goals, land, wealth, fame, and power have no room or time or patience for us weaklings, we meek pushovers. They tango all over our apologetic, inert, modest bodies and laugh.
My radical tameness took root in childhood. I played goalie on the soccer team. During one game when I was about seven, something seemed to possess me, compelled me to stand idle, assuming a contrapposto posture against the goal post, thereby allowing the opposing team to score multiple goals without any semblance of defense. My teammates and their parents scowled and screamed, their eyes threatening murder. It mattered little that I was still a child in the throes of emotional distress. Sports brings out the worst in people. It inspires a fanaticism rivaled only by organized religion.
In Angels in America, a Mormon lawyer from Utah says to a Jewish word processor from Brooklyn, “It’s not always kind to be gentle and soft, there’s a genuine violence softness and kindness visit on people. Sometimes self-interested is the most generous thing you can be.”
My father was self-interested, “The First Man,” the primary representative, in a Freudian sense, of all men. He who encouraged me to open multiple lines of credit the day I turned 18, so that he could use me as a signer and supporter, at least on paper, of his businesses, his real estate acquisitions, and his extravagant lifestyle. My mother—ever the pragmatist who worried too much about me, even smothered and sheltered me, which is itself a potential cause of a tepid spirit—pleaded with me not to permit him the use of my name, the utility of my ever-increasing FICA score. I insisted. I must help: he was my father. He accepted me, his only child, he’d given me expensive, rare toys, a comic book collection, exotic pets, fine dining, world travel, he even constructed a shrine to me with photos from over the years, it was the least I could do; an expression of gratitude. His reliance on my credit lasted twenty years, bringing the debt close to a million dollars, which he maintained by leveraging payments.
Then 2008 came along. The Great Recession flattened his once-lucrative construction and design business. And then came cancer, leaving him too sick to work. When he died a year later at 72 of complications from an infection caused by prostate cancer, he left behind an expansive library, an art collection, and debt. I was bankrupt.
There are photos of my husband’s father, dead three years, in the hallway. He was a tyrant who terrorized my husband, his brothers, and their mother. The grandmother here with us was his mother, and is about as close to a saint as a being can get. A saint that spawned a devil. His mean ectoplasm is all over the house, though the family tried to rid themselves of him, painting the walls free of his cigarette smoke stains, tearing up the carpet that was ruined by carelessly flicked ashes, replacing the furniture whose upholstery was sullied by his stink. Fathers leave their marks.
“He would have done well during this,” my husband says. “He was always getting ready for the apocalypse.”
According to the DSM V, the closest personality disorder that applies to my condition is Dependent Personality Disorder. Though I don’t, as a rule, depend on others to take care of me. I’m happy to be autonomous and never pawn responsibilities off onto anyone else. Masochism doesn’t quite work, either, as it’s a sexual preference. The American Psychiatric Association (the organization that writes the DSM) defines passivity itself as a “form of adaptation, or maladaptation, a retreat into inaction.” That much seemed fair.
The First Man, though, depended on me—not the other way around. He was my dependent. I carried him, repaying him for the treasures of my youth, restitution for being gay, reparations for not being the man he’d hoped for, someone as ambitious and aggressive as he’d been, using others to get what he’d wanted. I had my goals, but I chose not to implicate others in my pursuits.
I was six when I first had sex with my next-door neighbor and first friend, an Egyptian-Greek boy who would wail and thrash about every morning on his way to first grade, terrified of being separated from his mother. He and I would sneak away to his bedroom and play Emperor and Serf. He would be a Greek or Egyptian emperor and I would assume the role of a Roman slave. One day, his histrionic Greek mother walked in on us. What she saw turned her otherwise olive face ashen and her black hair grey. My Boyhood Emperor grew up to be the kind of man who, when off his medication, would fly into unstoppable, frightening rages.
In his mother’s house, my husband and I avoid sex. The one time he held me in bed, erect and eager, we began to kiss and fondle and reveal ourselves, but our puppy pounced onto the bed and made us laugh, children interrupted by intrusive parents, now parents interrupted by our intrusive child.
I liked being My Boyhood Emperor’s slave because I found his tone titillating when he ordered me to touch or kiss his prick. Being brought to heel was a thrilling and calming sensation. Defeat at the feet of another boy felt right. I liked being on my knees, bent and broken. It tranquilized my typically anxious, wandering mind.
My older half-brother, fathered by a Hungarian police officer, is eighteen years my senior and is himself a cop. The Ultimate Man, he fancies himself an Independent, though holds conservative viewpoints and now lives on the outskirts of Phoenix. He often texts antagonizing pro-Republican articles to me and for too long I have taken the bait. As a confirmed liberal, I am my brother’s target. He often ridicules me for being “impractical,” “soft,” and “weak.” He proudly boasts that capitalist governments are righteous because they’re pure in their honesty and simplicity. Every man for himself and you get what you earn. No handouts. (Bailouts, on the other hand, are fine.) “Softness is useless,” my half-brother would text.
Socialism is the politics of the passive, he says.
Growing up, I found many things to idealize, even worship, about The Ultimate Man. Tall, dark, handsome, strong, fit, quietly brooding, popular, fearless, he’d regale with stories about his sexual conquests and combative victories with a casual throwaway ease, as if his heroic, Herculean looks and achievements were no big deal. A skilled boxer, he more than once took on a group of adversaries and won. His straight friends would even joke about his outsized endowments and my own friends remarked that he looked like John Gavin, or as they’d put it in our pubescent years, “That hot guy from Psycho! Not Norman Bates, the other one!” He embodied much of what I would find desirable in men when I finally came out at twenty-eight. I liked aggressive, dominant lovers, and subjected myself to decades of mockery, teasing, and humiliation.
My mother-in-law designed her house with a rustic aesthetic. She’s an art teacher and her paintings and drawings of her three sons hang throughout. Her other sons, a financial analyst and an editor for a legacy brand media corporation, are much like my own brother—Mediterranean, masculine, fit, attractive, and full of the bravado and bluster and certainty their heteronormative comforts afford them. The portraits of them as boys are sweet, even endearing. All boys start out soft.
Even through FaceTime and Zoom interfaces, their quietly assured putdowns and self-praise flatten me. The Ultimate Man returns. It’s almost as if his energy has been sent across the country and replicated in my brother in laws, both younger than me by a handful of years. My husband, lacking their boisterous straight brio, often doubts himself to a debilitating degree.
“It’s going to be hard to go back into the world when this all ends,” he says to me. “I’m getting used to being home all day with you and mom and nana and Zelda.”
The beauty of socialist countries is found in how they provide for their own, without requiring ambition to conquer and acquire. There’s no threat of failure and no need to be ambitious. There is life with room to revel in its own existence. Scandinavian countries, though small and homogeneous, illustrate the efficacy of such models through annual polls of the “happiest places to live:” the top spots belonging to Finland, Denmark, Norway, and Iceland. Even Japan maintains a non-aggression pact. Its policy 9 declares “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.”
The politics of passivity are tricky but can provide a collective, global tonic. There is, or can be, a genuine gentleness in weakness. A kindness that promises contagion. I disagree with my brother: softness is useful. It mitigates. It consoles. It disarms. And it brings joy, if not world peace.
Excuse the queer cliché, but the first boy I ever fell in love with was straight. He became my best friend when I was twelve and is still very much in my life. An artist, musician, athlete, and now father, My Childhood Love Object was gentle and sensitive, a romantic who believed in the transformative power of art. He also had a temper, little patience for disrespect, and was quick to defend himself and those who’d earned his loyalty. I envied this combination: tender and brutal.
My husband spends the weekend resting, recovering from the demands of his job. When the mood grabs him, he dances or does headstands or sings or plays the piano. His facilities seem in surplus. I often feel inferior, deficient in gifts and skills. I try not to let it spoil my attraction to him.
“I hope I’m enough for you,” he says to me when he sees me pouting into my phone, texting several friends, sharing conversations about books, philosophers, and foreign films.
When I ask why he would say such a thing, he says because I always look sad or deep in (virtual) dialogue with someone else, someone “smarter.” My Childhood Love object is often one of the “smarter” people on the other end. If only my husband knew; he has gallantly replaced this impossible possession.
Like my husband, My Childhood Love Object was good at pretty much anything to which he set his mind. Basketball, video games, fashion, painting, designing, guitar playing, singing, acting, and he also spoke Spanish mellifluously. His mother was Colombian Indian. He looked like a movie star. Montgomery Clift. Or James Dean. Or Paul Walker. His father was Indiana WASP. He often praised my intellectualism and my drawing and filmmaking skills and even commented on my looks and frame with satisfying regularity. He regarded me an equal in abilities, talent, ethics, and appearance. This felt like a reward. To earn such favor from such a person. It elevated me. But still I shrank in his presence. I defaulted to co-star. To admirer. To supporter. I followed dutifully and spectated at his sportsmanship and music and exhibitions and social engagements. The silent, faithful fan. And I watched him admiringly from the sidelines handle himself deftly during schoolyard scuffles with loudmouths who misinterpreted his beauty and delicate nature.
His favorite artists—Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, Salvador Dali—extolled the virtues, at least as far as he was concerned, of softness, of a placid spirit, of a watcher, an observer. A textile design student at New York’s FIT, surrounded by ambitious, cut-throat narcissists, my Childhood Love Object loathed arrogance and grandstanding. On some level, I suspect that his misgivings with such hyper-assertive types informed my own hewing to a passive position. One that stuck. His mother, informed by the indigenous culture of Colombia, would often remind us both during my regular weekend sleepovers that we’re nothing in the grand scheme of the universe and nature, and that we ought to always act accordingly, that the most righteous, maybe sacred behavior is non-behavior, standing still, quietly studying and letting go, never interfering, never imposing ourselves. Until it becomes necessary to put down a tough guy looking to bend you in half, and My Childhood Love Object would, with style.
Even now, in his early forties, he’s retained all the youthful vigor and unsullied handsomeness of his adolescence. Time has not caught up to him. And with his lightness of step, his indefatigable enthusiasm, his fine skin, I don’t think it ever will. I become especially small around him to remind him that I haven’t changed either, that I am still the deferential, diminutive ally.
In 2004 I took a screenwriting job on Craig’s List for an Indian web designer who wanted to make his first feature. The film was made, albeit failed to meet our creative expectations, but the experience was rich enough for a friendship to develop, one based on intellectual and creative conversations. Behind a fog of cigarette smoke, a haze of scotch breath, and a ubiquitous coterie of cockroaches, The Ruler was wildly erratic, controlling, and dictatorial. He also suffered from bi-polar disorder with psychotic features. Often grabbed by heightened, manic delusions of grandeur, The Ruler was quick with dismissals and insults and rants. He could spin stories and twist scenarios so swiftly and with such verisimilitude that I often questioned reality, and my own memory, my own perceptions, my own principles. He could have been a cult leader. And I would have been a dutiful devotee.
With my devotion to art, lack of interest in money, and mild demeanor, The Ruler would routinely tell me that I was the Hindu and he was the American. I took it as a compliment. He only half meant it as one.
Still, my materialistic American would emerge, occasionally. It would sprout its entitled head whenever I was disappointed, challenged, or failed. To keep me in check, to keep me a “good Hindu,” my ruler would scold me, admonish me not to entertain my EGO, or as he put it, forging a novel acronym—"Exiting God Out.”
In 2008, as the economy collapsed, The Ruler returned to India and took me with him. I lived for three months in Kolkata, Pune, and Mumbai. India is where I revisited the Dhammapada, the Buddhist holy book, the Upanishads, the Hindu holy book dense with ancient Sanskrit texts, and returned to Kundalini Yoga and Transcendental Meditation. While there I connected Christ to Krishna and amid the stark class distinctions (The Ruler’s mansion was flanked by an even bigger mansion on one side and a shanty slum full of starving naked children we would feed nightly on the other), the air so acrid you could lose your voice by breathing deeply, and terrorist attacks (Mumbai was assaulted, Americans were targeted, 166 people were killed, and a year and a half later a German café near Osho Ashram, which I frequented weekly, was blown up, leaving 17 dead), I found a way to let go and become light without guilt, to disembody without memorizing old writings, to ground without expectation. It’s the country in which I felt most at home. Most myself.
My husband and his mother and grandmother handle the quarantine well. They busy themselves with work and exercise and chores and media. As I watch my mother-in-law grade papers, my husband remotely implement new sanitization procedures in his stores, his grandmother read a new thriller, I think, thank god they have these diversions. Thank god I have mine, though I have proof that I’d fare just as well without them: Five years after I left India, I attended a twelve-day Vipassana silent meditation retreat in Western Massachusetts that required 4am gong wakeups, ten hours of daily meditation, partial fasting, and no talking, no reading, no electronics, no exercising, no masturbating. It was a grueling effort that saw a third of the participants drop out by the second day. I lasted and submitted to the process. I felt ready for it. Trained for it. Parochial school had not prepared me. India had not prepared me. The Ruler had not prepared me. I had prepared myself.
“I’d have gone crazy,” my husband says, when I tell him about the retreat, pacing while on the phone with an anxious employee. “Being that still for that long.”
The first gay men I fell in love with was a former soldier in the army who managed a Kenneth Cole shop in Union Square. He was biracial, black and Irish, and was a mix of effeminate and scrappy tough. He shaved his head and wore tight black formal clothing to accent his muscular frame. He drank too much, cursed too much, smoked too much, and slept around too much. And I was intoxicated. He was bold in all the ways I was afraid, or sensible. He lived fast, came close to multiple deaths, and would have left a good-looking corpse. He was also often unkind to me. On a regular basis he reminded me that I was “so smart I lacked any common sense.” He mocked my inexperience as a gay man, having never heard of, let alone gone to, any of New York’s famous gay clubs and bars. Though we were both only thirty, he was fast approaching seventy. His bitterness and cynicism were not unlike my own but his felt somehow earned through years of enduring abusive parents and traitorous lovers and threatened bigots. My passivity had kept me in the closet, maintaining a masculine mien, for most of my life, save for the two years in middle school when my short-lived feminine manner compelled ridicule and bullying.
The First Lover was all about the bottom line. His pragmatism made my romanticism seem juvenile. He was practical to a damaging degree and I learned to swallow my own principles, my own aspirations, finding them foolish and immature. I began to pay attention to how I dressed, how much I earned, or didn’t, what new, trendy music or television shows I could talk about. He reminded me that he could cut me in half, that he was a force of nature, that I was scrawny. I became a gym fanatic and put on twenty pounds of muscle in under a year. Everyone remarked on my “new silhouette.” I suppose I should thank him for forcing me into a more commanding mode. Ironically, unlike the straight men for whom I had fallen, my first lover came closest to my brother in cementing my inferiority complex, reminding me of my countless inadequacies.
My husband gets angry with me when I fail to acknowledge the efforts he makes to keep our shared life solvent. I forget what he told me about lease payments and insurance policies, and he snaps. “I swear to god, you never pay attention to the important things and you leave me to handle everything.” When I remind him that I—before this global crisis—handled the grocery shopping, the cooking, the cleaning, the laundry, he gets angrier, saying he thought I did those things because I enjoyed them.
Though we’re in quarantine, I sometimes imagine jumping on the next New Jersey Transit train out of Roselle Park, risking exposure and infection, escaping his managerial instructions and reprimands. I remind him that our marriage isn’t one of his stores and I’m not one of his employees. This doesn’t go over well. And when he scolds me, like a child or member of his staff, I’m reminded of My First Lover, and how people in retail often take on a certain style of managing others.
My First Lover made it a habit to question “the audience” for every one of my short stories, essays, novels, or films. He pressed for logic in narrative, dismissing abstraction or thematic mysteries as “pretentious horseshit.” He also did thorough work with my own ego, dismantling how I spoke, with whom I spent my time, the countries I visited, the books I read, noting it all as too precious, too rarified, though he’d never use those words. He’d say I was out of touch with the world and that’s why I couldn’t write stories that sold. That no one is interested in characters without agency, in passive voices. Confidence and pride and ambition were the engines driving the modern world. Commerce was the driver. And he was a part of it. He made it all sound oddly cultish, elitist. My friend, a public relations legend in the Hamptons and a sort of Puerto Rican Harvey Fierstein, thirty years older than me, would come to my rescue by dismissing him as a “retail queen,” who was jealous of me. I found it all laughable. Eventually.
When I made my first feature film in 2010, I cast an actor of remarkable sensitivity, range, and naturalistic reaction. He also happened to be uncommonly beautiful—an angelic athlete. Penetrating blue eyes, enviable bone structure, and a lithe, lethal body. A sexy Jesus with his stubble and shaggy dirty blond hair. Owing to subconscious influence, I might have also cast this particular beautiful performer because he looked a good deal like that Childhood Love Object, my straight friend, the pugilistic artist.
It’s common knowledge that Alfred Hitchcock obsessed over his leading ladies, controlling every aspect of their lives, not merely their performances. Tippi Hedren most infamous among them. His fixations are what allegedly caused her to retire from the industry after only making a few films, two of which were Hitch’s—The Birds and Marnie. I’m not claiming that’s what happened between me and The Projected Fantasy, but watching him, directing him, controlling what he said, how he looked, how he moved, and what he said, what he looked at, and what he moved toward or away from provided a perverse thrill that was perfectly legal and even moral within the milieu of filmmaking. And yet, the secret longing I harbored throughout the long production fueled and satisfied, served as a dirty catharsis. I never could command My Childhood Love Object to do whatever I wanted, but I could direct my actor.
Though my film was not ostensibly about a gay relationship, the two male leads did produce a palpable homoerotic tension. I too often projected myself onto the costar and imagined that the many sadomasochistic encounters were moments shared between me and My Childhood Love Object.
I also enjoyed possessing the actor within my film, the world I created and could control. It’s said that the last legal dictatorial profession is directing. Because I could not contain The Projected Fantasy’s beauty, because I could not contain him, I contained his embodiment of the character I created. And through him I contained my Childhood Love Object.
My husband and I half-joke about inviting another man into our marriage for sex. As I used my actor to sate the fantasy of My Childhood Love Object, I could use my husband to satisfy my fantasy of being held, desired, chosen by two men at once. I want so much.
The public health catastrophe has conveniently forestalled such options. My husband spoons me in bed while watching Drag Race. “I’m not sure I’ll ever be comfortable being with anyone again but you,” he says.
The Most Passionate Lover was a former medical student who’d become a hairdresser with plans to return to college and become a physician’s assistant. Puerto Rican and Mexican with a body like a college wrestler. Raven black hair and with a face that reminded me of one of my favorite porn stars, Chris Rockway. He’d been hooked on crystal meth for years and had the corroded teeth to prove it. His sexual appetite rivaled even my own. He’d manhandle me with an easy grace and had a preternatural knowledge of my body, its weak spots and hot spots, its inclinations toward pain and its nervy reactions to pleasure. He wasn’t afraid to be goofy and could become intimidatingly rough when provoked. He’d shared a story about a former lover who’d been abusive. And how one day while driving in the country from visiting friends he’d had enough. He’d pulled the car over, dragged his partner out, and beat him up after the boyfriend had assaulted him for the last time. His “Tina and Ike Moment,” he’d called it. The recounting of the story thrilled me, and our sex had become even more emotionally charged and dangerous, even sadomasochistic.
I began to take a passive-aggressive stance with The Most Passionate Lover, especially when in bed because I preferred the angry sex, the sex meant to quiet me, the sex meant to teach me a lesson, the sex meant to put me in my place, the sex that jettisoned respect. His anger, his readiness to defend his pride, to show off his ego, to ride his impulse, to hurt another who would hurt him—for none could anymore hurt him—left me panting, ecstatic. His rage was ecstasy itself and seemed custom made for my own subversive spite, my own weak little masochism. My powerful, enduring masochism. The Most Passionate Lover seduced and loved the mightiness of my meekness.
Whenever we had sex, I would inventory scenes from movies wherein the victim stood up to his bully, and I would cast myself as the victim and him as the bully. Or when I was the bully I’d be quickly reduced, cut down. He always had to be the victor. I wonder--and I know--why.
I watch my husband do manly things for his mother and grandmother—fix broken drawers, carry heavy boxes, run cable lines through floors. I help, but I also like to imagine him stronger and more masculine than I could ever be. Like my Most Passionate Lover, my husband is a “man’s man.” Though that term is dumb, it turns me on by making me feel less. Secretly, of course.
“You married a man,” says my husband, when I make fun of his vulgarity after a dinner I cook. He burps and farts and laughs about both. “At least you know my body is working and I’d be able to kick the virus’s ass.”
Following this trend of embroiling delicate, lovely men who took no shit from bullies or provocateurs, my longest lover dealt it out with me for four years. A Harvard graduate with a yen for art and nature, he worked as a programmer and held a black belt in Tae Kwon Do. I watched him earn the distinction on our third date and in my mind he became perfect. I admired the way he would reprimand assholes who bullied or abused others, a fearless good Samaritan, perennially inviting conflict wherever it could be found. Such altercations scared me, but he seemed to thrive on them.
The Longest Lover was from Tucson, a Tohono O’odham. He found New York City to be hostile and cold, overcrowded and filthy. Even New York State’s mountains, he’d said, lacked the sublime grandeur of Southern Arizona’s behemoths. After moving to Tucson for two years in 2014, I’d learned he was correct about that comparison. New York mountains, for all their deciduous lushness, failed to inspire the same awe as the Santa Catalinas, the Santa Ritas, the Rincons. The desert is vast and reminds visitors and settlers alike of their smallness, their inconsequential place in the universe. My well-honed sense of smallness felt right at home. In New York, you operate under the illusion that you matter in the world or are supposed to act like you do. In the desert, nature reminds you daily of the satire of your aspirations, the folly of self-esteem.
I’d left my father on his deathbed in order to move west with My Longest Lover. He died three months after we settled. I should have waited. The problem was that no one knew how much time he had left. It could have been a year or longer said his oncologist, until the infection shortened that prognosis and surprised us all. On the flight home for The First Man’s funeral, I thought about my father and about how much under his thumb I’d lived my life. Thirty-eight years old and without him, I understood that I’d transferred that power from the first man to the new man. I’d even let him pull me away from the old man as he lay dying.
Amid Sonora’s wildlife—the mountain lions, the Gila monsters, the scorpions, the tarantulas, the javalinas, and our domesticated wildlife, our cats, Picasso, Karma, Baby Juice, Butters, and Sonia, and Boston terrier-chihuahua mutt, Shiloh—My Longest Lover would instill within me as if on a set schedule the lessons of the animal kingdom and of his arid homeland. Nature will replace you. Humans will eventually fall and the plants and flowers and birds and reptiles and
insects and better mammals will replace us, cover our tracks, extinguish any record of our damages. He helped me hate not just myself but humanity itself. I was grateful, and couldn’t get enough.
But then I returned to thoughts of The First Man. I’d survived so much with him. Together less than a mile away from the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Together in the region on December 26, 2004—the day the tsunami struck Southeast Asia, killing 227,898 people. Together we’d survived the collapse of his business in the ineluctable path of the Great Recession. Together we’d survived his massive personality. I’d had a say in that one. My meekness accommodated him.
As he trains our puppy to sit and roll over, my husband proves again how paternal he is. Without the long hours apart at work or family coming and going or recreational distractions, I am able to see him more fully, more consistently. I regret that I don’t want children only for his sake. He’d be a wonderful, giving father. Like My Longest Lover, my husband prefers animals. But my husband also has room in his gigantic heart for people. For me. “We’re a family,” he says, scooping us both up in his long, strong arms, the canine licking our chins. “I’m glad we got her before the world fell apart.”
The man I married on January 1, 2019 is kind, generous, and thoughtful. A marvel of humor, personable to a fault, and with talents that seem in endless supply. Like my first lover, he too works in retail and is prone to a similar nitpicking, though at that point, suddenly two weeks shy of 42, I felt less vulnerable to the constructive critiques, accustomed to the harmless putdowns. We rent a small apartment in New York’s Chinatown and spend weekends at his mother’s house in Union County, NJ—our current refuge.
Though I love him and though he deserves it, I find that I give his family the bulk of my free time, with little leftover for my own. I allowed him to choose our apartment. I allowed him to choose the venue for our wedding reception (a stately zoo). I allowed him to choose and name our dog—Zelda May Rubinstein. A district manager in charge of 140 employees across eleven stores, my husband is used to managing people, taking the lead. I let him manage and lead me. Maybe a part of why the marriage works is because I defer so readily--so proudly--to his delegations.
As we wipe down our latest delivery of groceries with disinfectant wipes, a weekly ritual now, my husband looks at me with an expression of worry.
“Do you think we’re soulmates?” he asks, to which I answer that I wouldn’t have married him if I didn’t think we were.
Adaptation is necessary, but change is a luxury. Accepting the limitations of others and of yourself is a gift. Writing—let alone speaking—in the passive voice is not a crime, despite how it’s decried by English teachers and journalists.
As I write this, the COVID-19 virus is over three months into its great expansion, ripping through my city with ferocity, accounting for half of American cases and a third of American deaths. It seems to target most mercilessly the elderly, the infirm, and the impoverished—an ageist, fascistic, classist disease that considers disposable the old, the immunocompromised, the poor. The virus can be seen as a biological embodiment of Western Culture itself, something masculine and aggressive, seeking to acquire and dominate, overstepping boundaries and penetrating borders, imperialist, colonialist, capitalist. And it is in capitalism that the essential emblem of assertion is found— the pronunciation of one’s desires, one’s claims, of speaking up and making demands. If class systems required gendering and a personality type, capitalism would surely be a man, and by no means a docile one.
And yet the new masculinity is said to be civilized and orderly. A developed, rational model of prosperity and strength and tenable morals. When assessing my betrayal of this system, my mother system, the fatherland’s de facto structure, I’m also left with the dilemma of confronting the betrayals I have made of my gender, and all the binaries it attends.
Maybe the meanest aspect of this dread disease is that because of its high infection rate, victims are forced to die alone, away from friends and family. As cold as this logic may sound, it provides comfort: maybe my detached, passive spirit, white flag waving, unmoored to any dock, would serve me should I become a statistic. On some level, I surrendered to the morbid, the temporal, the inevitable on that soccer field when I zoned out, age 7.
I was not surprised when speaking with my friend in India, The Ruler, about the global health crisis, that he echoed the president’s position—“The world should go on, let the people die if they need to die, the world should not stop, because people will die anyway, especially here in India. People will starve to death and die if they lose their livelihoods. Five hundred thousand people die of the flu every year and the world doesn’t shutter.” The confirmation of doom comforted.
Somehow amid the political and economic cruelties, and aside from the guilt and unfairness and inequality, there is a strange beauty, a serenity, a passive serenity, in watching the world watch itself. From the warm, accommodating confines of our mother-in-laws’ homes, we watch the watching world, in our pajamas, in our safe, timid spaces, sharing home-cooked meals and whispering precious, soft, mighty sentiments.
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Brian Alessandro writes for Newsday and Interview Magazine. He has published fiction, essays, and interviews in PANK, Huffington Post, Bloom, Lambda Literary, and Crashing Cathedrals, and edits The New Engagement. He is author of a novel, The Unmentionable Mann, and wrote and directed the feature film, Afghan Hound. He is adapting Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story into a graphic novel with Michael Carroll.