10 Opening Lines for Unwritten Novels


“On Sunday, Melanie awoke to sunlight streaming through the bedroom window, the smell of pancakes wafting up from the kitchen, and two giant moths where her hands used to be.”

“When the days grow short and trees shed their leaves, that is when they come, lurking in the deep autumn shadows to watch us.”

“My uncle was my first true love–unrequited, but true all the same.

“Mama died in my arms that night, her blood running over me the same way it had nearly 30 years before, when I slid from her womb into the arms of a half-drunk taxi driver.”

“The North Atlantic was cold, deep, and dark except for occasional flashes of gray below the spot where we were forced to tread water.”

“She was still there when I awoke, curled up beside me, snoring softly into my shoulder.”

“As it turns out, time-travel isn’t as complicated as everyone thought: it’s cheap, easy, and no, you don’t die if you meet your younger self, though touching them does leave a funny taste in your mouth.”

“The one thing in life that Ron hated — truly hated — was his name: three letters with no edge.”

“My suicide was the most magnificent that New York had ever seen.”

“Mark my words, honey: if a man ever gives you roses, run the other way and never, ever look back.”

“Famous”, by Naomi Shihab Nye


The river is famous to the fish.

The loud voice is famous to silence,   
which knew it would inherit the earth   
before anybody said so.   

The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds   
watching him from the birdhouse.   

The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.   

The idea you carry close to your bosom   
is famous to your bosom.   

The boot is famous to the earth,   
more famous than the dress shoe,   
which is famous only to floors.

The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it   
and not at all famous to the one who is pictured.   

I want to be famous to shuffling men   
who smile while crossing streets,   
sticky children in grocery lines,   
famous as the one who smiled back.

I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,   
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,   
but because it never forgot what it could do.

Naomi Shihab Nye 
(because of this)

i’m sorry my love


I say “I’m sorry” a lot.

Most of the time, I don’t need to say it because I haven’t done anything wrong. Most of the time, I don’t even know the one I’m saying it to. 

Most of the time, it’s not an apology. It is something else.

* * * * *

“I’m sorry” is the most powerful phrase in the English language.

Not that “I love you” is anything to sneeze at. But “I love you” underlines and affirms. It makes you and the one you’re addressing more real. (Here is where it gets a little philosophical.)

Example: back in high school and college, I was obsessed with a few bands that seemed a little off the radar. (To be fair, I lived in Mississippi, where “off the radar” basically meant “not Whitney Houston or Garth Brooks”.) I collected albums, CDs, singles, posters, anything I could get my hands on, anything to prove to myself and others that these people and their music really existed, that something so profound–profound to me, at least–was present in the universe. I liked the thought of folks finding my stash of goods a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand years down the road and knowing that long ago, gods roamed the earth. Or if not gods, at least guitarists with interesting haircuts.

The memorabilia I collected was my way of making the music I loved more real, more permanent. Saying “I love you” does the same thing. When you tell someone that you love them, it’s like putting your two names in boldface. It says, “I’m here, and you’re here, and I’m happy that we’re here together at this moment in time.” It makes both of you more solid. It proves you exist.

Saying “I’m sorry” has the opposite effect. “I’m sorry” prioritizes, affirms, builds up one person at the expense of the other: the listener is strengthened, the speaker weakened. When you say “I’m sorry”, you’re saying “You feel hurt or angry or some other awful emotion, and I offer these words as salve, as balm, so that you can feel better. The world will have a little less me so that there can be a little more you.”

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Our holiday show, Grenadine McGunkle’s Double-Wide Christmas, returns (Well, kinda)


Once upon a time in New Orleans, I worked with a theatre company called Running With Scissors. For 15 years, we put on shows at any venue that would have us–bars, legit theaters, other bars, and occasionally, a death trap of a nearly abandoned warehouse. We imagined ourselves edgy but cute: edgycute.

Some of the shows that Running With Scissors performed were written by other people (Camille, Hedwig, and a number of plays by Ryan Landry), but most of them we wrote ourselves. We had a very specific group of actors at our disposal, and we created shows to suit their very particular set of skills. Most importantly, writing our own stuff meant that we didn’t have to pay royalties.

One of Running With Scissors’ most successful shows was Grenadine McGunkle’s Double-Wide Christmas, an always-trashy, sometimes-flashy holiday musical set at a trailer park called the Everlasting Arms. We mounted our first performance in December 2001 and the last in 2014, rewriting the show each fall to suit the performers who were available.

A few years ago, our theatre company fell apart. There was no big dust-up, no fussing or fighting. It just fell apart. I didn’t mind, to be honest–we’d started doing shows in our 20s and 30s, but by 2015, most of us had hit middle age. We had other priorities, other gigs: mortgages and yoga and kids.

The only thing I had trouble leaving behind was Grenadine. Maybe that’s because it was such a fun show to produce. (I laughed as much in rehearsals as our audiences did during performances.) Maybe it’s because our fans loved, loved, loved Grenadine, and it felt great to create something that people identified with so strongly.

Or maybe it’s because I knew the characters so well. Even now, four years after we faced that final curtain, I still hear the voices of Gladys, Loretta, Tater, Sally Ann, Crystal, and China in my head. (Sometimes, they even drown out the other voices, which is nice.) Grenadine herself is the loudest, though–which isn’t surprising, since she’s based on my adoptive mom.

So, because the characters keep shouting at me and because our audiences keep asking, “When are y’all doing Grenadine again?”, I wrote a book. It’s a small book–more of a booklet, really–but I hope it makes everyone happy. The characters can have their say, the fans can hear them out, and I can finally get a little peace and quiet.

From today through Christmas day, the electronic version of Grenadine McGunkle’s Double-Wide Christmas will be free. (I’d make it free forever, but five days is all Amazon allows, dangit.) The paperback costs moolah because, as anyone who works in journalism will tell you, printing is outrageously expensive.

If you’re inclined to give it a go, I hope you enjoy it. And whether you are or not, I hope you have a very happy holiday season.

Mind games


I outgrew Jesus pretty quickly.

I tried to believe in him, convinced myself that I did, but faith has to be heartfelt. I confused the superstitions of Christianity with sincerity. “If I don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t have impure thoughts about other boys, it proves that I believe in god and Jesus, which means I’m a good person.” That kind of thing. Ironically, the superstitions were harder to leave behind than the belief would’ve been.

Anyway, while I was at it–while I was trying to fit in with the masses of Southern Baptists in my hometown who all claimed to believe in god and Jesus and the literal truth of the bible but conveniently overlooked Old Testament prohibitions on shellfish, pork, and poly-cotton blends–during the 18 years I did all that, I prayed. I prayed for my family, I prayed for world peace, but mostly, I prayed for god to make me straight.

I played this game with god–well, not a game, more of a variation on the “give me a sign” theme. You know: “Lord, give me a sign whether I should take this job!” “Lord, give me a sign for the answer to question #37 on the math section of the ACT!” “Lord, give me a sign whether the center on the varsity football team would beat me to a pulp if I tried to kiss him!” Et cetera.

I played the game whenever mom or dad drove us around town. In the backseat I’d whisper, “Dear god, let the next person I see be the sort of person I want to love for the rest of my life.” I wasn’t asking to fall in love with the next person who crossed my path, just a sign of where love would lead me, a sign of whether I was straight or gay. Basically, I hoped that the next person I saw would be a woman, which meant that I’d live an ordinary, heterosexual, biblically approved life. 

Naturally, the game yielded mixed results, since I had only a 50/50 chance of getting the answer I wanted. When the next person I saw was a woman, I’d breathe a sigh of relief, as though god had just promised me–in writing, thank you–that I’d eventually settle down with a woman. When the next person I saw was a man, I’d demand a do-over, because clearly I’d been distracted. Because I hadn’t focused intently on god. Because my request hadn’t been sincere.

I played that game for a long time–long after I’d stopped believing in god. It had become more than a superstition, it had become a habit. Kind of like the way I cross myself when I see a dead animal on the side of the road or a funeral procession or an ambulance with its sirens blaring. (Not that I was ever Catholic, of course. I’ve just lived in New Orleans a long time.)

In fact, sometimes I still play it. I don’t know why. My sexual orientation is pretty obvious by now. Maybe I do it to see if I’m truly comfortable with the results.

Am I?

Things Grace Jones would give as Secret Santa

  • A grin of possums
  • Nipple clamps forged from the finest Nepalese meteorites
  • Possum-shaped pasties (set of three)
  • His and hers menstrual cups
  • Baby monitor lizards with custom Balenciaga booties
  • Starbucks gift cards in increments of $19.48
  • Sexy IOUs
  • Shrubbery
  • The $25,000 Pyramid home game
  • One heaping handful of Peruvian cocaine (no baggie due to eco concerns)
  • Monogrammed washcloths
  • Cocaine-scented washcloths
  • Rear bumpers stolen from double-parked Lincoln Town Cars
  • Coal
  • Jamaican pie



I never got to meet my uncle Stuart.

He was the brother of my birth mother, Callie. By the time I finally began looking for her in 2001, Stuart had been dead for 15 years.

If we had met, though, I know we would’ve gotten on like a house on fire. (I’m not entirely sure what that expression means, but I’m quite the flamer, so it seems apt.) We have so much in common.

For starters, we both love New Orleans. We even have some of the same friends. They miss him to this day.

We also have a thing for theatre. In fact, I studied one of his performances when I was in grad school. It was among my favorites from that period–and of course, this was long before I knew his name, much less that we were related, so the admiration is legit.

Stuart and I shared something else, too: at one point in our lives, doctors looked us both in the eye and told us that we were HIV-positive.

As an actor, Stuart understood the importance of timing. Pause too long before the punch line, and you’ll lose the audience. Rush it, go a beat too early, and you’ll kill the joke.

With our disease, timing has also played a role. HIV found Stuart too soon, in the early 1980s. He had no chance to prepare. Nor did scientists or doctors. Six long years passed between the first mention of AIDS in the New York Times and the development of drugs to fight HIV. By then, Stuart was gone.

If I were born a few years earlier, I might’ve been in the same boat, but like I said, timing is everything: HIV and AIDS made headlines just before I hit my sexual stride. As I entered puberty, kids my age were being urged to be careful, be safe, and for better or worse, I mostly did as I was told. Throughout my 20s and 30s, I was regularly tested, and every time the results came back, I breathed a sigh of relief.

By the time I hit my 40s, I thought I was in the clear. I wasn’t naive, but I knew that my most precocious days were behind me.

Which was why it felt like I’d been sucker-punched on that bright winter’s day when the counselor at the testing center quietly shut the door, took a seat behind his second-hand desk, and told me that HIV was coursing through my veins. The room spun, my mouth went dry, I eased myself out of a chair and onto the carpet.

Apparently, that wasn’t the typical reaction. The poor counselor peered over his desk, then began flitting around the office like a bird in a cage, not sure what to do. I laughed, because I would’ve cried if I didn’t. Finally, he ran for help and returned with another jittery man and a glass of water, bless them both. I have always depended on the strangeness of the kind-hearted.

My doctor was more even-keeled. I brought him my charts, and he scribbled out a prescription: one pill a day at bedtime. He warned me that it might cause some hallucinations, but I’d gone to a liberal arts college, and I’d spent almost all of my adult life in New Orleans, so I had a hunch I could handle it. (P.S. I totally could.)

I wonder what Stuart did when he got The Talk? Before meds, before science began chiseling away at stigma, before we turned a corner and gay became okay? Talking to his friends, it doesn’t sound as if he curled up and waited to die. He was too smart, too optimistic, too brave for that. Smarter and braver than me, anyway.

The day after my diagnosis, I cut my finger in the kitchen and thought, “What do I do now? How do I keep this toxic sludge from poisoning everyone in the house?”

The next few weeks, things got worse. I’ve never been depressed in my life, but I came awfully close then. So, I did what I always do when I’m worried about something: I dove into distractions. I stayed home from work for a few days (I never use my sick time, so why not?), and I binge-watched the reboot of Battlestar Galactica, all 70something episodes. I also read a lot of the Fug Girls because every now and then, I needed a laugh that the alt-righty cylons weren’t giving me.

After about a month, I went back to my doctor and discovered that my viral load–which was very low to begin with–had fallen further to undetectable levels, and my T-cells were on the rebound. I read up on my new illness, poring over study after study suggesting that undetectable = untransmittable. Back then, that was a bold, new idea, but today, it’s accepted science. It’s surprising how many people–people who should theoretically be well-informed–don’t know this.

Realizing that I wasn’t cast in the role of Typhoid Mary or the mythical Patient Zero made me feel about 1,000% times better. It didn’t mean much for me personally–not for my veins, for my heart, or for the reservoirs of HIV amassing in my body, waiting to flood my bloodstream when my meds killed off what was there–but that wasn’t such a big deal. Like a lot of folks, I’ve always worried more about others than myself. Knowing that I wouldn’t, couldn’t infect anyone around me–friends or friends with benefits–gave me some breathing room. I felt less like a leper, more like my old self.

But not entirely. Stigma takes a long time to dissipate. It was true when I came out as gay, and it’s been true with HIV, too.

A few years down the line, and I’m still not bringing up my viral load and T-cell counts in random conversations with strangers. I haven’t mentioned my HIV to anyone in my family–biological or adoptive–though since my birth mom reads this blog, I suppose the cat’s out of the bag. (Hi, Callie!)

That said, I don’t hide my status, either. When asked, or when the situation calls for it, I’m frank and honest. And I like to think that I’ve been good about educating folks with uninformed opinions whenever possible.

Which is why I’m posting this now. Today, I turn 50. And if I’m lucky enough to live another 50 years, I want to live them as I’ve lived most of my first 50: openly, with no regrets.

Now for the obligatory lecture.

If you haven’t been tested in a while, now is the time. I know some of you are probably scared to get the results, but in this situation, like many others, it’s better to know than to remain ignorant.

If you’re negative, get on PrEP. Ignore the sexphobic assholes at the AIDS Healthcare Foundation: it works. If you have insurance, it’s probably covered. If you don’t, there are many clinics that offer PrEP at a reduced rate or free.

If you’re positive, that’s perfectly fine, too. Speak to your doctor or make an appointment with a clinic and get on medication immediately. Take it regularly, and you’ll likely hit “undetectable” in no time. Keep it up, and chances are good that you’ll live a long, perfectly normal life, with highs and lows and plenty of dull bits in-between.

Be honest with yourself and your partners, too. How you disclose your status depends on you, but HIV stigma will never die as long as we remain shy about discussing it.

And most of all: know that you’re not alone. In fact, if you start asking around, you’ll probably find that more than a few of your friends are positive. Far more will be taking PrEP, and in my experience, those are the sort of intelligent, informed folks you want to know. Counseling and support groups are available, too.

In time, the virus will become just another part of your identity, one of diminishing importance: brown hair, hazel eyes, casual vegan, husband, boyfriend, animal-lover, and far, far, far down the list, HIV-positive.

You’re soaking in it


There are movies that go like this.

The hero reads a book. He is engrossed. Or she is engrossed. (As with so many things, gender is irrelevant.) Someone reads a book and can’t stop reading it.

The character in the book hears floorboards creak in the bedroom. The character on screen does, too.

On screen, an eyebrow goes up, then down again. No, just a curious coincidence.

More reading. The character in the book sees a shadow flit past the window. The character on screen does, too.

On screen, a pause. Eerie music begins to rise.

In the book, there’s a knock at the door, echoed by one on screen.

Our protagonist stifles a scream, tries to pull themselves together, and walks slowly to the door…

This usually turns into a horror story, but it’s also what getting older is like.

* * * * *

The complaints about aging are timeless: bones groan, hair wilts and turns gray, the body goes slack, no longer taut enough to turn heads. You hear these laments repeated everywhere you go, in fairy tales and magazines and news exposes.

You think, Oh, that’s too bad. You think of these stories as stories, as things that happen to other people, never to you.

Time marches on. Your metabolism slows, arthritis cuts into your workouts, and looming in the background, always the specter of sciatica, butt of senior jokes.

One morning, you awake with a stiff ankle or a twinge of pain along your back, and you think, Wait, why didn’t anyone warn me it would be like this? Suddenly it dawns on you: they did. Everyone did. The book you’ve been reading, the movie you’ve been watching, the complaints around the dinner table, the jokes, the jokes, the jokes–the joke’s on you.

And you realize, Holy shit. I thought Prufrock was just a whiner.

* * * * *

There at least four different reactions to this epiphany.

1. You can immediately Google “plastic surgeons near me” and spend a small fortune on nips, tucks, and tamed botulism. (Not recommended. The procedures rarely yield the desired results, and even if they come close, the science is always improving, luring you back to the outpatient clinic with promises of a newer, better, younger-looking you.)

2. You can spend money on hookers and rent boys or trophy wives and husbands to make yourself feel desirable. (Recommended with qualifications. This only works until the money runs out, which is likely to happen faster if you pursue option #1 and option #2 simultaneously.)

3. You can do yourself in, go out on a high-ish note. (Also not recommended. There’s no refund policy.)

4. You can do like most of us do: let your jaw (and your chin and your ass) drop a bit further and keep reading. Be amazed that the story of your life has already been written so many times in so many ways. Be humbled that you are part of humanity’s long, long, strikingly similar lineage. The DNA that’s given you an expiration date is the same DNA that makes you socially inclined, offers you the ability to eat meat and vegetables alike, and gave our ancestors just enough variation in hair and skin color to prevent bigger killing machines from slaughtering them all in the jungles, deserts, and arctic wastes of a younger-looking Earth.

And more importantly: it’s not over. When most people experience this kind of epiphany, they still have decades to go. There’s more written about the later years, too. It’s engrossing. Read to the end.

Infinity means infinite


The human mind likes finite things. We like beginnings and endings. (Middles, less so.) You may tell someone that he’s your BFF, but neither of you truly believes the “forever” part.

It’s hard work, thinking about infinity–real infinity, real forever–but as a kid raised in the Southern Baptist church, I was obsessed with it. That’s what heaven is supposed to be, right? Infinity? Another day in paradise. And another. And another. Until you just want to kill yourself from boredom. But of course….

Anyway, I couldn’t. I couldn’t grasp the word “never-ending”. Then, I heard about the many-worlds interpretation, often referred to by non-sciencey people as the parallel universes theory.

The many-worlds interpretation is one of many theories that pops up when people discuss time travel. It’s the idea that every time we take an action–for example, making a decision–we create a new universe. In one universe, I chose to break with tradition and wear a pink shirt to work today. In another, I wore blue. In another, I wore my usual black.

In another universe, I went to work stark naked, and the cops were called. In another, I did the same, but nobody really cared. And in yet another, I went to work stark naked, and everyone else did, too, because clothing hadn’t been invented.

But even that isn’t technically “infinite”. Yes, I make a lot of decisions over the course of the day–so do you, so does everyone. If I make 1,080 decisions today–one every minute of the day, except for the six hours I sleep, I’ve created 1,080 parallel universes. If all 7,000,000,000 people on the planet do the same, we’ve created a 7.56 trillion parallel universes in a day, 2.76 quadrillion parallel universes each year, 276 quadrillion universes every century. Multiply that times the number of sentient species on this planet and every other planet that supports life throughout all of history, and wow.

And yet, that’s not infinite. It’s a lot, but it’s nowhere close to infinite.

To tackle infinity–real infinity–consider the multiverse theory. It suggests that ours is one of an infinite number of universes bumping up against one-another, like bubbles in a non-stop bubble bath.

In one of those universes, my genetic twin is sitting next to your genetic twin as he types this. In another, he’s just walked out on your twin after 20 years of living together. In another, he’s walked out after 19 years. And in yet another, he’s walked out after 19 years, and he’s taken the dog.

You’ve heard of rule #34, which says that if it exists, there’s porn of it? The multiverse theory is a little like that: if you can conceive of it, it’s happening somewhere in the multiverse. Even if you can’t conceive of it, it’s happening.

But wait, there’s more: if the multiverse theory is correct, all of that–the shirts we choose, the walking out, the dog–all of that is happening simultaneously. And it keeps happening simultaneously. Forever.

That’s infinity, dammit.

A week in Havana


Havana, CubaOld Havana, Habana Vieja, was designed to repel invaders, seawater, and most of all, the sun. Even at high noon, shadows edge the narrow streets, making the city marginally cooler.

By night, though, all of Havana glows with artificial sunlight. Sickly green fluorescent bulbs flicker like a million stars trapped on a million ceilings. The false daylight radiates from windows, filling stuffy rooms with a grim, efficient hue. Me, I’m like my homegirl, Blanche DuBois: I prefer my light warm and aggressively shaded.

So yes, green is the color of Havana: not only the light, but also the trees, the Gulf, the houses. There are pinks, aquas, yellows, and grays, too. The texture of the city is concrete, plaster, and marble, with accents of trash bags, rubble, and refuse.

Like any major city, the sound of Havana is cacophonous at all but the wee-est of wee hours. Cars that predate Jackie Kennedy’s bloodstained, Chanel-knockoff suit roam the streets, their ancient motors roaring almost as loudly as those of the motorcycles beside them. Barkers sell wares from carts, people shout to friends, family, and strangers blocks away. In rare quiet moments, Cuban flags snap in the breeze.

* * * * *

There is a rule in chemistry, a universal law: matter moves from lowest energy to highest entropy. Havana flouts that law, bends it, maybe even breaks it. To my untrained eyes, the city is hot and chaotic, yet everything runs in slow motion, particularly people and progress.

The buildings of Havana are collapsing piece by piece. As a New Orleanian, that’s not particularly strange, but Louisiana houses are organic, made of cypress and pine. Allowing concrete to decay? That’s some next-level neglect. Everything in the city is under (re)construction, but I’m not sure how much has been achieved.

Amid all the hubbub, dogs and cats lie unharmed on slivers of sidewalk and in the centers of streets. In a country like the U.S., they’d be picked up, taken to the pound, mostly euthanized, a few adopted. Here, they’re like feral children, running in packs. They are befriended, maybe even beloved, but rarely owned. They live their lives out of doors, cared for by the community. Somehow, it works. After a week in the city, I haven’t seen a single cat or dog hit by a car.

And the people? The people are friendly, but when you tell them that you’re a tourist–by your words, your accent, your clothes–their friendliness often evolves a purpose. You’re told about a restaurant, a festival, a bar, taken into this shop or that for rum or taxi rides or girls. The hustle never ends. Sometimes it is straightforward, but often, it is duplicitous. “Oh, I love your tattoo. I have a small one on my thigh. Where are you from, amigo?” And eventually, you find yourself in a small room being sold a box of overpriced cigars. The constant threat of ulterior motives erects a border wall between you and them where there was a demilitarized zone before.

* * * * *

She told me her name was Shirley. Well, she looked like a Shirley, anyway.

She followed me home, from the rough, green edge of Vedado, through the wreckage of Centro, all the way to our door in Habana Vieja. She tip-toed along the narrow sidewalks, always making sure to keep my well-nourished calves between her frail frame and the road. She flinched when cars raced by, but she never bolted, as my own dogs would have done off-leash. She knew enough to understand that she’d found an easy mark.

Food is often hard to come by in Havana, at least compared to here in the U.S. Convenience stores are rare, grocery stores rarer still, fast food joints nonexistent. Finding a snack is an ordeal. During our hour together, I looked for something, anything to buy so that Shirley could have a decent meal, but I came up empty-handed. I had to shut the door in her face like a stranger.

As soon as I did, I raced up the four floors of our building and looked down from the balcony, watching her pace in front of the apartment as she made her appeal to others. “Hi!” “Hello there!” “Could I have just a moment of your time?” Every time she disappeared from view, I counted to ten. When she reappeared, I started over. It took a dozen tries before she was gone.

I found her again a few hours later, a few blocks away. Or maybe she found me. She’d made her way to the San Jose Artisans’ Market, a sprawling free-for-all of artwork and tchotchkes for the hundreds of tourists who arrive in Havana each day on cruise ships. She was snuggling up to another guy, another easy mark, a tourist whose family were laughing at him. “Oh, what a sucker you are for a pretty face.”

She left his side, sniffed me, and moved on.