• Vince Pruis

Isolated Belonging

This year, 2020---the year of quaranmemes and more---has been the least lonely year of my life. Originally, I wanted to make this post into some sort of narrative---you know, with a plot---but I think it works best as a few scattered stories, with the assumption you're all familiar with the big points (pandemic, protests, presidential election, etc.). So what follows are some fragments of belonging found in a time defined by distancing.



January. Each year I start a new journal, black moleskin with blank pages. And each year I fill in my name, email, and "witty" response to As a reward on the first page (people never seem to get my humor). This year I write, for the very first time, In case of loss, please return to: Vince Pruis.


A week later, I take a selfie with my chai latte, red-smudged at the lip, while crying on a bench. I post the selfie to my Instagram close friends story, berating myself because earlier that morning I had decided to give the barista my name, and then I lost my nerve. Messages flood in, offers to call me by my name, or a nickname, in private---to address letters to Vincent----and I cry harder because today's the first day anyone's caught a glimpse of me the way I see myself. I decide to tell my parents, and spend the next week terrified, then fly back to Arizona for grad school. They'll learn later.


On the first day back at school, I minimize my anxious rocking so that it's just a pulse in my shoulders (I'm convinced most people can't spot it), and I rehearse in my head: I am Vince. You can call me Vince. Please call me Vince. My name is Vincent. You all know me by another name, but---here's a different one. I don't mean to inconvenience you, but you actually should have been calling me Vince this whole time; I was just too nervous to correct the head of the program four months ago, but anyway, I'm, I'm... I'm not sure I can do this. People are introducing themselves, and I can't do this. Then one of my classmates says, "I'm Aliyah, and I use she/her pronouns," and I stop breathing.


I don't feel when I take the breath to say "Call me Vince," but I know that I'm taking it because Aliyah's introduction has assured me there's at least one person in the room who is safe, who will listen, and I feel the anticipation that's slammed up against every introduction for the last five years recede, the aftermath of a tidal wave draining into the sea. I write more about this in "Call Me Vince," but these two moments---messages on a park bench and the unwitting support of my peer---they give me so much hope in knowing I am not alone.



In February, I go on a series of first dates---always making it clear that I'm aroace at the beginning---and I feel unbound. Suddenly I'm surrounded by other openly queer people, and we get to know each other without assumptions. On Valentine's Day, I go to a bar alone for my first drag show. Sitting on a high table, cheering over a mass of strangers that may or may not (definitely) exceed the fire code limit, I run my fingers along the silk-lining of my blazer to stay grounded in the crowd, and I beam when another person hops up onto the table to tell me I'm stunning, and beam even brighter when the third Taylor Swift song starts playing, because who knew drag performers loved T-Swift this much?


I leave early (too loud, too late, too many people) and walk home under the frozen stars, unafraid of the future they portend. After so many Valentine's Days of feeling like a fraud, of being scared that I could never love someone back the way they want me to, I'm starting to hope for an alterous love, an alterous future.



These first few months of the year, I become increasingly involved with Flagstaff's local Quaker meeting house, sitting silent with Friends for an hour each Sunday, then chatting over coffee about the work each person is doing: presenting at town hall, creating a community garden, mentoring people after they're released from prison, collaborating with another Quaker leader to host workshops on reparations with Indigenous people... The meeting house is a home without a hierarchy, and it's my first thought when I hear about the potential for a lockdown. The missed opportunity to grow with them is the first thing I mourn as the pandemic hits the US.


A week before in-person classes are cancelled due to COVID-19, I fill several pages of my journal with gratitude. A page of gratitude for the organizing done by my local Quaker meeting house. Gratitude for the land around me, spring blooming through the snow. Gratitude for the bus system, the way the glass in the covered bus stops is cut, in particular, shattering rainbows over those who wait. Gratitude for the friends I’ve made in my master's program, and for the dinner party I hosted where one of my new best friends left drunk on chocolate wine. Gratitude for the program itself.


On a mid-semester review of my progress, handed to me the week before spring break, the departmental paperwork has “Vincent Pruis” printed beneath my signature line. It’s the first official paperwork I have with my name on it. And it’s the main reason, I realize later, I don’t want to leave Arizona. The intense fear and joy of coming out have drained me, and concerns for the health of extended family members have me on edge, but 2020 feels like a year of promise. A birth of embrace for myself.


Then cancelations, lockdown; the pandemic is here.



It's April. I call my dad under the powerlines on the access road to my (now daily) quarantine hike, which is usually framed by two sessions of quarantine yoga, with an elaborate quarantine breakfast and long, lavender-quarantine-bubble-bath on either side. All are attempts by my failing-spaceship-body to pull out of the black-hole-quarantine-spiral.


“I think I need to come to Virginia,” I say. I can’t live alone in my apartment in Flagstaff, Arizona anymore. My roommate has been gone for almost a month, ICU beds in my county are full, and I’ve only logged on to participate in my now-online classes once since everything shut down. I thought, in the beginning, that staying in Flag would help keep me in the “school” mindset; I thought I didn’t want to leave this place I’d made my home, but staying is dangerous, and Katie left mid-March.


“I’ll come get you,” my dad promises. And I don’t tell anyone, but I’m so grateful he’s coming for me, because I can’t trust myself to travel on my own. Even the slightest disruption in routine feels too precarious for me, on the brink of disappearing; I’m collapsing, and I need to be gathered.


I weep after our call. In mourning for the life I’ve been building, but in gratitude, too. I weep after our call because I feel the fragile existence I’ve been sculpting, disintegrating. Because I risked so much to finally pursue truth in my life, instead of avoidance, yet I have no idea how I’ll handle confrontation in person with my family. And I weep, especially, because uncertainty is better than the alternative. This morning I’d had my first suicidal thought since my last emergency rescue---when my mom brought me home from a semester in Hyderabad in 2017. I weep.


My dad flies to Phoenix, rents a dark, medium-sized car, picks me up, and drives me across Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Virginia, to the house on Turtle Pond, a home where the deck cascades straight into a dock, and giant grass carp cast shadows over the turtles. He drives the whole way, keeping me safe.



Months pass. I move in slow motion. Online yoga, pausing the video often to pause, child’s pose. Herbal tea on the balcony---when it doesn’t rain---the scent of wild jasmine heavy in the humid, Southern air. One weekend, my family hikes a portion of the Appalachian Trail to see trilliums in bloom---three-petaled bursts of pink and white and purple consume the forest floor, steamed in light from the still-budding trees. I walk for hours each day. My parents still don’t always call me Vince, and I feel like we’re drifting apart, despite the nightly card games, the shared breakfasts, the most time in shared space since I was in elementary school.


I finish two classes at the last moment in May and take Incompletes for my two others---my professors and mentors are all so supportive. They know I have bipolar, and they accommodate me. I sleep in later and later each day, grateful for a bed, but terrified by the looming eviction crisis, by the COVID-related deaths of over 100,000 Americans, by the seeming general disregard for these fears.


Then protests erupt across the United States. A police officer has murdered George Floyd. More than 1,000 people have been murdered by police officers since the beginning of 2019. Newspaper articles are connecting COVID risk factors to systemic racism, newspapers are reporting on how the government is tear gassing protesters, newspapers are still my only link to a world noisier than our quiet neighborhood on Turtle Pond.


And I feel like my skin is tissue paper, like each blood cell is made of ice-spun-sugar, like the coward I so often am, afraid of loudness, of crowds (especially now)... but also like speaking the truth only matters if people can hear it. So I suggest we go to a protest.



My family makes signs, goes to DC, and marches, and attends vigils, and watches vans full of police whip by. My mom says this summer is the first time she's protested. I go to another protest with only my dad. It's bilingual---organizers speaking in both English and Spanish---and we hold up intersections, pause for speeches in front of the precinct, march to the White House. My dad---a quiet, conflict-avoidant, conservatively raised midwestern man, whom I've never heard raise his voice---marches next to me, past lines of officers in riot gear, chanting "get in the streets, and fuck the police: no justice, no peace!" At home, we talk about abolition and meaningful change, and we all become more careful with the words we say, considering their impact and implications. We learn together, relearn each other.



Every afternoon I paddle board a few miles around the lake's rim, then practice yoga on the board and swim. Soon Katie starts coming out with me to sun between water and sky, then our mom comes, too. I tug them out on inflatables---a giant swan or a big yellow circle---water weeds catching the line between us. We tread the runoff water and laugh, forgetful of the snapping turtles, fearful of the geese. Some days my dad will paddle by in his kayak, circling us and pointing out herons along the shore. I've always been close with my family, but this summer is the first time I've been close as more myself, as someone who is not constantly at an internal distance, monitoring. Katie tells me, as we float one day, that I have cute nostrils----they look like strawberries. I wrap myself into different poses on the board for photos and feel only joy when I see them. My body is a friend to me.



July. Two of my younger cousins spend a week with my family at Turtle Pond. On my birthday we all drive to the coast and hike a mile through forest and boardwalked swamp to the ocean. We drop our towels and snacks by some cattails and wade out over the rocks, through the muck, until the salt-searing water is at our chests, then a jellyfish drifts between us, tentacles tangling our limbs, and salt isn't the only searing. One after the other, we each shriek and start struggling toward the shore. After searching for shark teeth on the beach, we only swim once more before heading back.


As we start our return hike, we see a woman struggling with a cooler, baby carrier, backpack, and toddler. And there's a pandemic happening, and we're not supposed to talk to strangers---much less touch their stuff----but my mom offers to help her carry her things anyway. She tells us about other hikes in the area, and her baby giggles, and her little boy runs circles around us the whole way back, his curls bouncing in the most adorable fashion as he races my youngest cousin. I realize I miss this, these little moments of connection as you help a stranger carry her cooler for a mile, getting a glimpse of lives you probably won't encounter again. It feels magical, like all these nights we spend watching fireflies blink through the trees from our porch.



Weeks later, I'm watching a movie with my parents, scrolling through my phone when I see that a friend has posted something transphobic----on accident, I think. I tell them it's harmful, and they say that my pain is a "tactic" to "cancel" them, that they won't consider it as harmful because they're just trying to "keep the conversation open." Open... to what? I have a panic attack. I get to my room before my parents notice and try to breathe. I can't be alone; I need to talk to someone, but I don't know who to call. After a few desperate moments, my fingers numbing around the edges of my phone case, I realize that not all my friends are back on the other side of the country: I call my sister down from her room upstairs, asking for some tea.


When she finds me, snot roping me to the floor, Katie hands me the mug, then sits down beside me and wraps her arms over my shoulders and talks until my heart rate slows. Neither of us are minding our phones. So when my mom comes down the stairs to my room late at night, my dad close behind, she finds us already surrounded by tissues on the floor. She sits down, too, to tell us her dad has died. He had recovered from COVID earlier that week, but collapsed on the floor the day before he was scheduled for a delayed heart surgery. We all sob on the floor of the basement, together.


My mom travels to Michigan, to my grandpa's house, before the rest of us, to spend time in his space and to help plan the memorial service. She calls me as I pack to let me know that I don't have to come if I feel unsafe or uncomfortable with my Trump supporting extended family. She also wants me to know that she's been laying the groundwork with everyone to make sure they use my name, and that she'll beat up anyone who disrespects me. She offers to find whoever made me cry earlier this week and beat them up, too. No one gets beat up, but I do decide to go.


My grandpa's memorial is the least stressful family gathering I've ever been to. One of my aunts doesn't want to go at first either, or to subject her kids to "that," but her sisters reassure her, "the person you're scared of won't be there anymore." You see, I have some good memories of my grandfather, and he was an artist and an inventor, but he was also an abuser. Watching my mom and four aunts share their stories of being raised by an abusive Latvian refugee made sense of so much family history, the generational trauma. That week was painful, but there was also a lot of healing.


At the masked service, I say hello to a cousin and their partner. After I walk away, they ask my mom what it means that I'm gender nonconforming, and upon hearing my mom's explanation, the partner lights up: "That's how I've always felt! I didn't know people could do that!" My mom's excited to tell me about this, and she says she's so proud of me, that just by existing as myself I can help people. And I'm so proud of her, for learning, for her openness, for embracing people so lovingly and fighting for me so fiercely.


While we are in Michigan, we stay with my dad's parents. When my grandma tries to say it doesn't really matter what name she calls me, my mom interrupts her: "Of course it matters, how could you not even bother to learn the name of your own grandchild?" When my grandparents begin to rail on the "ridiculous protesters, all violent rioters," my dad informs them that he's been to the protests this summer, so maybe they should ask him about his own experience. My mom reminds me that if "keeping the peace" requires destroying my own or excluding the truth, it isn't about peace. Seeing my parents do this, I become less scared of initiating conversations.



When I move back to Arizona for the fall semester, I have a new roommate, a friend from my program. We hike around the Kachina peaks together each week and have two classes together and watch shows together and dye our hair together and get kicked out of a class together. We're kicked out for reportedly making other students uncomfortable by pointing out harmful ideologies perpetuated by class readings and in discussion. When we're forced out of the class ("shut up or drop out" with the unspoken third option, get failed), another friend brings us lentil soup and home baked rosemary bread. Some of our peers check in and thank us for saying what they were too nervous to bring up themselves. My mentor reassures me as I spiral through a former-teacher's-pet identity crisis: what makes you a "good student" in high school and undergrad isn't what makes you a "good student" in graduate school. Always ask "how does this theory shape the world around us; what's its use and what's its potential to harm?" My roommate jokes that she's corrupted me (teachers never seem to like her, despite the fact that her work is always much better than mine), and I'm grateful for this.


I'm grateful that for the first time I'm prioritizing speaking up over my own grades, and grateful that this friend gave me the courage to do so (even though she's only joking about being the cause). I'm grateful, mostly, for the overwhelming support from my peers and friends and advisors. This experience is extremely stressful and painful, and I feel demonized by the professor, but it ends up not being permanently damaging to me---it's much harder for my roommate---and though I feel somewhat betrayed by people who stay in the class, unwilling to risk grades for speaking up, I also feel solidarity from other peers and my committee members. I'm an anxious wreck this year, but I'm also---somehow---less afraid.



Through the semester, I spend increasing time online, messaging people. Some are friends from Washington, others from my cohort, and more whom I've only ever known through social media. I also download TikTok. The algorithm and my friends start to suggest that maybe my neurodivergence is a little more obvious than I once thought, and maybe that can be freeing.


(a quick break from the present tense)


I was an intensely lonely child, and I felt this looming presence of unbridgeable distance even through the beginning of this year. As a kid I tended to latch onto relationships with the adults in my life because I struggled to relate with my peers. I was at a college reading level in the third grade, and I have a very strict moral code, which pitted me against bullies and led to some painful memories from those early years. In November I joked with my roommate that we can't all find childhood trauma relatable, and she asked "didn't you say one of your bones never set right because of bullying in middle school?" I was quiet for a second, then conceded that maybe childhood trauma is a relatable subject. I was quiet in the past, too; many of my peers never heard me speak through sixth and seventh grade, and even when I started emerging from my shell, it felt dangerous to let people get to know me.


My fears about letting others see me are justified. I've had multiple therapists say they've never encountered someone who thinks the way I do (another suggested I might be a Sherlock-style psychopath). One of my best friends in high school once told me that if she could have any super power, it would be to see the world the way I do, but only briefly because she wasn't sure her brain could handle it. I know it was meant as a compliment, and maybe the therapists were trying to be kind, too, but I was devastated to hear that the only people I'd ever begun opening up to all thought of me as something radically different, incompatible with their own worlds and ways of seeing it. In college one of my best friends and I talked about a platonic marriage pact, then why we wouldn't date, and he told me one reason we'd never date is because I couldn't be around his other friends because I'm too "weird." I was happy for him when he started dating someone the next week, but the reason he gave me was heartbreaking and years later still haunted me.


(back from the past)


This year, though, something shifts. My friends and I send each other long, intimate handwritten letters and strange voice-message poems. My roommate sees me collapse randomly into child's pose, and it doesn't phase her, and she knows more about my fears and oddities than almost anyone, yet she introduces me to her friends despite my weirdness. My dates don't seem to mind when I avoid eye contact or spend half an hour talking about my new favorite theorist, and one one says in the same breath that they're intimidated by me and that they adore me. As I tell Aliyah a story on the phone, she laughs and tells me "that is not neurotypical behavior," and I don't feel any shame or worry. My advisor and I talk about how academia has a strange dynamic because while the institution isn't friendly toward neurodivergence, a close look at the people it attracts will reveal that there are a lot of people who are likely undiagnosed with autism---and practiced with masking---who fall on the spectrum here. More than half of the creators TikTok shows me are autistic or neurodivergent in other ways, and as I watch their videos, I recognize that this insurmountable alterity I've felt my whole life---hasn't lately been around to feel.



I'm not sure, exactly, as I sit here back in Virginia, watching a kingfisher dive from bare tree into lake through light snow, when the once omnipresent loneliness slipped away. There are so many moments to thank:


Each arrival of a little gift box from my dear friend Taylar "For Vin." All the conversations with family members that I physically can't avoid because social distancing demands our closeness. How my roommate and I watch a whole season of our new favorite Korean show during election week, when we're both too nervous to go outside (my queerness and her Indigeneity making us targets for violence), and we drool over the food on screen while sprawled on our living room floor. Maybe it's the friendships grown with other queer and neurodivergent folks, a later reliance on social media for interaction expanding my circle to people I would never meet otherwise. The introspection that occurs on multiple levels, through the months: gender, sexuality, morals, politics, neurodivergence... Mostly, I'm grateful for how intentional my relationships become this year, how I'm more honest and invested in them.


Simultaneously, 2020 is a year of rampant misinformation, and of honesty. There are countless articles out about how the COVID pandemic has exposed and amplified systemic racism, the failures of capitalism and the US healthcare system, disability injustice, environmental injustices, and government-facilitated crimes (like police brutality and land theft). At the same time, distancing has helped people confront their own fears and failures, and given many people the opportunity to face themselves without social pressures. This is, of course, reductive, and doesn't reflect the experiences of everyone, especially of those who weren't able to distance or were quarantined in unsafe conditions and of people who'd already felt and recognized the violence of systems in the US before these circumstances. But it is a notable shift.


Soon I'll upload this post and leave my seat by the window---with its view of the blue heron gulping fish through a pine's reflection---to eat dinner with my family. Afterward we'll put up holiday decorations, and in a few weeks the month will be over, an end to the least lonely year of my life.


I’m not sure there’s any wisdom to be found in this post; what I have to offer is gratitude. Thank you for being with me this year, this moment. You being here means so much.


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© 2021 by S.M. Vincent Pruis