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Writing

I like to write what I think most people call "personal essays." Others call it, "personal creative non-fiction." I tend to think of it as autobiographical magical realism whodunnit farce.

Enjoy below and on Medium

Commencement Address to Self

Michael John Ciszewski

Dear boy, remember the beginning.

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Once upon a time, you left home for a six-month stint studying Shakespeare across the pond, and you fell in love with a city at the same time you fell in love with yourself after your first breakup left you beyond-certain, in all your naive melancholy, that you never could never and would never do so again.

You sat with a dear professor, a few weeks before your departure, and shared with her your spoils of war.

“Life,” you began, your wide eyes shimmering in the springtime sun that filtered through the studio window, “is just an endless series of self-fulfilled prophecies.”

You beamed with pride for your rediscovered confidence.

“So… why not prophesy good?

For an American abroad at the age of twenty, you carried such massive hubris pretty well! And while you could sit here a few years later and call your self-appointed coming-of-age a pure delusion of grandeur, that would belie the real wisdom upon which you stumbled while you drunkenly strode your way around London in your weathered black leather shoes.

Your professor smiled and confirmed your theory in a mere few words. Perhaps her gracious reservation was meant to allow you an opportunity to continue to explore your discovery. But at the time, that succinct exchange was enough for you to settle your score with yourself, button your redemption narrative, and let yourself fall, heavy with happiness, into your next future.

Every year since, you have returned to London for anywhere from a few days alone to a week with your partner, and for all your real and warranted feelings of arrival and closure in that first discovery, you could not yet understand that it marked the beginning of a greater journey with the city that has become your most favorite place to be.

Your first six months there were the freshman year of a special sort of higher education. You selected your field of study, arrived upon your lofty focus of self-actualization, and introduced yourself to the tools necessary to achieve it.

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Next year, you returned to London for a four-day solo pilgrimage to see your favorite band, Blur, play your favorite place, Hyde Park, in your favorite city. These four days capped your sophomore year. At its start, you broke your arm and suffered a series of career setbacks while recovering. You toiled in frustration and stillness, but time carried you forward. You destined yourself to another phoenix-from-the-ashes storyline. The year culminated with you finally earning a BFA in Theatre Arts. How’s that for narratively exhilarating self-fulfilled prophesy!? You were pretty good at this whole thing, huh!?

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The following year, you returned as a full-fledged adult, for nearly a week, with a few big-boy paychecks in your wallet and a partner on your arm. Your junior year saw you employ your lessons adventurously — cavalierly painting in bold strokes with bright, primary colors. You were an adult in the world and knew what you wanted: to talk to strangers, to fall in love, to make some money and spend it living your dreams. It was an exhilarating rush that found you hustling your way into consequential life choices.

And now, your higher education culminates in a three-day visit that left you as full of gratitude as your initial wide-eyed discovery. Senior year was hard — as hard as your last of your non-London/non-metaphysical/non-state-of-being university. This time, it wasn’t your arm that broke. You lost your dad after a dozen years of estrangement. The lost potential and harsh spotlight on your heredity sent you reeling. Your broken heart sunk you deep into anxiety and depression that sapped the color from your forever fabulous, rainbow-brite life. It was harder to identify a destiny through the muck and the mire. You couldn’t prophesy through the grey. Step by step, you ambled forward in your weathered black leather shoes, and you squinted to see the good ahead. In the distance was your city, London, at the end of an important twelve-day trip you worked very hard to make happen.

You sat through a ten-hour, direct flight to Athens, Greece without much anxiety. And when you got off the plane, though the air was heavy with humidity and the city nearly indiscernible in its foreignness, you could breathe more easily and see more clearly. These were perhaps just the benefits of a good vacation and nothing more.

Next: Paris, France, a city that captured your heart (nearly as much as London) with its shimmering lights and essential romance. The first night, however, you felt a melancholy take hold of you. You recalled life at home and the year that had come to pass, all of its trials and tribulations, and you mourned the happiness lost to experiences of grief and terror. You and your partner talked and talked and talked it through, over a bottle of wine on a bench across from the Arc de Triomphe. You invited the tools of your beloved self-actualization to return. You resolved that things would improve by way of precise action. And you exhaled a few tears of gratitude for the shapes you could begin to see in an imagined future previously so obscured.

Finally, London. You ran and ran and ran around your entire time there, basking in the comforts and joys offered to you by the city you love. Your shoulders dropped and stress finally melted away. Your steps landed soundly, rooting you — through your weathered black leather shoes — into this earth, this realm, this England. There you were, standing tall and confident, if a bit perplexed. You asked yourself:

How do you feel so at home here? Why? Where did all this comfort and joy come from?

It can’t be completely atmospheric, transmuting into you by osmosis with every utterance of “lift” and “chips” and “candyfloss.”

And if you can have it here, you can find it at home. You can find it in you.

You’ve done it before, and you can do it again.

Dear boy, remember the beginning.

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Four years ago, you wrote:

I had to go away to come home. But, boy, am I overtaken with gratitude that I learned this firsthand as it unfolded beneath my weathered black leather shoes. I cannot begin to imagine the next steps they’ll take — not for fear but rather for willingness to let my mortal feet excitedly animate them as they pound pavements along the path I cut for myself in this great, big, beautiful world.

There lie but two nemeses opposite me along the way, and they have revealed themselves to be fear and laziness. I know them well, but I know myself better. And for that, I resolve to tirelessly defend myself against them so that I may continue to boldly act out the absurd, perhaps overwritten, but neverendingly thrilling dream-come-true that is my history.

Yes, my gratitude overflows, but I cannot yet indulge in a curtain call. The next scene is about to start and I cannot wait to discover its terrific twists and tantalizing turns as so I devise.

And now, following your fourth adventure to London in as many years, you graduate.

At the beginning, you identified fear and laziness your nemeses in keeping you from yourself. Throughout the past four years, you have seen them wear many a disguise. Sometimes, you managed to unmask them in the nick of time before they can attack and leave them in your dust, cursing our name like a thwarted Scooby Doo villain. Other times, you try and fail, and they mercilessly obscure the path ahead. You trip and fall. You are broken or bruised.

It may be as Pollyanna now as it was wide-eyed and hubristic four years ago, but do not lose hope.

We must believe there is good to come and it is that we have to prophesy for it is that which will come true.

After all, an education is a terrible thing to waste.

So, let yourself toss your cap high and graduate. And when asked what’s next, choose to say: the best is yet to come.

Here’s to the next beginning.

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Flying Solo

Michael John Ciszewski

I climbed into the backseat of the car with a lump in my throat, my eyes full of tears, my heart pulling itself from my chest cavity and reaching itself out the window to scale its way up the side of a three-story house and climb into the second floor window to be closer to my newfound love.

There he stood, his shining face smiling down at me, waving bon voyage.

“You Michael?” my driver inquired.

The car pulled away, and I choked back tears. My elastic heart snapped back into my chest.

“OW!!! FUCK!!!!” I returned.

“Ok.”

I reeled from the impact. The shock left me dazed, seeing stars just long enough for the driver to speed down the street without me pulling a duck-and-roll to leap the moving vehicle. When I came to, I was covered in a cool sweat, my mind racing faster than the car pushing the speed limit down the highway towards the airport.

“This is ridiculous! What am I doing here?! I’m in the wrong story!!!”

I thumbed at a button on the side of my phone to turn down the volume on “Moments in the Woods,” as sung by the inimitable Joanna Gleason from the 1987 Original Broadway Cast Recording of Stephen Sondheim’s seminal Into the Woods. Now I could hear my thoughts a little better.

“What was I thinking? I wish I could stay. I should have stayed!! Why can’t I stay??”

My suitcase rumbled around in the trunk as we barreled past terminals before arriving at the international flight drop-off.

I thanked my Uber driver and collected my things. I took a deep breath and opened the Virgin Atlantic app I had downloaded to my phone to check my flight status — on time.

I continued into the terminal, my heart heavy, sodden with swallowed tears. I dragged my feet to a kiosk and took out my frustration on the computer. I stabbed at the screen with my middle finger incessantly until it had enough of my displaced abuse and spat out my boarding pass in retaliation.

I picked it up and examined it like some alien artifact dropped into my hands from a future yet unknown to me — its black and white type indecipherable hieroglyphs to my weary, teary eyes. I exasperated over it until I could make out two things: “Ciszewski, Michael John,” in the upper left-hand corner and beneath it, in ominous block letters, “BOS → LHR.”

Oh.

Something clicked.

That’s why.

Several months prior, I was spending a morning working out in my college gym, pumping iron to fulfill my life-long dream of being a foxy blonde heartthrob worthy of casting for a few b-plots on a CW teen soap as a young gay high school werewolf who comes out after finding love after tying for first in a martian swim-meet.

I took a break from dreaming of deltoids and D List fame to check social media and noticed my favorite band, Blur, had announced a comeback. They’d be putting out their first new album in twelve years and play a homecoming concert in London’s Hyde Park. I dropped my weights on the feet of a few hockey players and pushed my way past the faceless chiseled and toned, out the front doors, and finished my workout running down Boston’s Commonwealth Avenue screaming at innocent passerbys, “I HAVE TO GO TO LONDON TO SEE BLUR!!!!!!!! PARKLIFE!!!!!!!!!!!!! YOU KNOW??? NO???? BEEN TO A SPORTS GAME??? WOO HOO SONG 2!!!!!!! WOO HOO!!!! THAT SONG!!!!!!!!! I HAVE TO GO TO THEM IN LONDON!!!!!!!!”

I dove into the Charles River and swam to the nearest Duck Boat, packed full of innocent tourists. I leapt from the shallow, serene waters onto the aft bill and slipped my way past the driver. I kissed the tour guide on his gaping mouth. He fell to the floor, stunned. I seized the microphone of the intercom system and breathlessly explained, “OK SO THEY NEVER BROKE AMERICA AND HAVE A SORT OF VENDETTA AGAINST PLAYING THE STATES BECAUSE THEIR ORIGINAL MANAGER STOLE ALL THEIR PROFITS FROM THEIR FIRST U.S. TOUR AND OF COURSE THEY’RE HELLA ENGLISH IN SHEER ENERGY BUT THE POINT IS THEY ARE,” I took in breath, “MY FAVORITE BAND PLAYING MY FAVORITE PLACE IN MY FAVORITE CITY!!!!!”

“Oh, wow, when?” the tour guide, having recently regained consciousness, politely inquired, still lying on the floor of the boat near my feet.

“FIVE DAYS BEFORE MY FUCKING BIRTHDAY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

I jumped over the tour guide and dove over the side of the boat back into the Charles. The tourists all stood and applauded before putting their duck noise-makers in their mouths and following suit.

We swam the length of the river back to its Echo Lake origin in Hopkinton, quacking in ecstasy the whole time.

Finally, exhausted, we reached the lakeshore.

A gentle elderly woman sat beside me.

“Oi,” she greeted me, tired. She was dripping wet.

“Oi,” I respectfully returned.

She sighed. “Confidence is a preference for the habitual voyeur of what is known as?”

Parklife,” I returned. “A morning suit can be avoided if you take a route straight through what is known as?”

Parklife,” she affirmed. “John’s got brewer’s droop; he gets intimidated by the dirty pidgeons… they love a bit of it…”

Parklife!” I retorted. “Who’s that gut lord marching!? You should cut down on your porklife, mate — get some exercise!”

She chuckled. We rose from the shore, hand in hand, and began to frolic about greenery.

“All the people…” we chanted, “so many people! And they all! Go! Hand in hand! Hand in hand through their… parklife!

We fell back into a thicket. She leaned over me, laughing. From a small purse she produced a large, dark bottle of Newcastle Brown Ale, opened it using just her teeth, and poured it out all over me.

Oh my baby!!” I squealed.

Oh my baby!!!” she yipped.

Oh why!?” I begged.

Oh my,” she gasped. Tiny bubbles were forming in my skin all over my body. I was melting.

“Come on, come on, come on,” she encanted, “get through it! Come on, come on, come on…”

I had been reduced to a stewy puddle, my more prominent features bobbing about in the thick goop — my coif remained in one piece, remarkably — and the old woman waved her arms in wild circles above me.

Love’s the greatest thing that we have,” she murmured. “I’m waiting for that feeling to come.”

Somehow, I could hear gentle acoustic guitar strumming. My vision blurred, perhaps because my eyes had become submerged in liquid-form-me. I blacked out.

I awoke some time later in my bed, fully intact, in my solid physical form. Somehow, I had changed into new clothes different from the soaking gym attire I donned through my Charles River adventure. I blearily rummaged around my bedside table for my phone and picked it up. No time had passed since my leaving the gym; it was midday. I had three email notifications.

“Your Virgin Atlantic e-ticket 6/17/15–6/22/15”

“Reservation confirmation: Holiday Inn Kensington Forum 6/17/15”

“Confirmation & e-ticket: BLUR, British Summer Time, June 20, 2015.”

From my vantage point then — early March, halfway through my final semester of college — it was all I wanted: to celebrate and mark my graduation and begin the adventure of ~post-grad adulthood~ with a solo pilgrimage to the city in which I rediscovered my identity and passion after heartbreak a year and a half prior. It would allow me a check-in with my desires and dreams, and hopefully yield proof I could take on whatever was to come in the life that was about to unfold beneath the weathered black leather shoes that had spent so much time ambling about the Thames. It was all I wanted and now, a dream come true.

Time dutifully marched forwards, and as I moved on from my undergraduate experience, I began falling in love with a really nice man.

On the occasion of our first date, we spent a lot of time making stupid jokes at each other and drinking rose-colored cocktails. It was the first beautiful Spring day that year, and the whole Earth seemed to sigh and stretch itself out before us in embrace of some new lease on life.

When it was time for me to return home, I decided to walk something like six miles through the various parks that ripple through Boston like a fuzzy eel. I strode about the Earth that seemed to move with me on a day that felt it could never end if I wanted it bad enough. I listened to a song off the newly released Blur album, Damon Albarn singing the refrain in his sunniest English tenor, “To the islands, the black kites, the wishing tree… I wanna be with you! On a slow boat to Lantao, the misty seas… I wanna be with you!!!

I could’ve flown home that day. Maybe I did.

Over the next few months, my heartbeat pumped along to my mounting love, crescendoing to counterpoint even the most dissonant melodies of my noisy first foray into what everyone had convinced me must be adulthood.

I worked at a spa, watched the clock, and day-dreamt of love.

I walked my town, listened to music, and sang along love.

I went on dates, breathed in kindness and curiosity and humor, and exhaled love.

I fell and found myself. I fell and found comfort, safety, and joy.

So when the day arrived for me to act in the presupposed spirit of post-grad adult liberation and flit across the pond for a flirt with my international mistress hometown, it felt less like falling further into love and more like being pulled, perhaps even torn, between two different dreams for my future.

And yet I went.

When one has international airfare, accommodations, and concert tickets, one goes. One allows for a once-in-a-lifetime sort-of thing no matter the external circumstances — for que sera, sera; whatever will be, will be — and one goes.

I pounded back a few half bottles of Merlot at a Logan airport wine bar, boarded my flight, drunk texted my stateside sweetheart and fell asleep.

That night, I dreamt of nothing but the stars.

And when I woke, I was touching down twenty kilometres from my heart’s home. My spirit warmed awake, shook free from its comfy alcoholic cocoon with ease, like dropping a silken robe, and called on the rest of my faculties to take me where I need be.

My legs — the workhorse of the body, as an English professor of mine once called them — carried me off the plane and to baggage claim. My heart politely asked my mind and motor functions to secure airport Wifi so I could inform my mother and my boyfriend I was safe and sound across an ocean. My internal compass guided me to the train and dusted off the old map of London I had printed on the back of my heart.

This selfie is as fuzzy as I felt.

This selfie is as fuzzy as I felt.

I caught the Piccadilly line eastbound into London and watched, as we speedily traversed the above-ground portion of the route, through the Tube car windows as the world seemed to spring up from beneath me like my soul’s most favorite pop-up book. I listened to Blur. Damon sang, on the new album’s opening track, “going down to Lonesome Street,” as if heralding a triumphant return instead of a loss. I breathed in the verdant summer green and the clean white, sad grey, and proud brick of English suburbia before the train was plunged into the magic urban darkness of the city centre’s subway tunnels.

I felt positively immense.

Finally, I arrived at my stop and rose to street level.

I cried. This place was still here; it didn’t go away, it didn’t change. It kept existing, hustling, and bustling while I was back in Boston, growing up and moving on, becoming stronger and falling in love. This perhaps pedantic lesson hit me clear across the face; it was the first time in my life I surrendered to the overwhelmingly beautiful poetry and power of the Earth simply continuing to spin on its axis. Keep calm and carry on, indeed.

I went to check in at my hotel, but I was too early and there was no room yet ready for me. While I did want to change my clothes and wash my face and reach out to my stateside safe-keepers, I wanted even more to dive right back into my favorite London pastime, put on my music, and walk about my favorite place in the world, Hyde Park.

Joy, tempered by my jet lag, begat this weird lil’ smirk.

Joy, tempered by my jet lag, begat this weird lil’ smirk.

I checked my bags with the concierge and began out.

I astonished at the sheer English summertime life bounding all around me; the day glowed not only with the high noon sun but with the energy of a city truly at play and enjoying it. Within minutes, I passed through the gates before the Royal Albert monument and was in my happiest place. I snaked beneath the shadows of the tallest trees and around the winding tan paths of the park towards the park’s breathtaking centerpiece, its mirror of the heavens, Serpentine Lake.

I reached the water and shuffled excitedly towards my favorite spot in the whole wide world — a bridge that crosses the lake at one end. From its very center-most point, I had come countless times to look out, wax poetic, wane emotion, and gain perspective on the big, beautiful world around me. I would see myself in scale there — beneath the sky blue sky, before the quenching cool water, and hugged by thriving trees’ exhalations.

My spot.

My spot.

I arrived.

I relaxed.

I stood long enough to find myself, and for my jet lag to find me, too.

A swan paddled its way beneath the bridge and bellowed out to me, “food.”

“Pardon?”

“Serpentine Cafe has beautiful views of the lake and the park and serves a delicious cafe menu as well as assorted soft drinks, beer, wine, and craft cocktails,” it suggested.

“I know. I haven’t been away that long.”

“Then stop acting like it’s been an age,” it paddled away.

I slunk into the cafe and anxiously ordered a lamb burger and a gin and tonic. I paid with coins. (How I love paying with coins!!) I sat before a window that simulated my favorite view and waited for my provisions. I took out the book I was reading, The Most Beautiful Walk in the World — about ambling around Paris, another mistress city of mine — and opened it.

A big, bright pink folded note fell out. My heart leapt into my throat. On its outside was a heart drawn in thin-point Sharpie.

I opened the note. It was from him, of course.

“Michael,” it began.

I couldn’t read the rest because my eyes had been immediately sieged by tears. My breath quickened to combat, but it was no use. The surprise attack had rendered all my resistance most futile.

I put it away and caught up with my emotions. I feared the other café dwellers would catch me weeping alone in public and I was not prepared to make a scene. Not yet, at least.

But I had to read further. I opened the note once again, peeling past the heart on the outside and gently perusing past the greeting to, “I hope you — ”

All was lost. I was grimacing to hold in a most ugly cry, my breath trapped between my chest and throat, my eyes fixed skyward to trap any renegade tears that though they’d get away this time.

NO!!” I commanded myself.

“Sorry?” my waiter asked.

I snapped to attention. There he was before me, holding a tray with a lamb burger and a gin and tonic.

“You alright?”

“Oh. Ha! Yeah, sorry. Cheers.” I clambered to save face. The only problem was mine had already melted.

“This yours? Lamb burger, double gin tonic?”

“Yes! Yes. It is. Thank you.”

“Right.”

I was mortified. I mopped up my tears with my lamb burger bun and drowned my happy sorrows in my gin and tonic.

I peeled the note open again and surfed on the tidal wave of emotion my soul brought forth in response to the sweetest message in a bottle that I could ever imagine drifting across the Atlantic with me.

What fortune I had, to feel love yet venture so far from home and what I’d known before. This, a lesson for the ages: comfort, safety, and joy are not necessarily bound by geography.

Later, I checked into my hotel room, showered, and chatted with home before venturing to dinner with a former dance professor.

We wined and dined at Jamie’s Italian Kitchen in Covent Garden and delighted in the sacred sort of conversation only possible between mentor and mentee. I wrung from her wisdom and wry wit about all sorts of successes and failures. She reveled in my rapid-fire free confessions of my newfound adulthood and training put to practice beyond our time in a classroom.

Dear Diana

Dear Diana

After my second glass of wine, I told her of my newfound romance.

“Well, you’ll have to come back with him next year,” she implored through sly smile, “I’d love to meet him… I’m sure he’s lovely.”

I effervesced; her suggestion plunging me, an alka seltzer tablet, into a cool glass of seltzer.

My heart bubbled over onto the winding London sidewalks. I walked back through the streets I had no right to know so well and found my way home to my hotel. I checked in with home and went to bed early so I’d be rested for my date with my favorite band the next day. I fell asleep watching Beyoncé music videos, buzzing, “Drunk in Love.”

The next morning, I went to a souvenir shop and bought a fanny pack. I returned to my hotel room, ate a breakfast toastie I bought from Pret a Manger (better overseas), and packed all the essentials for a safe day at a music festival: a bottle of water, a poncho, my phone, my passport (in the off chance a bar ID’d me), and my ticket. I had a cup of cheap wine I had bought on my way home the night before and messaged my mother and my newfound inamorata, “I’m going to the show! I probably won’t be able to talk to you till after… I’ll be safe!” I set out.

The London Look

The London Look

I arrived something like ten hours before Blur were due to the stage. I had a drink or two but mostly just camped, snapping pictures on the Kodak disposable camera I had brought with me from home for #authentic #memories when the whole thing was said and done.

Openers came and went. The crowd grew. I was only one row of people from the front. Rain fell for a while. The sky cleared. I lived a life waiting for Blur to take the stage, and for that, my excitement overtook me when nirvana finally arrived as the first notes of their set rang out.

Damon, Graham, Alex, and Dave took the stage. We all screamed, some ten plus thousand of us.

Then, all ten plus thousand pushed towards the stage — save for me — and I was slammed by an ale-soaked wall of mosh-ready humanity powered by Britpop sentimentality.

Immediately, I was terrified. It felt like drowning.

I pushed against the uncontrollable mass to keep my footing on the loose muddy park ground. I smiled and sang along, threw my arms up in the air, and attempted to force myself to lose abandon and enjoy this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

But I couldn’t keep my heart from racing, my breath from growing shorter and more frustrated, my mind from fantasizing a most gruesome and troubling demise for me on my solo adventure overseas.

Would this ever settle down??? It must, right?! Everyone can’t keep this up for three hours!!!

The first song came to a close and the crowd cooled momentarily before Blur launched into a ballad.

I let out a sigh of relief — finally, a break from the — SLAM!

WHY ARE THEY MOSHING THROUGH A BALLAD ABOUT OVERCROWDING IN GLOBAL MEGACITIES?!?!!!!? THIS IS TOO IRONIC TO BE A THREAT TO MY LIVELIHOOD.

Oh, God, this isn’t even that aggro… what would happen during “Song 2?” Would I make it out alive, or would I squelch out my last “WOO HOO!!” before being stomped to death under the foot of a few hundred over-eager LADS.

I was immediately terrified that my six foot tall, two hundred pound adult body would fall victim to crowd crush. Irrational?? Well, considering that I could likely consume one of the members of Blur whole in one sitting and not even bloat, perhaps!

But the grimaces on the now-compressed faces of the slight and elderly being slammed, lifted, and ultimately pummeled between bopping brogues suggested otherwise. My chest tensed as I tried to lock my knees and plant feet in the mud.

Surely I can withstand this with my young sturdy frame!!! I’m A Man!!!!! Masc4masc? More like Masc4StandingMyGround!!!!!!!!!

WHAM!

Graham had broken out his acoustic for a solo love song and the moshing inexplicably increased.

I have to get out of here.

I finally gave into dread, panic, sheer mortality.

If I don’t escape now, I will die abroad on foreign shores and be ground into fertilizer by the feet of those descended from kings and queens, my soul bound in servitude to the ghosts that haunt this isle.

“I might need to get out!!” I shouted to the crowd around me.

“YAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHIIIIIIIEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” they responded, not having heard me.

I told them I’d be safe. I need to get back to my boyfriend! I need to see my mother again!!! I must live to tell!!!!!!

Just then, I noticed big strapping security guards the size of assembled-Transformers were extracting the pained and crushed diminutive crowd members among us by literally lifting them by their arms from the crowd.

That’ll do.

I admitted defeat, hoisted my jeans up, and tried to weasel my way through the throng towards the guards.

This pilgrimage is important. It is important I live this adventure. But it is more important I survive this adventure.

“I need to get OUT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” I shrieked.

That caught their attention. I’m pretty sure one (or a dozen) of them cackled, “you, mate!??!?!”

“I NEED TO GET OUT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

My seriousness began to translate through my accent.

“This one!!” “He’s got to get up there!!!!” “Let the big boy through!!!!!!!”

And so they did.

Tiny endangered me in the white circle, my saviors at front.

Tiny endangered me in the white circle, my saviors at front.

I swam through the thick flesh to the front of the barricades and confronted my savior, a sentient mass of muscle with a buzz-cut wearing a neon-green-trimmed shirt that served simply to shriek for attention on behalf of his god-like form.

“You?” the security guard greeted me.

“I NEEEEED TO GET OUUUUUTTTTT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” is the sound that escaped my unhinged jaw upon meeting the gentleman at the front of the barricade.

“Turn around.”

Oh?

I complied.

“Lift your arms.”

Oh!!!??!

I did.

He slipped his meat-hooks beneath my armpits and began to pull, wresting my little, skinny-jean’d legs from their muddy embed. I squealed wildly, my legs kicking free around the faces of many of my former crowd-mates. They shielded themselves and helped me along, or, more likely, away. For one single moment, I was crowd-surfing, horizontal among the living human mass that had moments ago threatened my very life.

I looked up in relief, and there he was: Damon Albarn, forefather of Britpop, frontman of Blur, Gorillaz, and countless side projects. For that single moment, he saw me in my six-foot-tall, two-hundred-pound American flesh form, and noticed me as I was needfully wrestled from the kind of crowd he’d played before his whole career by a giant muscle.

For a second, I blacked out.

My feet hit the ground and a security guard was escorting me to a designated drop-off area for ejectees.

“I had to get out of there!! Ha ha!!”

“…!!!!”

Celebrating my survival with beach balls!!

Celebrating my survival with beach balls!!

My new area had a side-view of the stage right outside the mosh-pit. It was heaven — deservedly close to the stage considering my tireless wait, but roomy, outside the battling bodies.

I could dance. I could breathe. I could before me, behind me, and skyward at the breaking clouds revealing the most idyllic English sunset.

The concert unfolded like hoppy poetry rambling about the crowd assembled over what seemed to my grateful eyes as all the Earth there could be in this given moment. It was bliss.

When dark ultimately fell, the event itself shone as the brightest star in my galaxy, and I was its glitter, beaming through the entirety of my life and experience to all my affections.

Their final song, “The Universal,” rang out through my cosmos and I danced.

“Every paper that you read/says, ‘tomorrow’s your lucky day!’/Well, here’s your lucky day!/It really, really, really could happen./Yes, it really really really could happen!!!/When the days, they seem to fall through you, well just!!! Let them go!!!!!!!

They always did, and I complied in the past, so I did again then.

I lifted off, my spirit soaring higher than my extracting security guard could ever lift me as the exquisite string-and-horn arrangement sounding like arriving royalty carried me from the stage front all the way back to the furthest reaches of the humanity-sized crowd before falling effortlessly off the edge of the Earth itself into the histories.

My world was sheer blissful noise and all I could see was stars.

When I came to, a stranger had my phone and was taking my picture amongst the exiting throng.

I bounded back to my hotel and texted those I loved.

“What a day.”

I slept sound.

The next day, I had brunch with my dear friend Izzie, who was living abroad at the time, and I was set to meet up with her after dinner for drinks. Seduced by my memories of the night before, I was drawn back to the scene of the crime with full knowledge that Sunday’s festival performers were purposed to celebrate Gay Pride and that the day culminated in a headline set from Queen of the Gayest Land (Australia) (for it is Down Under), Kylie Minogue.

Homosexuals of all shapes and sizes — twinks, otters, and bears (oh my!) — streamed into the park to the timekeeping pop-house beats of Years & Years with an urgency, frequency, and number that would easily outstrip the more organized procession of animals aboard Noah’s Ark. The manifest, too, appeared almost as diverse as the cast of the groundbreaking Logo series of a similar name, too!

I need to go to there!!! The flood is coming and heterosexuals are probably at fault, and I need to go to there!!!!!! I want to… I will survive… and thrive and get into heaven!!!!!!!! And I want to get into heaven NOW!!!!!!!!!!!!

I didn’t have a ticket. I sauntered aimlessly until a scraggly and elderly woman came up to me.

“Looking for a ticket for tonight, luv?”

“YASSSS MAWMAHHHH,” I answered politely.

“Twenty quid, my darling.”

I gave her my life savings a twenty pound note, tore off my inhibitions, and galloped into the park for the festival, throwing my scalped ticket at the nearest attendant with a wink.

I assimilated fast.

Today I have no appointments but to enjoy myself. Today I have no appointments but to be Gay in every sense of the word. Today I have no appointments but…. to DRINK and to DANCE!!!!!

I inhaled a few margaritas and found some delightful English soccer moms (who were waiting for their babies to fall asleep to reveal themselves to be homosexual men in disguise) to shriek with.

“You’re the tits, hunny!!!!!!” one exclaimed at me.

I died and was reborn instantaneously as Years & Years finished their set only to introduce Mika as their follow up. I leveled-up and grew several sizes. Rhinestones popped out at the ends of my clavicle. My lips naturally tinted fuchsia. Even if the babies were asleep, I knew I had to relocate.

I pointed my rhinestones forward and rammed through the crowd towards the stage.

EVERYBODY GONNA LOVE TODAY GONNA LOVE TODAY GONNA LOVE THE GAYS!!!!!!!!!!

EVERYBODY GONNA LOVE TODAY GONNA LOVE TODAY GONNA LOVE THE GAYS!!!!!!!!!!

EVERYBODY GONNA LOVE TODAY GONNA LOVE TODAY GONNA LOVE THE GAYS!!!!!!!!!!

These homos don’t even know what moshing is. I will be safe among the gays!!

When I resurfaced, I found myself very good friends with a pair of good-looking Portuguese Danes. One could not have been more excited to exalt Queen Kylie. The other was hammered. I loved them both.

The three of us salivated over Mika along with the rest of the crowd, forming something like a marsh in the grasslands of Hyde Park with our drool.

The drunk Dane wanted the kind Dane to go with him to get a drink.

“Why don’t you go get us all drinks and me and Michael will stay here??” the kind Dane asked the drunk Dane.

“Because you like Michael more than me!!” the drunk Dane answered.

“Michael has nothing to do with it, I like most people more than you,” the kind Dane retorted.

I was anointed.

“Fine!! Michael, you are wonderful, what do you want?”

“!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” I answered, which he thankfully translated to, “one gin & tonic, please, you pretty and drunken Dane.”

While the drunk Dane was away, the kind Dane and I got to know each other. His name was Carlos and he had recently gotten married to the love of his life. I blushed, thinking about the man with whom my affections lied back home. He noticed and so I divulged all sorts of speculative details and dreams. He warned me of the technicalities of life and the pressures and challenges they impose upon a relationship. I was grateful.

We had become friends by the time the drunken Dane returned with our drinks. Kylie was about to take the stage. We all toasted to the Queen and downed our cocktails.

My mind’s eye grew a dozen sizes (a.k.a. I became Drunk™), and the Queen herself emerged to the strains of one of her latest gay-baiting anthems, “Les Sex.”

SPELLING LESSONS WITH THE QUEEN!!! TEACH US GODESSA!!!!!!!!!!

SPELLING LESSONS WITH THE QUEEN!!! TEACH US GODESSA!!!!!!!!!!

Thousands of homosexual jaws park-wide unhinged to release the most primal yawp possible. There was no crowd push or crush or stress. There was only bopping and bouncing, reveling and romancing, kindness and Kylie.

It was heaven.

Carlos and I jumped and sang and danced beside each other with the drunken Dane close behind all night long.

Our neighbor gays shared set-list guesses and memories of Kylie with us and we vice versa.

Again, it was heaven.

The sun set on all the lovers in the crowd, the stars shining bright above our Aphrodite, Kylie, and she bestowed unto us her last song of the evening, the last tune of my pilgrimage.

Dance…/It’s all I wanna do, so won’t you dance?/I’m standing here with you, why won’t you move?/I’ll get inside your groove; ‘cuz I’m on fire, fire, fire…/It hurts, when you get to close, oh baby…/It hurts. If love is really good, you just want more,/even if it throws you to the fire, fire, fire…”

I thought of my past, my present and my present love, and the brilliant and sterling future I had ahead of me and then —

“All the lovers/that have come before,/they don’t compare…/to you.”

The song grew and grew to that refrain, the stars and the summer and my life itself showering down upon us like the champagne with which I celebrated my arrival to adulthood.

“Don’t be frightened./Just give me a little bit more./They don’t compare…/all the lovers.”

“You must really love him,” Carlos said to me over cocktails after the show, “to be here, all the way across the ocean, to see some concerts and dance with strangers.”

“Well, I’m pretty sure I do…” I admitted shyly.

“Of course you do!! But why would you leave to see Blur and Mika and Kylie?” he shrugged.

“Why did you leave your husband to come to London to do the same?!”

“Because life is long,” he offered.

“And Kylie.”

“And Kylie.” We laughed. The drunken Dane snoozed nearby.

“And I’m bigger than one place. And one time. And I get to go back to him and home and my whole life, more sure of myself, with songs and stories to share that will last me, I’m pretty sure, the rest of my life.”

I can still feel the crowd crushing me during Blur’s opening numbers.

I can still feel my feet lifting off the ground when I was pulled out of the mosh-pit and then the same feet flying higher and higher as my favorite band finished their monumental set in my favorite place on Earth.

I can still feel the warmth and generosity of the brotherhood gathered to kiss Queen Kylie’s feet at her alter of song in that sacred green park. I can still sense the confetti that fell on our shoulders as she sang her last anthemic chorus, crowning us the torchbearers of love and kindness, and joining strangers in the spirit of affection forever.

I can still sing the songs, and tell the stories and will forever.

I returned home the next day on a flight direct from Heathrow to Boston and took a cab to my boyfriend’s apartment with English cookies (and tales) to share with him and all his friends. I woke up in my bed in London and went to sleep, besides him in his, in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Oh.

It’s almost as if my life had finally begun with this trip. Maybe I had to set myself off my course by traveling overseas, all by myself, to see just how the course began. Or, perhaps I was baptized anew in a church of music and history far across the pond by my experiences wading through the waters of song and spirit that my very own soul had chosen for me.

That’s why.

Either way, I will never live down the sensation of being lifted off the ground before a mass of foreigners in my favorite place on this good, green Earth. And nor would I wish. In fact, I may never, ever come down.

Perfect Close

Michael John Ciszewski

“How would you describe your personal sense of style?”

I shifted uncomfortably in the old metal folding chair and crossed one of my legs tight over the other, rolling my brown leather loafer-clad foot in circles, my raised, cuffed denim jeans exposing my socks — a bright purple and spotted with yellow sharks. After a languid moment in repose staring out the office’s only window onto a Back Bay alleyway, obviously reaching deep within for my answer, I spoke.

“Preppy with an edge.”

A silence hung in the humid early summer air as my interviewer ran her eyes down my folded, fashionable frame. I stopped rolling my foot.

“Tell us something we couldn’t get from reading your resume,” she demanded, staring at me with a piercing gaze so cold even the heat from a nearby steaming iron could not melt it. Her accent — Australian by way of L.A. — was more chic than I could fathom in my tiny twenty year-old mind.

I kept still. I was nervous, shaking in my leather loafers. I felt sweat, heavy, speeding down the back of my head and feared she could see straight through my cool, calm, collected interview posturing to my sweaty, desperate gay soul. I needed this job.

I hesitated to share the only answer that came to mind; it was too unhinged without context, too left-of-sexy center for an aspiring retail sales associate, too… me. I felt small and gross and intimidated.

I smiled through discomfort at my racing thoughts, momentarily charmed by my fish-out-of-water circumstances. I was being grilled, figuratively and literally, by a corporate hiring manager for American Apparel and the overwhelming heat of the second-floor stock room — compounded by rising summer heat, a broken air conditioner, and the cramped, steamy quarters themselves.

My rampant search for something other than the obvious broke, and I gave into the exquisite pressure of time, building at a seemingly exponential rate since she asked her question.

“I’m a writer. I’ve been doing a lot of dramatic writing… a lot of playwriting, as of late, but I can’t seem to write an ending for any of my plays, and my friends like to poke fun at me a bit, because instead of figuring it out, I spend something like 20 pages building to some apocalyptic event. I just keep ending my plays with the end of the world. I’m an apocalypse drama playwright.”

If I were writing this interview as it unfolded, perhaps I would’ve reached my twentieth apocalypse-building page right here and enjoyed a proper cataclysm instead of the alien awkwardness that followed instead.

I watched something flash in my interviewer’s icy, sharp eyes. She looked at the store manager beside her who flashed her a smile.

Together, they both spoke variations on, “Terrific, okay, thank you so much for coming in. We’ll definitely get back to you soon.”

Hands were shaken and I shuffled down the staircase that connected the steamy stock-room with the bustling retail-lined real-world Newbury Street below. I put on my sunglasses. If nothing else, I still felt sexy in my crisp white oxford, dark denim, and potent loafers-and-socks combination.

“Preppy with an edge.” Not bad! I strode down Newbury Street; perhaps I would reward myself with a drink somewhere in town, or a small reflexive token of my own affection for my efforts today.

“Preppy… with an edge?” What does that mean? Are my purple J.Crew socks spotted with yellow shark shapes the edge to which I was referring? I look like I had just stepped off a Young Republicans Yacht Tour of the Outer Harbor Islands. Bad. Bad, bad, bad.

I made an about-face and ambled towards my neighborhood. Perhaps I would walk home, mull it over, pick apart each moment of the interview and gauge my expectations so I could tell those in my corner what to expect. Oh, I needed this job badly.

SMOKESHOW!!!! STYLE!!!!!! SNAPSHOT!!!!!!!!!!

SMOKESHOW!!!! STYLE!!!!!! SNAPSHOT!!!!!!!!!!

What would I tell my best friend, Jake, who helped me prepare for my interview? He worked at another store location further down Newbury Street, with immediate success. He’s so stylish, so handsome, so effortlessly cool. We role played the interviews and chose my outfit. He directed and photographed the “style snapshot” required for my application.

What would I tell my new boyfriend, Nicky, for whom I needed to buy nice foods and sweet wines and shiny amulets to distract him from my body image nervousness and emotional insecurity and progress our burgeoning young gay love? When I sent him the photo Jake took of me for my job application, he replied with several lines of various industrial-themed emoji and the exclamation, “Woahhhh!! SMOKESHOW!!!!” He had also been working as a chocolatier down Newbury Street for quite some time, and I had to at least match that in homosexual cuteness for this relationship to succeed!!

What would I tell my mother, who supported me through and through and through and through, emotionally, financially, genetically? She had worked in her youth as a literal hair model, her golden brown tresses falling around and framing her perfectly-symmetrical Greek Goddess face in all sorts of gorgeous glamour shots, one of which hung in my room, which was a little odd, I admit, but inspired me daily and especially in my retail fashionista ascendancy!!!!

I texted Jake, “it went well!!!!!!!”

“Delivered” popped up beneath my text message bubble, and I moaned aloud in lament of my Certifiable Lie as I leapt into and across several lanes of traffic.

“I’m an apocalypse drama playwright!!! WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?????” I shouted through windshields at drivers and their passengers. “Now, I’ll never write a real ending of a play!!!!! MY LIFE IS OVER AND IT HASN’T EVEN BEGUN!!!!!!!!!”

Two summer weeks passed like an endless eon during which time, despite all efforts otherwise, rolled by like the viscous black treacle that ran North End streets in the Great Boston Molassacre. The only casualty, however, was my morale, my ambition.

The close of my sophomore year of college and the passing of its business and many successes had left me feeling on top of the world without anything to do, a self-made king without a kingdom. Living in Boston and in my own apartment far from my childhood home for the first summer in my life, I lost myself in my liberty. I would rise, around noon with a half-consumed glass of Yellowtail Pinot Grigio nearest my head on my bedside table and grimace, hungover from our college-age, half-hearted but seemingly obligatory summertime celebrations the night prior. Thinking my youthful self something like invincible, I rejected my physical state and instead chose to sweat through my hangover at the gym while studying my horoscope app (hoping for good news) and texting friends with whom I might pass time. I returned home, showered, and ate (too little) before clocking some time writing my latest pet project, a music blog. I spilled scintillating and incisive reporting about Beyoncé’s latest goings-on to my mass of followers (28 at current count) and felt a sense of grande accomplishment. By then, it was 5PM. Friends who worked would soon return to the several streets in college-hood Allston where we all lived, and as my hangover had only just vanished, I could begin drinking again. I’d grab the double bottle of Yellowtail Pinot Grigio I kept beneath my bedside table — for convenience, of course — and rinse last night’s glass. I’d sit in my living room with my libation and get busy concocting plans. Would we congregate there, at my place, and drink and smoke the night away, or would we venture out with our fake IDs and try our luck on the town? Better yet, would my Nicky make plans with me? I don’t know how much it really mattered. It was not the nights that were most consequential to me and my well-being, but rather the days that framed them. This lesson was hard-won with a perpetual hangover.

Two summer weeks passed following my interview, and I reached wits end; I knew something was wrong and my life had grown somewhat unsustainable. I walked into the city instead of going to the gym one afternoon and sat by the wading pool in Copley Square, feeling maudlin and watching children play, blissfully unaware of the insurmountable and titanic responsibilities of impending adulthood for a young, spoiled, hyper-dramatic millennial. I called my mother and complained that I had yet to hear back from American Apparel.

“I have a good feeling today, Mike. You’re going to hear something soon. I know it. Mama’s always right.”

I was comforted to sense her certainty and thought to the glamour shot of her that hung in my room. She had to be right.

I refreshed my email and lo and behold, as if the Greek Goddess herself had willed it to be, an email from my future supervisor from American Apparel, offering me a position as a sales associate at MA-2, the smaller of the two Newbury Street locations they had open at the time. I texted my mother, overjoyed.

“Mama knows,” she replied. “I told you, didn’t I?”

I texted Jake, proud. “Yasssssssssssssssssss!” he replied.

I texted my Nicky, relieved. “OMG!” he replied, followed by a string of clothing emoji.

I quickly returned the email and scheduled my first day.

I climbed atop a pillar at the Copley Square wading pool and addressed the children splashing about in the warm fountain water.

“Children, fear not for your futures! As proven by my job offering here today, you, too, can play your way into adulthood and win yourself an entry level, minimum-wage job selling bandeaus and leggings at one of the more controversial retail companies of our time, whose CEO has been accused on countless occasions of sexual assault and general sleaziness! I was once you, but now, I am me, Michael John Ciszewski, sales associate of American Apparel, and like my employer, and like you, I was made right here in the U.S. of A.! Reach for the stars and land in the stars and stripes!!”

I vaulted city streets home and celebrated. Over the next long week, I sped through my aforementioned sad summer routine on the power of cheap white wine and excitement before my first shift.

The day finally arrived. I showed up wearing exactly what I wore to my interview — if it worked before, it’ll work again.

“Do you own any American Apparel?” my boss inquired amidst small talk as I filled out the paperwork required to formalize my deal with the Devil Dov Charney.

A fair question, but one I was tremendously grateful did not come up in my interview, because…

“No, I don’t actually.” I smiled at her.

“That’s no problem; you get a new hire allotment, a new hire allowance, and a seasonal allowance.”

My eyes grew wide. I began to salivate and froth at the mouth. I heard the faint sounds of a crowd at a roller disco, “The Hustle,” playing faintly in the background. The small, staid makeshift office grew warm, hot like the tired fluorescent bulbs hanging overhead that seemed to glow neon pink and blue. Have you seen Beyoncé’s “Blow” music video? With the lollipops and Farrah Fawcett haircuts? My onboarding looked and felt just like that, but that didn’t come out for another seven months. My experience that day became her mood board for the video.

The tantalizing promise hypnotized me. Visions of six foot tall homosexual Michael John through a neo-psychedelic American Apparel outfit kaleidoscope cluttered my widened mind’s eye. I leaned back in my chair and fell; deeper and deeper, I plunged down into a technicolor rabbit hole. The whistle hook of “The Hustle” teased and taunted me the whole way down. I closed my eyes and braced for impact.

FLASH! There I was, clad in a cinched watermelon-pattern bandeau and metallic leggings, sweatbands at every joint, working overtime to get my glutes in shape on an elliptical as Schwarzenegger-like body-builders balked at my buns in the background.

BLAM! A cabana club and I am the cabana boy, serving piña coladas in coconut halves to Michael Cera in his classic red American Apparel hoodie from Juno and Adam Brody in a deep- V-neck tee shirt and selvedge denim jeans and Jason Schwartzman wearing head-to-toe linen like in The Darjeeling Limited or something else Andersonian. I am there, hair perfectly coiffed and wind-swept, clad in a lime green mesh tank top with white athletic-style trim and light blue vegan leather shorts, tied tight around my itty bitty waist with an elastic drawstring. They sip.

“Mmmmmm!!! Michael!!! These are delicious!” they all exclaim awkwardly but also in a hot way.

“Thanks boys!” I raise my left wrist to look at my gleaming gold Casio calculator watch. “That’ll be…” I trail off as my large man-fingers, too big for the tiny buttons of the fashionable wrist-bound microcomputer, fail to calculate their tab. “…on the house!”

They all kiss me through the mesh of my tank top.

BANG! It is nighttime and the opening sax riff of George Michael’s “Careless Whisper” echoes throughout a steamy nightclub. I am sat at a table in the corner, alone, watching the action unfold before me in slow motion. A gentleman traipses to my table clad only in Parrots in Paradise patterned leggings. He thrusts a serving tray before me; on it, a double bottle of Yellow Tail Pinot Grigio. “From a gentleman across the club.” I am flummoxed, but unsurprised. I look good, sitting there in my jungle print bomber jacket, three-quarter sleeve pink baseball tee, and silver lame shorts. I thank him with a kiss on the cheek and offer him eight American dollars. He declines, removes the yellow-sunflower pattern baseball cap I am wearing backwards on my head, and sniffs my tresses. “That’ll be all.” He shimmies away, his pecs giggling as he goes.

I consume the double bottle of Yellow Tail Pinot Grigio and wonder, “whoever could my secret admirer be?”

Through a purple mist, I see a shadowy figure approach.

It is Paul Rudd with his Wet Hot American Summer haircut. He wears tight chambray pants and a thin black leather belt with gold buckle. Tucked into it is a white American Flag graphic tank-top. Over it, barely hanging from his lithe, masculine, hirsute body is a thin 100% cotton short-sleeve button down in pastel orange.

He leans in, his stubble grazing my earlobes, and whispers, “I’ve been watching you.”

Chills.

“Run away with me.”

He seizes my hand and we begin to gallop a pace out the club. Our muscular bodies hurl the doors open and we meet the blinding white light of our future together.

It is the fluorescent light hanging high above the makeshift office in back stock.

“What size are you?” my boss asks me.

“Small in shirts. Thirty two waist, thirty two length.”

She rifles through a bin and pulls out a plastic package.

“Some of it’s abnormal, but it’s a start, so you can wear whatever fits today and then you can spend your new hire allotment and a little later in the summer, everyone gets their seasonal allotment so that works out for you. And employees discount is fifty percent.”

That summer, my dreams would begin coming true.

I changed into my allotment and went downstairs. My first day began innocently enough. I had yet to be trained, so I was not encouraged to engage actively with customers. Instead, I cleaned the fitting rooms and the floors and kept my head down; I wanted my boss’ first impression of me-as-employee to be a good one. But, like moth to flame, the customers found their way to me (as I was a readily available and often unoccupied staff member awaiting some excitement) and, regardless of my lack of formal training, I did my best not to disappoint.

I experienced my first rush that afternoon shortly after my customer engagement seal had been broken. In the rear of the store, I was responsible for manning ‘the fits,’ which is cute inside-baseball slang for fitting rooms, is it not? Shortly after 5PM, a ravenous pack of teenage girls and their pacifying mothers came bounding into the store, wreaking havoc to our meticulously color-arranged sales racks and perfectly hung crop tops. I watched in awe, as dozens of tiny Tasmanian devils careened throughout the store, begging to be bought shirts of the shiniest lamé for whatever Berklee College of Music summer pre-college they were attending and mucking up my spotless fits in the process.

I dove into the fray and engaged; at first, it was awkward. What expertise did I, clad in my first American Apparel courtesy of my abnormal allotment, have to offer these petit patrons and their parents?

A lot, actually!!

My confidence quickly and exponentially grew with every fun mom who found the gay sales associate with whom they could play-flirt and tease their daughters. I identified a line to straddle — agree with mom, sympathize with daughter — and danced on my newfound trapeze to acclaim and big sales. I also realized my job was not necessarily to curate entire outfits tailor made to flatter and embolden the personality and body type of each individual I assisted, but rather to continue to provide options (from most expensive to least, of course) and do my best to read the (fitting) room and rapidly build consensus around items that received the warmest reactions. I merely had to sense the desired effect, which is far less subtle than a customer might imagine, and, with as much integrity as possible, sell the clothes to suit.

I was a natural.

I worked four or five shifts a week. I gained a steady reputation for tracking a notably large amount of sales during my shift. If it wasn’t due to my aforementioned “customer is always right” sales strategy, it was most definitely because I ruthlessly shared my name with customers.

“Hey can I help you with anything!? No?? Just browsing? Fabulous! My name is Michael. Let me know if I can do anything for you. Hey, did you wanna start a fitting room for those two scrunchies? Sure, that’s no problem, I’ll take those back and set up the room for you. Whenever you’re ready, just let me know, my name is Michael. Did you need a smaller sized scrunchie?? Sure thing! I brought you that scrunchie in a smaller size and three different halter dresses for you to try on as well; they’re a great match! Let me know if you have any questions, my name is Michael. Forgot what real love feels like? Here it is, my name is Michael.

I did it because we made commission on sales above our individual daily goal. When a customer would check out, they were always asked, “did anyone help you today?” Even if I did not hold their hand through their retail experience as exemplified in the aforementioned illustration, mine was the name they had heard the most while in the store, and mine was the name they gave at the register.

Besides working the fits and reflexively name-dropping, my favorite work task was answering the phone, if only for the opportunity it provided to speak the greeting each employee had been trained to recite upon receiving a call. The whole thing went something like the following.

We’d be standing around talking about how whichever hot customer had just left the store was our new Daddy.

*Ring ring. Ring ring.*

Lights. Music: Anita Ward’s “Ring My Bell.”

I would slut drop to the ground in my distressed acid wash denim jeans and oversized salmon-colored fisherman’s sweater and bellow, “The call…… is MINE!”

Next, I’d flounce to the cash wrap (retail in-word for cashier’s station), kicking my ballet flats behind me, my golden fields of wheat blonde hair glowing as I pass the disco pants.

“Yasssss BITCH YOU GET THAT PHONE!! GET IT!!” a co-worker preaches.

And I would, raising the receiver to my ear, gently so as not to harsh my hairdo. I rest the reciever on my shoulder and cock my head towards it so as to free my hands. I lick my lips — (diction is important, I learned that in acting school). I’d raise my left hand to eye line to gaze with discretion at my fingernails, and then…

“American Apparel Newbury Street Sweatshop Free this is Michael.”

That was our greeting. One could always tell where a sales associate was trained for the greeting they used when answering the phone. I knew a few key holders in my time who’d substitute, “Made in the U.S.A.” for “Sweatshop Free.” God, they were so cool.

Meanwhile, I never knew if there was any punctuation to emphasize in or make sense of the greeting. Why did “Sweatshop Free” follow the store location? Of course, there were no sweatshops in our shoebox-sized Newbury Street boutique. Alternately, it most certainly did not qualify who was answering the call. I am Sweatshop Free, of course, but that is also nonsense. No matter. It made me feel like I had all the answers for all the questions. (They were usually about our hours or return policy.)

On Fridays, my co-worker friends — all funny and strange young people, mostly gay and/or female and/or of color — and I would brainstorm the most effective ways we could spend a large chunk of our paycheck on whatever wonderfully absurd latest style arrived. We talked about our boyfriends and girlfriends and theorized which of the looks we tried on when the store was particularly dead would make them scream the most. We would commandeer the in-store speakers, giving us all a welcome reprieve from corporate internet “Viva Radio.” “Viva Radio” played that remix of Metronomy’s “Aquarius” that made people think they liked Metronomy, 70s easy listening hits, and 80s deep house with parodic interstitials about the trustworthiness of American Apparel’s made in the U.S.A. garments. Instead, we listened to the handful of songs Azealia Banks had released at the time.

While my time at American Apparel did little to change my over-eager approach to professional life, it did significantly overhaul my wardrobe and leave me feeling like the happy-go-lucky lead in some gay retail parody of Glengarry Glen Ross. And it gave me a sense of purpose to which I so inherently belonged.

I’d traipse to work mid-day and “slay the sales floor,” as co-workers claimed, hustling until my meal break and hustling after, to store close.

One meal break, I sat outside the Starbucks two doors down, vigorously shaking with both hands the Zesty Chicken and Black Bean Salad Bowl that was my daily sustenance while holding my plastic fork between my teeth when I noticed a woman down the block was not only staring at me, but taking my picture, too. Stunned, I dropped my fork and my salad to the sidewalk and literally lost my lunch. The woman approached, profusely apologizing in a faint Germanic accent. She was my age and told me she was a travel photographer going from city to city around the world to photograph young people going about their business in their natural habitats. She asked me if I’d tell her a little about myself. I obliged. She offered to buy me a new salad. I accepted.

“For my caption, will you tell me what it is you’re doing today?”

“Waiting to get out of work to be with my boyfriend,” I told her, a delusional romantic glint in my eye.

I returned to work and got back to the hustle. By 9PM, it was time to begin to “perfect close” the store, which meant cleaning the store, returning garments abandoned after they were tried on, re-stocking and re-arranging the racks in established color order, and — most diabolically — “finger spacing” each of the hangers on all of the racks from the back of the store to the front so our manager on duty could photograph each display and send the images to corporate.

When finally set free, I’d bound to Nicky’s house listening to a playlist I had devised to best meet my spirit that summer called, “All I Need.” On it: Katy Perry’s “Roar” and Lady Gaga’s “Applause,” twenty times over. They had released them as the lead singles from their forthcoming albums within a week of each other, and I found them embodiments of all the success and confidence I felt at the time and harbingers of the joy and glory to come as I stayed the course.

I’d arrive at his apartment and he would answer the door, shout a stream of assorted heart-eyes emoji at me, call me “hot guy” in passing, and genuinely laud my sales accomplishments with just the right dash of understanding how profoundly silly it all was.

I loved it, I loved him, and I was so very happy. My life made so much sense.

The days grew shorter and cooler. Katy Perry released Prism. Lady Gaga released Artpop. Both were alternately monumental disappointments, and I am afraid to say my Fall would be, as well.

My fizzy summer high proved unsustainable. I returned to conservatory training; my schedule overwhelmed me and all I had come to know my life to be. I had to resign from work at American Apparel. I had to move on from my relationship with my first love.

“It is with the deepest, most heartfelt regard that I have to resign my position as SF Associate at MA-2,” I began.

Eight paragraphs later, I closed, “I am truly sorry and deeply grateful for our time together and the opportunities you laid forth for me. Yours with a heavy heart, Michael.”

Hindsight is 20/20, and I was so overwrought and self-serious, but I had fallen so head over heels in summer love, and that would not have been as hot or as blissful without my time slaying the floor at American Apparel.

I went to school. I went abroad. I mended and moved on and grew up, and by March of the following year, with spring’s flirtations beguiling me, I was ready to return for more. Among five dense and pleading paragraphs, I beseeched my boss:

“I’ll be back in Boston for good on June 1, and as I mentioned when I unfortunately had to resign last fall, I would Literally Kill a Living Creature to work for the company again!! The more hindsight I develop, the more my time as a Sales Associate seems to me the closest I’ve ever gotten to Nirvana. Working in the store is something I felt very passionately about, as I’m sure you remember. It was an exciting, professional thrill of a job opportunity for me in which I truly excelled, and best of all, enjoyed myself. And so, if there’s ANY sort of opening in the staff beginning in June, I hope I would be considered for a most promising comeback (like when Mariah put out “It’s Like That” and “We Belong Together” back-to-back, remember that?!?!! The best!!) I’m sure my salesmanship has held up since I last ran around the sales floor, and I can guarantee I picked up a few new style tricks from the Europeans!”

I attached pictures of my brand loyalty and enthusiasm in both Dublin and Paris.

She responded simply, “We would absolutely love to have you back for the summer! Keep me posted when you are back in the city and we will set up a time to do paperwork!”

That June, I climbed back into the ring for Round 2 at MA-2 with veteran status and a promotion. I would now serve as cashier, ringing up sales and manning the cash wrap. To me, this meant answering the phone even more than last summer and bumping the tunes as I pleased.

Compared to the seemingly fateful, aspirational narrative of the year prior, my second summer at American Apparel did not unfold as neatly, as deliberately. Much less the quintessential professional bildungsroman of the first, the sequel was, like so many, overdone, fussy, meandering, and at times, bleak.

I returned with the best intentions, immediately diving into my favorite feature of my former life I could still enjoy — my routine. Purpose once again liberated me from my little Allston apartment and I ascribed my life an ascendant dynamic that would lead into my senior year of college, a self-fulfilling prophecy that would be thwarted several times over.

Single and still glowing from the seven months I lived in and traveled Western Europe, I had a chip on my shoulder. Daily, I worked to maintain it, balance it, put it on display.

I’d rise early with the dull ache of last night’s convivial drinking and run to the gym, where I had begun focusing on building muscle. I would lift and crunch till sore, then down a protein shake to bolster my efforts. For a long time, I convinced myself protein shakes were not as bad or as chalky as people complained, but I was merely insulating myself from the harsh reality of their thinly masked metallic taste and synthetically slimy texture. This summer, I would finally become the lil’ gay Adonis of my dreams, and this magical enchanted elixir would help me there.

I would shower and dress in any of the myriad articles of American Apparel clothing I now owned and cut across the city to work.

I held court from the register in the center of the store. At first, I was a tentative ruler. I am an impatient person and I projected that quality onto my customers in line. I had so long thrived on being their hero on the floor, battling against ill-fitting bandeaus and poorly-advised prints until I could deliver them unto their deserved perfect-fit paradise. Things were different off the field; I was now responsible for jurisdiction, administration, and transaction. I had to close the deal, get the cash, and lead each shopper into a New Day in which they dressed up their just-purchased fashionable basics with chunky jewelry and expensive shoes just as Rihanna does. Something about handling the money of others made me nervous. That, and removing magnetic security sensors. Management liked to stick all sorts of sensors and dongles all over the itty-bitty pieces we sold, because our stores were deeply susceptible to shoplifting. If I found them a nuisance, and I spent six hours a day removing them from bra-straps and drawstrings, one would like to think they would preclude the butterfingers of a less-familiar shoplifting foe.

They did not.

I never really noticed the problem with shoplifting my first summer at American Apparel. Perhaps it was an easy summer. Perhaps it was my lower station and lessened responsibilities as a sales associate. Perhaps I had my head stuck in the (red) white and blue clouds above. Regardless, I received shoplifting prevention training alongside my cashier training upon my return, and Nothing Was the Same. Suddenly, I could see it everywhere, a silent killer, butchering our sales in cold blood, right before our eyes.

I was told one could not explicitly accuse a customer of shoplifting. I was never sure why, and neither were my co-workers, which eventually made for some colorful run-ins. However, management had devised and insisted we enact all sorts of incredible and obscenely annoying behavioral tactics to prevent shoplifting.

The first — and management’s favorite — was performative excellent customer service. This one was simple! All one had to do to squash shoplifting dead in its terrible tracks was… be extra nice, and observant, and brutally interrogate each suspicious shopper about their intentions, desires, and feelings until their mission was illuminated, undressed to stark nakedness in the harsh fluorescent lights of the sales floor.

I once tailed a few suspects with excessive courtesy, asking about occasions for which they might be shopping, inquiring curiously about the “vibe” for which they were going, and suggesting pairings for each garment their sticky fingers grazed like a sales sommelier. To me, it was like an improv game, and one I could play interminably, at that. To them, it was no fun from the onset, but it built, with each of my question’s upwards inflections, indicating my growing, cloying, all-too-genuine desire to comprehensively understand their retail pursuits.

“If you’re interested in the ponte skater dress, we just got in the chunky clear plastic sandals, and those pair together for a really flirty look that doesn’t compromise it’s sex appeal! What size shoe are you?”

“I see you’ve got a few of the pleated tennis skirts in your hands, so I grabbed a few cotton spandex sleeveless crop tops for you to try on with those (I love the pink lips pattern, so Miley)… is there a particular occasion you’re shopping for?!”

“The disco shorts are so worth it; you can dress them up or dress them down, and they’re so comfortable… I don’t particularly know from experience, though I wish I did (wouldn’t that be something??) I know a lot of people like to wear them right over one of our long-sleeve deep-cut cotton spandex bodysuits, so I got you one in metallic gold and one in metallic silver; are you making an outfit for any fun weekend plans?!??”

Finally, they broke.

“Why are you all up in my SHIT, FAGGOT?!?? Jesus Christ, can’t I fucking shop in PEACE?!!”

“I’m so sorry, I just wanted to — “

“Fuck you, fuck all of you, honestly. I got this faggot tailing me with his stupid ass questions and the other two fucking homos up at the front ready to jump me, like I don’t feel safe in here. Fuck this store. Fuck American Apparel.

She dropped her garments, and the pairings I had diligently suggested, on the floor.

She collected her friends.

“Let’s get the fuck out of here; we’re not getting anything today. Y’all just lost some serious business with this fuckery. Let’s just go steal from the one down the street.”

They left. A few customers applauded — I’m not sure which side — and my co-workers could barely keep it together before they burst out laughing when the group left the store. I took it in stride and returned to my post. My manager told us to reach out to the staff at the store down the road to warn them, so I called and gave them a thorough description.

Put this in your police blotter.

Put this in your police blotter.

Another time, the tables were turned, and a group of shoplifters thwarted at our sister store down the road had called to forewarn us. I took the call and typed up the description in Microsoft Word on the computer at my register. It read, in ominous red text on a black background, “six people 3 red hair 1 red eyebrows hair in a twist scarf she threatened Chelsea tall one with blonde hair shorter one with black hair med height **chunky**”

It was indelicate, at best, but it did the trick. My manager addressed them upon their entrance and they left with only a string of expletives.

These medium-stakes hijinks bonded our staff and the staff down the road; a real sense of community developed between our stores like two Islands of Misfit Toys dressed to kill any abominable shoplifters that came our way and commiserate over misguided corporate directives like, “White Day,” which is less diabolical than it sounds if you’ve seen Hairspray.

“White Day” was a day on which all employees had to wear “head-to-toe white,” breathlessly inform our stunned customers that the “summer of white” was upon us, and guide them to purchases that would arm them accordingly. It was ludicrous and most of us (perhaps like most people not going to an end-of-season Hamptons party) hated dressing like a sexy Catholic choir boy.

“White Day,” however, paled in comparison to “Swimsuit Day,” which legitimately exposed our female employees to sexual objectification and harassment. All employees were simply told to come to work in swimsuits. For men, trunks and a tank top with tennis shoes were suggested. For women, our skimpy bikinis and matching bottoms, denim shorts and chunky-heeled sandals. The most we won for them in protest was a sheer camisole added atop.

These ~marketing techniques~ and the grossly sexualized image projected by the brand at large, attracted all sorts to our stores.

Single that summer, I was flattered to receive my fair share of flirty come-ons from young gay men I helped to new threads. At first, I did not know enough what to expect or how to receive such passes, but after one particular prospective suitor hit me over the head with his methodologies, I caught wise.

He was tall, lanky, and baby-faced. I greeted him as I customarily do all customers and asked him if he needed help finding anything.

“Yeah, actually!” his immediate enthusiasm, shooting through his wide, bright blue eyes, blinded me.

“Oh my god, great! Then, I’m your guy.”

Yeah you are.”

I smiled, a little confused. “What can I help you with?”

“I want to get a few things that look………………………………………..….. particularly…….. femme.”

“Oh! Okay. Well, this is the right place for that,” I joked, still trying to understand the situation.

We moseyed around the store, him following (perhaps a bit too) close (on my) behind. He let his long, slender fingers tickle and caress each of the items I suggested. Particular items that caught his attention, he picked up, draped over his body and asked, “does this look femme?”

“A baseball tee with lilac accents is femme in a subversive sort-of way, I think. That’s always fun.”

“Sure is,” he bit his lip.

He tried on at least eight garments. Each time he assembled an outfit, he’d unlock his door and ask I take a look, seemingly waiting for me to open his fitting room door to see. I did not take that bait.

“I’m right out here.”

He came out, and each time, asked me, “cute?????”

“Yes! Very!” I was being honest; he was, and the clothes often are.

“Ok..…. But does it look femme???????”

“Yeah!”

“Cuz I wanna look femme…..”

“Totally!”

“Do you like that??”

“It’s a good look!”

“Yeah, I like that, too.”

He bought everything he tried on; I rang him up and he thanked me profusely. He left the store and ran into two of my friends who had been with me throughout his fitting room femme-test.

They came to see me after and told me, “Michael, that guy just came up to us and said, ‘fuck your friend is cute. The gorgeous blonde? Yeah, he’s hot.’”

Naturally, all my co-workers overheard. All simultaneously applauded and fog-horned, “GET IT!! GET IT!!!! GET YOURS, GURL!!!!!!

Dumbfounded, I simply obliged and briefly left the store to look for him. Up and down the street, no sign of my Femme Friend.

I returned empty-handed.

“Ok but you can look up the email that you sent his receipt to in the system and add him on Facebook and message him and fall in love and make blonde babies together,” a coworker suggested breathlessly.

Again, I obliged, but his email address returned no search results on Facebook. It was not meant to be.

In naked display of the God-awful double standard facing the store’s pretty, young workforce, our female employees sometimes had stalkers who would come see them. Managers had to begin to insist scheduling male employees work the floor with them in case of a visit. My store had a frequent visitor who would try on tight or spandex bottoms and come out of his fitting room, asking for an opinion on how they looked, sporting an erection. We got as clever as possible with such occurrences and bait-and-switched the creep by sending the female employee elsewhere in the store and manning the fits with one of our more dudely or simply nonplussed male employees.

We took it in as much stride as possible, understanding, ridiculing, and playing the insanity inherent in our company’s vibe lent it by fearless leader Dov Charney.

The most fun product of such was had with our store Instagram, on which managers would post curated and staged pictures of its #aaemployees (#aamen and #aawomen), vetted and approved by our corporate overlords, outfitted entirely on-brand in ensembles we elsewhere would not be caught dead. I was featured three times over my two-year employment with American Apparel, once on my first day and twice my second summer.

My last appearance was my finest achievement, the closest I’ll likely ever get to professional modeling, and a distillation of as close as I got to embodying the lil’ gay Adonis to which I aspired. We were promoting a rare clearance sale in which the company was unloading (mostly ugly) years-old fashions for up to 70% off. As with the store’s regular stock, it was largely for women, but that did not stop me from participating wholeheartedly. Alongside my coworker friend Emily, I scoured the racks of ladies’ clothing and identified the largest lilac blue scoop neck short-sleeve blouse and paired it with giant, orange denim shorts. She grabbed for me the biggest tennis shoes we had. Nothing fit right, of course. I tucked the blouse into the shorts and we clipped the gaping thigh holes of the shorts behind me with hanger-clips from backstock. There was nothing we could do about the tiny little tennis shoes, which were about three sizes too small and made me tiptoe to our shoot location so my heels wouldn’t scrape along the sidewalk on our way to Commonwealth Avenue.

There, we waited on the corner for a break in traffic with my dear friend James, who worked at the store down the road. When we felt safe, we stumbled midway across the asphalt, struck an appropriately aloof pose, and James snapped away, shouting, “yassss! Give it to me, gurlts!! You are serving me thigh, Michael!! Yasssss!!!”

A car approached. We shrieked and ran back to safety on the sidewalk and waited to repeat.

I slid one ill-fitting tennis-shoe’d foot forward and flexed my calf to the camera like I learned English kings used to as a show of power and strength in formal court portraits.

“Yasssssssss!” James tapped on his iPhone. “That’s it!

Workplace hazards

Workplace hazards

I sort of felt like one, too. My domain was small, sure, and my rule ultimately short. I didn’t do very much ruling, either, but my riches were in bright, shining experience won over gruesome battles with long lines, shoplifters, sales goals, and in-store creeps. My pageants occurred on breaks in back stock, dancing along to the just-released “Anaconda” video with co-workers. My banquets took place after-hours with a court of the most delightful and unique friends I never expected I’d make having spent long academic years ensconced in a bubble community of artists all living, breathing, and learning much of the same.

Nightly, we would help perfect-close each other’s stores — one of us making a quick run to the liquor store to pick up a bunch of beer — and then retire to a low-lit living room in one of our college-neighborhood apartments. We’d bitch about work and drink, listen to music and drink, wax prophetic over astrological star-chart readings and drink. Hours would pass and participants would fall off or join in — the extended networks of us #aaemployees even, easily becoming natural and rightful members the Kingdom.

My Boston seemed so young and full of promise! I knew my little school community was full of bright-minded, beautiful people hoping to make the world better in their image, but I realized that summer that those communities dotted the entire city like overlapping constellations in the night sky! Funny as they are, experiences like part-time employment in retail bring those communities of like-minded individuals together, creating rich networks that otherwise never link.

As it goes, empires rise and empires fall. That August, I awoke early one morning after a long night of revelry to pee. On my way back to bed, I slipped and fell and broke my left arm terribly. My roommates took me to the hospital, where I was loaded up with morphine and put in a brace and sling that would encumber my movement for four months to come. High and devastated, I called my boss from my hospital bed to let her know I wouldn’t make it to work that day. I wept.

I briefly returned to work and struggled removing the security sensors from clothes with only one arm before leaving the company for good at the end of September.

“Coworkers, friends, baes” my digital farewell address began, “Today is my last shift slaying the sales floor for the forseeable future. I will cherish the times we shared, the laughs we had, the sales we made, the shoplifters we fought off, and, most of all, the love you gave me and all you taught me. You’re all such stars with killer looks, crazy smarts, and massive hearts… If you need anything, my name is Michael, just let me know.”

Baes all around. Baes, every one of them

Baes all around. Baes, every one of them

My last day was warm and loving; my co-workers posed for a picture with me before ponte dresses; I served the best face I could muster while still so injured and so sad. I trudged on, recovered, and now, I reminisce.

Years later, American Apparel is set to close all its locations for good.

It is strange to consider the retail streets and shopping malls of the world not dotted with black and white American Apparel flags coolly heralding the bright, neon-lit and disco-resounding interiors beyond. It is strange to consider the Halloweens of twenty-somethings everywhere without leggings in every color and sheen and pattern imaginable. It is strange to consider the truly well-made fashionable basics modeled after vintage essentials turn vintage themselves, in due time.

American Apparel occupied a unique and strange place in the retail landscape — scandal-ridden but so proud, special in its self-posturing but not so much in its products (save for the obvious), and a bit too cool for its own good.

Across the street from the store where I worked, a big two-story Uniqlo has opened up. The basics are fashionable, the clothes affordable (if not made in the U.S.A.), the brand image very, very cool. I think the niche will be filled just fine, but perhaps not much past that. American Apparel possesses an inimitable plastic weirdness, its retail aesthetic and atmosphere somewhat, somehow campy uncanny valley. All that belied what truly sets the store apart from others in its market, at least to me, and that is what I experienced in my two technicolor summers working there.

Night after night, I walked home from our post-work parties, slipping through the mists of early morning sprinkler streams, my skinny chinos and striped denim button-down shirt getting damp, sobering me ever-so-slightly. The city stretched out before me, the rambling poetry of Boston’s old city streets guiding my perfectly interminable route home. Time grew quiet, its passing less cruel. Lights grew brighter under cover of darkness. In these moments between work and play, night and day, my city seemed to reflect the galaxy of stars above. In those summers between adolescence and adulthood, I dreamed biggest.

As I do all the top-quality oxfords, tank tops, and selvedge jeans I bought on my employee discount, I wear that wonderful bit of my life proudly to this day, and it makes me feel fabulous.

Making This One Better

Michael John Ciszewski

The alarm goes off at 6:30 AM for the first time in ten days. My eyes fall open to a cool, cruel, and relentlessly dark early January morning in Massachusetts.

I felt raw and cloudy-headed but slipped out of bed with fair ease and clambered into the living room. I had to return to work today following the holidays, but first, I had to give my New Year’s Resolution the benefit of a solid try. I climbed aboard the stationary bike. I queued up a continuous hour-long mix of Radio 1 DJ Annie Mac’s favorite dance mixes of 2016, pushed on the pedals and pressed play.

Like most radio shows, Annie Mac’s always begins with this absurdly epic-sounding intro tag that sounds something like several metric tons of machinery whirring to life, stirring all dystopia’s robot farm animals to sound in alarm, before some steampunk-clad half-cyborg hypeman shouts, stretching out each lurid syllable like a rubber band, “it’s DEEEEEEJAAAAAAAYYYYYYEEE AANNNIEEEEEEEEEEEEEE MAC!!!!” He lets the elastic go on her last name, and it snaps back at the machine, cracking it wide open and triggering an H-bomb detonation, and the explosion tears through your head and every single piece of shrapnel smacks you right upside your face.

Silence. The dust settles.

“RAVING IS A STATE OF MIND,” she declares triumphantly.

An air-raid siren klaxon sounds, and the first song of her set begins to play, usually ushered in by sledgehammering banger beats.

I pedaled in place half-asleep to 140 blistering beats per minute. My head and my hair and my spirit all shuffled from side to side over my middling pedaling. I rolled my head around my neck in an attempt relieve the tension from my fitful night’s sleep prior. My bedhead hair, too long after going months without a trim, fell any which way it pleased and felt as if bobbing in opposition to all else my body did. I begin to reckon with myself over the start of the new year.

I recall the day prior, our dear friend Julie asked me and Brian what we were most looking forward to about 2017. I didn’t really know how to answer; I couldn’t think of any concrete and established happenings on the calendar about which I was jazzed. Instead, I answered by pluckily and resolutely rattling off all that which I (theorized I) would accomplish.

“Gonna finish my solo show! Gonna lose some weight and get fit!! Gonna go on some kind of wonderful vacation somewhere, right!??? London? Paris!!?? Maybe Tokyo??!!! Gonna attend some weddings, because people are getting married this year!!! Yeah they are!! HAPPINESS THRIVES! Gonna resist dumpster Trump!! #StillWithHer!!! You know me! The Future is Female!! Yeah!!!! Gonna protest, gonna call my reps, gonna win a governorship in a red state!! Game, set, match, America! Ciszewski ’17!! #Gayvenor17!! How’s that? Cute, right? Going for Kawaii here!!! The Kawaii Kid. No??! Whatever, I’ll have my interns come up with something while I’m working on stump speeches and putting the finishing touches on that aforementioned solo show. Gonna be a big year! Leggo, ’17!!!!!!”

SMASH CUT to me a mere fifteen hours later, a light sweat on my brow as I sluggishly pedal the stationary bike towards all the brilliant successes promised in the year that sprawls ahead before me. The only thing is I’m not moving. This is easily explained; I am on a stationary bike. Of course I am not literally going anywhere. (Haven’t you seen Ariana Grande’s “Side to Side” video? It’s pretty much just like that.) However, furthermore, and in the abstract, I am not sure I am ready, or prepared, or even strong enough for what lies ahead.

The year prior did not quite turn out as expected; for all its highs, 2016’s lows scraped and clawed around assorted ever-bottomless pits more painfully than I could sense as it happened.

In April, my grandmother passed away at the age of eighty following a battle with heart disease, organ failure, and diabetes.

I grew up with my grandmother. When I was a boy, and my mother had to work into the evenings, I would stay with my Yiayia. We would fight over jurisdiction of the remote control — she wanted to watch CNN, I wanted Nickelodeon. More often than not, she won, and we watched together, her sitting in the recliner underneath the second-floor fire escape window that looked out to the raucous, brownstone-trimmed Jersey City, NJ streets below, and me, laying in youth’s languid repose, on the daybed beside her. She cooked for me — “giant bean soup,” my name for her signature garbanzo bean soup — and disciplined me sternly when I acted out, as is my wont. She once called me a “bully fat,” for in Greek, her mother tongue, adjectives follow the noun they qualify, and I was being an unrelenting little shit smart-ass about something stupid.

She was incredibly tough and very bright. She survived the triple occupation of Greece by the Axis powers in World War II, emigrated to the United States with my grandfather John, and built a sprawling American life. They worked menial jobs through their early years and saved every penny until they could afford something their own. They purchased real estate in Downtown Jersey City and built a little empire in the form of a popular pizzeria/deli they operated on the corner of 8th Street and Coles, adjacent to a public park and a high school. A grand matriarch of our family, she mothered eight children, helped raise several grandchildren, and was a source of unconditional love to her great-grandchildren.

What a life.

My family and I had expected her passing to be around the corner for something like ten years now, but she was so resilient it had become a sort of inside recurring joke for my family that she was continually standing up the Grimme Reaper at every date they made. In that way, we downsized death, normalized its nightmarishness and terminal opacity, and made it something manageable for us: a cosmic banana peel of sorts — Yiayia might slip and fall on it, but it would never break her back. And so when she slipped into declining health before the holidays and through early winter, we felt concern, of course, but looked to history and her habit of bouncing back rather than attempting to clearly see death approach in all its dark indiscernibility.

Time passed, as it does. Our lives moved forward. One early Spring morning, Yiayia found relief in finally attending her long-deferred date with death and faced her mortality. We were shocked from our augmented normalcy, but even then, the loss was not immediately felt. I don’t think we began to understand what my grandmother’s passing meant until our realities, our normal day-to-day goings-on, fully resumed and we were made to feel what life was without her around.

In October, I lost my father to a sudden heart attack.

We had been estranged twelve years, and decided I needed space from him to feel safe and to grow. Twelve years is a long, long time, especially for a young person and especially for a paternal relationship, but it was during that time that I came of age and constituted an adult identity and life — inasmuch embracing and understanding of his absence as I could muster. Three years ago, I reached out to my dad in hopes of reuniting him with his proud, accomplished adult son. We exchanged greetings and attempted plans on a few occasions, but they always slipped through the cracks of our estrangement before they could come to fruition. I had planned on a life I would get to share with my father. I looked forward to the table-turning, the perspective-sharing, the coming-to-terms and meeting-of-minds. I was certain happily ever after lay ahead.

I suppose it is on this kind of inevitable goodness I have built myself a wide-eyed, optimistic romantic.

"Warm me up, and BREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEATHE ME."

"Warm me up, and BREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEATHE ME."

Time passed, as it does. My life moved forward. One warm Wednesday night this past October, I went to see Sia in concert with my partner Brian and my best friend Maya, and had an effervescent evening. Afterwards, while sharing post-show drinks and snacks, I noticed my phone showed notifications of several missed calls and messages, all from sources unknown to me. I thought little of it until my mother messaged to let me know she had gotten the same and was wary of them. I went home and went to sleep, still a bit sweaty from living the concert’s sheer joyousness.

The next morning, I went to work. My mind lingered on the strange missed dispatches from the night prior. Only an hour into my day, my mother got in touch to let me know she needed to speak to me. My heart sank.

I think our instincts for the worst are as finely tuned as any we humans have — like those for survival, but heightened and tuned into our absurd and technicolor meanderings around our lives. They also happen to be, however, the hardest to listen to.

“Mike, I have bad news. Your dad passed away.”

And so I knew he had. My father was en route to Mexico City on a routine business trip when he suffered something like a heart attack mid-flight. Paramedics on the ground were unable to revive him. Word traveled back to his office in South Jersey before eventually making its way to my mother; the missed calls and messages from the night before were, in fact, my father’s Mexican colleagues attempting to reach the next of kin who bears his name.

I thanked my mother for letting me know and told her I needed to go back to my office to let my supervisors know and figure out what would come next for me.

A sort-of professional muscle memory carried me through dazed pleasantries with co-workers as I made my way to my boss’ office. I sat and told her “I just found out my dad passed away.” Speaking it myself was the first moment it felt real, the first moment it hurt, and thusly, the first moment I cried. My boss hugged me and told me to do whatever I needed to do.

I went for a walk by the Boston Harbor and listened to “Joanne” by Lady Gaga. I was hot and overwhelmed, my head foggy. I called Brian. I sent errant texts to people I thought might be around the rest of that day. I didn’t tell them anything, because I could not yet sense my own etiquette about this kind of thing. I just checked in with them to see when they might be around and that was all.

I was sweaty and hungry. I had skipped breakfast that morning. I returned to my office and collected myself; it was easier to don an environmentally appropriate mask than I expected. My co-worker Brittany gave me a sleeve of Lorna Doodles to eat. I sat at my desk and devoured them one-by-one while calmly setting an out-of-office and wrapping up a few tasks.

I left my office quietly. I had planned to meet Brian for lunch in an hour, but first, I ran to the Primark across the street and compulsively bought an entirely new outfit. I left the store in it and walked towards lunch.

We sat outside. I ordered two martinis and a hummus platter and a burger, and I inhaled every molecule.

I took an Uber home to rest, my phone buzzing with conciliatory texts from family as I sped along the riverside Storrow Drive. I responded hastily, warmly, and wholeheartedly, trying to make the support as tangible to me in that moment as I could.

Full of food but hollow in spirit, I napped through the rest of the day upon my return home.

That night, I had rehearsal. The next day, I went grocery shopping.

The following day, I found out I had legal responsibility as my father’s only adult child and had to scramble to print, read, understand, sign, notarize, and fax assorted arrangements for him to be returned north and be cremated.

That night, I drank and I cried. My heart was, and still is, broken.

The following Monday, I returned to work.

I still do not think I fully know what it means to me to have lost my father, the man whose name and genes, humor and stubbornness with which I walk through the world.

On November 8, I woke up buzzing. I put on my running gear and beamed watching footage of Lady Gaga, dressed in Michael Jackson’s 1990 White House visit outfit, shouting at the top of her lungs, “HILLARY CLINTON IS MADE OF STEEL!!!!!” to the mass assembled at the final North Carolina rally of Hillary’s campaign.

I flew down the stairs and out the front door. I ran the sunlit streets of East Somerville to Assembly Row, alongside Orange Line trains rattling along their age-old tracks, and along the sparkling Mystic River. I felt super-powered, and everything in the world unfolding fast as I glided through it glittered with early November chill. I returned, dressed myself, and affixed my large Hillary logo button to my sweater. Brian and I embarked on our regular walk to work through the squares of Camberville. I bounced along the way beside my partner, smiling at strangers, overflowing with energy that flared out from me in exuberant outbursts of historic fun facts about our President-elect to-be.

“She will be the first President from New York!”

“This will be the first time a Democrat has won off the back of a two-term Democratic presidency since 1945!!”

“HILLARY CLINTON IS MADE OF STEEL!!!”

Isn't that a chic little canvas pin!??????

Isn't that a chic little canvas pin!??????

I sent a selfie with my HRC pin to Maya, who attended Clinton’s alma mater Wellesley College. She shot back a photo of her wearing her “The Future is Female” shirt to work. That night, Maya would attend the Election Night celebration at Wellesley; how I itched to join her.

I was fleet-footed around my office that day, feeling light, ascendant towards historic triumph. I could not wait to watch the returns and hear Clinton speak late in the night. I reminisced on Barack Obama’s two election wins and the sensation of paradigm-shifting I felt experiencing history made.

I spoke with my therapist that day about how an election is an opportunity for the dawn of a new era — political and personal. I embraced the tenor of the day I was feeling and sensed I was on the cusp of changes in my life that would lift me out of the dull doldrums of grief I had felt since my dad passed.

That night, as we were watching election coverage, we ordered Mexican food for dinner in silly, slight, delicious protest of the Republican candidate’s absurd campaign obscenities.

We huddled on the couch in front of CNN’s coverage and watched. The passing of time felt excruciatingly slow. Each hour, the sensation grew slower and heavier.

The night took an unbelievable turn and we lost the election. We cried in the morning. We cried watching the concession speech. We cried sharing messages of “I love you,” and “I will protect you,” with friends.

The shock and trauma stretched from late that night through the weeks that followed.

Time passed, as it does. Our lives moved inexorably forward. I still feel as though two timelines grew so close they intersected on the night of November 8, and somehow we got stuck on the wrong one. There is an alternate reality I dream of where progress is happening and the news makes some modicum of sense. Every day, our wrong timeline seems further and further away from that. We cannot yet know what the incoming presidency will ultimately mean for or do to us. We fear, we plan, we work to keep going.

By no means could I wholly equate the loss of an election to the losses of my father and grandmother, but the three events shared an overwhelming and defeating sense of loss of hope for me.

Time will pass, as it does, and grief and mourning will stretch on alongside me as I await the inevitable goodness on which I have built myself a wide-eyed, optimistic romantic.

Early this December, in the midst of a panic attack exacerbated by the hereditary hypochondria I inherited from my R.N. mother, I dramatically confessed to Brian, “after the passings of my grandmother and my father, I feel haunted by the spectre of death.”

(I don’t just write this way; I talk it in my most raw moments, too.)

Like Election Day, the beginning of a new year is an opportunity for the dawn of a new era, and this year I had no choice but to seize it.

Through the early winter, I spent weeks wracked with an anxiety that was the cumulative sum of all the year’s stresses and losses and defeats. I needed to make this one better through work and perseverance and actualization. My resolutions feel less like whims or fancies and more like vital course-corrections. I have to act to make the inevitable goodness of my wild and willfully untamed optimism bias my reality.

Perhaps I cannot say, “I’m most looking forward to (INSERT SPECIFIC AND ANTICIPATED LARGE LIFE EVENT HERE” that I know is coming in (MONTH) 2017,” but I can say I’m most looking forward to living in consistent and proactive actualization.

Enshrouded in early morning dusk, I pedal in place in the corner of the living room. I make an effort. My heart rate increases and plateaus. My shoulders eventually loosen. I relax into the gentle, consistent repetition of the exercise, of the movement, and of the music. My consciousness dances itself free of the last loose threads of last night’s sleep, and I think about what is to come for me and my human machine.

“RAVING IS A STATE OF MIND,” Annie reminds me.

I am not a cynic. It is. I listen. I meditate. I rave. I pedal. (Therefore, I am!!!!!)

My heart beats in sync with the four on the floor house music. The bike is stationary and I may not yet be moving, but the sun is coming up outside and I am waking up. I am in motion. I may not yet know if I am ready to move, but soon I must. And I will.

And I do.

Everyone is Dying and So Am I

Michael John Ciszewski

Back in August, I suffered a pretty miserable panic attack. I didn’t know it was a panic attack until about six hours after the initial symptoms set in. It snuck up on me when I was on my way home from work, at a job that I really, really like but do not love, for no good reason beyond it not being what I believe I was put on this planet to do, or in more tangible and current terms, what I (paid to be) trained to do.

I was on the train, after working my purely delightful nine-to-five, with ingredients for a skinny Shepherd’s Pie for me and my partner, Brian, to cook for dinner. I had rushed on to the train so as to beat the hordes of horribles commuting home, a horde in which I was an inherent member.

A stop after my departure station, I began to feel funny and notice, ‘wow! it is a very hot day here in the city.’ I looked around at the other passengers in my car, all damp and dulled by a whole day’s work, and I thought to myself, ‘wow! this is a very crowded train.’

Upon taking in how crowded my underground subway car was, I began to feel how close all my fellow passengers were to me. I was listening — hilariously enough — to “Do You Wanna Come Over,” a track from Britney Spears’ latest (honestly triumphant) album of original music Glory. It features — nay, relies on — a driving four-on-the-floor house beat over which Britney intones, “whatever you want, whatever you need — uh huh — do you wanna come over?!” My train sped into its century-old Boston subway tunnel abyss.

I felt myself begin to sweat, and not in the good, natural, young-gay-listening-to-new-Britney way.

‘Wow! It is very hot in here! And not in the good, natural, we’re-all-excited-about-new-Britney way! Not even in the hottest-day-of-the-summer way! It is hot as hell in here!’

Funny thing about hell is that we’re told it’s one of the two menu items available when our name finally gets called for a table at Ristorante Death.

My mind began to race and my heartbeat picked up speed, racing well past the standard 120 beats-per-minute of the Britney track. I turned my music off and began to exercise some deep breathing techniques I picked up in my undergraduate training to be the actor artiste I call myself today.

It did not help. Two stops from my departure, I began to sense something was wrong when my head went light and the screeching sound of our train pulling itself along its antiquated tracks wasn’t the only pain I felt.

The doors slammed shut and everyone sweat some more. I shifted my weight from side-to-side, thinking some kind of movement, some minor inspiration towards blood-flow, would keep me… alive!? Had the stakes grown that high!? I looked around the subway car as my head went light and the train sped through the abyss thinking to myself, ‘wow! to whom should I reach out and what should I tell them about the confusing and frightening physical state in which I find myself?’

I narrowed the list to right-side-Spotify-scroller and left-side-Angry-Birds’er before deciding both were confoundingly unqualified for the job.

We screeched into our final underground station and I knew if I didn’t clamber off the train at this limited opportunity that I would keel over, stop breathing, start seizing and stroke’ing and die. I knew this as my most insane but deeply felt truth.

I pushed past right-side-Spotify-scroller and left-side-Angry-Birds’er and everyone else and out the metal tube death-trap onto the platform where my knees nearly buckled. I mustered strength and tried calling Brian from my phone. He, too, was on his way home (to make the skinny Shepherd’s Pie, of course), so no answer.

I lumbered up the station stairs into the blinding summer sun light and suffocating August humidity. I thought, ‘some water would really do the trick, huh!?’ and fought all heat and weakness to the CVS right outside the station doors.

Brian called back as I slipped into the clinically air-conditioned convenience-store.

“Where are you?”

“I don’t feel well; I got off the T at North Station. Meet me at the CVS there, please?”

He’d be right there, of course.

In my craze, I grabbed the most accessible, sensible thirst-quencher I could locate… A liter of Poland Spring??! No! A two-liter bottle of CVS-brand, ‘EverydayBasics’ water!?!? Fuck that noise, I can do better! I seized not one but two moderately sized bottles of Evian water! What could be a better cure!!

I slapped my way through the automated self-checkout and pulled the photo-station-stool out from the photo-station, unbuttoned my shirt and pants, and began guzzling water direct from the French alps. I opened my texts to Brian and let him know where I was before pulling up his contact with phone number. I rested it on the counter-top beside me in case I keeled over and someone cared to get involved. I was prepared!

A store attendant came to see me and asked how I was.

“Overheated, but someone’s coming for me, thanks!” I shouted at the top of my lungs, dying big-time.

I thought I was surely having a stroke. I began feeling the left side of my face for droopage™ and stretching my arms out before me to compare length in case the left began shrinking to the proportions of A StrokeArm™. My heart was going bananas at the prospect; my left arm shivering with astonishment; my head aching especially in its all-important-Left™ with confusion — what is happening to me? I was convinced this was it and I was 100% having a stroke.

Brian showed up and started to talk sense to me. I blared back, “I’m DYING!???”

“Do you need to go to the hospital?”

“I DON’T KNOW!!!!!”

“Okay — do you have anything to eat in that bag?”

“Ingredients for the skinny Shepherd’s Pie we’re going to make.”

“Anything to snack on?”

“Celery.”

“Okay, if we’re going to the hospital, I’m going to get us some snacks.”

“AhhhhhhhH!HHHH!!!!!”

“Do you need more water?”

I grabbed a handful of Evian. We checked out.

“Do you want to go to the hospital??”

“I guess we should go there… How far is it?”

“MGH is not far; I can get us an Uber.”

“No, let’s walk! Let’s walk; maybe I can walk this off.”

And so I thrust my work-bag and bag-of-groceries into Brian’s hands and led us marching into the hottest, most humid day of the summer, having a stroke on our way to the hospital!

We tripped the light fantastic through downtown Boston as I recalled all the different minute developments of my day to maintain a sense of normalcy before realizing and exclaiming, “You KNOW! I ran out of my favorite kind of underwear today and had to wear really tight undies so maybe my balls are very constricted and therefore making me feel this way!!”

Brian smiled through the three tons of nonsense he was carrying/dealing-with/surviving.

We strolled up to Mass General Hospital’s lobby doors.

“I just want to get more to drink and walk a bit more! I’m feeling a little better!!

We went into the nearest CVS where I grabbed a Gatorade and a water and made Brian stand in line for me while I did a few time-steps around the store before strolling up to the the cashier when our time arrived to tell her I was going to die in the time it took the chip-reader to process my debit card payment.

“I just want to walk a bit more!! I’m feeling a little better!”

Can I sit down?”

“O K!! Where?! How about the J.P. Licks (famous New England Ice Creamery) across the street!?”

“I don’t know…“

“Then we can keep walki — “

“J.P. Licks it is!”

Me, to death: “Ok but first!? Let me take a #selfie!”

Me, to death: “Ok but first!? Let me take a #selfie!”

Hungry (exhausted) Brian wanted ice cream, so I did, too. We sat by the window, where I took a spoonful into my mouth before pushing it aside and calling it, “just too much for me to handle right now.”

“Do you want to call your mother, the brilliant and highly qualified Registered Nurse who bore you?”

“No!! Quiet with that nonsense!!! Let me writhe in the foyer of this public Ice Cream establishment and tell you the many ways in which I am presently perishing!” I suggested an alternative to my loving partner.

After we couldn’t stay there much longer, Brian asked me if I wanted — now — to go to the hospital.

“I just want to walk a bit more!! I’m feeling a little better!”

I could tell, at this point, that if I was not dying, Brian was going to kill me in front of J.P. Lick’s in Beacon Hill.

“One block and I’ll be good to call an Uber back home!”

I kept my word and back we went, myself shvitzing in the backseat the entire way, watching my twilight hours pass in the city twilight out the window.

We got back to the house, and for the next hour, I sat on the couch shouting excerpts from Death’s User Manual to Brian, who was trying to make me some sustenance in the kitchen. He thought — the undeniable fool he is — that might be a good idea. ‘The dead don’t need food!!!!!!!’ I reckoned.

The sun set and I got real bad. Brian put the cooking on hold and held my head in his hand, wringing a cold cloth onto my forehead, as I recited the alphabet forewards and backwards to prove my presence in the World of the Living. My phone rang. It was my mother.

“Pick. Up.” Brian trilled, bird-like, while wringing life-preserving droplets of cool water onto my already-drying corpse.

Early-onset rigor-mortis wrestled my phone to my ear and slid the ‘answer call’ key open.

“Hi Mike, how are you?”

“Okay, mom. Not feeling too well.” Ecstatic with my honesty, Brian performed a complicated series of gymnastic moves around the living room.

“What’s wrong honey?”

“Well, I think I’m having a stroke. I was on the train after work and everything became tight and started spinning and everything got hot and everyone got awful and my chest started pounding, I got heart palpitations and my left side started hurting all over and I got lightheaded and nearly passed out and thought my tight underwear might’ve had something to do with it and maybe I needed to go to the hospital but now I just think I’m dying even though nothing is happening with my face and my arms are the same length but the pain won’t stop and I am scared and sad and confused but boy isn’t Brian the best?!?!?!!!!!!!????”

“Honey you’re not having a stroke.”

“You’re actually insane.”

“Honey you’re not having a stroke.”

“I love you but you need to be committed.”

“Honey you’re not having a stroke.”

“I know you are but what am I???!”

Over a delicate twenty minute FaceTime call nothing like the above dialogue, Sophie talked me down from the ledge and convinced me to subscribe to the sensible notion that the physical sensations I was experiencing were not a stroke but, rather, a full-blown and terrible panic attack exacerbated by exhaustion, overheating, and a hangover.

Brian went back to the kitchen as Sophie prescribed Aspirin, carbs, and rest.

I puttered around the apartment, recovering a normal heart rate and weeping openly at them both with gratitude for their unfettered devotion and care, for their rescuing me from the clutches of the Grimme Reaper herself, for their loving me in my momentary break from all reality.

Brian made us some food—skinny Shepherd’s Pie—I inhaled in one breath before weeping some more at him in the next — about everything from my undergraduate training as an actor to our fizzy and delightful romance.

“Can we go to bed?” he impartially suggested the next of the evening’s events with his eyes closed.

“Okay but I am going to sit up or I might die in my sleep!”

We woke up the next morning — Brian, exhausted, and me, still alive.

I started seeing a therapist. We went on vacation. Life went on, thank God.


Last Sunday, we went to see La La Land. It is a Good Movie about some white people who want to make art but fall in love and it’s tough so they sing and dance but still have a difficult time with it.

Midway through, I started to think, ‘well, I’m going to die watching Emma Stone sing her way through a crap audition for a shot-in-the-dark impossible fantasy project that would never exist in a million years because the world isn’t a fairy tale and no one could date a man who looks like Ryan Gosling!’

Brian blinked beside me.

‘I am going to die with a belly full of Italian food watching Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling fight about making art — I should be making art, I’m not making art, I’m making money and spending it filling my belly with Italian food and watching Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling sing and dance — I should be singing and dancing, I’m not singing and dancing, I’m dying in this movie theatre next to my beloved with a belly full of Italian food watching Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling — I should be Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling,’ so on and so forth.

“Hey I’m feeling anxious™ and claustrophobic™, so I’m going to go get some water; I’ll be right back,” I shouted into Brian’s small ear in the packed evening showing of the Oscar-buzzed movie of the season.

“I’m going to be famous!!” Emma Stone farted.

My heart began pounding in my Ariana Grande sweatshirt.

I wet my whistle and did a jig in the lobby — ‘I’m a real boy!’ — before scurrying across the front of the theatre in my Ariana Grande sweatshirt, my whole body quaking with some kind of deathly fever within, all the way back to my seat. I can only imagine I was more interesting than the classic cinema revivalism onscreen.

“Are you okay?” Brian whispered to me.

“I’m going to die but yes, quite!” I bellowed, blowing him three seats away from me. He picked himself up off the floor and returned to his seat next to me. I writhed through the last twenty minutes of the picture, escaping the clumsy throes of the Grimme Reaper herself before the credits rolled and I sprinted out of that dark, butter-scented deathtrap humming Justin Hurwitz’ unforgettable score!

We traipsed through the cool winter air back to the house, Brian calming me down, me demanding final rites and declaring burial wishes.

“God, I just don’t know what’s happening to me!” I intoned, monk-like, hoping to combine prayer and plea for understanding.

We slipped into the apartment, and I stripped myself of my clothes before running laps around each open space several dozen times and demanding Brian assign me tasks to keep me alive through this latest hurdle set by my mortality.

“Wrap this gift!”

“LIKE MY LIFE DEPENDS ON IT LOL!”

“Put the cushion covers on the couch!”

“BEFORE IT KILLS ME HA HA!”

Finally, and much sooner than last time, we spoke the truth to each other as I zipped the grey Ikea cushion cover around its innards: “this is another panic attack.”

I confessed, “since my dad passed and my grandma passed and Hillary lost the election and Trump began a nuclear arms race and Emma Stone can’t make it as an actor and my belly full of Italian food began giving me indigestion and we turned our clocks back for winter, I have been haunted by a spectre of death and I fear my heredity and vulnerability as a being on this Earth will catch up to me and I will die.”

“I know,” Brian said.

“We can go to sleep.”

We hugged and kissed and I fell asleep sitting up.

The next day, I went to my nine-to-five an hour late and told my boss. “Couldn’t get out of your own way, huh?”

No, I guess not.


I feel wracked sometimes. There is so much death and sadness in the world, but all I want to do is enact the charge of the sign hanging in my mother’s kitchen reading, “live • laugh • love.”

I am so tired of feeling disappointed by the way lives seem to go — fun little roller coasters with a break in the tracks no one anticipated, fatally tossing the riders to their untimely and gruesome deaths. Or, worse, even — fun little roller coasters with a break in the tracks we all knew was coming but just couldn’t fix. Or, worse, still — miserable shitty roller coasters with a break anticipated or unanticipated — what does it matter?

There is death and it is sad and this is the closest to nihilism I ever want to be.

I am tired of my chest hurting and thinking I’m moments from death. I am tired of getting a headache and wondering if it is too late for me to leave an indelible mark on this beautiful big blue rock in the stars we call home. I am tired of a muscle spasm sounding a false alarm in my sentimentality sector to begin cataloguing last moments shared with loved ones.

I am tired of getting old and getting closer to an inevitable death.

I am made weary by those around me doing the same.

I am made sick by those I know, or love, or know and love, falling in surrender to an inevitable death, as we are just designed to do.


A few days ago, Brian and I arrived to the hotel at which we’d spend a night in New York City over our winter holiday break from work. We were surprised to find the sixth-floor room had a beautiful terrace overlooking the Brooklyn Bridge. Life is beautiful; the world is beautiful.

We were sad, having just read news of the untimely passing of the beloved and inimitable Carrie Fisher on our car-ride into Manhattan.

We discussed how brightly she shone and how freely she lived throughout her time with us on this planet.

I resolved to discuss and disclose my fear of death and any and all challenges I experience with anxiety or mental and emotional health.

I want to find my own place among freedom and fancy, like Carrie who left us at fifty-three, and health and happiness, like my grandmother who passed at the age of eighty. I want to shine my own light on this Earth before I gain my place in the night sky’s stars above.

I want to do that and all it entails in all time it demands; I want to live in continuous joy and creation before I rest in peace, and may my mortal fear light my fire to illuminate the path ahead, onward, and upward.

Moonlight

Michael John Ciszewski

When the sun goes down, we tell stories; here are five shorts to get to sunrise.

1.

There’s a magic about the middle of the night, isn’t there?

No matter how you cut it, something transformative occurs when all the color in the world conspires to sink the sun, triggering the great cosmic pulley system that hoists the moon high above us all, its immersive glow luminous and transformative, its silver beams bouncing off its neighbor stars on their journey down to us — so much smaller and more numerous and flickering than all the stars we could possibly see.

We twinkle and refract the light, glistening in the night — doing our best mimic of the cool and the mystery of the heavens.

Every night, I think I must be on the road, driving down some archetypal highway with the dashed white center line speedily billowing out beneath and behind me like a the train of a great big wedding gown as I charge forwards powered by the sheer momentum of certainty. I let the windows down to sense the speed, to at very least give myself a chance to comprehend my own quickness and how superhuman it is.

The sharp, cool wind hits me square in the face… and yet I remain unmoved from the intoxicating inertia of my rush forward!

I turn the music up and my face hardens at the swift wind outside. My knuckles curl and tighten, white around the steering wheel. I am all motion. My present moment is the future I rush towards in cold blood.

2.

All was dead quiet in the house when I woke up. Or — well — when I opened my eyes. I never knew I fell asleep in the first place.

I felt a creep in the room — something behind me, some indefinable force of creepiness sneaking up on me to… to… tickle the back of my neck and make me scream, or pinch my butt and not in the good way. I feared a fright behind me, and so I collected my thoughts and coiled my dread tight. And 3… 2… 1!!! I threw myself over myself to look behind me, my eyes wide and keen to catch the big bad spooky creep committing its heinous midnight crime behind my back!

But there was nothing. Not even the familiar red LED glow of the alarm clock that lives on my bedside table. It was just dark. It was so, so dark.

I felt not fear, but an emptiness in its place. I stretched out my hand from under my crisp, cool bed sheet and walked my fingertips across my bedside table — still there! — to where I remembered my alarm clock to be.

Aha! It’s there! Dusty, but that’s to be expected the way I clean, and more than that, it’s still there in all this dark! The emptiness in me filled with certainty as warm and silky as my most favorite bedspread at the end of a long and challenging day. I reckoned the clock’s plug must’ve somehow gotten yanked out of its wall outlet, so I picked up my little bedside alarm clock to pull it towards me, my left hand repelling down the length of the power cord.

I heard the tap-tap-scrape of the plugs two prongs on my bedroom’s hardwood floor — but strikingly distant and surprisingly sharp.

I pulled and pulled on the power cord, the tap-tap-scrape growing no closer, no louder, no friendlier as I drew the cord out from under my bed. My reaches grew wider and more determined, vigorous and unrelenting, and the emptiness returned to captain my certainty.

I pulled and pulled and pulled and pulled and pulled and pulled and pulled until finally my already-tired frame reached the point of physical exhaustion and I collapsed into to my pillow in defeat.

Just then, an all-too familiar, all-too near tap on the wooden leg of my bedside table and an all-too gentle scrape on the hardwood floor beneath me.

I regained life! The emptiness that had rendered me steely and resolute thawed to tickle my heart with the hope of ending my terrible nighttime task! With one generous reach of my right arm across my body to finally wrest the power cord from the abyss, I retracted the plug from my side like unbuckling a gigantic seatbelt.

And there it was! Lying on my chest, I could discern in the darkness the cool edges of the plug’s metal prongs.

I closed my eyes and sighed, relief!

— but no sound came out of me.

My eyes sprang open and the two glistening metal prongs were gone from my sight.

With aching awareness of my over-tired muscles, I drew my hand to my chest and felt the rubber of the plug. I walked my fingers towards the plug — the emptiness in place of fear deeper than it had been all night — and found it.

And over the edge of the plug, something else.

Something soft, something alien, something alive. Holding on.

My entire body froze with chills when we made contact.

Time stopped — really stopped, not just ‘pulled the plug out the outlet’ stopped, but dropped dead in its steady march forwards.

The Darkness itself became somehow more impenetrable than it ever seemed before. I saw nothing and felt only the chilly cocoon of fear in which I had suddenly been mummified alive.

The two coagulated to form an infinite pitch blackness, a never-ending, void, that stretched over me, scooped me up in its arms, and engulfed me — and my bed and my room and my town and friends and family and silly little life — whole.

And I fell.

I fell for what must have been an infinity or an eternity, whichever is longer and more excruciating. I felt nothing besides certainty that this would never stop, and there was no part of me, rational or otherwise, that believed this would ever end…

Halfway through this eternity — what is half an eternity — I realized: the emptiness was gone — the emptiness in place of fear. It had disappeared along with everything else when I was swallowed up by the Darkness.

And I smiled. Or, at least, I think I did. I couldn’t be certain in this particularly formless context.

I smiled, comforted.

And I kept falling. And I keep falling.

I tumble freely, falling down the Darkness’ obsidian trap towards God knows what. And I smile.

Here goes nothing.

3.

Just when I think I’ll be moving forever, you put your hand on the back of my neck and everything melts.

Isn’t that where lionesses bite their cubs to indicate familial bond?

Or… Isn’t that where dog owners are supposed to grab their beloved pets to encourage cross-species accord?

…it’s something like that — something like ‘cross-species accord,’ I’m sure.

Maybe it’s chemical or psychological or something I don’t need to understand all that well because it feels so good and it feels so right.

You put your hand on the back of my neck and I just thaw. Your hot touch warms each and every molecule in my flesh immediately upon contact and I melt to a puddle, contained only by the shadow of the space I’m supposed to occupy.

More and more, I’m convinced that space is the palm of your hand.

You need not do anything with it, you need not use it. You just touch me and I am moved.

My time lapse life halts to slow motion so languid we can taste the details:

  • Your hand, salty and rough like the beach we sat on all day.
  • The back of my neck, clammy cool with the chill of a metallic midnight drive.
  • The pads of your fingertips, your touch — spiced and pink and perfect.
  • The hair on the back of my neck — standing at attention, the strongest military force in the great big beautiful world we’ve built together, each soldier licked tart with hair product.

I may be moving sixty miles an hour, but my heart skips a beat — my quartz clock forgets to tick — when you put your hand on the back of my neck.

…I zoom down the highway, the cool night cutting age-lines into my young face; I rush, all haste and expenditure for the sake of activity. Look busy, God’s watching.

Right? Or someone else. Either way, it’s always someone. Someone is always perched on high ready to snipe another criticism at the innocent frivolity of youth and so we try our damnedest to hustle and sweat our way through the tough spots until we’re squeaky clean and streamlined, automated and mechanized to perfection, beta-tested and focus-group’ed and ready for market. And then we’re no longer fresh, we’re merely ripe. And prying eyes wish to ogle. Groping hands wish to squeeze the fruits of our sweet dreams’ sincerity to tart, tasty juice to rejuvenate their dry cotton mouths for a few fleeting moments.

But this story is not about them. In fact, they can be written right out. Because what can they see, what can they taste, what can they do when this world, this moment exists between just me and you?

And I will live here as long as I can afford.

4.

I moved quickly, chasing myself home.

I don’t think I actually wanted to walk back to my hotel from the river, but I did anyways. It was a gorgeous night, and I had just passed through Piccadilly Circus. I knew my way back well and I had traveled it many, many times before. I was staying at a hotel in the very neighborhood in which I lived when I spent several months abroad a few years ago. It would only be about a half hour from here, and what was I rushing back to? A bottle of wine, some poorly synchronized texts and calls back home, and a repeat of the Beyoncé music video marathon I had watched on 4music the night before?

I would enjoy my favorite city, really drink it in as much as I could while it was once again — briefly — in my possession.

Each of my steps fell to the well-trodden and storied sidewalk in my weathered black leather shoes with authority. My dance tonight would make me known to the city, my weekend amour. It rode the rhythm hard, sinking into its deepest grooves until we had become one.

The sly British summer breeze melded us together, smoothing our edges down to something sleek and sexy. It fashioned between us a sort of lock and seal, almost sinister in its inextricability. I was trapped and happy, comfortable in the sort of manic martyrdom I feel drunk dancing with a beautiful stranger well past my bedtime.

I slid past the massive Piccadilly Waterstones bookstore and past a bus stop when I tripped.

Everything seemed to slow and the night revealed to me a figure walking out of step with the rest of the city. He moved in the opposite direction, towards me, towards the center of the city. He resembled a ghost, gaunt and indistinct in feature, but clearly, deeply, and eerily purposed for something only he knew.

My heartbeat slowed with my internal rhythm and I saw him make contact with each of the Britons with which I moved in lockstep out of the city center. Finally, he found my eyes and raised a single finger to his thin lips. He mimed a hush.

I was torn from my music. My partner had deceived me, my secure trap was compromised.

The romance evaporated and I watched this man sneak up behind an older woman and slowly, deliberately bend himself nearer to the ground to collect all of the shopping bags — full of groceries and other goods — around her feet.

I remember this occurring in crystalline silence, like the city itself has been plunged underwater and all I could do was float, suspended, and watch through bleary, stinging eyes while this man, a creature in mid-dive, enshrined by the dark and the deep, expertly and viciously carried out what felt to me like a devastating catch.

The woman from whom he stole had no idea — her eyes remained trained on where the street disappeared, searching for her bus home.

The man flashed a wide, toothy smile for any and all onlookers — a dastardly proclamation of pride intended for all, but spoken in a language not one of us could understand. He carved his way through the immediate crowd of fellow passerbys, all of us seemingly sinking in quicksand while he simply evaporated from the event itself with belongings in hand. We stuck shared this moment, our darting eye glances at one another desperately attempting to seek translation, transcendence to no avail.

I muscled my head to turn over my shoulder to look back at the same busy street corner from which the robbed woman sought her transport home. I could make out the faint outline of this evening’s vaporous villain as he disappeared into the bright and effervescent periwinkle Piccadilly Circus evening. Like that, he was gone.

And time itself swung back into motion, crashing into me. I was inexplicably panicked. Alone away from home and unsettled, I felt voiceless. I wanted to help. I wanted to alert the woman. I wanted to rally my fellow onlookers to action. And I did nothing, paralyzed in an alien fear mid-step.

So, too, seemed those around me — natives, I assumed, whose myriad thoughts on what to do clogged the works, too many to translate to decisive action. Or perhaps they’d witnessed much of the same countless times prior.

Perhaps I was being too sensitive. Perhaps I needed to just chuckle at the misfortune of it all, the woeful way of the world, and continue my walk to my cozy hotel room, but I could not. I could not shake an ever-deepening sense of guilt that I had witnessed a crime and chosen silence instead of action. And in doing so in that fractal moment, I became an accomplice to theft.

We dispersed and moved forward. The moment had passed. I was dancing solo again, hastily attempting to recover from my missteps and gracefully dismiss my lost partner.

I caught eyes with a woman with whom I shared a few more paces. I thinned my lips and pursed my cheeks in a poor excuse for acknowledged helplessness. Her green eyes lit up beneath thick raised eyebrows and she smiled at me through evening’s shadow. In retrospect, it was so sweet and so generous. She lent me some of her light and my eyes, accustomed to the dusk, resisted. I turned and continued on. Her kind comfort felt wrong to me. I began to devise permutations of the same scenario in my head, ultimately laughing off each as implausible.

I grappled with this to a quickening pace home. Why did inaction seem the wisest course of action? Ignorance is bliss, sure, but such bliss is temporal at best — a house of cards we leave unplayed, ready to fall over at our next exhalation confirming we are alive and breathing and terribly confused while we try to do our best.

Several blocks before I reached my hotel, I passed a woman asking for spare change, and I gave her a few pounds I had left over after my day about town. I felt rotten about the night — rotten and alone — and something feeble in me thought this might contribute some positive equilibrium to the karmic balance of the universe… or something.

Up the elevator at the Kensington Holiday Inn to my room with two double beds, I heard voices of criticism call out to me about all the things I should have done instead of the nothing I did.

I crawled into bed with a bottle of wine, some poorly synchronized texts and calls back home, and a repeat of the Beyoncé music video marathon I had watched on 4music the night before.

I thought of this evening’s partner, the ghost, resolute that we grow and change, for better or worse, with all we encounter. There is a delightful, masterful grace to slipperiness, but at this moment, I was happy to be off the dance floor and in my bed with my comforts. I had slipped away from home for a long weekend in London, and I felt a bit unmoored.

Perhaps the karmic balance to which I aspired was more an acknowledgement that one must spend as much time dancing through city streets as they do at rest.

I finished the bottle of red, turned the volume down on “Drunk in Love,” and turned over to dreams of partners more lasting, more graceful, more grateful than my partner, the ghost.

5.

‘I had a nightmare.’

I wake up in the middle of the night because I’ve had another dream about the end of the world.

‘I had a nightmare,’ I tell you…

I think the sky was falling again. I think I was on the beach with all my best friends playing beach volleyball, which none of us ever do. And the sky was rife with flying objects — kites and airplanes and seaplanes probably and also remote controlled flying toys and frisbees (many of those) and pollen.

I’ve been to this beach before.

Last time I was here, I had come after a night at a party with a man I thought I knew very well. He and I sat on the beach and made all the Right Faces at each other. They looked like this —

:) :D xD ;P :O :| :) :) :* :*

so on and so forth, as defined in The Big Book of Flirting, volume 2: gay people, chapter 4: Faces for Dream Beach Days.

I looked at him in his squinty face and said something about having children because on the dream-night prior, I had found an infant in a car-seat in the middle of the floor at a party he had thrown. All his friends trusted I would know what to do, but all I knew to do was make another martini, and so I sat on the couch and stared at the child while everyone else danced to the Lorde album.

The next dream-day, I mentioned the child to him in between volleys at the beach and he laughed it off. We didn’t talk about the party-baby. This was a shame for many reasons, chief among them that I think it would’ve been a fun conversation and I was left with many unanswered questions such as:

  • Where did it come from?
  • What was it doing at this party?
  • Who brought it?
  • Why was it in a car seat?
  • Was it going somewhere?
  • How did it make its way to the center of the party?
  • Why had no one noticed it?
  • Was it having a good time?
  • Etc.

We fell silent and watched the ball bounce back and forth.

That was when I mentioned having children and the things began falling from the sky. First and fast were the kites that dove down into dunes the whole beach over. Then, helicopters one by one, tearing spirals through the shore. Understandably, this was also when the frisbees and flying toys fell, their flingers and controllers fleeing the scene. And finally, the planes and the seaplanes rushed into the earth themselves — sand and smoke and chaos everywhere I could see.

Everyone had left but us. We sat and watched the sky fall, the active and seemingly senseless destruction happening feet from our beach towel.

The smoke grew thicker and darker, and I woke up, scared and alone, and I quietly worried myself sick for years until I forgot.

And that was the last time I had been to this beach where the sky falls and the world ends… before tonight, that is.

‘I had a nightmare,’ I tell you.

I wake up, scared and beside you, and I tell you.

You quiet me and put your hand on the back of my neck and my heart rate relaxes, my consciousness realigning with reality.

I tell you about the nightmare.

This time, I was on the beach with all my best friends, once again playing beach volleyball. I suppose this is something we do, just only in my dreams. The sky was rife with its flying objects.

And you were there. The night prior we had robbed a bank with Ariana Grande, wearing the black latex bunny mask from her “Dangerous Woman” album art — we all were, that is. It was a surprisingly easy feat and a really good time. The three of us had a few drinks and shared whispered fantasies of our wealthy lives just around the corner. We picked the lock at the front door and walked right in. It was empty and quiet. Banks, you have to admit, are no longer the gleaming palatial fortresses they used to be. A few more doors, a few more bobby-pin-picked-locks, and we were face-to-face with the safe, drunk with excitement, ready for the piece-de-resistance of our scheme. To crack the safe, Ariana hit the sweetest, highest head voice open vowel imaginable. The gears lept to action, dancing with each other to her singular and pure dulcet tone. Like the global music-buying public time and time again, they were so easily seduced by the pint-size ponytailed pop princess. We were in! We tip toed and shimmied into the vault — its walls floor to ceiling shelves replete with stacks of cash. We had brought with us Santa-sized sacks for our respective hauls, which we now filled with patience and ease. It was an easy robbery, really. At one point, I took a pause, so delighted with our experience, and looked up at my two partners in crime: how lucky I was to have these two with which I could commit high crime. And we were going to get away with it, too! We left the bank an hour or so later, our operation entirely uncompromised and wholly successful, and walked the streets of our city with our sacks of cash flung over our shoulders until we found a bar. There was an open mic. Ariana seized it and sang us into the night as we ordered rounds and rounds of drinks for the whole establishment on us.

And the next day, the beach. We were celebrating, obviously. Ariana had just hit a mean spike.

I think there were fewer seaplanes this time, but, as I suppose I could’ve expected, that didn’t keep the kites from tumbling to the ground, triggering the reckless ballet of crashing copters and jets.

Ariana flitted past us to safety, shouting, ‘the sky is falling!! The sky is falling!! We have to get out of here!!’

I looked to you and you smiled at me, your wide open eyes shining through the smog.

What is this? I thought. What is this face he is making? I rebuked him. What was this face he was making at me and how was it appropriate to this mad moment on the beach? My panic grew. I reached for my copy of The Big Book of Flirting, but GOD DAMMIT I did not bring it with me to the beach that day!! The only reference material I had in my beach bag was the piano & voice sheet music book for Ariana Grande’s chart-topping album Dangerous Woman… Rife with answers? Yes! But none that would illuminate this strange face you had made at me with your eyes and your teeth.

Another plane fell to into the crashing waves that washed ashore and, like a cloud parting, let the sun light up your bright and open face even more than before.

Ack! I stared, distressed. But you kept making it!!! A seaplane fell and it grew brighter. A private plane tumbled to the ground and it looked its brightest yet. I couldn’t help but stare and stare and stare… and as the sky cleared itself and the sun shone brighter down on your weird face, it began to make sense to me. I began to understand it and how it worked and how you made it.

And so I made it back at you. And we made this stupid, strange, and indescribable face at each other as the sky fell, the madness happening all around us. We did this for a very, very long time — a time longer than I know how to count.

Finally, the smoke grew thicker and darker, obscuring our faces from each other, and that was when I woke up.

‘I had a nightmare,’ I tell you.

I elaborate and tell you more and more. And as you laugh at my recollections and ramblings and rants and assure me all is well, the sun came up — as it does each and every day — and filled the dark of the bedroom.

Goddammit, there it was: my dream (??) or nightmare (!!?!) or fantasy (!!?) come true… that strange and indefinable and all captivating face. Illuminated by the sun climbing higher and higher in the morning sky, it shone directly from the shimmering and sparkly sky blue of your eyes, in this light more infinite and unadulterated, more crystal clear and sublime, more infallible than any beach day sky my sly subconscious could try sabotage.

Thank you for reading! I made an accompanying playlist for you here. xo

(What I Heard in) Berlin

Michael John Ciszewski

Sarah, Teresa, and I were brunching on the River Spree. We sat beneath an umbrella at Cafe Allegretto, a patio restaurant with a view of Museuminsel’s 19th Century Berliner Dom cathedral. Rather like most umbrellas, European or otherwise, ours did not provide adequate shadow coverage to protect the entire melanoma-opposed party that sat beneath. However, it was our first perfect day in Berlin, without a wisp of cloud cover to obscure the spring sun from bearing down upon us, and I was more than happy to work on my tan while I ate my eggs.

We ordered sparkling fruit juice to accompany the meal. I decided on passionfruit! Sarah, meanwhile, had ordered the elderflower variant. What even iselderflower?, I thought, rolling my eyes at her from behind the H&M knock-off Ray Bans I bought back in London, that sounds boring and awful compared to passionfruit! Germany is weird! Sarah is German! Sarah is weird! I mastered the transitive property early in my education and never looked back. I think Sarah tried to tell me something about elderflower, but I was thinking too loud to hear her.

I don’t remember which juice Teresa ordered because she was sitting to my immediate left and I tend to feel more competitive with those sitting opposite me. At this meal, that was Sarah. I would regret my ignorance towards Teresa’s brunchtime experience, but she was on the receiving end of my unnecessary scorn throughout most of Western Europe for better or worse.

After what seemed like a half hour—I have gathered it must be European custom for servers to enjoy a cigarette and espresso following each and every request made of them—our waitress returned with our sparkling fruit juices in delightful little flutes that made them all the more appetizing.Wünderbar! Cheers, everyone.

Being a generous person, Sarah decided to offer me a sip of her mysterious and likely dreadful elderflower juice as she had spent the past five months with me and could most likely sense my reluctant curiosity from behind my bargain shades.

We traded each other our little flutes of soda to sample, and the impossible happened: my ego crumbled much like the Berlin wall had nearly fifteen years ago. I had made the wrong decision. The elderflower sparkling fruit juice was the perfect balance of sweet and refreshing for such an indulgent morning among fabulous friends abroad. Without hesitation, I ordered a second glass of sparkling fruit juice, elderflower, thus overcompensating for my failure with excess—an American’s secret weapon wherever life may take them.

Our conversation sparkled with pleasantries like all the shimmering bubbles in my two flutes of fruit juice. Our meal had come to a close, and after what seemed this time like an hour for our server to return with our check, our collective flight of fancy soared to as-yet-unmatched heights. We three had never been more convinced of the power of brunch. What is life without brunch? A joke, really! I doublefisted sparkling fruit juice. Brunch is forever for friends like us!

We threw some euro at our server and our table was cleared to make room for all the big promises we began making of future stateside brunches. We would take turns hosting each other in our (terrible) Allston, MA apartments! We would experiment with making quiches but make backup pancakes because none of us really know how to cook and pancakes are better anyways! We would each contribute an ingredient for the morning’s highly-alcoholic, somehow-affordable booze! We could even picnic on the Charles! The Charles is just like the Spree if Boston isn’t frozen over and we bring brie and croissants and spreads and close our eyes! Why not?! Much of our once-in-a-lifetime European adventure may not translate back home, but our perfect brunch on the Spree sure could, no?

I don’t know. I am in the middle of the greatest adventure of my life thus far, in the middle of the grand European continent with four of my best friends, and I think we are getting a little carried away with twenty-something ambition. And perhaps that’s natural, considering all we have accomplished this spring.

On a moment to moment, experiential basis, it may not feel like it, but the life we live right now is but a dream. Berlin, most especially, seems a dream. And if the aforementioned brunch episode is any indication, it is a strange one, at that. Our time here oscillates from silly to solemn and back again ad infinitum.

With every explorative step we take, another piece of Berlin constructs itself before our very eyes. How can a city so old, so steeped in the history of the way of the world as we know it, be so new? How can a city that new, so removed from its 20th century tumult, still exist as a city of ruins, all active construction sites and cranes? Is it possible for Berlin to redress its ruins in reverence to all those it’s wronged? Can this city possibly bear its shame with grace?

Our first full day in Berlin starts as a grey one. All five of us, lucky to share a single room at Generator Hostel, are up early for to make a free walking tour of the city. From Brandenburg Tor at Pariser Platz, our tour guide leads us around the Berlin’s historic center. She is an English expatriate with whom I feel instinctively comfortable making conversation. At some point I get the impression she fears I am flirting with her, so I fall back to my friends.

Near the end of our tour, we come upon a square called Opernplatz to see a monument to the May 10, 1933 Nazi book burnings that took place here, at Berlin’s famed Humbolt University, and at German universities across the county. Set into the ground of the Opernplatz, between the university and the under-construction State Opera House, is a square of glass through which one can see myriad bookshelves. We are told these shelves have enough space for all 20,000 books burned here in 1933. Nearby is a bronze plaque upon which is inscribed a quote by German playwright Heinrich Heine, from his 1820 tragedy Almansor, undoubtedly burned here in 1933, that reads, “where they burn books, at the end they also burn people.” We are quiet, but the city around us—construction, like the Opera renovation before us, and civilians passing through routinely—keeps humming.

After the tour, I am elated to find Berlin’s lush, verdant central park, Tiergarten. The clouds part and the sun shines as we frolic among the pretty little flowers, our voices chiming on about something like how well we know each other. I soundtrack our afternoon play in my head; the voice of my favorite baroque-pop fairy Rufus Wainwright sings sweetly, “Won't you walk me through the Tiergarten?/Won’t you walk me through it all, darling?/Doesn’t matter if it is raining;/Won't you walk me through it all?”

On the other side of the Tiergarten, we reach the Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted Under Nazism. It is an odd concrete monolith a bit taller than me with a square cut out in its front face. When one peers through the cutout inside the monument, there is a looped film of contemporary gays and lesbians kissing all over Berlin. Near the monument is a sign inscribed with a contextualizing history, the end of which reads, “Because of its history, Germany has a special responsibility to actively oppose the violation of gay men’s and lesbians’ human rights. In many parts of the world, people continue to be persecuted for their sexuality, homosexual love remains illegal and a kiss can be dangerous.” We each take turns watching, and I pick a tiny flower to lay before the obelisk.

Across the street, the five of us, quiet again, visit the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. We separate for an individual experience. I travel into the vast, rolling sea of concrete slabs. Some people pass playing hide and seek. I catch glimpses of my friends wandering as I move through this cemetery of sorts. The further into the memorial, away from the city, the quieter and darker. It is isolating, overwhelming, somehow fitting. We find each other on the other side and carry on. For a while, it seems we lost our words among the stones.

Our recurring, reverent silence is a response we share revealing the grace with which Berlin bares its shame. I wonder if quiet is requisite of memorial, as I am certain of the loudness of thought that lies beyond the social reflex of quiet contemplation.

This is the last city we visit as a quintet, and we spend much of our time discovering it quiet. We have been friends and collaborators for three years now. We have spent the last five months living together and supporting each other to the point of thriving far away from anything familiar. Objectively, this is no great feat. However, I am often surprised to find, for better or worse, there is still so much to which we struggle to put words and voice between us.

That night, we return to our hostel and plan to go to our first and last club outside of London. We get dressed and enjoy a few cocktails. We leave the hostel and start on our way to the club. It is a long way. Spirits seem to be high, perhaps even nearing a sort of fever pitch. In the next several minutes, and for several reasons—my own being a potent combination of travel fatigue and gin—our plans to dance the night away together fall apart amidst fighting among friends.

We separate. Teresa and I return to our hostel and spend the rest of the night singing along to the Moulin Rouge soundtrack before falling sound asleep.

The aforementioned brunch came the next morning. After brunch, a lot of Berlin Wall. In the evening, we see a revue at the Berliner Ensemble—song and dance and speech. We watch, riveted and terrified, without understanding a word.

The day after, Sarah leaves us and we leave Berlin—its quiet and its loudness, its past and its present, its mess and its monuments—behind.

I cling to the sweet hope I find among the effervescent bubbles of my sparkling fruit juice: Brunch, or maybe something like it, is forever for friends like us. 

Chairoscuro

Michael John Ciszewski

“Where are you guys from?” asked another night-cloaked stranger with a foreign accent. 

“The United States,” Christian bravely offered from the patio table at the bar we visited to decompress from a night walking the canal streets and red-lit alleyways of Amsterdam. 

“Ah, you see, these are the Devil’s States. You’ve got the hookers over there. You’ve got the coffeeshops over there, and you’ve got every drug imaginable lining every street in between.” 

The man lit his cigarette and began to leave us, before stopping to harass a man stumbling over cobblestones in some sort of visibly, obscenely altered state. Christian, Caleb, and I sunk into our chairs and sipped our drinks in silence before returning to our hostel two blocks away, some place vaguely named Amsterdam Centre Hostel on a street lined with restaurants. 

Of our party of five travelers—including Sarah and Teresa—we three boys had to book our first accommodations away from the girls due to limited space at their hostel, a place called Shelter City Christian Hostel that seemed like a fairytale fortress of faith compared to ours. 

Our reservation was made in my name; I am certainly a responsible young man who can put together travel plans, but my talents throughout our Eurotrip seemed to lend themselves better to on-foot navigation and, well, morale-boosting or cheerleading (circumstances depending). 

When we arrived at Amsterdam Centre Hostel a day earlier, there was a man wearing a keffiyeh-as-fashion-accessory working the front desk. I ignored the red flag that immediately raised in me, mostly because I was exhausted from lugging my bags from train station to hostel on foot. 

We checked in and the man branded me “the boss” of my three-man party with an oddly emasculating condescension that normally fails to strike me as anything other than obsolete, blockheaded, imbecilic heteronormativity. He then proceeded to provide us a summary of all Amsterdam had to offer that he laced with fine threads of overcompensatory racism and oblique bigotry—most bizarrely inferring, “you guys don’t like your president—because he’s black, yeah?” 

I do not want to write about Amsterdam. I often do not bother to talk about Amsterdam when unspooling the tall-tale yarn that is my doe-eyed, heart-rending, awe-inspiring tour of the some of the world’s most beautiful cities. It was a sort of anomaly. I was terrified of it—mystified but shaking in my boots the whole time, feeling like I would at a raging Allston house party full of complete and total strangers shouting at each other in foreign tongues.

And so my impetus to process my experience there is perhaps even stronger. I have an overwhelming predilection for the precious, pretty, and near-perfect. C’est la vie, in my oft-tear-stained green eyes. 

Sometimes, however, I can get bitter and indulge in a petulant knee-jerk reaction harsh and lacking understanding. Without adequate sleep or red wine (whichever comes first), my soft focus on this beautiful world begins to sharpen, and then I wake up in the middle of the Netherlands in a bunk above a Brazilian stranger whose shuffling around her travel documents at six in the morning.

Outside my window, the sun is rising, and it should be a beautiful day, as it so often is when the sun does that. I hop down from my bed and begin the day. Caleb is sleeping in, so Christian and I take turns washing up. We’re off to meet Sarah and Teresa to tour the Anne Frank House, a weighty historical site made even stranger by how proudly it boasts of its complimentary wifi access. 

We wind up and down its narrow stairs in shared silence, thin antique air. The gravity of Frank’s story, an artful document wrought of her life’s tiny triumphs and devastating losses, weighs usas we climb into the attic rooms. 

My shoulders stiffen when I quiet my breathing out of something vaguely resembling reverence. My eyes fall on the faces of my friends with as much attention as they do the sacred space’s restored details. Looking at them looking around, I feel a certain holiness between us. We’re young storytellers, deeply devoted to our craft, somehow here studying abroad to hone our skills so we can contribute to humanity’s storytelling tradition and pay homage to those like Frank who fiercely fought to tell their tales through incomprehensible hardship.

Our visit ends quickly and our day floats along on fumes of fuzzy freneticism. 

We ate pizza at an empty Italian restaurant, looking out the window adjacent our table onto the street below. Amsterdam’s roads bustle with an endless parade of cyclists, all consumed by secondary activities like texting, smoking, and applying makeup, as they speed around the city’s canals and its many tributary thoroughfares. Our sole company was our host and waiter, a man who assured us he could only provide us tap water as our beverage because of the restaurant’s momentary ebb in business.

Later, with the midday sun high over Amsterdam, we settled to lounge on the grasses of Vondelpark. A shirtless satyr-like man serenaded stoners nearby with repeat renditions of the same three songs—his style a distracted, dialogue-disjoint drawl.

We ate Mexican for dinner near our hostel. 

The sun had set and it was King’s Night in Amsterdam. King’s Night is comprised of the evening festivities that precede Sunday, April 26’s King’s Day, a national holiday that marks the date of King Willem-Alexander. The Netherlands’ tourism website rather accurately defines Amsterdam as “the world’s biggest street party,” for clarity’s sake. That is about the only thing one can see clearly throughout the dim-lit, deranged night and dissolute, debauched day of false (or at least fucked) worship. 

Every other street was marked with a concert. Saxophones screeched over house beats and nationalist narration that swayed masses of the messed up; guitars wailed with the Dutch siren songs of dated metal bands that found rejuvenation whipping King’s Night crowds into hysteria. 

The five of us ambled through the bacchanal. We crossed canals and wound serpentine streets as we explored the Red Light District. Our party found itself at odds with that which raged on around us. Once again, we found ourselves silent and confused, perhaps awe-struck and intimidated, and most certainly overwhelmed. 

And we just walked and watched, odd American voyeurs all alone in Amsterdam at its most idiosyncratic and intense. 

It was nearly too much to take in. I am a young man privileged with an education that illuminates corners of the world I may never have the opportunity to see. I am intelligent, sensitive, and searching. I was surprised by Amsterdam and the feelings of innocence, fear, and inexperience it filled me with. 

Something about Amsterdam did not add up. To me, “the Devil’s States” could not sustain themselves as a functioning union—and yet it has, in its own way, for so long. Perhaps this is where my latent, repressed, and drastically diluted American exceptionalism reveals itself. 

Could I, a self-proclaimed East Coast-elite, young liberal, aspiring to educated participation in the practice and preservation of our democracy, find myself at a loss for words when the so-called values and social mores of my country are so subverted? And with such seduction, such style?

The next morning, the sun rose over King’s Day in Amsterdam, and we lugged our bags from our Amsterdam Centre Hostel to the girls at Shelter City Christian Hostel before walking the streets to the train station. People were clad head-to-toe in the most lurid shade of tangerine orange imaginable—as if I wasn’t offended enough already. Apparently, that is “the king’s color.” Beerflowed freely from kegs parked on stoops. Party boats already blaring EDM floated down each of the city’s canals. From the canals to the streets, there was trash everywhere. The party hadn’t stopped, and wouldn’t for quite some time. At the train station, people arrived in droves from all over the Netherlands to celebrate King’s Day in Amsterdam. 

The five of us, however, would go on to Prague and beyond. 

Nearly a month later, sitting in my comfortable, affordable Allston living room on a quiet spring night in the City on the Hill, I keep company with unanswered questions.

Lost in La Grand Place

Michael John Ciszewski

I have no real idea where I am anymore. That was fast.

According to our free walking tour guide Yasser—a tall, built, bronze Brazilian studying abroad in Belgium who goes by the brilliant nickname “Yass” who had a legend to passionately pass on around every street corner—Brussels is known as center of Europe. 

One one hand, I know there is no way this city lies smack in the middle of the European continent. My train ride from Paris was not long enough. 

On the other hand, I trust Yass. I trust his word, perhaps because it’s all I really have to go on at this point. I’m willing to weave his potentially figurative turn of phrase into the narrative tapestry of my Eurotrip. Without Yass’ take on Brussels, I’d simply be sun-baked and full of beer, frites, and waffles. 

I do not particularly think of myself as an insular person. I have the self-image of a man who is quieter and softer internally than he externally projects, but I’m no hermit. If I were, I do not think would have gotten where I am right now. However, I’ve been traveling for a week now, completely untethered from any semblance of base upon which to constitute or fortify myself. 

After Paris, my knowledge of the European cities I am exploring becomes rather inconsistent, to say the least. My knowledge of the languages spoken in these cities is limited and embarrassing. My wifi, my connection to the cloud that makes this world small enough for me to hold it in the palms of my hand, is only guaranteed to be inconsistent at best. 

Seven days. Two cities, two hostels. Four friends and this funny tour guide, Yasser, who shepherded a group of perhaps eighteen English-speaking tourists around Brussels in order to lend a rich historical context to our time in this old and oft-overlooked city. This is just the beginning. 

I always conceived of my Eurotrip as a sort of victory lap to the marathon that was my term studying abroad an ocean away from home. I realize now that my thinking actually applied wholly to my life-long dream come true five days in Paris. See, that is where my foresight ended. I gave up on pre-writing and put down my pen, too enamored with and exhilarated by such a monumental plot point in the epic tale of my European adventure. 

Much to my surprise, I am finding this surprising unknowing rather relaxing—enchanting, even. I feel so present. All I have is where I am and who I am with. It’s simple and oddly tangible. As each moment comes and goes, all I have is now—how very zen! How Eat, Pray, Love of me! All I need now is Javier Bardem! 

Instead, I have Yasser and his legends of Brussels, most notably that of the Mannekin Pis, a statue of a little boy peeing into a basin near the old town center. According to Yasser, in his excited if slightly broken English, “there is legend” that the Manneken Pis saved the city from a bombing when he innocently happened upon a lit stick of dynamite on a full bladder. Naturally, he urinated on the fuse and saved Brussels. For this, the Manneken Pis is the pride of the city. Europe is a sort of fractured fairytale, isn’t it?

As our walking tour continued through Brussels’ beautiful Warandepark, a mother trying to keep track of her three children turned to our party of five. She recalled us saying we were students from Boston. “I graduated from BU,” she said. For some odd reason, I flipped out. “Oh my gosh! We all go to BU! That’s so funny! How exciting! When did you graduate!?” My great big world was coming into context, and I rushed to bridge gaps from Boston to Brussels, to color in the blank spots in my personal world picture, to make sense of my surrender to spring serendipity and sunlit sightseeing. 

The conversation lasted a few seconds past my desperate burst of interrogations. Once the friendly mother moved out of ear-shot, Teresa laughed at me. What the hell did I get so excited about? What discovery did I think I was on the brink of? I laughed at me and my momentary madness. 

For me, connection is control. Sense feels safe. My world is most comfortable when I can see deep into the spaces between the myriad moments of my mostly mundane life. When I can relate moment a to moment b, everything begins to equate. When I can relate person x to person y, I see a bigger picture. And this picture is as big and beautiful as a night sky full of stars arranged in multitudinous majestic constellations, each possessing its own myth and magic. Everything connects. Everything continues the story. This is the math behind my romanticism. It is this comfort in which I find the strength to pick up my pen and write my story, to live the wide-eyed way I do.

Or not. Once, during an acting exercise, I was prompted to finish the statement, “I am at my best when…” For the life of me, I cannot place this moment in my memory—was it before London, at BU, or after, at LAMDA? Regardless, I remember my knee-jerk reflexive answer was, “when I don’t know what the fuck is going on.” Considering the language, it was probably pre-England.

I know myself to be best when outside my comfort zone. One of my great challenges is maintaining a proactive lifestyle even when I settle into another one of life’s inherent routines. Perhaps this lends itself to a deluded poet’s predilection for volatility and drama. Perhaps it simply means I will do well with the insecurity and instability of life as an artist. 

However, habit and habitat are two different things. Romance is my habit. Poetry is my habit. Storytelling is my habit. I indulge in these habits as often as I do the bad habit of biting my nails—if not more. I will forever apply these habits to my way of life regardless of my habitat. I will live my life as I know how no matter where I am and how little I know. I will explore and discover and put pieces together until I have a mosaic all my own to show the world. 

At this point, I need not worry about pre-writing. My last director at LAMDA, James, a brilliant British man who mumbles his way through his precise, personal approach to theatremaking, encouraged me away from what he identified as a preference for time. “You’re focused on time, having time, you are more comfortable when you have more time, and you can just have faith in what you’re good at rather than looking for time. You can have the confidence that when you go out there, you’ll be there, all of you, and you can just talk.” That is my idea of magic, and I am too trained an actor to not to immediately take a note that good, so here goes nothing. 

Last night, after two bars, a bit of whiskey and a couple beers each, me and my five friends went to sit out on the cobblestones of Grand Place, Brussel’s old town center. Yasser assured us “this is the most beautiful square in all of Europe.” Again, I trust Yass and his word. We sat under the big, beautiful night sky full of stars and shared laughs. We reclined upon each other to rest our heads and look up at all of the lights—old gothic towers shining as bright as the moon suspended high above all else, surrounded by constellations of stars each with their own myth and magic. 

I played “Drunk in Love” on my iPhone—my music’s the one thing it’s good for sans Wifi. I stood up in the middle of the square that sits in the center of “the center of Europe” and, much to the embarrassed chagrin of my friends, I began to perform the physical theatre piece I devised a week prior at LAMDA. I deliriously danced my way through its eight beats, each an extrapolation of a moment of my life. Beyoncé belted on and on until I came to my last beat—‘the present moment,’—fell to the ground out of breath, and laid my head on Christian’s chest to rest. I catch my breath and relax. 

The stars are there. I am here. This is the story of the space between and this story writes itself.

A Moveable Feast

Michael John Ciszewski

Cardiomegaly is the medical condition of an enlarged heart. Caused by high blood pressure or coronary artery disease, this heart disease can prevent the heart from pumping blood properly, resulting in congestive heart failure.

I stumbled upon the condition after googling “enlarged heart.” I was in the process of killing the main character of a new play with an enlarged heart. I was sixteen and trying my hand at embittered absurdism, so I appropriated cardiomegaly for the sake of my play, which I called Lifetime Achievement, and my burgeoning career as a dramatist. 

I rediscovered the play two years later when I was sharing old writing with a new friend, and my amateur choice to use cardiomegaly as a cause of death stood out. I haven’t forgotten that. I was a very clever and conniving little teenage playwright. I am probably still very clever, but I’ll need another five years before I allow this approximation any due hindsight.

On April 18, I woke up feeling a bit like death myself, but I woke up with a smile. My body ached all over as a combined result of an intensive two-day devising project done with my physical theatre tutor for my last day at LAMDA and the ensuing celebrations of said graduation day. I was sore and tired and I had a miserable headache, but I had six hours before I was sitting on an AirFrance flight to Paris. 

My term at LAMDA had come to a most magnificent close. Fulfilled and further inspired by my final projects, encouraged by my tutors, and feeling generally fabulous, it was time for my victory lap. I dreamed of this for quite some time: if I could make it through a semester studying abroad without falling apart, I would endeavor to see Europe with my vest, my weathered black leather shoes, and my closest friends. In the early, opaque weeks of the semester, we would gather in Teresa and Sarah’s room after exhausting days of studio class and rehearsal to attempt booking a cost-efficient dream tour of several European cities. Sometimes, I’d book on an empty stomach and transform into a curt, aggressive, stone cold taskmaster version of myself. Other times, I’d book on a bottle of wine and transform into a curt, aggressive, lukewarm taskmaster version of myself. Regardless, we managed to book our distant Eurotrip and we marked the calendar. For the longest time after we had competed booking, I couldn’t remember all the cities we were to see or the order in which we’d be seeing them. For the longest time, all I knew of my Eurotrip was its commencement date. 

And on April 18, I woke up in my top bunk in South Kensington for the last time. I did laundry, I cleaned my space, and I rather unceremoniously bid my temporary home adieu. I had a large glass of red at a bar at Heathrow and so it began. 

Paris had a significant amount of pressure. I have so long dreamed of this city of love and lights. I have so long had the lights of the Eiffel Tower seared into the back of my eyelids from when I was a boy and I would spend hours rendering the iron lady in Crayola washable marker while coloring with my aunt Zoe. I have so long held Paris to be this foreign city of art, wine, culture, and temperament unrivaled in its full-hearted French attitude. And I have been walking the streets of Paris, my weathered black leather shoes ambling along the banks of the most stunning Seine, for five days. I have climbed the steps of Notre Dame and the Eiffel. I have descended Montmarte after my first (and second) drink of absinthe. My body converted sore to strong for the sake of my wild romantic’s heart, arrhythmic since it first skipped a beat off my train from Charles de Gaulle to Châtelet-Les Halles, and I have seen Paris. 

Last night, the most relaxing sheet of dusk fell over the city as we finished our absinthe. We had fairly straightforward plans for our last night in town: buy some brie, a few baguettes, a lot of wine, and picnic on the Seine by the glistening light of the nearby Eiffel. Teresa and I were to walk to the Seine and find a spot while Christian, Caleb, and Sarah would meet us via metro after returning to the hostel. 

Paris, however, is not too straightforward a city. Out of the bar and into the periwinkle twilight, Teresa and I were soon swept off our feet into a conversation that sparkled with an innocence of heart reserved exclusively for two tipsy friends with penchants for romance. We two water signs guessed our way towards the river, waxing poetic like a rising river tide. The city sighed smoky exhalations and brisk breezes as Paris opened itself to spring and we were gently blown along like the cherry blossoms that lightly rouged the cityscape. Before long, we were lost wandering the streets of Paris, but we kept going.

With each step, we would fancy ourselves another new fantasy of life beyond the foreseeable future. Where would we one day lay our relentlessly inspired heads to nightly rest? With what would we exhaust ourselves after an education in the arts had completely rearranged our genetic, spiritual make up? Who would keep us company? What would it mean to bravely dare to love? How would we!? 

We pondered and professed, as the famous French philosophers must have. Unbridled theories of faith and fearlessness poured from us and painted the streets red like wine, red like the excited blood that hadn’t ceased pumping at pace with Paris since we arrived. 

My victory lap was well underway. In fact, I was hitting an early stride in my marathon run across Europe. By the end of the semester, I had gained a new confidence thanks to my time as a man about London, a brilliant new place I had to make home. Now, and from this moment forth, I can put that confidence firmly in practice as I pursue my most wide-eyed, big-hearted, full-bodied dreams. I was once backed into a corner by habit, fear, and laziness, and my only way out was vitality. I feel huge and alive and possible in this city, in this skin. 

Cardiomegaly is this medical condition I once fetishized for a flight of fiction. It holds fatal potential unless treated all life long. The poetry is unfortunately inherent; the metaphor writes itself. I was titillated by the image and the stakes of the condition. Perhaps I reopen the wound of my adolescent appropriation of such a dire disease only to pour salt into it, but I feel so young in thinking my heart could burst forth from my chest to beat in open air for all the world to see. It might alarm those around, but I think it would be okay. I think I would survive. Hell, I think I could live the rest of my life that way, big bloody heart on exhibition like the Eiffel Tower to my own World’s Fair. I’m sure it glitters at night just the same. 

I have spent a long time housing this huge heart, treating it with the utmost care and praying it not to hurt or cause harm if released to the world at large. But I think it will be okay. I have this overwhelming feeling, too clearly symptomatic of romanticism, that the world is a beautiful, kind place. Like everything else, myself included, it just needs the encouragement of an open, honest, willing perspective. And with that, perhaps I could build it a home as beautiful as Paris and as luxurious as the nearby Versailles. 

After my second trip up the Eiffel Tower, I parted with Sarah and Teresa so I could make the trip back to our hostel on foot. After one block, I was asked for directions by a foreign couple who spoke English. Somehow, my limited experience and increasingly acute sense of direction knew how to get them where they wished to go. I strolled along the Seine under a comfortably overcast afternoon sky, watching myriad couples gather on the banks to sit close and share wine. I passed through the shadows beneath bridges that bound opposite banks together, and beneath one, I found a makeshift disco. Michael Jackson blared over hidden speakers to synchronized, flashing colored lights, much to the delight of several admirable children who rather boldly attempted to breakdance. Off the Seine, I stopped at a pharmacy and tried to disguise my alien nature to the best of my ability when I brought my desired deodorant to the cash desk. I used six of the twelve French words I know and made it out with insurance I would smell as nice as was the clerk to my native disguise. Through the Bastille district towards our hostel, I passed countless bars and cafes, rife with Parisians having a drink and a smoke with conversation or a quiet sit and read of a book. 

To finally be immersed in this place, even for five days, has allowed me to refine the romantic ideal of “French luxury” I’ve long held dear. For starters, I’ve spent in Paris at least three times as much as any of my friends. My meal cost average is fifty three euros. By now it’s become a joke amongst my friends—”thrice as nice.” It’s certainly excessive, but I’ve hit the ground running (to the ATM) on my European adventure. I have had martinis and profiteroles at Hemingway’s favorite cafe. I have consumed duck at every terrific French restaurant at which we’ve dined. I’ve drunk champagne out of a disposable plastic flute at the top of the Eiffel Tower, for passage to which I’ve paid twice. Yesterday, I saw why the French went bankrupt building Versailles. If I’m going to spend my money like the French, I will be just as spendthrift with my time. I will spend it silly on the finest, fanciest things I can. This is a luxury I can give myself with ease. My time will be just as exquisite as the gilded halls of mirrors and apartments of the Europe’s most beautiful palace. It is, after all, mine, and I have a responsibility to do with it only what I want. 

If this moment at the onset of my trip across Europe, near the onset of this decade of my life, marks the dawn of some overblown personal renaissance, or my own Belle Epoque, so be it. 

I am far away from all the life I’ve rather exclusively known for so long. Better yet, I am in Paris, and only now might I fully realize how to commit to a lesson with which I have long been flirting. Thanks to my beautiful friend Misha, I recently encountered a quote from writer Maria Irene Fornés that summarizes this maturation better than I could: “I’ve never had any choice. When I’m not doing something that comes deeply from me, I get bored. When I get bored, I get distracted, and when I get distracted, I become depressed. It’s a natural resistance and it insures your integrity. You die when you are faking it, and you are alive when you are truthful.”

This city has been so exciting, so engaging, and so inspiring that I can see the world wants nothing of me but my truth and vitality. If a city like Paris can exist in all its beautiful antique splendor, I have nothing to worry about. 

It’s almost comforting. When the going gets tough, I must remember, there’s always Paris.

Home, or How?

Michael John Ciszewski

I’m a very happy young man. And I am firmly of the belief that one should mark in time this kind of realization, however slight or over-earnest it may seem.

It is funny to recall myself four months ago, when I arrived in London. I was blinded by the Christmas lights of my time home for the holidays, my eyes heavy-lidded and dark from Fall semester’s busyness. Thankfully, I mustered strength or courage—oft one in the same—to keep awake, aware of the speedy sights of the unbelievably alive metropolis that is London. I found it so remarkable that a place with such history, such age could still bristle and bounce with fervor and ferocity, and I found myself inspired and invigorated. In the darkest nighttime of my catching my breath at home in Little Ferry, New Jersey, I was so intimidated by the demands I supposed traveling abroad would make of me. I assumed weakness in myself, and I quietly shivered under the comfort of my childhood bed covers as I contemplated all the experiences to which I would be wearily submitted, preoccupied and haunted by the question of “how?” How would I do this? How exactly could I become untethered from all to which I am so wed?

And yet, I had made a bold choice I needed to honor. My choice to spend a semester of my college career in London was one long brooded over, despite its inevitability. No matter what was happening in Boston or at home, there always lied, looming in the not-so-distant reaches of time, this great leap across the pond, off the beaten path of comfort and all that which I could safely expect to meet me. This detour was long designed into my being, and I felt like I was marked with a departure date, my wintertime anxiety merely chaffing at the inexorable pull of a fate I could not avoid. Everyone in my life could read it all over me, no matter how married to masking it I was. And in the frigid chill of early January, I tapped a reserve of warmth deep within me invigorating enough to shake free from the paralytic shackles of fear that bound me to my homeland. I confessed my condition to myself. I admitted, in full view of all of my assumed spectators, who exactly I was at this crossroads in my little life. I was Michael John Ciszewski, a six foot tall man with a strangely boyish disposition, who had somehow danced his way through twenty years of astonishing life experience with overwhelming affection that had supported him through every trial such experience held. I was Michael John Ciszewski, an actor and writer and relentless romantic, who was going to make something of himself far, far away from all he knew, on the soil of an empire upon which the sun used to never set. These days, it does, and I did declare, at long last, with great relief that I was actively going to bear witness to and wax poetic over each and every English sunset I had the great privilege to see. 

Tonight, with Sunday’s conclusion of week past and introduction to the week ahead, I stand blown away by my gratitude for the growth I have allowed myself, that which I pursued, against all self-invented odds. 

Tonight I took a moment of pause outside my London dorm on the corner of Queensbury Place and Cromwell Ave, admiring the light of sunset that tickled the ornate stonework of London’s Natural History Museum. I was so happy. I opened my eyes to see the black cabs that passed by on their way into Central London and the many stylish Britons who walked by me presumably on their way home. And that’s exactly where I was—home, not necessarily in the United Kingdom, but in my ever-so-weathered skin.

I am at home here because I have rediscovered home in myself. I will defy cries of “how trite!” and any seemingly excessive over-earnestness to so declare. I feel come of age. In a little over a month, I will turn twenty-one and transform, according to my benevolent-if-puzzling fairy godmother America, into an adult. I know now, with the deepest trust, that I close this chapter and begin writing the next with fresh, keen, gleaming green eyes made greener from exposure to the verdancy of my many favorite English parks. Four months abroad, four months spending what I originally thought both too much money and too much energy to make a place for myself here, and I find now that I possess in me an infinite wealth of spirit enough to compensate. 

The glistening crown jewels of kings and queens come and gone have illuminated in me my own divine right to build a kingdom of my own with all my life yet to come. Inspired by the valor of nobility past, I am, again and more than ever before, certain of my intrinsic power to brave any battle, conquer any foe, proclaim and set forth on all my wildest dreams. 

I suppose it perhaps unsurprising. I had to go away to come home. But, boy, am I overtaken with gratitude that I learned this firsthand as it unfolded beneath my weathered black leather shoes.  I can not begin to imagine the next steps they’ll take—not for fear but rather for willingness to let my mortal feet excitedly animate them as they pound pavements along the path I cut for myself in this great, big, beautiful world. 

There lie but two nemeses opposite me along the way, and they have revealed themselves to be fear and laziness. I know them well, but I know myself better. And for that, I resolve to tirelessly defend myself against them so that I may continue to boldly act out the absurd, perhaps overwritten, but neverendingly thrilling dream-come-true that is my history. 

Yes, my gratitude overflows from every pore, but I cannot yet indulge in a curtain call. The next scene is about to start and I can not wait to discover its terrific twists and tantalizing turns as so I devise.

For Lamia

Michael John Ciszewski

Lamia is a very beautiful barista who works at the Gloucester Road Starbucks in South Kensington. Halfway through my semester abroad, when I was still struggling with a certain sense of homesickness, I switched my choice of morning coffee provider from London’s most popular choice, Pret a Manger, to Starbucks. Perhaps an arbitrary and minor change in routine, it was a decided retreat into something reminiscent of—at least to this puzzlingly brand-loyal consumer—the comforts of home. 

In Boston, I’m a very faithful Starbucks consumer. As a bit of an awful elitist, I sometimes struggle with the reason behind my loyalty to such a monolithic franchise. I truly enjoy coffee, drink it pure black without any diversions, and have developed quite a taste for a good cup of drip. However, it’s a habit, one I perhaps developed in the suburbs of northern New Jersey, where Starbucks was an easy high school homework/hangout spot. Regardless, I have a soft spot for the green mermaid who lies beached on every other city block in the States. In fact, I very much look forward to my June homecoming to what I’ve come to call “CFA Starbucks,” as it lies directly across the T tracks from BU’s College of Fine Arts and is frequented, to say the least, by many local time-crunched, arts-exhausted, caffeine-dependent students and professors. It’s my version of the Cheers pub, a place where everybody knows my name, and on top of that, they sometimes afford me free coffee before nighttime rehearsals! 

Raised on diner culture, I like being “a regular;” I like having “a usual.” I don’t chalk it up to laziness; methinks it’s how we do community in New Jersey. It counteracts and shrinks the chasmic expanse of suburban sprawl, bringing the many disparate pieces of a people broken by societal fragmentation together in some sort of “open 24-hours” neon sign mosaic promising a warm meal (late night breakfast!) and a friendly face. 

It makes sense, then, that in the more damask, foggy morning hours of my time here in London that I’d seek such a light. I didn’t consciously seek and design such a relationship; I don’t know how one goes about doing just that: “Hi! My name is Michael. I’m going to come every day at the same time for the next few months; would you be interested in developing a relationship in which you learn what I like and wordlessly deliver it to me upon my walking through the door?” No, take it from a tried-and-true diner boy, that’s not how that works. It’s slower and steadier than that, and it necessitates intricate little conversations here and there in which the parties involved get to know each other. It’s flirty and romantic, even—all under the rather relaxed guise of a recognizable customer service relationship. 

So, I guess I got me a beautiful English girlfriend. 

Every morning, I allot time for a detour on my forty minute walk to LAMDA. Before I can even anticipate the shenanigans I’ll get up to in my wildly varied studio classes and crazy-Brit-led rehearsals, my human machine requires caffeine to run. Before I can mope in melancholy or wax poetic at pretty sights, before I can even relate to another human soul with any semblance of sense, I need—nay, demand—a large cup of black coffee! 

So, I stride out of Sorbonne House every morning, running on the fumes of routine. I challenge myself with some form of exercise. I take a shower. I do my hair and dress myself with some ingrained sense of style for which I must thank my mother. I have a bite of breakfast and a bit of music. I pack my bag, put my sunglasses on, and I am gone. I identify the exact amount of change necessary to get my daily fix. I clutch it in my cold morning hand, and I walk and wait, walk and wait, walk and wait. And my legs, “the workhorse of the body,” as my Greek physical theatre tutor Yorgos told me, take me where I need to be.

On the promise of fulfillment, I glide into the Gloucester Road Starbucks, pause whatever playlist I’ve selected to accompany me, take off my sunglasses for the sake of respectability, and approach the cash register. In the time it took for me to walk from the front doors of the small franchise store to the cash desk, Lamia has prepared me a grandé cup of black Pike Place roast and placed it on the desk. I greet her, “good morning,” and she returns the sentiment. We exchange “how are you”s as she accepts the £1.75 I offer her, and we wish each other a good day to follow. I take my coffee, and in less than thirty seconds, my day has begun. 

I stride on to LAMDA and beyond, to revel in my time as a man about London town, with full knowledge that I have been made all the more me by the most beautiful and generous, rather simple customer service of Gloucester Road Starbucks’ Lamia. 

Thank you, Lamia. I googled the meaning of your lovely name before writing this, and I discovered that the Arabic significance is “shining, radiant.” English rain or sweet sunshine, your simple and unadorned light happens to ignite the flame that fires each of my days abroad.

Death & Dancing

Michael John Ciszewski

Sustainability is a thoroughly 21st Century concept, at least in mass-definition. I think that we, as a people, have exploded the term into thousands of glittering pieces that we’ve rearranged into a mosaic that resembles a more ideal ‘way of life.’ Its thousands of reflective pieces float around the cloud that is our socially fragmented, technology-diluted day and age. It is in these pieces we wish to see a better version of ourselves at one with the world around us. All the cracks between are only wrinkles we’ve developed with age and experience, as we’ve learned to be more flexible, perhaps even more generous.

I’m sitting in Margravine Cemetery on a beautiful, near 60 degree day, listening to the new St. Vincent album, which she intended as “a party record you could play at a funeral.” I’m too self-aware to be ironic. The poeticism of the soundtrack of my every waking moment is entirely intentional.  

The remains of lives gone before me lie beneath the grass-speckled, sun-warmed English soil surrounding me and my bench. Here I sit, perfectly lonely, insular in the palatial estate of my self-aggrandizing internal life. A gorgeous day brings West Londoners past me in small crowds. I watch and listen and think, very grateful for my cancelled morning singing class. Now I have time for my contemplative kind of leisure. I spin my wheels, untouchable, until a sad-looking, bundled-up, cherubic old woman quietly approaches my bench. Without a word, she makes to sit beside me. I move my bag and my coat and slide over to accommodate her. And there she sits.

Dare we speak? Dare we attempt melding our two disparate mosaic pieces into one? Perhaps we can make small talk of the weather: how beautiful the world can look awash in early spring sunshine and how fortunate we are to enjoy a short rest here, in the company of so many spirits who call it their final resting place. Maybe she has a loved one buried here, someone she’d reminisce of in the company of a foreign stranger. Maybe she would ask me of my business in London, and I’d go on about my youthful adventure abroad to practice telling the stories of those departed like the ghosts who reside around us. Perhaps we would delight each other dizzy before the day even slinks past noon.

Rather, we sit, silently. I listen to a St. Vincent song called “Birth in Reverse” and I write of the woman sitting next to me, fantasies trapped somewhere between my head, my heart, and my furiously scribbling hand. Without notice, she rises and leaves me. St. Vincent carries on her private concert in my ears. My morning writing returns to record, no fantasy, no exquisite potential for diversion.

It is a beautiful day in this melancholy place, and I am well and happy.

A year ago, I was rehearsing my first project at the School of Theatre: a play called The Skriker by British playwright Caryl Churchill. My director, Hondo, began our rehearsal process by asking the company if we found the current way of the world sustainable. Several hours and many depressing, esoteric platitudes later, the answer was a resoundingly fearful, “no.”

My independence has afforded me much valuable information on the way I live since I’ve been here in London. When I’m not listening to beautiful music and musing unto myself, I’m training with superbly stiff-upper-lipped British tutors like one perceptive director who called me charming, good-looking, and lazy before retorting “well, do you want to be an actor?” And so, I have been considering life after training. In a little over a year, the structures of an education in self-actualization will all but evaporate. Can I do it on my own? Dare I put my training to use? It seems I must when the time comes, but what careful consideration I must afford my next chapter! Careful enough to warrant a head start—perhaps some pre-writing, if you will.

I am treading the unstable line between youthful abandon and adult responsibility with grace. I have even developed a delightful little dance to distract as I bide time. That’s the charm of which my director spoke. And when I’m not dancing, I practice an expert balancing act that allows me repurpose the line into a most comfortable hammock in which to rest. There I lie, counting stars with time to spare, suspended between age.

It is thrilling to consider every passing moment an opportunity to stop dancing or slip out of the hammock and step over the line. I wonder what, if anything, I will lose when I do—or, better yet, what there is to gain, unbeknownst to me, far on the other side.

I will consider sustainability. Perhaps I can trust myself with the tools to smash, rearrange, and share a new reflective image of what it means to be me in this world. I’m not talking alter-ego or self-invention; this is not my Sasha Fierce moment (although it could be). Choice has never seemed to me more tangible, and I pass no judgement upon that gift. I have options, and so I think I will lay my anxieties to rest here in this small, English cemetery in the shadows of the London Academy of Music and Dramatic in the borough of Hammersmith. I will listen to more beautiful music and write a few more lines of poetry. Perhaps I will break my silence and boldly endeavour to engage the next stranger who sits beside me to admire the weather.

I was once told ghosts cannot travel overseas. Therefore, I suppose I will part with my relieved anxieties for quite some time come May.

Then again, this is just a late morning fantasy wrought from my hyperactive romantic’s imagination, right?

Research in Motion

Michael John Ciszewski

I think I am finally ready to admit that I am mildly addicted to ‘hoofing it.’ Whether walking, running, or dancing (i.e. movement I try to convince unfortunately burdened witnesses is dancing), I find release, joy, and peace when I bother to get up off my American ass and move. Rest assured, I am self-effacing enough to refrain from passing this off as profundity or epiphany, but a discovered fact of my self for which I am deeply grateful. 

As a boy, my beautiful mother afforded me infinite opportunities to acquaint myself with the glittering metropolis across the river from our North Jersey home with which I was so enamored. Occasionally, family and friends would join us on our jaunts around the Big Apple, and I rather quickly gained a reputation among them for despising the length of a New York City block. I hated walking them. I purported exhaustion, and demanded, with all the bravado of a spoiled suburban only son, accustomed to the New Jersey necessity of driving, that we take a taxi to each of our destinations. I didn’t understand financial efficiency. I only pretend to now.

My move to Boston nearly three years ago marked an inevitable change in this disposition. I learned, and quickly fell in love with, the lifestyle associated with urban residence. I should’ve expected this considering my youthful idolization of Manhattanites, strong and stern-faced as they jostled their way around us tenderfooted tourists. However, this has proven a discovered gift that keeps on giving, and so generously. 

One must walk, and often, regardless of the affordability or convenience of public transportation. This rule applies ad infinitum to cash-strapped students and struggling artists the world over. 

I lived my freshman year at Boston University housed on-campus in a beautiful brownstone off Beacon street’s Audobon Circle. However, the majority of my waking moments had me busy with classes and rehearsals at the College of Fine Arts, an old, ivy-gilded facility fifteen minutes from my dormitory. Furthermore, many of my friends lived closer to the College of Fine Arts in more traditional, high-rise dorms that housed BU’s most expansive dining hall. This world existed a fifteen minute walk from that of my bed and shower—a short enough distance to rule out commuting on Boston’s unreliable green line trains. 

Seeking to proactively embrace an urban—and fitness-conscious—lifestyle, I habituated an early start that had me walk to breakfast with friends at their high-rise dorms followed by a short walk to class. This fitness-consciousness followed me home for the summer, and found me running as exercise. I shed some long-stuck pounds, shocked by my capacity for physical activity, something that seemed so foreign to the little boy staring out window of the taxi he thought he needed to move him where he wanted to go. 

I moved off-campus sophomore year—again, a fifteen minute walk from classes. This was the last thing to be considered with such a move. 

That year in training, my wise physical acting professor Elaine suggested possibility lied in engaging my lower half: some act from the head up, others—mildly better—from the waist up, and few unlock the potential energy of all that lies below. Naturally, I was riveted and found a new ambition. 

Later, I discovered Boston on foot when I lived my first summer away from home. 

Now I am past the mid-point of my junior year, and I am living in London studying acting at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts for the semester. I have been here for a month and a half, and the fortune of this experience is nowhere near lost on me. London is a stunning city that takes my breath away daily, and LAMDA’s training has afforded me continuous challenge and discovery. David Byrne’s famous exclamation in the Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime,” “well, how did I get here?!” rings in my head as frequently as calls from my stalker (if I had a stalker). 

I know where I am because I know where I’ve been, and they are massively, thrillingly different. And so, I have finally been stricken with a feverish homesickness that has me missing American expanse: the expanse of family and friends, the expanse of American roads down which all drive on the right, and—hell—even the expanse of American cars that pollute my cities and perturb me as I walk their streets. The ambitious adventurer in me did not desire this affliction, but I miss the comforts of the familiar that lie at home.

So, I have gone home. Here and there, over the past few feverish weeks, I have indulged my Cancerian homebody tendency. and I have gone home to the only true home I have in my ever-so-slightly nomadic life. I have moved! I have walked, I have run, and I have danced. 

The fondness for this familiar practice has offered me a palate-cleanser and spiritual energy-boost to deepen my romance with London. 

Walking is one of my more highly favored meditative practices. It’s where I go to have a good think on something or process my work. I even enjoy music, a closely held passion, most on foot, when I can shoot my own accompanying artwork like home music videos. I’ve most recently taken to writing on foot, perhaps as dangerous as it sounds. Sometimes a line of poetry strikes with a step and scribe it for later I must. As I did with Boston, I am learning London on foot. As a cartographer map-making in motion, I familiarize myself with the foreign until I find comfort knowing how to walk home from Covent Garden or The Regent’s Park. 

I run through Hyde Park like so many active Londoners and let my sweat fall upon my brow to mingle with the steady mist that rains from England’s billowy grey clouds, looking like great plumes of smoke and wisps of vaporized tears. 

I move with vigor and full-bodied release, no matter how silly I may look, in movement classes I love and in humid clubs I try to enjoy. 

“The legs are the workhorse of the body. Let them work for you. Let them move you,” offers my physical theatre tutor, Yorgos, as we run circles around a small West London studio. “Think down into the Earth. Put pleasure in your pelvis and let the legs move you. Forward, but down. Root yourself.” So invigorated and so released by such a delightful, slightly dirty demand, I last week threw myself wholeheartedly into a blindfold trust exercise. With seven people surrounding the perimeter of the studio space as protection against walls and furniture, six students would explore the space blindfolded, researching any movement that offers physical pleasure or release. I found this to be the juiciest, most thrilling and invigorating experience as I hurled myself around the room. Trust and comfort lied in me and my movement, as it does each and every day.

This is one experience; if I know the body to be forever in motion, muscles tensing and relaxing, blood flowing, electrons firing, I am grateful to allow myself to be at one with all that inside me. 

I once told the aforementioned tutor after another physical exercise, “I never considered myself a mover when I was younger.” I said the same two years ago to my brilliant BU movement professor Judith. I may look around in awe at my surroundings and my accomplishments, hearing David Byrne shouting, “well, how did I get here?” every time I visit Hyde Park, and yet, here I am. And I am still moving. And I will keep moving, for quite some time. As far as facts go, I think I am learning to relish this.

It is a relief from the unknown of the big, scary world at large, a world I so wish to share myself with, to know with each foot I lay upon this Earth—in stride, in sprint, or in two-step dance—I stake my claim to a home that is where the heart is, always entirely within me.

Staying Healthy Studying Abroad

Michael John Ciszewski

“Am I Michael John Ciszewski yet?” Some time this fall, Caroline Hoenemeyer, one of my closest friends in the Theatre Arts program at Boston University, asked me this question. Before I could respond with grimace and disgust, “why the hell would you want that?,” I noticed she was showing me a 1.5 liter Poland Spring water bottle through which she was making her way. Caroline was not, in fact, attempting to Freaky Friday me into what she’d discover to be a most regrettable identity switch; rather, she was making a warm joke with a close friend. 

In recent years, I have developed a habit of occasionally purchasing and consuming a very large bottle of spring water, then refilling it relentlessly with tap water, as a means of staying hydrated and, thus, conscious of my health and fitness as one whose artistic instrument is his physical being. 

It is a good habit, a system I’ve found that works for me. Here in London, I have been grocery shopping at a chain called Sainsbury’s. Sainsbury’s is fabulous because Sainsbury’s offers (acceptable) quality groceries to its myriad customers for prices almost low enough to relieve me of the constant anxiety that living here on the current dollar-to-euro exchange rate will savagely bleed me dry financially! 

Curiously, Sainsbury’s does not sell the classic 1.5 liter Poland Spring water bottle to which I’ve grown so accustomed. Neither do all other purveyors of bottled spring water I’ve naturally prioritized visiting this early in my time abroad. In fact, I should’ve long ago realized 1.5 liters is a fairly peculiar volume, for I have discovered that Sainsbury’s and other fine bottled water retailers seem to sell large bottled water exclusively in volumes of one and two liters. 

Initially, this realization bedewed my brow with the panic sweat I have been warned was symptomatic of the ‘culture shock’ a virgin world traveler like myself so dreads. 

However, I am resilient. My mother raised me as such. I am of Greek heritage on my mother’s side, and the Greeks, I’ve been so indoctrinated, are resilient warriors who invented democracy and refuse to figure out how to successfully run an economy. My resilient Greek heritage also tends to overpower my Polish heritage on my father’s side, and that makes it all the more easy to overcome any Brand Queen tendencies I may have and abandon loyalty to the Poland Spring 1.5 liter bottle. 

I am also open to change. Living with three (various) straight men for the past three years of my life has taught me to be mildly flexible! 

Finally, I long ago decided my study abroad experience would prioritize my trying new things… and so I took a leap of faith and purchased Sainsbury’s own two liter bottled water!

I have a tendency to initially do very well with new stimuli. Three examples:

  1. I am told my own odiousness does not reveal itself till long after my first impression! 
  2. I am over-eager enough to seem warm in new work environments!
  3. I am always excited to try new things thanks to a competitive streak caused by a latent aggressive streak!

So there we were: Sainsbury’s brand “Caledonian still Scottish water,” me, myself, and I. Twist to screw off the cap. Lift the heavy, monolithic bottle to my lips with the strength of my noodly muscles. Tilt said heavy, monolithic bottle to bring said “Caledonian still Scottish water” rushing into my mouth. Sip. “Hm,” I thought. Sip. “Well, that’s a relief. It’s just bottled water. And bottled water, after all, is just water!” Guzzle, guzzle, glug, glug. I drank all two liters as quickly and as hastily as Tom Hanks does the water inside the first island coconut he manages to break open in 2000’s Cast Away—and he won a Golden Globe for that! 

Following my first two liters of Saisnbury’s refreshing “Caledonian still Scottish water,” I happily re-engaged my innate refill-drink-repeat rhythm. 

Now, while I did admit to handling new stimuli well, everyone knows it is a much greater challenge to sustain a new relationship over time—whether with a lover or with a means by which one drinks water. 

I’m presently one month into our study abroad adventure and a third through my time at LAMDA. Two is a whole number. I can summarize multiples of two much more easily than I can multiples of 1.5, and this alone has made summarizing the liters of water I consume on a daily basis much easier than when I was formerly engaged with Poland Spring. After some calculation, I can reveal that I consume 8-10 liters of water on a daily basis at this point in my exhilarating adventures in Europe. That is a lot of water, and I am proud of my clumsy gesture towards fitness despite its mild ignorance. However, I’ve noted an interesting result in adding the half liter of water to my routine. 

Before I leave for LAMDA, I enjoy breakfast with two liters of water, just to get the juices—and my metabolism—flowing. Classes at LAMDA are hard and fast. Every day begins at 9 AM and is broken in half around an hour lunch from 1:15-2:15 PM. In the four hours and fifteen minutes that comprise our morning session, we drop in and out of three hour-long classes (acting, movement, and voice) with fifteen minute tea-breaks between. The more intense days are most definitely draining. 

On the subject of draining, I have never had to pee as frequently as I have in the past month. In addition to the two liters before class, I tend to drink another liter throughout morning session. That’s consistent with my Boston routine, but we must remember the crucial difference, and that is the absent half liter of my crude American Poland Spring water bottle. 

My Sainsbury’s behemoth is making it so that by the end of each involved hour-long class, I become possessed by my pee pee dance as if it were an otherworldly poltergeist. Here is an illustrative analogy for the powerful of my poltergeist pee possession. My pee pee dance is to Beyoncé’s “Grown Woman” choreography at double speed, as a normal human pee pee dance is to, say, Miley’s clumsy twerking or Rihanna’s soulless pussy-patting. Hell, my end-of-class need to pee is often so strong that I would easily produce and sell upwards of a million copies of a groundbreaking, surprise “visual album” while raising a toddler and satisfying Jay-Z’s carnal urges if it meant relieving myself any sooner than my fifteen minute tea-break. 

By no means is this the life-altering study abroad experience I anticipated. 

However, I often fast myself with unbreakable commitment to idealized notions I hold regarding things like romance, privacy, creativity, and, in this case, professionalism and health. Therefore, a stalemate. I am as married to remaining present in class or rehearsal until I am released by a professor or director as I am to drinking this much water, this quickly, day in and day out. 

I refuse to compromise either ‘virtuous practice’ for the other, and so I will most likely continue to toil until I find myself in the toilets during tea-break. I surrender to this fate for the foreseeable future. At the very least, if Caroline Hoenemeyer were to approach me with a full bottle of Sainsbury’s two liter “Caledonian still Scottish water” (or one refilled with tap water) and the question, “Am I Michael John Ciszewski yet?,” I’d finally have reason to respond through grimace and disgust, “why the hell would you want that?”

Parklife

Michael John Ciszewski

I’m plagued by thoughts on sleepiness. With some shame, I reluctantly admit I can be a sleepy boy. Pop open a bottle of cheap Cabernet Sauvignon, turn the heat on, sit me down on a comfy couch and I am most easily seduced by sweet, sexy slumber. I should be grateful for my ability to glide somewhat gracefully to rest. However, I have effortlessly fallen asleep in many bizarre and laughable, wonderful and compromising situations, abducted from waking consciousness. 

The weather in London seems just cold enough to keep me awake. We’ve been very fortunate with the English winter weather we’ve had thus far. Today was a beautiful and balmy 52 degrees, far from the polar vortex frigidity of Boston. It’s as if the season, like many cultural curiosities I’m tickled to discover, is defined by different terms across the pond. 

My day began with a walk through Hyde Park, located a remarkable ten minutes from the Sorbonne House dorms. Sans morning cup of coffee, I was immediately awoken, eyes wide open, by the breathtaking beauty of every little thing. There is a graceful solemnity about this old city. I realize winter in London feels more to me like perpetual fall, its primary colors greyblustery skies and green verdant earth accented by supportive shades of rich brick red and dignified mustard yellow. Populating the landscape are all sorts of well-composed Britons dressed in Barbour raincoats with corduroy collars, always prepared for the sun to, once again, retreat behind a thick of clouds and give way to a steady sheet of rain-showers. 

At the onset of last summer, I was unemployed for quite some time. Every day, I’d wake up—perhaps hungover, definitely sad—and I’d begin to synthesize a day out of nothing. I had several friends working at Boston Harbor Cruises, and I would often plan to meet my best friend Ben when his shift giving tours was over. Boston Harbor lies opposite Boston University and the surrounding student-filled suburbs, so now I had a trek to exhaust some of my surplus time. I’d walk something like four miles from one side of Boston to the other—often in gross, sticky summer heat—cutting through the Boston Common and Boston Public Garden at the heart of town. I’d stop, sit, and people watch to a soundtrack of Vampire Weekend. Occasionally I’d halfheartedly scribble in my journal some ideas I had for plays I had convinced myself I was writing. 

It was a most indulgent time in my little life, and it revealed to me a self-truth I hold very dear: I fall in love in parks, for the unbridled vitality of such a place. Exhilarated by the commingled nature of man, flora, and fauna, I am transfixed and transported into a silly state of being that well suits my “romantic” self-identification. I feel the pressure of time lighten its burden on me. I spoil myself on thought and venture down fantastical rabbit holes of reason that I rarely feel brave or inspired enough to even approach under other, less luxurious circumstances. 

Perhaps this predilection is the most like Walt Whitman I will ever be. 

James, one of my remarkable acting tutors at LAMDA, recently encouraged us to really take our time as we worked on our speeches. “We should not rush our speeches and we should not rush our lives. Be gentle. Takeyourtime,” he persisted. This advice lodged itself in my consciousness and found great company in encouragement once given to me by my sorely missed BU professor Christine: “connect to your sense of plenty of time.”

As last semester in Boston came to an end, I found myself naturally battling assorted stresses and anxieties. During a regular weekday, I hadn’t the time between classes, deadlines, or rehearsals to channel my unemployed summer zen in the Boston Common, so I found a retreat in a beautiful bit of green in nearby Brookline called Amory Park. Romance would find me on the boardwalk over Hall’s Pond. The crisp air would catch me, the quiet would subdue me, and I would embrace the certain sense of relief that followed. I would connect to my sense of plenty of time. 

I’m humbled to know I can trust the outside world to give me such a momentary experience of transcendence. James, the aforementioned LAMDA tutor, warns against ‘experience,’ saying it’s “for those who want to suffer.” Perhaps I do not yet know enough experience to agree or disagree, but regardless, I desire the kind of presence I find when I walk through a beautiful park. 

Today, in Hyde Park, London felt like home for the first time. It felt like it was mine for the first time. I carry with me many preoccupations that often tense my shoulders and upset my stomach, but I find release and religion in a park’s flourishing of life. 

Out on the other side of Hyde Park, I stand at a very confusing intersection to Marble Arch and the Oxford Circus shopping district. I trust I won’t get hit by a big red double decker bus or a black cab, and I see my reflection flash in their windows as they rush past. I pretend to be stately, self-possessed, and stiff-upper-lipped in my black, TJ Maxx-bought peacoat and plaid scarf. But I know, deep down, I’m just a sleepy boy trying to stay awake long enough to fall in love. And I’m so obviously American.

A Brief Introduction to London Nightlife

Michael John Ciszewski

It is very late on Saturday night here at Sorbonne House in the still surprisingly affluent neighborhood of South Kensington, London, England. I am sitting in the TV/Study room listening to Fleet Foxes. Jae is on a Skype call. Caleb is absolutely zoning into a BBC broadcast of Mumford & Sons’ recent Glastonbury headlining performance. I adore this kind of shared personal time. All is peaceful, quiet and content, in our own distinct personal realms, and after three years working together very closely, it’s so refreshing to truly feel a definite comfort sharing this time with each other.

We’re coming upon the conclusion of our first weekend together in London, and there is, naturally, much to process.

As a young man coming of age during a time when diversionary activities of the most hedonistic nature are increasingly accessible, I’ve been very mindful of how I choose to spend my free time. I’ve considered this more than ever as of late because of the extensive free time I’ve had at home near Manhattan and these several free days here before classes begin at LAMDA.

To cease my habitual beating around the bush, I’ve gone “clubbing,” and please understand how much I grimace at such a term for action. “Clubbing.” To my fairly sensitive disposition, such a word brings to mind two wholly disgraceful images:

  1. Throngs of rancidly perfumed, sweaty heterosexuals “grinding” to something called ‘Avicii’ while consuming overpriced juice disguised as “a cocktail." 
  2. The inhumane abuse of seals. 

After this weekend, I experienced so much of the former that I nearly wished I had instead been submitted to the latter.

I kid. In case my present tone falls on deaf ears, please understand that I am practicing a bit of the olde English 'cheekiness’ I’ve begun to pick up on since arriving four days ago. How is my driving? If you’re not smirking or, perhaps, giggling, don’t worry. My tuition has me here until May. I’ll learn to be as dry and intoxicating as the £12 martini I bought on Friday night (and that’s setting the bar quite low).

Now, clubs astonish me. I’ve been to five in total—one in Boston my freshman year, two in Manhattan over winter break, and two in London this past weekend. I haven’t wholly enjoyed my time at any of them, and I have surrendered to the struggle to understand why. Much to my surprise and sometimes to the surprise of those around me, I really like dancing—and very, very intensely, at that. The music that tends to get play on club dance floors happens be much of the music I play on my unlimited Spotify premium account, and you can fact check such an admission since I decidedly ignored Spotify’s offer to not post my "now listening to” activity on Facebook. Social media keeps us all a bit more honest, does it not?

While i apparently enjoy dancing, I can never shake the visceral effect of hundreds of bodies primed for some kind of sexual satisfaction hovering—bouncing, even—so near to me. It’s predatorial. I’ve found “the club” to more often exist as a meat market than dance floor-centric playground for adults. Honestly, neither interests me much, but the former is often repulsive and offensive!

In case you cannot tell, I don’t much enjoy “clubbing,” in theory or practice.

The club I visited in Boston my freshman year was terrible. The clubs I visited in Manhattan over winter break were terrifying. The clubs I visited in London were, well, novel enough to distract from their utter ridiculousness, and I promised myself I would enjoy dancing with my friends more than I gawked and wept at the fall of man as it occurred around me.

The first club was a six-split-level behemoth very seriously called the “Piccadilly Institute” located in the Piccadilly Circus district, a lurid place that inspired less than fond reminiscences of Times Square. On each split level of the “Institute” is a unique 'club experience.’ So, instead of one hilariously named hedonistic hell-on-earth, there were SIX—UNDER ONE ROOF—complete with their own aesthetics, DJs, bars, and patronage. Let me tell you about some of them!

  • CHAMBER had the aesthetic of Kelly Clarkson’s “Behind These Hazel Eyes” video and played all the latest and greatest pop hits—I think the DJ spun Pitbull & Ke$ha’s latest #1 hit “Timber” a grand total of four times over the course of the night! At one point, Sarah and I lost Christian amidst a sea of older men, but I’m sure he made out just fine. 
  • DECADIA played those seven 90s house songs you know and love and had this fabulous rubix cube-inspired floor that flashed in three very exciting patterns! Most Decadia dwellers did not seem to be there to dance much, but rather alternately point at the floor and ogle my American girl friends.
  • CLINIC was my favorite mostly because it made the least sense. To begin with, its name is “Clinic,” which is the closest a Piccadilly room name comes to the dizzying heights cleared by the names of the world’s worst gay clubs. When you ascend the stairs into “Clinic,” you find yourself standing before a white wall sporting many faint eyeballs—perhaps to suggest that I will be watched while I am inside “Clinic"—genius! Venture a little further in and discover a dozen white mannequins (male and female) hanging from the ceiling! The "Institute” probably has some genius reasoning behind this particular choice, but I don’t think I will learn that until at earliest mid-way through my study abroad experience. The most exciting feature of “Clinic” awaits you far into the dance floor—raised stages upon which one can show off their finest moves as no one watches! I found the raised stages to be offer fascinating social experiments. At one point, Christian, Sarah, and I climbed onto one to shake our respective asses, and we were joined by a group of ambiguously ethic strangers who proceeded to dance in the same small, rail-enclosed space as us without once acknowledging our presence! Is this some sort of English rule of club etiquette I do not yet know? Nevermind, the DJ is playing a deep house remix of Nicki Minaj’s “Starships,” and I am just so excited to be here!!!

Our experience at the “Institute” was an exhilarating primer in the British club experience. I failed to mention that all nine of us LAMDA students-to-be attended both club outings, which is funny enough to consider: “Hello English club patrons! We are nine American actors with varying temperaments and we’re excited to be here in your country so we’re going to dance very aggressively now! Some of us don’t want to be at a club much but came for the group experience! We’re still jet lagged, scared, and confused, but we sure know how to two-step and lip sync!”

This modus operandi carried us to our Saturday night outing as well. We didn’t plan on winding up at another club, but after visiting several closed pubs, we defaulted on an inter-dependence that returned us to Piccadilly Circus. We really tried to resist the pull of the club this time. Most of us wanted a drink, some of us wanted to save money, and Jae wanted Chinese Food. We wandered for a while around what was presumably Chinatown looking for the something to satisfy the aforementioned disparate desires before all nine of us almost got in a fight about wasting time, lacking a destination, and being nine different people who are still a little tired and culture shocked. Before we could really perfect a nine-part harmony on the words, “what’s the plan,” we encountered a most magical creature called a promoter.

You may know of club promoters. They are odd, motivated, often frisky and like to make offers that sound like, “I can get you five girls in for free if you get rid of two of your male party members.”

Well, we found one who made us an offer regarding a club called “Grace,” which would allow the party of nine to remain intact. We took said offer and found “Grace,” which was filled with mostly middle-aged men and had only one room with a lot of crazy lighting that seemed surprisingly in-sync with each each minute musical movement of every song. There was also fog!

Perhaps we had wandered and bickered far too long because after a little over an hour, some Red Hot Chili Peppers song played, we all got very into it (“American rock music, yeah!”), and then the club was closed for the night.

We walked 40 minutes back to our dorm house and climbed the stairs up to the kitchen. Christian made pasta for all hungry hearts. I ate greek yogurt and granola. Much Beyoncé was played. A jolly good time was had by all—and without a cover charge!

We start classes at LAMDA this week, so the clubbing shall (thankfully, hopefully) cease for the time being. The impromptu kitchen gatherings and late nights co-existing in the TV/Study room shall (thankfully, hopefully) persist.

This Afternoon in the Cemetary

Michael John Ciszewski

Today, I will remember my umbrella.

We’ve had astonishing luck with the weather here in London thus far. Today is day six. I’ve not yet been caught walking in any severe bout of rain, and I’ve spent quite some time ambling about the mews, roads, and lanes of Londontown. Certainly I’ve survived the fall of an English drizzle upon my well-coiffed golden crown of hair, but I’ve not yet been threatened by much more.

Yesterday, I narrowly dodged walking home in a downpour by staying late at our LAMDA first day welcome party and having another complimentary glass of wine. Isn’t that a statement! I’m a fortunate boy!

Our first full day at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts was equal parts exhilarating and overwhelming. For starters, I’ve not had to meet such a large number of new people since I began studying at the School of Theatre 3+ years ago. As Christian, Jae, Caleb and I neared the end of our precipitation-free morning walk to the school’s premises on Talgarth Road, I felt long-dormant butterflies begin to flutter around my gut.

My first shining moment of social discourse came when a program head, Debbie, took attendance. I waited and waited for my name to be called. “Michael?” “Hi!” Debbie began to move forward to a name that began with the “S” consonant sound. I very immediately mistook this for her trying to pronounce my last name, so I interjected with all the projection of a young actor with a good bit of voice training, “CISZEWSKI,” before very quickly remembering I am a fool. Debbie kindly humored me and asked for the pronunciation it seemed I so desperately needed to supply her.

I am reminded of the great frequency with which I spoke (or asserted) my full name at each and every opportunity my freshman year at BU.

Furthermore, there is a popular belief regarding growth in the School of Theatre that originates with Paula Langton. She says we grow in a spiral, continually encountering similar, essential events—challenges and obstacles, successes and opportunities—as we grow. I find relief and truth in this notion, and if I apply it to my first few moments at LAMDA, perhaps I am right on track.

After morning pleasantries and timetable distribution and explanation, we had a nearly two-hour lunch break during which a rather large group of friends—new and BU—took a stroll into the Hammersmith neighborhood in which LAMDA resides. Those without lunch found a lovely little patisserie at which they purchased sandwiches. We stood outside in great number and congested the local walkways, making enjoyably surface conversation on our origins and backgrounds back in the States.

It began to drizzle as sandwiches were finished and we began to walk into the neighborhood to explore a bit more. We happened upon a beautiful, small cemetery. Many of the weathered, moss-covered tombstones had begun to lean into their earth on one side, giving the cemetery the appearance of a lush, green mouth abnormally replete with jagged, crooked teeth. I lingered behind the group a bit to indulge in the somber, graceful dignity of the place. I recalled an anecdote Mark Cohen shared with our class before we left Boston. According to some lore, a soul that dies on the British Isles must remain there forever, as ghosts cannot travel through or over water. I shared this with a new friend named Eliot who trailed the group with me. I’m not sure how he spells his name exactly, but Eliot met my story with several almost unbelievable tales of near-death experiences growing up in France and Brazil.

Our afternoon memento mori was extended by a fascinating first lecture on the English Kings of Shakespeare’s histories to prepare us our visit today to Hampton Court Palace, seeing Royal Shakespeare Company’s Richard II starring David Tennant tonight, and working on the histories as our first performance experience at LAMDA.

I suppose we’re off and well on our way.

I’m still having adjusting my sleep schedule to Greenwich Mean Time—I’ve been falling asleep around 9 PM and waking for an odd, restless hour checking Facebook at 2 AM before returning to sleep and ultimately starting my day at 6:30. The sleep has been fitful; the dreams have been fascinating.

Christian, Caleb, and Jae just finished watching some old British game shows in the TV/Study room. Before we walk to Hammersmith, I’m off to remember my umbrella—just in case.