“This is America”

“This is America”

“This is America,” acclaimed sushi chef Atsushi “Art” Hayakawa said with emphasis a second time. “This country gave me a life. A wife, a family, a restaurant. I want to give something back.”

I’ll reveal as to what was that gift back to the country he now considers his home because it was one of the many surprises of an unforgettable night in Atlanta, GA. Like the glorious meal of Japanese sushi delights my camera team and I enjoyed with relish and smiles, this chance dinner at a sushi restaurant tucked away in a strip mall off Buford Highway had all ingredients of a dish you never forget.

It was the manner in which Chef Hayakawa said “This is America” that made me listen with such respect. In an era where our elected leaders are determined to dictate as to whom they feel should be deemed an “American,” this accidental meeting nearly brought me to tears. It was that emotional.

Chef Hayakawa’s journey began at the age of 14, when he shared a sushi meal with his father. Like the potent wasabi that burned his nostrils and other senses, he knew sushi would be his life, a culinary art that would be his passion. At 15, he left school to study with a sushi master and for nine years, he studied and refined his craft with commitment and drive. At 24, he left his native Sapporo, Japan for the United States, much to the chagrin of his sushi master, who chose not speak to former student in response to his departure.

In 1991, Chef Hayakawa landed in the southeastern part of the country, beginning a new journey in Atlanta. He paid his dues, earning the sponsorship that would lead him to a green card, that time-honored golden ticket to the American Dream. In 2008, Chef Hayakawa opened his own establishment, Sushi House Hayakawa. In 2017, as the restaurant hones in on its 10th anniversary, the affable Hayakawa, is now considered to oversee one of the 12 most authentic sushi restaurants in the United States. And tonight, several cultures clashed in a communion of conversation, laughter and happy tears brought on by his trademarked wasabi bombs. (For the record, we ate three orders. He gave us one with an extra layer of that potent green goodness as a gift.)

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I couldn’t wait to get back to my hotel room tonight to document this evening in some fashion. And while I know this reads like, “Dear Diary, guess what happened to me tonight?” I don’t really care. Today was a good fuckin’ day to be alive, despite the current events on Capitol Hill as we enter a new political era that was only on view on “House of Cards” or “Veep.” I can’t help but burn with anger over a coterie of privileged “leaders” determined to turn their backs on the many men and women from overseas who have contributed mightily to the American Way. How can we disavow what is the true face of the American, a nation built on the backs and with the blood of so many immigrants?

But I digress…

How did we find Hayakawa? It was chance. We had wrapped a great day of interviews on the set of a film in its last days of principal photography. It was nearing dinner time and I declared sushi was in order. My audio tech conferred our digital oracle, The Google, and Sushi House Hayakawa was deemed the closest place. Little did we know we’d be heading for Tokyo, Japan in the process.

Instead of the usual Sapporo-fueled meal of spicy tuna rolls and tempura, we were treated to an experience that has a devout cult of loyalists, from Japan and elsewhere. An intimate dining spot of few tables and modest bar, Sushi House Hayakawa is an expert study of tastes, flavors and a near religious adherence to the art of sushi. Cell phones are not allowed. Reservations are requested. This is meant to be a personal experience to savor and enjoy without distractions or noise.

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Photo: Men’s Journal

Chef Hayakawa’s crisp white uniform was punctuated with a red terry cloth slash of read from the towel wrapped around his head. His hands had the delicacy of touch reserved for piano masters or surgeons, so skillful was his preparation of each piece of sushi. Our incredibly knowledgeable waiter, young, precise and absolutely American, treated us with respect and care. Yet, it those damn wasabi bombs he recommended that made us reach out to Hayakawa with a boisterous “Thank you.” His response? In addition to telling us the now-trademarked menu item was borne out or a prank, he gave us one more round with even MORE wasabi. Once dinner was over, I asked our waiter to see if Chef Hayakawa would pose for a picture with us. And this culinary master, who promised not to break my camera phone, posed and laughed and opted to stay with us for nearly an hour after closing time.

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I love telling stories for a living, but the narrative Hayakawa shared with us had us wrapt in attention. That wonderful crooked smile. His self-deprecating wit. His not knowing that he was serving Harrison Ford one memorable night. Or the bittersweet encounter with a smiling Paul Walker one week before his untimely death in a car accident. He was a trove of anecdotes, all delivered in a heavily accented, but warm voice that had us in his thrall.

Our meeting Chef Hayakawa reaffirms the incredible fortune one is gifted when they take to the road for work. We see and hear so much as we move from location to location, meeting a gallery of folks that represent all that can be wonderful in this world. Chef Hayakawa’s loyalists go back to his restaurant because he endeavors to give them an experience unlike any other. The demands of populist sushi cuisine were excised nearly two years ago from his menu. Gone are the California Rolls and other Americanized offerings found elsewhere. (And no, the spicy tuna roll is NOT a Japanese tradition.) Tucked into this mini mall, surrounded by Korean-owned establishments in the traditional American south, we found a true Japanese experience. It was a rare chance to be part of a narrative that was spun organically and without expectations.

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As we prepared to leave, Chef Hayakawa asked us to offer our support of his new, full-time sushi chef, a southern American named Terry. We noted that we were surprised to see Terry behind the bar. He told us he’s worked with several different Asian apprentices from all over, but Terry was truly unique. He “got it” and after a year and a half, he’d promoted him to full time not too long ago. But it was his saying, “I don’t see race” that caught our attention, too. Because “This is America” and he wanted to give something back. It would be Terry who would now benefit from his teachings, taking his art further into the world in a new way.

What a privilege meeting Chef Hayakawa tonight. I’ll never forget how he ran out to us in the parking lot with cold bottles of water. He was worried since beer was consumed, we would be subjected to the strict DUI laws of the area.

Now, about the sushi master in Japan who refused to talk to Chef Hayakawa for over 20 years? The former student, who makes a point to go back to Sapporo every two years, would call on his master each time to no avail. But five years ago, on one particular trip, master and student were reunited. He showed at the appointed hour and for 45 minutes, no one spoke. They sat in total silence…until the moment the master pulled out a bottle of sake and poured two glasses. “Drink,” he said in a gruff tone. Drink they did. And then he said to his former student, “Good job.” He’d been made aware of Hayakawa’s success in the U.S. The student cried, nose running, tears flowing. He was overjoyed. As for his master, he merely added, “Drink” in the same gruff tone. And drink they did.

I think of my father and mother, Mexican immigrants who also designed and curated their own version of the Dream. far from home and without the resources of family or government assistance. I think of the many immigrants who continue to work their guts out to ensure a better life for those in their care. I think of our often painful history in treating those we have labeled “The Other.” How can we reward these legacies with walls, internment camps and ideological terrorism? All we need to say to those who have made such a difference in so many lives is simply, “Good job, my fellow American.”

None of us know what’s in store as we venture into dark and uncertain territory. But tonight, four disparate lives were brought together in the name of friendship. New loyalists were born and we hope to bring back friends and family to Chef Hayakawa’s restaurant without hesitation. As to those ignorant many who need to be reminded of the beauty of such occurrences, I say:

This is America.”

 

“Shame”

“Shame”

“A very simple statement
A very simple crime
A lot of grief reflecting in how we spend our time
I want to change things
I want to make a change
I’m tired of spending time agonizing yesterdays”

— From “Shame” — Written by Martha Davis, Performed by The Motels

What’s your secret shame? You know, the thing you do when no one is looking?

What is that one vice or action you judge yourself for the most when you look in the mirror?

That loss of control we feel when we indulge in our secret shame is on par with an electric burst of adrenaline. It’s when you let a sly smile cross your face, that sweet release of euphoria when you reach that peak moment. It is a high, one that seduces you to keep going back again and again for another hit.  And it is always followed by your telling yourself, “This is the last time” or “Starting June 1st, I’ll get back on track!”

But you don’t. Because all you want to do is indulge in that behavior you’ve let overwhelm your sanity and self-control. Because it feels that bloody good.

Initially, this essay was going to be titled “Failure,” but I thought better of it. Shame can be overcome. Failure is a trap that can keep you locked up in a zone comprised of a darker shame. It is when you just give up and when it comes to addiction, you can’t just give up. It is a dangerous path, one that can have longterm effects and consequences.

I know I can’t reverse the decisions I’ve made during these last weeks. I can’t blame Fatlanta anymore. I’ve been home for nearly two weeks, embarking on a new project that is taking me to Vancouver. I cannot un-eat the food I’ve been attacking with unsteady hands of late. It’s been consumed and absorbed. I can only feel and see the effects daily and that sense of shame is now one that has me staring at the mirror with anger and disgust.

In six weeks, I am turning 50. While the excitement builds to this milestone, I have a few outstanding narrative threads that have yet to be resolved. The biggest one? Being a total bully to myself when it comes to this issue of food and wellness. Yet, instead of allowing the excitement of this milestone to lead me to a stronger place, I am a woeful mess right now. I can feel the anxiety throwing me off balance. Anger is present where hope should be right now. It is roiling the sanity I have worked so hard to reconstruct, letting frustration and outbursts of emotion spill out and over without warning at times.

I’ve been battling over what is keeping me in this dark space, but the source is both personal and social. The first layer? I didn’t think I’d be living the life of a gay spinster, locked away from potential suitors like Catherine Sloper in The Heiress or Laura Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie. I am probably skirting closer to becoming Miss Havisham in Great Expectations now. I held a torch for Tucker so long, I developed muscles in my arm I didn’t know existed. Yet, after seven years, my self-made prison isn’t so much the pain of leaving him behind when I did. Not anymore.

The damage I inflicted on myself over Tucker pales in comparison to what I’ve let take its place. The new layer is playing caretaker, scratch that, enabler to someone who has yet to understand that being an eternal dreamer doesn’t create a dream life. It is the most selfish way to live, keeping people in a state of stasis until YOU figure YOUR shit out. It is cruel and unforgivable. Anger is holding up my house of late. Anger and self-defeat to be exact. And it is punishing everyone around me, keeping most us from reaching new destinies in the name of “family.”

I hate feeling lonely and rejected, but the pitiful attempts of my meeting men are merely my picking at an old scab. It fills me with a different shade of shame because I am still in my prime, dammit. I should not have to fear my sexual self, much less repress it. Yet, because I can’t control the anger I feel, I have opted to rebuild the prison in which I’ve locked myself away. I’m getting heavier, covering myself up again. I am returning to the protective embrace of comfort foods because I want to feel the warmth of something loving and familiar, even though I am well aware of the only outcome of this reunion. I am angry that I don’t have a relationship to assure me that “It’s going to be okay.” Dammit, I don’t want to be fixed! I just want to be reassured by someone’s care and open heart. And that tender kiss, elusive and beautiful, has never felt so out of reach to me.

Layer three? It is bad enough we are living in a world without grace or accountability, where shamelessness has replaced decency and compassion. All we do is rip each other apart with lies, innuendo and avarice. We speak in tones of violence because we have to be heard above the din, leaving a body count as proof of being heard. We have leaders who spout the most reprehensible things for attention and justify their destruction of all civility.

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We denounce political correctness as being the enemy of a tottering state. The demand of restoring decency and peace is not being “PC.” We are surrounded by varying degrees of terrorists, all of whom think they are just and fighting a holy war built on a religious dogma that can only end in death. That’s the biggest, ugliest shame of all, forcing your will on billions of people who just want to live without fear!

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As I near the end of this post, I feel a different kind of shame. How can I wallow in my own self-pity when so much is off balance in this world? I can only say, I am no less flawed or confused as any other human at the moment. Yet, I can scream into this void, a blank page onto which I can spout all that ails me on the inside right now. Clarity does take form as I let this my thoughts unravel and let my insanity release its stranglehold.

Perhaps we all need to understand what shame means again.

Perhaps we all need to remind ourselves that accountability takes more strength than merely Tweeting obscenities and lies or shoving world leaders out of our way for a photo opportunity.

Perhaps we need to stop letting our fear keep us from turning away from the woes of our world because it is too hard and what does it matter anyway?

Perhaps I need to put down the fork and take a long look at the person struggling to become better and stronger again.

Perhaps it is time to stop being a coward and start loving the one person who has designs on making a difference, not use depression as an excuse to keep my addictions alive. What good am I to the rest of the world if I can’t withstand that which is within my power to fix and heal?

I know I can’t get better alone. None of us can. Neither can this planet. Shame is not always a bad thing. Shame can also keep us from making the same mistakes over and over. Not because failure or flaws are “bad,” because we must let what is “good” about ourselves cast a light to help other lost souls find their way back to the group, too.

Naive? Perhaps.

People have become quite adept in finding new ways to peddle their brands of hate, which will only succeed in making the world a lot sicker and dangerous. But to combat this sinister world order, we have to believe in the good within ourselves again. Therein lies the need for empowerment and education! To stay in this state of isolation would be more than a shame, I recognize that. No more agonizing yesterdays. It’s exhausting and self-defeating. Perhaps it is high time I learn to love locally, then act in the name of goodness…globally.

 

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

— Dylan Thomas

 

“Beautiful”

“Beautiful”

“Beauty’s where you find it
Not just where you bump and grind it
Soul is in the musical
That’s where I feel so beautiful
Magical, life’s a ball
So get up on the dance floor…”

— From “Vogue” by Madonna/Shep Pettibone

I started this entry with a basic question:

Do you remember the last time you felt beautiful?

It was my intent to deconstruct that specific moment when you knew you could express yourself without fear of being called out for being “different.” It’s that version of yourself that is obfuscated by societal norms or misguided attempts from our parents to “protect” us from a judgmental world. This post was not supposed to be about outward beauty, although that is a prison of different making. As for the rest of us who haven’t scored big at the genetic lottery, we tend to water down the impact of the word “beauty” to its most superficial definition. What do we do with the concept of having a bold personality, of being able to express a powerful sense of verve when we’re young? Why do many of us spend much our adult lives, countless dollars and more trying to coax that child back into existence in the end? Does that qualify as being beautiful, too?

As I discussed this post with my boss and best sparring partner, I found myself unable to defend my position on what I felt meant being beautiful. He kept leading me outside of the boxed context of what I insisted was the point of this piece.  He led the debate beyond what is “pleasing to the senses or mind aesthetically.” Before I could even begin to write about “beauty,” he insisted, I had to dig deeper into the complexity of this word.

Greek philosopher Plato maintained that beauty is a universal construct. We may not always recognize beauty through our senses. Each individual’s reaction can be triggered through a different means: sight, sound, smell, etc. Perhaps when we acknowledge something as being “beautiful,” it is because it is a potent reminder as to how our souls possess a wonderful sense of mystery.

The late English art critic John Berger opined that “seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak.” When we do begin to learn how to speak and we start amassing a vocabulary, we also start learning how to use these words to build declarative statements and opinions. These bloom into judgments, influenced and curated by those around us. From that point, how we “see” things in inextricably affected in the end by what we learn and by what we think we “know.”

Bridging Plato to Berger takes a bit more than the foundation I am laying here. Yet, I can see a link to a key moment in my childhood. Addressing the issues of the consequences of being bullied and the body dysmorphia/food addictions that continue to haunt me, which remain a key focus of this diary. So, my initial to my question was:

“I haven’t felt or deemed myself as being beautiful in a long time.”

I reference that hat glorious Spanish summer of 2014. I felt in control of my self and my soul. I felt powerful and limitless, just like I did up until the 4th grade when I became aware of what I saw as being “me” was “different” from the rest of the pack. More, once I understood the hurtful words and opinions hurled at me through elementary school junior high from those who rebuked me mercilessly, I opted to hide much of what made me “me.” And I hurled those same words back to others weaker than me with decided force and intent. My concept of beauty, the image of myself, has never been the same since.

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I think about the moment I thought I understood what beauty could mean. Given my middle class life, of course it was built around media. As I discovered much later, I wasn’t alone in my nascent gay self, pouring over Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Interview and New York magazines, drawn to the light of these glossy pages like a pilgrim making the journey to Lourdes. It is no coincidence that I hid here as much as I did in the literary and musical testaments to cafe society that I regularly snuck into the house from the library. Dad worked in textiles, which first opened a window into fashion, then all things New York City, for me. It didn’t take much to to begin whispering the names of photographers, editors, models and designers with solemnity of a prayer during Sunday mass: Avedon. Penn. Elgort. Newton. Scavullo. Saint Laurent. Givenchy. Dior. Lacroix. Lagerfeld. Halston. Versace. Ellis. Dovima. Turlington. Evangelista. Campbell. Tilberis. Vreeland. Wintour. They were all what I deemed as being “beautiful.”

I felt so superior in thinking that no one knew who they were in Pico Rivera. In reality, this world shielded me from those who tormented me in the hallways of South Ranchito and Meller Jr. High. I knew one day, I’d be able to move amongst them, the ultimate smalltown boy revenge. What it really meant was that I had capitulated to bourgeois materialism in the guise of being cultivated.

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Looking back at this now, was this fascination (obsession), really the best definition of “beauty?” Wasn’t this realm of artifice derived from fashion and fashionistas merely examples of what is simply “pretty?” Did it fall under the tenets of beauty attributed to Plato? What did it reveal about me at a young age, chubby, acne’d and peculiar in terms of my own personal code of aesthetics? Was I merely wading into this pool of superficiality, engaging in a clichéd game of middle class rebellion because I hated NOT being one of these people? Perhaps. Oh yes, perhaps. Misguided or not, memorizing the pages of Judith Krantz’s “Scruples” or Jackie Collins’s “Hollywood Wives” left me breathless and eager to get the hell out of the SGV as soon as I could. Needless to say, I sold myself short.

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It is no irony that I became a publicist, that messenger of all things glittering and glamorous. I battled with never being as cool as the message, even at the peak of years at 20th Century Fox. I lived and died at the altar of the Hollywood experience. I needed not have bothered. What we should find is truly beautiful is not always the thing we see outwardly. Yet, we continue to bandy about with words that act more as hyperbole than being catalysts of profundity.

I continue to grapple with long cycles of depression, excess eating and overindulgence, which includes the manner I continue to spend my money on material things. It would be easy to fault a steady diet of glitz and glitter as the source of my demons. I won’t, because I still admire the craft of couture, which is a true art to me. I knew what I was doing then and now. As to when I’ll take firm control of those urges, I won’t ever stop trying to compartmentalize them until they torment me no more. Yet, after the debacle of “Fatlanta,” I am still faced with that blasted question: “Do you remember the last time you felt beautiful?”

Now that this conversation has started, I realize I have much to learn and understand about what is “beautiful.” It is more than my long held ideal of becoming a gentleman in the style of my cinematic hero Cary Grant. As for the current state of fashion and fashion magazines, the joy is less apparent in this renewed era of status mongering and greed. Nor can my definition be something on par of Madonna’s exquisite paean to other icons of film glamour, “Vogue.” But a singular truth can be found within these beats, “beauty is where you find it.”

As I begin to redefine my own standards of beauty, I realize something is happening at long last. I am finding myself again in these discussions that stir my collective senses.  I am learning again thanks to an evolving family of friends who choose and want to think beyond what is accepted or acceptable. This time feels so much like Spain. The arrested development that I’ve allowed to set in has no place in this quest for wellness. Perhaps what makes us beautiful is believing in the desire to grow and to be challenged by a world, even one in flux.

Given our current political state of ugly at the moment, we have to train our eyes to see beyond what lies what ahead or even what we think we’ve learned about people, even ourselves. Perhaps beauty is the possibility afforded by being better and stronger and willing to accept our flaws, to finding the willingness to build them into strengths.

Only when we allow for acceptance and tolerance can we best repel the rhetoric from people who dare keep us asunder in a state of homogenized hatred.

Only when we begin to understand the true nature of beauty will we be able to say, “Life’s a ball!” and just fucking dance already.

We are forever accountable for our journeys and decisions. Perhaps that’s what I’ve come to finally learn:

Be your true self. Be beautiful.

Cary Grant photo by Richard Avedon

Dovima & Ray Bolger photo by Richard Avedon

Kristen McMenamy & Nadja Auermann photo by Richard Avedon

Gia Carangi in YSL photo by Helmut Newton

Knowing when to leave…

Knowing when to leave…

 

“All these memories, too much to lose

No one ever leaves you

I don’t need faith, I don’t need truth

No one ever leaves you…”

At times, I feel like my romantic past is some Spotify playlist I wish I could delete. Bad enough the good, the bad and the ugly of it all gets drudged up with the appropriate cues. Like the Lianne La Havas track, “Good Goodbye,” which I quoted above. It made a train ride last December to see my best college friend a wee bit melancholy, as if the encroaching grey skies weren’t enough proof of my fluctuating emotional state.

Getting over Him has been a less than a good goodbye. Actually, it’s been the longest. hitting its sixth anniversary and threatening to be held over for a seventh. And then I saw that Facebook photo around the time of that train ride south.

Social media is just a Pandora’s Box, really. It’s where memories, the wonderful and painful, fly about with ninja-like precision, triggered to pounce without warning. Hell, NASA should take interest. There they were. Looking so happy, their megawatt grins illuminating what I’ve tried and repeatedly fail to suppress: I’m single. He’s so moved on and I haven’t. That post-holiday tableau, where the Ex (and the Current) were surrounded by three adorable cher enfants, X’s nephews, did catch me off guard. Fuckin’ Facebook ninjas. And without hesitation, they sliced through an already compromised heart.

Every holiday season, I find it too easy to get into this fragile state. I joke that the only thing holding my heart together during Christmas is chewing gum and a prayer. God, it drives me crazy. The rational part of me knows that I’m idealizing the past; that it’s not so much about Him as it is missing being consciously coupled. Instead, I let these moments, like seeing this picture, dictate how this once happy and important part of my past looks so much happier without me.

Sensory elements surrounded that train ride down memory lane, from the music I was listening to the smell of warmed up leftover Chinese food and the cheap scents of fragrance gift sets worn by the passengers. Yet it was all overwhelmed by the stench of morose, self-pity. All I thought then was how it couldn’t it have been me in that pic? Just like the one where we went with his sister and brother in-law on a weekend trip to Napa. It was before that couple grew into a family of five. I was part of their narrative, not the short story titled “The Crazy Ex-Boyfriend Who Refused to Be Satisfied.”

It wasn’t such a short story. It was a five-year chronicle. But I wasn’t satisfied. I’m never satisfied. Something is always lacking. Someone is always disappointing me. It’s never enough. It has to be better. He has to be better.

Tomorrow has always been a big word for me. It’s the catch-all to validate all of my bad behaviors; the extended mixes of all my bad tracks. It’s an archive filled with mantras of wellness and awareness. Tomorrow always arrives, yet I still choose to take another plunge into the deep end of stagnation. In reality, being an Adele song works better for Adele. At least she gets paid for her pain. But, dammit, right on cue, I am thinking, “It’s true. Never mind, I’ll find someone like you.”

Someone like “Him.”

 

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In an era where we are able to register an instant “like” for every post we see, why is it that we can’t seem to hit that button for ourselves? All these years of wanting to court a positive state of perception, of being liked, have yet to wane thanks to social media sites. It’s this perfect storm of shit for people like me. Inflating insecurities as you seek the adoring adulation of your “followers.” And through it all, we obfuscate our self-worth. It’s relentless and dangerous. Yet, what’s the solution? Hide your profiles? Take the news feed of your life into real time by being with the people who don’t enable this precarious state of existence?

It helps to put this down on paper. It helps to see what lurks in my brain on this page. I go back and re-read, changing things every so slightly. Yes, sometimes it does last in love and sometimes it hurts. That happens to all of us. Still, I can’t help but scream to myself, “Where is that someone like You?!”

What will You/he think of all this heavy emoting? You’re/He’s gonna notice a pattern of sameness here. If You’re/he’s not going to be the final chapter, will he instead become another entry in this log of self-reproach?

If I could tell Him anything today it would be to say, “I wish I didn’t lose You somewhere between love and death. And I’m sorry I threw you away, because I did do just that. Sucks. I did like You. I loved You, in fact.”

You’d think after holding this fucking torch so long, I’d have better strength to hold it all together when it comes to Him.

“You’d say this is all there is

And every time you’d blink

You’d miss another piece of this wondrous world

All I’d ask is why you’d leave so soon

Everybody seems to

I don’t need faith I just want you

No one ever leaves you…”

No, I just do the leaving. That’s my jam.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sunday night. 

Sunday night. 

“Where are the windows? Where are the doors?

I haven’t the key to your heart anymore.

No one belongs where they’re not wanted.

You’re just a ghost.

And my heart is haunted…”

This is another Sunday night.

Quote: Mary Chapin Carpenter.