I remember my first apartment. It never felt like home, it was sparse and empty. It smelled of stale cigarets and flat beer. But I needed to go there and find things out for myself. I had to rid myself of parents and daily routines of doing chores——that draining feeling of being someones child, being someones pride and burden. It’s an awful feeling of being young and realizing that you’re going nowhere fast. Failure is a brutal teacher.
I thought it was going to be a lot different. I dreamt that there’d be girls, all kinds of girls. Girls dancing with me in the dark, spending their nights in my ramshackle pad. I thought there’d be late night parties, beer for breakfast and never having to make my bed or mow my dad’s lawn. But mainly, it ended up being me and a couple of buddies sitting on my broken down couch, smoking pot and drinking the cheapest beer we could find.
We found out the hard way that the girls wanted boys with fancy cars and college bound incomes. They went for the boys who were going to Cabo for Spring Break and living off the money their parents gave to them freely.
Me and my buddies spent long nights hanging out in my dimly lit apartment. Our big plans veiled the fear that our dreams were like all those pretty girls, untouchable, just out of reach. And it ached deep down to watch them walk by, hand in hand with their privileged preppies. They left a trail of republican stench in their wake.
As for us, we were never going to comprises and end up working for “the man”. We were going to travel, see the world, have grand adventures and yes, we’d find carefree girls too. But we found out that everything had a price, everything cost money.The fast-food jobs sucked, and the jobs working at the Canneries were tedious, heartless and grueling. We were constantly being fired for showing up late, or being hungover and not showing up at all. We wereexpendable to “the man”. Our only refuge was the broken down apartment where we could exchange big ideas and plot out our untested futures.
But, this world is designed to castrate young men and squeeze every last drop of life out of them. They wanted us to be content working at their mindless, meaningless, soul sucking jobs that were designed to make us feel insignificant, replicable. Replaceable like a worn out part or broken piece of machinery. They enjoyed watching us fight each other over the table scraps they tossed us.
There would be a string of rundown apartments, quicksand jobs and that sound of silent screams of someone under water, someone suffocating. The American Dream was a con, a lost cause, a carrot dangling just out of reach, but close enough to keep us plodding along like dimwitted plow horses.
So, one day I woke up and I stopped trying to be something or somebody. I stopped, shook my head and walked away from it all, from the city and its constant drone of nothingness. Along with its horde of brainwashed proletariat working stiffs, who’s only purpose was to make the rich richer. They worked at dreadful jobs to pay the mortgage on houses they left empty so that they could go to work and pay their mortgage. They got loans to buy cars that they drove from home to work and from work to home in a vicious circle. It all seemed so senseless to me. There was nothing there for me. I had no use for that world that once left me feeling insignificant. I moved to the mountains and never looked back. I found purpose hiking in the woods and sharing sunsets and sunrises with fellow pariahs.
Like I said “I had to find things out for myself”.
The sky remains cold and damp as I fiddle with my windshield wipers intermittent timer. Too fast, then too slow and constantly falling out of time with the songs on the radio. Even though it’s late afternoon the gray skies and drifting fog gives this dreary day a sleepy morning feeling. I pull into the parking lot of an ancient looking motel and double check my GPS to confirm if this indeed is the Ocean Spray motel. I begin to have second thoughts about saving fifty bucks by making reservations at a place that only has three out of five stars. Never trust the glowing comments made about an establishment on the internet. No one, or nothing is what it appears to be on the internet. Anyone who’s tried their luck on one of those internet dating sights can attest to this. I figured that after I downed three beers my motel arrangements wouldn’t appear so shabby. Beer makes life’s intolerable events bearable.
The old gal behind the registration counter stares out at me through thick eyeglasses that gave her the look of a bulging eyed goldfish. From the back room, which I surmised is her living quarters, I can hear the familiar voice of Pat Sayjak blathering on about someone buying a vowel. She tilted her head back and looked down her nose at me. “Is it just you mister, or do you have a lady friend along for the ride?” There was a bit of sarcasm in her enunciation of the words, “lady friend”. I stared into her exaggerated bulging fisheyes and responded, “No, just me ma’am, just me.” She offered up a suspicious nod, “Okay, no partying or hell raising allowed, quiet time starts at 10:00 pm and check out no later than 10:00 am. Here’s your key, room number 12.” She turned and shuffled back into the blue hue of her TV room.
I open the door to room 12 and I’m greeted by the odor of mildew and the lingering hint of Fraabreeze. It’s a poor attempt at giving this joint an air of respectability. I’m more than sure that these four walls have seen and heard their share of dirty things——(maybe I’ll sleep in my clothes). I crack the window, pop a beer and lean back against the squeaky headboard. In the distance I hear the comforting sound of waves breaking against the rocky shore. The occasional lonely sound of a foghorn gently lulls me into slumber. It calls out a warning to those lost sailers who may be drifting too close to the rocks. These waters with their tricky currents and hidden reefs have pushed many a vessel into the teeth of its rocky shoreline.
I’ve made my share of memories traveling up and down the northern coast of California, but my favorite memories go back to when I was a kid seeing the Pacific Ocean for the first time. My lifelong buddy’s name is Patrick and his mother’s name is Jeanne. Jeanne had a big influence on my young life. She’d pile Pat, his sister Erin and me into her 1970 Bonneville and we’d drive westward out of the flat Sacramento Valley. We’d travel through the green lush coastal range making our way to a place on a map where the land gives way to an emerald sea with its endless gray horizon. My god, I remember how those enormous vistas made me feel small. Highway 1 meanders its way along the rugged cliffs and through the stands of mighty old growth sequoias. We’d eventually reach that sea weathered town known as Fort Bragg. Even though fifty years has passed since I first pulled into this town, it appears to have changed very little. It’s a landscape of moss covered picket fences, overgrown berry-bushes and a misty coastline that time seems to have forgotten. Home isn’t where you’re necessarily from, it’s more about being at a place where you feel that you’ve always belonged. I finish off my beers and fall asleep to the sound of breakers crashing on the shore and that sweet song of a foghorn calling out into the darkness.
The next morning I wake early and take my shower in a yellow tile stained stall. I stop at a cafe and grab a hot coffee to go. I’m headed to MacKerricher State park where my tide table guide indicates low tide is at its peak at 5:50 am. I look at my watch and see that I’m on schedule to get to the tide pools on time. Out on the horizon I spy a fishing trawler chugging its way north. If I weren’t prone to seasickness, I’d love to be at the helm of that boat. I imagine myself being addressed as captain Sabino by the bartender as I enter the local tavern. After being out to sea for weeks, I envision myself saddling up to the bar and buying a round of drinks for the entire bar. Lost in my fantasy causes me to absentmindedly drive slower than the speed limit, the car behind me impatiently honks, rousing me from my daydream. I think to myself, “Fucking jerk”.
I pull up into the parking lot of the state park and roll my window down. Man, the smell of the ocean does something to me that makes me involuntarily smile. In the past fifty years there’s been a lot of changes, but this place remains frozen in time. The damp weather is the great equalizer making everything look permanently worn and tired, yet it’s comfortable and unexplainably familiar, like the face of an old friend. Thinking back, I remember Jeanne with her fiery red hair and her strong willed personality. She had an independent streak that fostered a fearlessness in her eyes. If inadvertently provoked she could have a bit of a temper——you didn’t fuck with Jeanne! She was a feminist before that word had become into vogue. With just her tenacity and a love for nature, she’d haul us kids into her car and we’d head out on spontaneous adventures. We were like a bunch of carefree gypsies rolling down the highway together, playing twenty one questions, singing along with the radio and laughing with a spontaneity that only comes with that rare feeling of being young and free.
Before the intrusion of smartphones, social networking and 24/7 news cycles, we’d spend an entire day exploring beaches and the woods. I suppose this is gonna make me sound like an old fart, but I do believe life was simpler back in the “olden days”. Kids these days would probably shake their heads and laugh at the notion of being unplugged from the internet for a twenty four hour stretch.That twelve year old boy inside of me is still amazed at the beauty and danger that comes with climbing down the slippery cliffs to the wave sprayed rocks. It’s a funny thing how beauty and danger seem to go hand in hand. I clamor from one green mossy rock to the next. I peer into the tide pools observing their tiny worlds within. Each tide-pool is a community of sea urchin’s, sea anemones, starfish and skittering rock craps. I stick my finger in the middle of a sea anemone and watch as it closes around me. I lick my dry lips and taste that organic flavor of sea-salt. The ocean is mother-nature’s womb, the place where life first quivered into existence, evolving from nothingness into everything-ness——what a beautiful mystery to behold. I’m not sure why it is, but the ocean with it rolling waves and windy cliffs draws us all back to its holy vastness. I watch folks standing silently at the edge of this continent staring introspectively into the hypnotic waves. Couples hold hands as the whistling winds mess their damp hair. I suppose there’s still pieces of us all in those thundering waves. I stroll the beach and see the litter of driftwood and seaweed left behind from where high-tide left its mark. These tides are tied to the pull of the moon phases—-all things supernaturally connected. Nature is my cathedral, my church.
I climb back in my car and head to the harbor where I’ll have lunch at one of the open air grottos’s. The fishmongers are busy cleaning and laying out the days fresh catch. I smell the fresh fish, deep fried calamari and steaming clam chowder in sourdough bread bowls. The glass refrigerated case is filled with squids, abalone and a multitude of different types of fish neatly laid out atop white crushed ice. Behind the counter with its decorative fishing nets and colorful buoys is an old 19 inch TV hanging from the ceiling. It’s hard to believe, but fifty years ago at this very grotto I watched Neil Armstrong on a snowy TV screen utter the words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” My god, how many grains of sand have passed through my hour glass since that memorable day? I wish I could turn that hour glass over again and allow me another fifty years.
When I visit a place from the past that changed me, I become engulfed by a tremendous ache deep inside my chest. I’m keenly aware of the impermanence of all things. This life is chaotic and messy, people come and go, people change, memories become irretrievable and the continuum of time splinters and disappears into thin air. There’s no way of going back from what was, to what is, time only moves in one direction——-forward. Time is like the waves that break on the shore and then recede back into eternity.
I hand my motel key to the googly eyed women at the front desk. She in-quizzically inquires, “Did ya enjoy your stay? Ya find everything you came for?” I responded in a pensive tone,“I came here to remember something——or maybe more importantly, to once again believe in something.” She leans forward and in a hushed voice asks,“And, what do you believe in?” I pause for a moment as I consider her question, “That each and every day is truly extraordinary. And, if this enormous ocean is possible and real, and if it can be imagined like god can be imagined, then anything and all things are possible. That’s what I believe.”
Between routine and randomness there is tradition. Tradition is what pulls the scattered pieces of our lives together and provides us with a sense of belonging and togetherness. We find ourselves in the simple moments that we share with those we love. It’s in the aroma of mom’s pot roast dinners on a cold wintery night, it’s in grandpa’s instructions on the right way of tying a fly, it’s watching the kids on summer days playing at the same beach I once played at as a kid. It’s in the stories the old ones tell about what it was like in the olden days. It’s baked into grandma’s secret peach pie recipe. It’s in keeping memories alive while pairing yesterday with today for the young ones——these are the things that we hand down—-it’s in the reverence of those who’ve passed on and the gift of those tomorrows yet to come.
We’re lured back to the sea, to the beginnings, where it all started. Standing at the edge of this vast American continent, thousands of lonely miles traveled beyond the stifling east coast, across Great Plains, over the mighty Rockies, beyond the Great Divide, down the Mississippi River, across the Grand Canyon, riding the Colombia River, leading us here——It’s here, the end of everything and the beginning of all new things——what a beautiful journey this life has been.
Salty air on the tip of my tongue, the smell of Eucalyptus trees, the fog rolls in, recedes, then once again comes and goes. Time is a circle, love a straight line fading into infinity. The Pacific Ocean crashes foamy waves in front of me, leaving seaweed, driftwood and seashells scattered at the high tide mark. Like people and the remnants they leave behind. This sea is the womb of mother nature, the place where life was unexpectantly given birth. If eternity had a scent it would be found in the pungent smell of the ocean . We carry the rhythm of her waves in our pulse.
My family has been coming to this seaside village for generations. I would love to stay here forever, but traditions aren’t meant to be kept, they are intended to be passed on to those still unfolding and finding their own way. It’s at these yearly seaside get-togethers that the young ones learn from where they’re come and what they’re a part of. I’ve been looking for god, but I’ve discovered she has always been here in my friends and family.
We take our early morning walks out on the old wooden wharf. Somewhere on the planks below, Harbor Seals bark as seagulls circle and fight over scraps . The fog brings us in closer to one another. We have our favorite restaurant with its buttered sourdough bread that’s dipped in a bowl of steaming clam chowder. We scour the nick-knack shops for the perfect keep-sakes. At night we go to the boardwalk with its Big Dipper roller coaster. The young ones raise their arms high in the air as their car careens down the steep winding track. Everything is a blur of bright lights, screams, clammer and electrifying commotion. The old ones go into the confection shop where taffy can be seen stretching like a long string of rubber. Behind the glass a woman is creating gooey homemade chocolate clusters. If one is lucky or skilled enough to knock down lead milk bottles with a baseball, for a moment you can be someones hero—-for five dollars that’s a bargain. We are all kids here once again. Even the oldest and the youngest can ride the Carousel. The Calliope blares out old time songs as we stretch out from our pumping horses to grab the brass rings that we toss at the Clown’s mouth. It’s all bright lights, dizzying motion, loud laughter and the smell of caramel corn—— all incased in the dampness of the ocean’s night air.
We’re always coming back to where we’ve always been, simply sharing time together——-and such is tradition.
He’d been called fagot so many times that it no longer hurt, but it did still scare him. Because, more than once he’d turned around to be unexpectedly sucker punched. More than once he’d seen that immediate white flash of light that comes with a punch to the nose. Then came the red blood that flowed down his chin and onto his shirt. To stem the bleeding he learned to tilt his head back while pinching the bridge of his nose. Then came that familiar salty metallic taste of blood dripping down the back of his throat. The sound of a bullies’ laughter still echoes in his head. He learned early on that being different meant others felt they had the right to treat you as though you weren’t human; as if you didn’t feel pain like others do. At times he felt as if this world was hate filled. High school is where social lepers are expected to wave their white flag. Maria had no intention of showing a shred of defeat.
There are some things others can’t beat out of you. Things like who you are and the things you know to be true about yourself and the world. His world is predictable, its mean, dangerous and a simmering cauldron of undeserved cruelty. Everyday was another slice of hell. To be different, to be considered queer, was a green light to be preyed upon, to be taunted, kicked, and have the shit beat out of you. The physical abuse was painful, but even worse was being exiled—to have no tribe, to be treated as if he were invisible.
He dreamed of being a she. Of transforming himself into who she always knew herself to be, a girl. There was no closet for him to come out of, because he had always been out of the closet. He was that strange little boy who liked to play dress-up and create tea parties with a cast of dolls. She played with dolls because they never judged her or made her feel shamed.
She gradually made the transition from not only applying makeup but to wearing girls clothes. She had the cliche “Fagot” scribbled in permanent black ink on her school locker. P.E. class was a free for all where she was the target of “arrant” basketballs to the back of her head. She was thrown to the bottom of dog piles and blind sided by shoves that made her neck snap with whiplash. When her mother complained to the school principal she was assured that it was just “boys being boys”. After having her arm fractured in an “unfortunate” wrestling accident she was excused from P.E. and allowed to go to the library during that period. All of her friends were there, the books, merciful solitude and Ms Blanchard the school librarian
Monday, another shitty Monday. Of all the days of the week, Monday is the flagship of misery. She climbed aboard the yellow school bus and sat as close as possible to the front of the bus. Today she was lucky to find the front seat empty. To sit towards the back of the bus amongst all the laughing and hollering kids would risk being tripped or having her book-bag taken and thrown out the window. In the past she had suffered the humiliation of having all the available seats intentionally blocked. The bus shook and rattled as the driver forced it into gear. At the next stop a tall gangly black kid climbed aboard and made his way down the aisle.
Maria watched him walk down the swaying isle as he searched for a seat. The kids stared at him as if he were a two headed monster. From behind him came a wake of hushed whispers. As he sat down the kids sitting across from him stood up and moved towards the back of the bus. She had never seen him at school before and figured he must be a new transfer student. Being labeled the “new kid” is as appealing as being called a spaz or a weirdo. She knew he’d have to find a way to prove himself in order to earn respect and approval. Being the only black kid in an all white school was going to make “fitting in” extremely challenging. If you can’t fit in, then you’d better find a way to blend into the background like an invisible chameleon.
As she sat in the front seat she could feel waded up pieces of paper whiz by her head. Someone threw an apple core that struck the back of her head. She could feel the sticky apple juice as it ran down the back of her neck. Then came the sound of cheers and laughter from behind her. She sat with her back straight and gave no sign of fear or anger, to show any weakness would be putting blood in the water. The bus finally reached the school and Maria hurriedly stood up and exited the bus. Every morning smelled the same, a stomach retching mixture of diesel exhaust and cafeteria food. Some kid wearing a football shirt pushed past her and snatched the beret off her head. He looked back over his shoulder and murmured “Fagot bitch”. The new kid watched this happen and shook his head in disgust. High School and prison both have one rule in common, never allow yourself to show any weakness. Because, there are predictors out there who will exploit and take advantage of the weak. As he made his way across the quad he could feel the eyes of the other students tracking him. This feeling of always being under suspicion wasn’t anything new——it came with the territory of being black.
Maria knew today was going to be another long day and she wanted nothing more than to retreat into the safety of the school library. She opened the door and had a seat in the empty room. Ms Blanchard is seated behind her well organized desk. She’s a large, big bosomed black woman. Her skin is unblemished, the color of Merlot. She’s immaculately dressed in a colorful Zulu African dress with a doek head scarf. Her ruby colored lipstick accentuates her full lips, her smile lights up the room. “You sure look pretty today Maria.” “Thanks Ms Blanchard, did the new Vogue magazine arrive yet?” Ms Blanchard walked over to where Maria was sitting and handed her the magazine, “You know I always keep it behind the counter so that you get first dibs on it.” Maria smiled and said, “You’re the best.” She slumps down in her chair and begins to idly thumb through the pages of the magazine.
Across campus the new kid walks into P.E. wearing the school logo shorts and matching shirt. The school mascot is a Viking. The gym has a huge mural of a Viking wearing a horned helmet and sporting a large handlebar mustache painted on the wall over the home team bleachers. The coach hollers, “Okay, everyone gather up over here. We have a new student today. What’s your name ?” He responded in a calm tone. “My names Marcus.” “Where you from boy?” “For starters, I ain’t your boy and where I’m from is South Central.”
“I don’t know what the coaches in your last school called you, but here we don’t put up with students talking back to their teachers. What’s your sport? Basketball? Football? Baseball? A big boy——- I mean, big fella like you ought to be good at all three sports. You must be six foot two and still growing.”
Marcus shook his head. “I don’t play sports.” “Then what do you do? Do you wanna try out for the cheerleader squad? Do you like twirling batons and shaking pom poms?” The class let out a round of boisterous laughter. Marcus stepped up a little closer to the coach. “I’ll put it to you like this coach, I can more than handle myself in any situation or any sport. Where I come from we don’t play dodgeball, we play dodge the bullets from trigger happy police.”
The coach bounces the basketball and then unexpectedly throws it with velocity at Marcus who snatches it inches from his face. “If ya don’t play sports, then what do you do?” “What I do is slam poetry, spoken word and RAP.” He bounces the ball, pivots and makes a run to the basket and finishes with a huge slam dunk. The class lets loose with a chorus of loud hoots and hollers. The coach shakes his head. “I don’t know much about poetry, but son, you’re poetry in motion. Mister, I’m gonna get you on our team. Damn, with talent like that, I can almost guarantee you’ll get yourself a Division 1 scholarship. I’m talking full ride. I know some of the college basketball scouts and I can give them a call. That’s if your attitude and head are in the right place.” Marcus dribbles up to the top of the key and swooshes a three pointer. “Help me get a scholarship and I’ll play your game. If I’ve learned anything, it’s all about knowing how to play the game, right?” The school bell rings and the students head back to the locker-room.
Maria knew that entering the boy’s restroom was a dangerous situation. She patiently waited outside the bathroom door and listened to see if anyone was still inside. She quietly opened the door and peered in. She slowly entered the restroom and then locked the door to the stall. She could hear the bathroom door slam open and the sound of taunting laughter. “Hey Maria, do you want your pretty purple beret back?” He then began to mockingly sing the Prince song, “She wore a raspberry beret.” All three of the boys climbed on top of the stall walls and kicked the door open. One of them grabbed her by the shirt, while another tossed her beret into the toilet. The third guy grabbed her by the hair and forced her face into the water as he repeatedly flushed the toilet. Her head continued to be pushed down as she struggled to gasp for air. One of them hollered, “Get the fuck out of here bitch, next time use the girls restroom.”
She ran out of the bathroom and just as she turned into the hall she ran directly into Marcus. Her hair and face are wet and her blouse torn. “What the hell happened to you?” She shook her head and said “It’s nothing.” From the other side of the bathroom door they could hear a kid yelling. “Hey Maria, you forgot your gay purple hat.. Why don’t ya come back and get it bitch.”
Marcus took a deep breathe “Just wait here, I’ll get your hat back.” He boldly walked into the bathroom and she could hear some voices talking and then the sound of bodies being slammed up against the walls. There was the sound of feeble whiny voices ”Stop”,” Don’t”, “You’re hurting me”. Marcus walked out of the bathroom and handed Maria her wet beret. “I don’t think those punks will be bothering you anymore.” He then turned and walked on down the hall. Maria thought to herself, “Maybe Monday ain’t such a bad after all.”
The next day Maria boarded the morning bus and kept her eyes down in order to avoid eye contact with the fellow passengers. She looked up and then took a second glance. Sitting near the back of the bus she caught the eye of Marcus’s sitting alone. At that moment she noticed that his eyes looked too old for his youthful face. She shuffled down the swaying narrow aisle and sat down next to him. He nodded, “What’s sup?” Maria took a nervous breath “Thanks for yesterday.” He nods his head, “It’s nothin. I told those dudes what Rowdy Roddy Piper the pro wrestler once said, ‘I’ve come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass— and I’m all out of bubblegum.’ He offered up a chuckle. “Bullies ain’t nothin but chickenshit cowards. They pick on people who show weakness or self doubt. Don’t ever appear weak or give a hint of self doubt. Doubt kills more dreams than failure ever will. Don’t be afraid to stand up for what you believe. I’ll take an ass-whippin any day over a soul-whippin.”
“Well, thanks for getting my beret back. I know that being a new kid at a new school can be rough. It’s not easy being on the outside looking in. No offense, but I noticed that you’re black and that makes you a bit of a novelty at this all white hick school. Being different is always challenging. Coming from the outside means you’ll have to find a way to blend in.” Marcus shook his head, “I’m different and I like it that way. I don’t need to fit in. People who try to fit in are ass-kissers. I learned a long time ago, to never pretend to be something I’m not. I don’t follow trends or fads. And, if someone doesn’t give me my due respect, then we’re gonna have ourselves a problem.” Maria offers a fist bump, “You’re a badass. I’m sure glad you didn’t have any bubblegum on you yesterday.” In a mocking tone Maria interjected, “I’m a badass too, when I’m not getting my head flushed down a toilet.”
“You’re probably gonna hangout with the jocks. As for me, I’m a freak, a freak of nature. I don’t need a crew. It’s all good. Everyone’s got their thing. I do Karaoke. I only do it in my bedroom right now, but I’m thinking about entering the school talent show. I wanted to be in the school choir but I didn’t make the cut. But, I don’t think they cut me because of my voice. The choir teacher said I was too eccentric and I wouldn’t be a good fit. Which is a nice way of saying that a queer kid like me, doesn’tt belong in thier choir..” “What’s your thing? You must be into sports? If you’re good at sports everyone will think you’re cool. My dad wanted me to be good at sports so he signed me up for little league tryouts. Some kid threw a fastball at me when I wasn’t looking and it broke my nose. He said it was an accident, but I knew that was a lie, because he just kept laughing when the coach made him apologize. I hate any sport that uses a ball, a bat, a hat, a helmet, boots, teams, rules——- or any sport where the score is more important than having fun, which is pretty much true of every sport. Sorry if I’m talking too much. Sometimes I talk so much to myself inside my head that I sometimes forget I’m rattling on out loud. I talk a lot when l get nervous. I had a counselor once tell me it’s a coping mechanism.”
Just as she was catching her breath and getting readying to launch into another topic, Marcus cut her off. In a sarcastic tone he exclaimed, “I’m sure glad you noticed that I’m black and all. I guess I couldn’t pass as an albino Eskimo. It’s okay to laugh, it’s just a joke! Everybody thinks that because I’m tall and black that I’m either a gangbanger or a basketball star. Everybody is always trying to put people in their neat little boxes. I don’t fit in no box. Weak people judge others cause it’s easier than taking the time to get to know them. Most people live in their little protective worlds. I walk down the streets in the suburbs and people cross the street to avoid getting close to me. It’s as if they think I’m gonna beat them over the head and rob them. The police are always eyeing me. They stop and question me if they think I’m somewhere I don’t belong, or more accurately, somewhere a black person doesn’t belong, which is pretty much everywhere except the hood. By the way, I collect quotes. Here’s a good one for what I’m talking about.” ‘I know my worth. I’ve paid dearly for every ounce of it.’ “That was written by Alfa. Damn girl, if anyone should know what it’s like to be judged, stereotyped and kicked to the curb, it should be you.”
“I’m sorry about my stupid comment I made noticing you’e black and all. It’s no wonder I have no friends.” There’s an awkward moment of silence. “I was wondering if maybe you and I could be friends. We’re both riding the same bus every day. My mom told me I need to reach out to other kids and make friends. To be honest with you, I’m not good at making friends. In fact I don’t really have any friends except for Ms Blanchard the librarian. She’s black too——Whoops I did it again. I’m always saying the wrong thing. She’s become a good friend of mine and she lets me eat my lunch in the library even though the signs say no food or drinks allowed. Ms Blanchard and I started a book club, but I was the only one who showed up for the meetings. So, she made me President, secretary, treasurer and the person in charge of roll call. I announce my name and then raise my hand and say ‘here’. Funny, huh? That was a pretty easy assignment because I’m the only person whoever attended. It’d be funny if it wasn’t so pathetic?”
At each bus stop more kids got on board. In spite of all the seats filling up, the seats around Maria and Marcus remained empty. Marcus shook his head in confirmation “Friends is good by me. And by the way, I like to write, so maybe I’ll attend one of your book club meetings.” Maria’s voice couldn’t conceal her surprise. “For real? That would be excellent. I’d nominate you to be Vice President. You could choose the first book we’re to read and discuss.” Marcus held up his leather bound journal, “I’ll join under one condition, and that’s if I’m allowed to share some of my raps and spoken word projects. Ya see, I’m into slam poetry, spoken word readings, quotes and spelling contests. That’s my thing.” Maria’s voice couldn’t hide her disbelief “Now wait a minute, you’re into spelling bee’s? Isn’t that for elementary school kids?” “Hell no! Training for a spelling contest is like training for a prize fight. Everyday I look up ten new words and memorize the spelling and definition. I’ll go for a jog and repeat the word over and over. I have a heavy bag hanging at my house and I get a rhythm going with my punches as I spell words out-loud. I love words. Here’s a word for you. You aren’t a freak, the word haecceitas describes you.” Maria glances at Marcus from the corner of her eye. “That sounds like a scary medical condition“ Marcus laughs, “Its definition is ‘the property of being a unique and individual thing’. I think that suits you well.” She slowly repeated the word back to herself “Haecceitas? I like that. How do you spell it?” She opens her binder to a clean page. Marcus slowly enunciates each letter, “h-a-e-c-c-e-i-t-a-s.”
Marcus lifts his journal up. “Quotes, I write them down, hundreds of them here in my journal. I love their simplicity and insightfulness. They’re so dense and compact, yet they cut and hack their way to the bone. They’re like performing surgery with a machete. They aren’t always pretty, but they get the job done. There’s novels that have over ten thousand words, but the author has nothing to say. They’ll drivel on about how the shadows crawl across a hardwood floor. They don’t go deep, deep like the cruel shadows that crawl across a man’s soul. Too many writers doing the same thing, telling the same old story in the same old tiresome way. They lack vitality, they lack the words to describe the desperation locked within the silence of a lonely man’s heart. Now that’s some hard shit to write. I’ve found some quotes that are so powerful that they exploded in my heart like a first kiss, a last kiss or like a punch to the solar-plexus. Ya see, words are attached to feelings and feelings are attached to words. If there were no words, then there’d be no emotions. Words are the nexus, the only tool we have to reach out to one another. If you take 26 letters and put them in the right order you can make words. And, if you take the those words and put them in a specific order, you can unlock the doors to new worlds. Poems, lyrics, stories, Haikus, novels——when they’re put down right, they’ll find their way into your psyche, into your soul. When put together in the right order they can give you the power to better understanding others. You can confess love, release anger, tame your fears and in rare circumstances allow you to feel less alone. Here’s a quote that does just that.” He opens his journal and begins to read. ‘That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.’“That’s by F. Scott Fitzgerald.” Maria responds, “That’s beautiful, but I don’t know if it’s true for everyone——especially the part about belonging.”
The bus jerks to a stop as the air brakes release an exhausted sigh. The door clanks open and everyone rushes to get off the bus. Maria and Marcus wait for the bus to completely unload before standing up. As they exit the bus Marcus puts his hand on her shoulder, “If anyone messes with you, let me know and I’ll mess with them. Remember, you ain’t a freak, you’re Haecceitas.” Maria smiles, Okay, call me whatever you like, but I like being called your friend the best.“
Maria is seated in the library next to a whiteboard. Written on the board in bold letters is the following, “Creative Writing Club Rules, Be honest, Be Positive, Be Real, Write and Share, Always be kind”. Maria strikes a gavel on the desk. “Meeting called to order. First order of business roll call. Ms Blanchard you are the sergeant at arms, so please commence with attendance.” Ms Blanchard clears her throat. “Maira Johnson.”” Maria raises her hand and responds, “Present”. “Next order of business is our invocation prayer. ‘Dear God, higher power, the divine in us all, thanks for bringing us together and we pray that you bring us more members to be a part of’——— The door bursts open and Maria and Ms Blanchard raise their bowed heads. “Ya just increased the membership of your Creative Writing Club.” Maria gathers herself and responds, “I didn’t think you were really gonna show up. I’m glad you made it. As a formality you will need to first fill out an application to determine if this organization is a good fit for both parties.” She hands Marcus an application.” Marcus snaps back, “You’re kidding me, right? I don’t wanna be a good fit. I wanna be a good misfit.” He struts into the center of the room and says give me your best beatbox.” He starts a beat using his mouth as he drums along using the top of a desk. Maria and Ms Blanchard do their best to keep the syncopated groove going. He begins a rhythmic rap. “I’m a mover, I’m a shaker I’m a freakin heart breaker, I can riff, I can rap, I’m a black badass cat, throw me a beat, hand me a mic, I got the swag to keep it tight, I got cool, and won’t be actin nobody’s fool, don’t need no club, no boring class, take me as I am, or you can kiss my ass.” Maria slams her gavel down on the desk. “I hereby declare you as our first new member since our inception. You’re in, no application necessary.”
“So, what do we do in this club?” “We share poems, stories and ideas. Sometimes it’s just crazy insights we make about people and life. We share books, movies and quotes that inspire us.” “What about raps and spoken word?” Ms Blanchard shakes her head in confirmation “That’s poetry too. Poetry is what truth is wrapped in. It’s the language of the soul. The definition of rap is Rhythm and Poetry. It is a legit art form.”
Marcus turns towards Maria, “What do you got girl? You got a poem or something you’re working on?” “I have some drafts, but I’m not ready to put them out into the universe. Maybe at our next meeting I can recite something. I do have a quote by your F. Scott Fitzgearald that I memorized. “For what it’s worth: it’s never too late or, in my case, too early to be whoever you want to be. There’s no time limit, stop whenever you want. You can change or stay the same, there are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. And I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you never felt before. I hope you meet people with a different point of view. I hope you live a life you’re proud of. If you find that you’re not, I hope you have the courage to start all over again.’
Marcus shakes his head in agreement, “Ain’t that the truth. Most people don’t want to start over, cause that means they’d have to admit they’ve been living a lie. The only way to change, grow and evolve is to be honest with yourself.” Maria looked out the window in contemplation, “Honesty isn’t a door easily shut once it’s been opened. Hidden behind those doors are monsters disguised as secrets.” Marcus shakes his head, “Once you kill the monsters your secrets lose their power over you. As the saying goes, we’re only as sick as our secrets.”
It always seems to rain more often on Monday’s than it does on any other day of the week. Monday’s are tough, but rainy Mondays are the worst. Maria climbed aboard the bus with its electric heater smell mixed with the musty odor of wet clothes and hair. It smells like a Monday. She looks down the length of the bus but doesn’t see Marcus. The bus radio waivers in and out of reception sounding more like static than music. Kids are hollering and laughing as the windshield wipers slap back and forth against the windshield. The chaos makes Maria’s temples throb and ache. Two stops later, Marcus climbs aboard and has a seat next to Maria. He’s wearing a school team jacket with the Viking emblem and a matching baseball hat slung ass backwards on his head. Maria looks over at him with an air of suspicion. He looks back at her, “I’m late, I had practice.” “I thought you didn’t like playing sports?” “The school counselor had a talk with me and set things straight. She said that the only reason I was allowed to switch school districts was because I’m good at basketball. She said that if I don’t play, then I’ll have to go back to my old school. And, if I wanted to get a college scholarship, then my chances are a lot better at this top rated school district. Maria takes a deep breath, “That’s a bunch of crap. That’s like saying if someone can bake the best cake in Home Economics’ then they can get a college scholarship.” “Sports aren’t just a game, they’re big business. School athletics bring in revenue, cake baking doesn’t do anything. It’s all about cash and winning. Winning teams get more support and funds from the boosters. Championship teams get attention from the college scouts. It’s not fair, but that’s the way the game is played.”
“So, you’re gonna bow down to the man?” “Look, I don’t have any other chance of getting into a good college other than a basketball scholarship. This is my chance and I’m taking it. The path I’ve got to take isn’t the one of least resistance. My road hasn’t ever been easy. The path of least resistance in my neighborhood only leads to gangs, drugs, prison and death. I’ve avoided gangs, drugs and street life so I could make something of my life. You either accept this life as it is or you impose your will and do what it takes to get the things you want. I’ve made my share of sacrifices. I left behind everything, my old school, my old friends——-This is my opportunity, my ticket out of here. I’m gonna do what it takes to chase down my dreams. Here’s a quote by Henry David Thoreau that sums it up for me,” ‘The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.’
The bus hits a pothole and Maria’s books fall on the floor. As she reaches down to pick them up the sleeve of her sweater is pulled up revealing some deep scars. Marcus grabs her hand. “What the hell are these?” Maria pulls her hand back “It’s nothing.” “No, those are something. You really shouldn’t be hurting yourself.” “Yeah right, I really shouldn’t be hurting myself! What do you know about me and hurt? Ever since I’ve been a little kid I’ve been teased. I’ve been called names, I’ve been bullied, beat up, kicked and treated like I should be ashamed of who I am. I’ve been told that I don’t deserve to be alive. I can’t control that pain, but I can control the pain I do to myself. My pain is my pain, nobody else’s. It’s my release, it’s confirmation that in spite of all the hell I’ve been put through that I’m still alive——-at least for now.” Marcus paused and then lowered his voice, “It must be really hard?” “What?” “You know, being trans.” There’s an intense silence and then she responds “Once you know something you can’t unknow it. From day one I knew I was different. I was born this way. My parents took me to see a child psychologist and they were told that it’s just a phase I’m going through and I’d grow out of it. One year my parents signed me up to go to Church Camp and the minister said I wasn’t allowed to attend. He said the other parents and elders felt I’d be too much of a distraction. He said I’d be a bad example for the other kids and that I needed to be cleansed of my sins. My dad told the minister that there’s a special place in hell for hypocrites like him. We never stepped foot in that church again. The worst is when people look at me with a certain look in their eyes. It’s hate, or maybe pity. It’s as if just being alive offends them. It made me feel like I didn’t count or didn’t belong. It made me think that it would be easier on everyone if I just disappeared. I get this odd feeling like I’m crumbling from the inside out, like I’m disintegrating into a million tiny pieces. Some mornings to get out of bed takes every ounce of my energy. I feel tired and numb——-but numb is good because then nothing or no-one can hurt me. I lie on my bed with my hands clasped over my chest like a dead person in a coffin, like a cadaver who’s had their blood replaced with formaldehyde. Maybe I’m already dead and I just don’t know it. People already treat me like I’m not real. They think I don’t feel things like other people do. But I do. I feel everything, but mostly I feel exhausted. I get so tired of trying to be liked. It seems so easy for everyone else. They must think I’m dead inside. I pretend it doesn’t bother me, but it hurts to not have someone to do things with. Being dead would be a release from it all. Tell me the truth, do I look like a corpse?”
“Hell no, you look more alive than most people. You got heart, you got soul and most importantly you got courage. One of my favorite quotes is by this guy named Bukowski. He said, ‘What matters most is how well you walk through the fire’. In all this bullshit, you’ve never lost yourself. You will always be you, regardless of what fools may say. That’s something that’s attractive, it’s what makes you beautiful. Most people are defeated and don’t even know it. They’ve given in and do what it takes too ‘fit in’. No, you aren’t a corpse, you’re not a freak of nature, you’re a force of nature. Don’t ever forget that.”
Marcus grabs Maria by her shoulders, “Now look me straight in the eye.” Maria turns and looks down. Marcus shakes her and makes her face him eye to eye. “You got to walk through the fire, face your enemies and keep moving forward. Don’t let them win, don’t let them make you give up on yourself, on life. Be the best “you” you can be. Do you understand?. Some people don’t like black people and some don’t like gay or trans people. Fuck them! While I’m alive, while I’m still here, I’m gonna make a difference. You need to do the same. Remember this, no one can give you self respect except yourself. That’s why it’s called “self” respect.”
Maria looks down again. “I’m just tired of being alone and doing things on my own. I’m such a spaz, even the unpopular kids don’t want me to eat lunch at their table. To answer your question, yeah, it’s hard to be trans. There’s all these doors I see others walk through, but when it’s my turn they get slammed in my face. I want to feel connected to someone, I want someone to think I’m fun and”——she stutters and then chokes on her words.” “I want someone to think I’m pretty.” She gives herself a mocking laugh, “I want to be badass like you.” Marcus put his hand on her shoulder, “I don’t know where this life goes, but it does go——and it will go on, with, or without you. Don’t follow the path of least resistance, go for everything you want, be whoever or whatever you want to be. There are people out there who are gonna want to burn you down to the ground, don’t let them. You got it? Remember, we’re all going through this life for the first time, so don’t expect it to be easy. It ain’t simple, it’s full of contradictions, let downs, and long nights. Ya just got go out there and live it, you can love it or hate it. It’s up to you. Go down singing and swinging.” Maria wipes a tear from the corner of her eye “Thanks, I needed; really needed someone like you to come along at this time in my life. I needed a friend. I don’t know anything about sports or basketball, but I’m sure as hell gonna be at your next game. I’m gonna root for you like a motherfucker.”
The bleachers at the basketball game are full. The school pep band is blasting “despacito”. The air is electric and there’s the faint smell of floor wax mixed with popcorn and deep fried junk food. Maria strategically chooses a seat at the very top of the bleachers. She had been to ballgames and rallies in the past and had kids behind her throw popcorn and candy wrappers at her head. As she made her way up to the top of the bleachers she could feel the glares of disapproving parents. She’s dressed in bright green leggings, a short black skirt and a high school mascot hoodie. On her feet she sports hightop red tennis shoes. It’s all topped off with a pink “Hello Kitty” baseball hat covering her purple dyed hair. She stood out like a bright yellow dandelion on a freshly cut lawn. Her choice of wardrobe was not to shock, but rather an extension of her unique sense of fashion——authenticity trumps fashion.
Throughout the game Marcus dominated the court with his graceful layups, no net three pointers and defensive takeaways. When he weaved around and through the other players, it was as if he were dancing to a song only he could hear. He raised the game from a sport to an art. He was amazing to watch as he effortlessly defied gravity. Maria clapped, cheered and put her fingers in her mouth to create an ear piercing whistle. It was a great feeling to have finally found a friend, a friend others envied. He knew his sudden popularity was the result of the points he scored on the court and not for his character. Popularity doesn’t equal friendship or loyalty. True friends stick by you win or lose. At the end of the game Maria pushed her way through the crowds of people to give Marcus a high five and a fist bump. His teammates looked at her with contempt. They couldn’t understand how he could include her in their victory celebration. Marcus and Maria knew there are more challenging victories outside of a basketball court. These are the hard won victories in life where there are no rules or referee’s to keep the game fair. His teammates turned their backs and walked towards the locker room. It didn’t matter to Marcus, because he wasn’t playing to win a single game, he was playing to make a difference.
Marcus and Maria continued to grow closer as they shared their bus rides to and from school. One day Marcus took out his cell phone and snapped a selfie of the two of them. There they were, forever etched together in time and space. They sat arm and arm making goofy faces for the camera. Maria laughed “If we’re not an odd couple, I don’t know what is.” Marcus joked “We should go to the prom together, I’ll be voted prom king and you will be prom queen.” Maria interjected, “Drag queen for me that is.” There’s no better salve for healing than laughter. And, there’s nothing more life affirming than finding someone who allows you to be yourself, someone who’ll laugh at the absurdity of life. There’s no word for it, that feeling of being accepted and understood. The word love has been overused——it’s lost its potency. If you’re looking for a word to define this thing between two people, than you never had it——-because it can’t be put into words——it’s the sacred stuff that makes life worth living.
Even though Marcus became more accepted and popular due to his athletic prowess, he continued to walk with Maria through the quad and down the crowded halls. This bought her a measure of tolerance from the pack of predators. But, there’s a huge gap between being tolerated and being accepted.
As the talent show sign ups drew closer, Marcus kidded Maria about entering the contest. He jokingly pretended his pen was a microphone and started singing “Staying Alive”. “Come on girl, you can do it. You said you like to sing karaoke. Well, here’s your chance to prove it.” Maria responded, “Sure, I’ll enter if you agree to enter too.” Marcus squinted his eyes giving the challenge some serious deliberation. He held his hand out for a fist bump. “Why hell yeah, let’s do this thing. We’ll either be a huge success or a complete disaster.” Maria sighed, “I can see us now being tarred and feathered and run out of town on the rail.” From that day forward they rehearsed everyday after school.
The night of the talent show Maria was dressed in a black one piece sequined outfit. She wore spiked heels, gold dangling earrings and a platinum blonde wig. Around her neck she had a gold choker with a red heart hanging from the center. Her mouth was dry and she could feel her heart throbbing in her temples. She slipped into the girls restroom and bent over the toilet and threw up. She felt a cold sweat run across her forehead. She found Marcus and grabbed him by his arm, “I can’t fucking do this.” Marcus laughed, “Damn, you look hot. You could be one of those backup singers for Gladys Knight and the pips. You’d be a pip.” Maria did not find the comment funny. Marcus put his hand on both of her shoulders,“Now listen to me, get your shit together and let’s rock this fucking place. We’re up next, so ‘man up’, or ‘girl up’, or whatever ‘up’ you wanna do. But don’t be a chicken shit. Don’t let your self doubt step on your dreams.” The voice of the MC echoed in the distance, “Now we got something sure to blow your minds. Welcome if you will, Marcus and Maria.” Marcus whispers in her ear, “While we’re here, let’s make a difference.” He gives Maria a push through the curtains causing her to trip. The auditorium is dark and deathly silent. The sound of her high-heels echoed as she made her way across the stage. A spotlight is switched on blinding her and making it difficult for her to locate the karaoke machine. From the darkness came the voices, “Hey queen-ey.” “Fagot.” “You can be my bitch”. Someone made a loud wolf whistle. Maria felt as if her legs were made of jello. She finally reached the Karaoke machine and pressed play.
The song “Nothing Can Come Between Us” by Sade blared from the speaker. She kept a tight grip on the mic stand to steady herself. A blue spotlight hallowed around her making her appear small and exposed. Her voice came out in a wobbly whisper. From the wings Marcus called out, “Do it, let it go. You got this thing!” She closed her eyes and let the music flow through her. She closed her eyes and leaned her head back forgetting where she was. Her voice gradually builds and becomes stronger and more confident. Her tone and vibrato sounds rich and soulful. The audience grows silent and becomes attentive as they realized they were hearing something unexpectedly good.
The mix begins to blend into the song “Changes” by Tupac. The curtain slowly opens as a second white spotlight switches on and is trained on Marcus as he makes his way to center stage. He’s wearing a black tank top with a picture of Tupac blazoned across its front. He’s got on a pair of sagging blue jeans with a pair of red Nike Air Jordan high tops. He’s got his hair combed out into a full Afro. His rap voice is powerful and angry. The audience spontaneously bursts out into deafening screams and wild applause. He moves confidently about the stage like he owns it. The audience comes to their feet and begin to dance and clap to the groove. A disco ball casts white sparkles of light on the walls and ceiling. The mix slowly blends into “Say Something” by Justin Timberlake. Marcus and Maria meet in the middle of the stage and move together in choreographed dance moves. The audience stays on their feet and start singing along to the music. A strobe light flashes in rhythm with the music. Abstract psychedelic posters come alive under the black lights. As the song comes to a close the crowd goes wild. In this euphoric moment there is no black, white, gay, straight or trans labels separating us——music is the great equalizer, the great unifier——creating a sweet oneness.
The MC speaks, “We have the ballots counted and the results have been tallied. The winner of this year’s talent show is”———-He pauses letting the anticipation build. “The winner of this year’s Talent Show is———-Marcus and Maria.” They come to the middle of the stage and give one another a hug. The place erupts into the deafening sound of cheers, whistles and screams.
Their morning bus rides continued to be their time to share laughs and talk about writing projects. They shared quotes, raps, poems and their future dreams and aspirations. After their success at the talent show most of the students give Maria a measure of respect. One day, Marcus wasn’t at his usual bus stop. She looked for him on campus but he was nowhere to be found. When he failed to show up for the Creative Writing Club she got a feeling that something wasn’t right. In her gut she had an uneasy feeling.
The only place she hadn’t looked for Marcus was the athletic department. She gathered up her courage and headed to the basketball coach’s office.. She opened the door to his office and tentatively approached his desk. On the shelfs behind him were trophies, medallions and colorful ribbons. In the stale air is the odor of musky deodorant masking the odor of sweat. “I’m looking for Marcus, has he been attending practice? I haven’t been able to find him anywhere.” The coach sat back in his chair with his feet up on his desk. He ran his fingers through his buzz cut, “That boy is no longer on the team. It seems he forgot to separate his politics from his sports. He got mixed up with that ‘Black Lives Matter’ crap. He had the gall to take a knee when they played the ‘National Anthem’. That boy was setting a bad example for the rest of the team. The Boosters and our school administration only support good clean American patriots and not a Kaepernick wanna be’s.” Maria’s voice took on a tone of indignation “What the fuck are you talking about.” “The coach removed his feet from his desk and leaned into Maria’s face. “You best watch your language dude. You may be wearing a skirt, but you’re still a dude to me” Maria leaned back into his face. “Black Lives Matter’ has nothing to do with patriotism. It’s about protesting police violence and brutality against black people. It’s about police being held accountable for shooting unarmed black people.” The coach stood up “He can now protest any freaking thing he likes, cause he’s not representing our school, our team or my America.” Maria shakes her head in frustration “That’s where you’re wrong asshole, it’s not your America, it’s everyone’s America and that includes black people, LGBTQ people———people of every race and religion. It’s the ‘United’, yes ‘United States of America’.” The coach sneered “That stupid son of a bitch took it too far this time. He forgot his place; where he does and doesn’t belong. He’s been expelled and worse than that, he’s pissed away a guaranteed college scholarship to a Division 1 school. He couldn’t just play basketball and keep his big mouth shut. The boosters and parents weren’t gonna put up with all that ‘Black Lives Matters bullshit’.” He reached in a closet and pulled out a backpack and threw it at Maria. “I cleaned out his locker and he left that shit behind. I was going to mail it to him, but sense he’s your buddy, you might as well take it to him personally. That is if you have the courage to walk the streets of that shit hole he calls home. That place is in the hood sweetheart. A little girly boy like you best watch your back on those streets. Go ahead and take it to your boyfriend. Give him a kiss for me. Get the fuck out of here and don’t exit through the locker-room, that area is reserved for real men.” Maria stared straight into his eyes “I pity you and your small mindedness. You’re a small minded man with a little dick complex. Go fuck yourself.”
It took Maria two city bus rides to get into the inner city where Marcus lives. There are no manicured lawns, pretty flower gardens or the sound of children at play. Here, things are black and white, just liquor stores, quick loan outfits and people with hollow eyes standing idly on street corners. A black Mercedes with gold rims slowed and pulled up close to Maria. An old white dude hung out his car window and in a hushed tone said “Hey there sugar. I like young sweet ones just like you. Will fifty bucks get me some action?” Maria stopped in mid stride, turned around and replied “Fuck off olf msn!” He hollered back, “Bitch, you ain’t worth ten bucks.” He pressed the gas pedal down to the floorboard making his tires smoke and squeal.
Maria checked the address on the backpack and then glanced up at the street sign. She made her way across a patch of yellowed dying lawn. She took a deep breath and anxiously knocked on the black metal door. From inside someone peeked out from the curtains. The door opened just far enough to keep the chain-lock intact. A middle aged back woman spoke, “What do you want?” “I’m looking for Marcus, I have his school backpack to return to him. I’m his friend.” “You must be Maria, the President of the Creative Writing Club. Yes, he spoke highly of you.” “Is he here? Can I speak with him?” “He’s locked up and I sure as hell can’t afford the bail to get him out. Those cops set him up. I gave him the talk about the police, but Marcus ain’t one to be trifled with. He was never one to act a fool, but he has something in him that makes him stand up for what’s right and defend those who can’t stand up for themselves. He knows what it’s like to be done wrong.” Maria bit her lip, “Yeah I know, he stood up for me a time or two.” “He came home the other day and told me he had it with that coach and that school. He was all excited about enrolling in the community college to finish up his High School credits. Marcus has potential, he has big plans of graduating from college someday. He said one day he’s gonna go to law school. Said he was gonna defend those who couldn’t afford to defend themselves. Said he’s gonna make a difference. Here, come in, I got something to give you.” The house is neat and clean. Marcus’ room is well organized. He has dozens of sports trophies and medals on his dresser and shelves. There’s posters of Tupac, Mohammad Ali and Martin Luther King hanging on the walls. He has a bookshelf full of books and a Buddhist prayer flag draped across his bed headboard. “When I went to try and bail him out he instructed me to make sure to get his personal items that the police had taken from him. He said to make sure to get his journal back.” She picked up a medallion hanging from a ribbon and held it in her palm. “Marcus won the school spelling competition every year from first grade on up to middle school. Loves his words.” Marcus’s mother hands Maria his leather bound book of writings. “It’s a funny thing, this writing book means more to him than all of these sports medals and trophies put together. I know that you and Marcus are close, so I want you to hold on to this for him. I know that he respects and trusts you. He could use a good friend right about now.” Maria smiles, “Yeah, I know what it’s like to need a good friend.”
When Maria made it back home she sat on her bed and slowly opened the leather writing book. On the front inside cover is a quote written in neat cursive penmanship
I will go to my own Sun.
And if I am burned by its fire,
I will fly on scorched wings.
Tapped below the poem is the candid selfie of Maria and Marcus that was snapped on the school bus. Below the photo is the caption “King and Queen Of The Prom”. The journal is filled with poems, prose and lists of words with their definitions attached. Maria lifted the writing book to her nose and breathed in, it smelled like worn leather, it reminded her of him. If integrity had a scent, it would smell like his journal. She turned the page and read the most recent entry.
Watered Down People
(Dedicated to Maria)
Life, a misunderstood word. All there is, is life, and then no life. People carry that word around like it’s a vessel of guarantee’s and entitlements. All that ever will be is life, and all that will never be—— is one of the tragedies of this life too. Life isn’t always a “Once upon a time” or a “Happily ever after”. I once had a best friend, they were there and then one day gone. Time absorbs everyone and everything, sooner or later.
And nobody knows where everything and everyone goes. Words are attached to emotions and emotions are attached to words. If there were no words, would there be no emotions? If that were true, I’d take a big eraser and delete the words, depression, sadness, loneliness, hate and anger from everyone’s vocabulary. I’d write love, peace and kindness in large bold font and add them to everyone’s lexicon.
Life is carried around like a banner that says love is true, life is fair and everything and everyone is infinite. Trust me, time is not an illusion, the hands of our clocks caress away immortality——-I try to remember this.
To some, life is a crisp, clean white piece of paper that they wad up into a wrinkled ball and toss into a waste bin. And, to a few, that same piece of virgin paper is something they neatly fold into an origami of a bird, a dragon or a frog. —–Hands.—The same hand that can reach out to comfort others can also be a weapon to repel everything and everyone.
When I look closely at my hands I realize how odd and strange they are. One hand fits into another person’s hand so naturally, so easily——but then again, it can also just as easily be drawn into a tight angry fist.
Live your best life, not a fraudulent life, not a half life, not a life that is guarded and protected in the hopes of not ever making any mistakes or being hurt. Embrace your mistakes, own your fuck ups, admit your naive follies, because they are the best teachers——Even when it’s all bullshit, even when you’re buried beneath an avalanche of hurt, reach out for another’s hand. Someday they’ll be a “no life” for you and me, and no one will care what we won or what we gave up on——-it will all be lost in the litter of time——-only you can save yourself. Take a good look at your hands. What might you do with them?
Allow yourself to be shot out of a circus cannon, dance on the tight wire, be the painted faced clown, be vulnerable, it’s the only way to know yourself, there are no short cuts. We all have nothing to lose. Without vulnerability it’s a lifetime of pretending to be something you’re not.
Be assured, we are here to help one another summit all those mountains of worry and sorrow.
Life is full of “I told you so’s”, insincere apologies, deferred honesty and love waisted on watered-down people. I wonder if the sun dreads the day’s end, like I do. The moon makes no promises of what the night may bring.
Maria called the jail and inquired about visiting hours. She got on the bus and headed down to the city center. The jail is a twelve story cement block building. Each floor has narrow slits for windows that only allow a minimal amount of sunlight into each cell. The view from any jail cell is never very good. She put her backpack on the X-ray conveyor belt and walked through the metal detector. The uniformed officer pulled her backpack off the conveyor belt and began to rummage through the contents. He pulled out several candy bars, Green Tea drinks and a blank tablet and pen. “You can’t give any of this stuff to an inmate. You can only give him money for the commissary. No contraband allowed.” She points to the selfie of her and Marcus laying on the X-ray belt. “Can I give him this picture?” “Give it here. I’ll let the sergeant look it over and if he approves of it, then he’ll have it issued to him.” She makes her way to the reception desk with its bullet proof glass and circular voice intercom. “I’m here to see Marcus Richards.” The uniformed receptionist appeared to be annoyed by the question. He shakes his head no. “That won’t be possible at this time. We have some things we’re investigating in regards to Mr Richards.” Maria did her best to maintain her composure “What do you mean he’s under investigation? What could he possibly be under investigation for? He’s just a kid who’s going to college and doing his best to get out of this shit hole of a town.” “Well he should have complied with the arresting officers. He’s a hothead with a bad temper and a shitty disposition.” “What was he arrested for?” “Well, let me take a look at the arrest record. It says here that he was initially detained, searched and questioned due to suspicion of him fitting the description of a gangbanger who shot and killed a liquor store clerk during a robbery.” “That’s bullshit, he’s no gangbanger or robber. He’s a writer, a poet.” “Well he’s the strongest poet I’ve ever met. It took four officers and a stun gun to cuff his ass. He kept hollering something about his rights. It says here that he didn’t comply with the arresting officer. Apparently when the arresting officer told him to settle down or he was gonna toss his diary book into the sewer drain he became combative. They think he may have broke one of the officers jaw and the nose of another officer. Well he ain’t so tough now.” “I demand to see him right now, right fucking now. This is not fair.” The officers voice crackles through the intercom “Fair?——-that’s where pony rides are given for free. Well, pony rides ain’t free and neither is he.” “I want to speak to your supervisor. I want to speak to him right now.” He clears his throat “Hang on sweet cheeks. I guarantee you ain’t gonna wanna hear what he has to say.”
“I’m Captain Smith, what can I help you with?” “ It’s visiting hours and I’m here to visit Marcus Richards. This dumb ass public servant over there says I can’t speak to Marcus. He never should have been arrested in the first place.” The Captain takes a deep breath and lets out a weary sigh.“I’m sorry to inform you of this, but Mr Richards hung himself in his cell last night or possibly early this morning.”
Maria had been kicked, pushed, slapped, spit on, tripped, thrown against walls, had her things ripped off, her clothes torn, bullied, sucker punched and hurt in a thousand different ways, but not once had she ever let them see her shed one tear. She had always refused to give them the satisfaction that they hurt her or broken her spirit. But this pain was different, it was at a level deeper than her spirit could bear. In that moment of shock and grief, suddenly all those years of suffering in silence was now being released. From deep in her being, she let out a primal scream that was terrifying. It’s the sound a wolf makes when the jaws of a jagged metal trap snaps down on their leg, tearing muscle, tendons and shattering bone. She beat her fist against the bullet proof glass and kept screaming, “You killed him, you fuckers, you killed him. I know you all did it. You cowardice bastards. He didn’t kill himself. He was gonna go to college. He was going to make a difference.” She beat her fists against the reception glass until blood ran down her forearms.
In each of us lies the untapped power to create change in ourselves and in doing so creating a change in the world. Making a better world starts from within. But, it requires pure honesty and the courage to take on a cause that’s bigger than oneself. A life without belief’s worth dying for, is no life at all. Our beliefs test us———they pull our covers and reveal who we are, they are the scale that measures the congruency between our actions and our truths. Cultures do not move forward without the sacrifices of brave individuals. We’re all on a hero’s quest, but there are no medals or victory celebrations. In fact it’s a road a-washed in blood and unheralded suffering. No one is going to congratulate you for doing the right thing. It’s getting off one’s knees and putting prayers into motion. It’s the individual raindrops that relentlessly wash away mountains of hate. Apathy is the oxygen that keeps prejudice alive. A moral revolution has always been a lonely and narrow path. She knew she must find some way to take action, she needed to find someway to honor the life of her now deceased friend.
The news of Marcus’s death ran rampant through the school. Everyone knew that Maria was close to Marcus. There were rumors she had committed suicide. Others whispered that she had an emotional breakdown and ended up in a psychiatric hospital. No one ever expected to see her at school again. There is unseen strength in occupying the role of outcast—-there’s the revelation of knowing you have nothing left to lose. There is nothing as unpredictable or dangerous as someone with nothing left to lose.
The gym was packed for the Friday night basketball game. Above the home team bleachers was a banner with a large photo of Marcus. Below his photos the caption read “Gone But Never Forgotten”. On the bottom of the banner someone had scribbled “Black Lives Matter”.
A blaring voice came over the PA system “We are dedicating this game to Marcus Richards. He will forever be a Viking.” The High School Pep Band made a host of squawks and screeches as the clarinets, saxophones, trumpets, trombones and tubas tuned up. The players’ tennis shoes squeaked on the hardwood floors as they warmed up. A loud buzzer went off signifying that the game was about to begin. A voice came across the PA, “All please stand for the National Anthem.” The auditorium became silent as the first notes of the National Anthem began to play. Maria removed her jacket to reveal a picture of Marcus on her shirt and the caption, “Make a difference.” As she weaved her way down from the bleachers she could hear the sound of hushed murmurs coming from the spectators. She carried herself with a sense of purpose. Her face was determined and she showed no sign of self doubt. She boldly walked to the center of the basketball court and took a knee and then bowed her head.
The players began to exchange glances. Then one of the players slowly removed his hand from over his heart and walked to the center of the court and took a knee. Then a second player made his way from the sidelines and slowly walked to the center of the court and took a knee. The coach’s face turned red with anger. Then, another player made his way to where Maria and the other players had taken a knee. The coach began ranting raving, “You’re going to be pulled from the team. Did you hear me? You’ll be benched. This is blatant insubordination. I will see to it that all of you will be suspended.” The entire players bench began to walk to the center of the court. The band’s version of the “National Anthem” somehow sounded louder and more authentic than ever before. The coach screamed and stammered “I’ll have you all permanently removed from the team. I’ll have you all expelled.” No-one listened to his threats. No-one cared, they were caught up in the reverence of this moment. There was a veneration in the air like that felt at tent revival. For a moment there was a prevailing oneness, a shared sense of empathy and compassion.
As the coach continued his pacing and screaming, he suddenly felt a tightness in his chest. He grimaced as he grasped at his heart with both hands. His uncontrolled temper and emotional outrage had brought on a heart-attack. The pain of the cardiac event drove him to his knees. Ironically, or maybe due to divine intervention, folks in the bleachers seeing this thought the couch was taking a knee as an endorsement of the “Black Lives Matter” protest. The spectators flocked down from the bleachers and in an act of respect took a knee and bowed their heads. On this strange day we were presented with a miracle——-and an unforeseen happy ending. The universe exhaled, the angels rejoiced——and Maria smiled.
The power of one person doing the right thing can shake the heavens and awaken the sleepwalking masses. The universe will always bend towards goodness and redemption. At some deeper level we are all the same, we are all connected by that unseen and indescribable force known as love.
Addendum. The coach survived his heart attack. But ironically, the boosters complained to the School Board that the coach had acted as a political agitator at the basketball game by taking a knee during the National Anthem. The School Board summarily fired him for endorsing a political cause. Maria organized a Scholarship program in remembrance of Marcus. She named the scholarship “While we’re here, let’s make a difference.”
Michael behind the wheel driving back home for the holidays. HIs wife Lyne is in the passenger seat. The radio is playing “Have A Holly Jolly Christmas”.
Michael, “Why do they have to start playing Christmas music two days before Thanksgiving? Can’t we just enjoy each holiday and celebration before the next one is being shoved down our throats.”
Lyne, “It’s what they call a business plan. Some people like to get their Christmas shopping done before August. Maybe it’s an Amazon or Walmart conspiracy.”
Michael, “Christmas suppose to be a sacred holiday. I swear, I think it’s a capitalist conspiracy to keep us in a constant state of unfulfilled desire. Always wanting the next thing, the new iPhone, that new gadget or gizmo that’s gonna make you complete. (Spoken with sarcasm) Its gonna make life easier. I swear, Alexa and Siri know more about me than god does. Everyone’s chasing trends and the next big thing. Definitely not living in the present.”
Lyne, “I didn’t know that you felt Christmas was such a spiritual celebration. You use to tell me how you and your buddies would play poker and get drunk on Christmas eve and then all head off to midnight mass. (Sarcasm) How Catholic of you and the boys. Now that does’t sound so holy or Christian like.”
Michael, “Maybe it wasn’t the mass as much as a tradition. I miss having traditions. I remember after mass walking across the frozen field back to my mom’s house. The December air was crisp and the stars seemed to be burning brighter than normal. The Milky Way Galaxy making me feel small, yet alive and grateful. Just glad for no particular reason. That’s the best kind of happiness, nothing attached to it. Me and my buddies just goofing and laughing. It was a god-felt moment in time.” (Shakes his head). Traditions, good times.”
Lyne, “Maybe we can start our own traditions.”
Michael, “I’m a middle age white guy. I don’t belong to a shared culture with ancient traditions and heroic struggles. Black guys have that whole slavery thing to bond over. And the Mexicans, well they invented taco’s. The Irish got their drunken pub songs, while drinking Genies and Jameson. I tried that “ancestory.com” thing in the hopes of finding my roots. I was hoping to discover a proud heritage, maybe I was a distant relative of President Lincoln. Fat chance, it turns out that my ancestors were potato farmers——-share croppers who lost everything in the great dust bowl. They were Okies, desperate dreamers who believed California would be their promised land.”
Lyne, “They must have been tough, a proud clan of hard workers.”
Michael, “I didn’t get the hard worker gene, I got their dreamer gene. I was thinking about last Christmas. I can’t even remember one gift I received. It’s kind of ridiculous. We run around in a mad frenzy buying gifts no-one needs, wants, or will even remember. I definitely think it’s a capitalist conspiracy. They, the man, the one percenters, they keep us working at jobs we hate so we have money to buy shiny distractions we don’t need. QVC, Amazon, consume, consume. What kind of tradition is that?”
Lyne, “We can start whatever tradition we like. We can bake fruitcakes, take turns making toasts at the dinner table, create unreasonable new years-eve resolutions.”
Michael, “I got to find my tribe, something to belong too.”
Lyne, “Well, we’re headed back to your hometown, you’ll be seeing old friends and family. That’s your tribe, your people——-right?”
Michael, “I have mixed feelings about going back home. I get this weird nostalgic feeling, a kind of dream like melancholy. It’s like visiting places and things I can never get back. When I drive by the old ballfields, the high school or a house I once lived in, it’s like visiting an old friend who’s now a stranger. It’s like I left little pieces of me in these once familiar placers. As I drive by these old haunts I pick up younger version of myself. I end up with a carload of ‘use to be’s’ and ‘what might have beens’.”
Lyne, “You’re sure being awfully depressing. Maybe you ought to see a therapist, get an antidepressant prescription. You can never enjoy yourself, you’re constantly over thinking stuff.”
Michael, “Nobody wants to be melancholy or sad, or sentimental anymore. They equate it as being weak and treat it as if it’s some kind of sickness, or an illness. Here, take a pill and feel better. I want to feel melancholy sometimes, even sad sometimes. I’m not depressed, I’m just old fashioned sad. Life can be sad and also happy, you can’t have one without the other. Yen and the Yang, sweet and sour. I hate phony smiles and all that ‘happy happy’ bullshit. (Sarcastic) ‘Have nice day’. I’ll have whatever kind of freakin day I want.”
Lyne, “You’re too sensitive. Get over it, move on with life.”
Michael, “Yeah right, fuck it. Sorry I told you how I feel. Why do you always have to say I’m sensitive and shit like that. I swear, after all these years, you don’t really know me.”
Lyne, (Uncomfortable silence). You don’t ‘get me’ either. Let’s just get through the holidays. It’s stressful enough as it is. (Spoken with an irritable tone) You’re driving awfully fast. And, did you turn down the heater before leaving the house? (She absent-mindfully rattles on) I should have made a hair appointment. Does my hair look okay? Don’t drink too much tonight at the party. You aren’t listening to me are you?”
Michael, “Yes I am. (Pause) I’m sorry, what did you say again?”
Lyne, (Takes a deep breath). “Whatever.” (Turns up ‘Silent Night’ playing on the radio).
Living room with eight people chatting while enjoying hors d’oeuvres and drinks. There is a knock at the door. Michael’s sister Matty answers the door.
Matty, “Hey, look who we have here. Come on in, let me take your coats. Get yourselves a drink and have something to eat.”
(Michael makes his way to the buffet table and fixes himself a drink. Shawn walks up behind Michael and pats him on the shoulder).
Shawn, “Look what the cat drug in.” ( They give each other a hug). “It’s been a few years. How the hell are you doing?”
Michael, “Doing good, doing just fine. How bout you?”
Shawn, “Yeah, life is good here too. Time is going by too fast.”
Michael, “I’m fixing a Jameson Ginger ale, can I make you one?”
Shawn, “Thanks but I had to give it up. Traded my garage beer fridge in for a treadmill and a set of weights.”
Michael, “Good for you. As for me, I’ve been drinking more but enjoying it less. If you don’t mind me asking, what made you decide to give it up?”
Shawn, “I use to drink as a kind of coping mechanism, but then it went from stress relief to a way to cover up all the shit building up inside me. I could only stuff my anger and frustration down so much before it started to back up and come out in unhealthy ways. Alcohol was only making things worse.”
Michael, “It’s easier to be mad rather than honest.”
Shawn, (Laughs) “Got to the age where I realized I wasn’t going to get that promotion I’d been waiting on and working for. I started getting passed over by younger guys. Me and the wife had lost any sense of intimacy. I kind of found myself in a dark place. All the things that once mattered or made me happy was gone. My life was getting harder to manage, and the hangovers seem to get worse. The pain out weighed the pleasure. It doesn’t hardly seem fair, you only got one life to get it right. When I was young I thought I had forever, but you start getting older and the options seem to close in on you.”
Michael, “Getting old is hard. You end up with fewer options, fewer folks you can hangout with or count on. You have more to lose but less it matters. I guess alcohol is like a lot of things, It works until it stops working. Fuck it! I’m gonna go out on the back deck and smoke a bowl. Do you still smoke a little weed?”
Shawn, “Well, not really, but I think tonight I can make an exception. Did you see Marlena? Man, she’s still hot. Didn’t you and her once have a thing?”
Michael, (Lights his pipe and takes a big hit) “Yeah, we did, a long time ago. It’s funny, When you’re younger you go chasing the next shiny thing. You always think you can do better. Then you wake up one day and you’re middle aged and realize that all the things you were running from were probably the best things you ever had. Yeah, it’s true, It don’t hardly seem fair. You only got one life to get it this shit right.”
Shawn, (Takes a hit off the pipe) “So much of life is boring details; minutia. You wake up one day and you’re old. Where the fuck did the time go. Did I make the right decisions, right choices? Maybe I should have stayed at that job teaching scuba diving at the resort. Can you imagine spending all day with hot chicks in skimpy bikinis——drinking beer and getting laid left and right. But, I went off to college and got my MBA and became a financial adviser. A fucking financial advisor. My job consists of making old fat white guys, richer and fatter. I should have stayed being a scuba instructor. I’m a tie dye guy wearing a suite and tie every day. And that neck tie gets a little bit tighter every day. (Hands the pipe to Michael) That’s some good shit. How are you and Lyne doing?”
Michael, (Takes a hit) “I guess fair. Probably as good as any couple who’ve been together for what feels like eternity. Marital bliss——-now that’s a fucking oxymoron. (Shakes his head). Sometimes before we hang up on the phone she’ll say ‘I love you’——- I swear it takes every once of strength to respond with ‘Love you too’.” I know that sounds shitty and pathetic, but I can’t help it. Marriage counseling, now that was a waste of time and money. Paying a stranger sixty bucks an hour to try and fix something that’s beyond repair. Her fault, my fault? It doesn’t matter. I swear, sometimes I can’t breathe.”
Shawn, “Hell, it’s a lot easier to un-love someone than it is to re-love them. All it takes is a small hole below the waterline to sink a luxury liner.”
Michael, “Do you think it’s ever too late to love someone again?”
Shawn, “It’s like this. This is my curdled milk theory. You wake up one morning and go to the fridge and pour yourself a glass of ice cold milk, right? You take a big swig and immediately spit it out cause it’s gone sour. The very next day you go back to the fridge and pour yourself another glass of milk——guess what, It’s still fucking sour. Maybe love has an expiration date. Some loves may last a month while another may last fifty years. But once that shit begins to curdle, well you better try churning it and hope it can be transformed into butter.” (Laughs) “Did you ever consider divorce?”
Michael, “Yeah, I did the math and it ain’t a pleasant scenario. We’d have to split up all of our shit, sell the house and cash in our 401k’s. She’d get half of my pension. I’d end up like one of those poor old fuckers having to go back to work. Probably end up swabbing down tables at Starbucks and taking coffee orders from spoiled-ass ‘twenty somethings’. Kids these days don’t even have the courtesy to look up and say ‘thank you’. Instead, they’re be incessantly scrolling through their goddamn cell phones or laptops. Then there’d be the proverbial pimply faced shift supervisor who’s prodding me to pick up the pace and smile more.” (Takes another hit). “Trade one hell for another hell.”
Shawn, “Yep, if I were your financial advisor I’d probably tell you to stay married, adopt a rescue dog for companionship and find a pro for sex, ya know, a skilled call girl. It’s cheaper than the alternative. Well, while we’re swopping confessions, I’ve been having my own struggles. Penny and I don’t really argue anymore, we avoid that, we share meals and a house but we kind of live like roommates. We’ve become courteous strangers, polite acquaintances. I never thought we’d end up like those old couples you see at restaurants eating entire meals without saying a word to one another. Everything that needs to be said, I suppose has already been said. We’ve learned to avoid pressing each others buttons—- it only lead to the same stupid arguments and hard feelings.”
Michael, “I suppose if it works, at least it’s better than arguing and saying mean shit you can’t take back. I mean, after all these years you still don’t want to hurt each other.”
Shawn, “Is anger deferred better than just being honest? (Snickers) Man, I’m getting some of those cool stoned thoughts.”
Michael, “I guess sometimes it’s easier to stay silently mad rather than come out and admit you’re wrong. Remember how when we were in high school and we’d get high and go down to the park at night and talk about life, dreams, god, girls and aliens . Anything and everything was on the table. As for girls, I still don’t understand them.” (Laughter).
Shawn, “I don’t have anyone to talk this shit over with anymore. Do you mind if I keep talking about love or lovelessness, cause another stoned weird thought just popped into my head?”
Michael, (Getting excited) Yeah, yeah—-tell me, go ahead man.”
Shawn, “There’s this chick at work who’s got this thing that I can’t explain. She’s in her early thirties, not what I’d call classically beautiful, but there’s something really hot and sexy about her. Just watching her put a scrunchy in her hair is sexy—-When she looks me directly in the eye I’m overcome with this uncontrollable magnetism. I feel electricity shooting through my body. I don’t know if it’s love or pure animalistic sexual arousal. Man, sometimes I just want to lean over and kiss her sweet mouth.”
Michael, “So, what are you going to do?”
Shawn, “Fuck, I don’t know, but at this stage of the game, this might be my last chance to have something special in my life. She has sex appeal and she knows how to use it. It’s dirty, it’s nasty, she can turn the mundane into magic.”
Michael, (Fires up the pipe). “Dude, you got it bad, but that’s good. Or, you got it good and that’s bad—-man I’m high. My advice, don’t marry a woman cause she’s pretty. Get a woman who knows how to flirt, knows how to be a freak in bed. Someone who’s fun, smart, has a good sense of humor. It’s all an illusion anyway. Only a few women know how to sustain the illusion, know how to make you do crazy shit. I’ve only been in love one time. I mean real love. The kind that makes you wanna do stupid shit, like write poetry, or hold her hand when walking down the street.”
Shawn, “I suppose that one time wasn’t with Lyne?”
Michael, “Nope. She’s practical. No nonsense. She still does’t appreciate my humor——she thinks anything other than missionary position is kinky. I need someone to turn my my mundane into magic.”
Shawn, “You ought to go say hello to Malena. Maybe there’s still a little magic hidden there.”
Michael, “What am I gonna say?”
Shawn, “What do I got to lose, that I haven’t already lost.”
Michael, (He heads back into the house. He stares directly at Melina. She responds with a flirtatious wink. He points to his drink and nods for her to meet him at the liquor table).
Melina, (They hug). “You smell good, you smell familiar.”
Michael, “Your hug feels familiar. Somethings I suppose never change. I was hoping you’d show up here.”
Malena, “Part of me wanted to not come, but something or someone drew me back.” (Offers a heartfelt smile). I see the whole gangs here.”
Michael, “I’m sorry to hear about Jesse. He was a great guy. He was a hell of a guitar player too. We use have a blast playing all those little bars and coffee houses.”
Melina, “He made a killing in the stock market, but I think he would have traded all the money, cars and fancy trips to just be a guy who played gigs at the pizza parlor. Happiness and success are hard things to measure. Circumstances may change, but at some level we are who we are. Jesse was unique, in a world where everyone is trying to follow trends and be the same, he was brave and unafraid to be different. I loved him for that.”
Michael, “Yeah, and if you try and be something you’re not, it will eat you alive. The best kind of friends are the ones that let you be yourself. Some people want to put you in a box and that is stifling.”
Melina, “I miss Jesse. What I really miss is the Jesse I knew when we were younger and not constrained by all the bullshit that comes with growing up. You trade little pieces of yourself away for security and possessions. Instead of you owning them, they end up owning you. You think you’re buying security, but what you’re really doing is bargaining away your passion, your freedom, your sense of wonder. I must sound like some old hippy chick.” (They both laugh).
Michael, “Here, let me get you a glass of chardonnay.” (Pours a glass of wine and hands it to Melina).
Melina, “Time goes by fast and it’s easy to lose the people and things that matter the most to you. (Pauses) When Jesse and I first met, travel was our thing. We’d be in a strange country and all we had was each other. It brought us together, made us closer. We went to Europe, China, Brazil, and it was exciting and fun. But something happened. I don’t even know how and or when it happened. Our traveling felt more like a search for something we lost, rather than sharing a new adventure. It was if we could find that special vacation place again, it would bring us back to that feeling of closeness. But it wasn’t the place or time, it was something dreadful that followed us wherever we traveled. We’d lost our connection. We became strangers in strange lands. And knowing what real love felt like, made it even harder when we tried to fake it or manufacture it.”
Michael, “I know that feeling. There’s no faking love. It’s either there or it’s not. And to watch it slowly slip away is excruciating. It’s hard to try and love someone——cause love isn’t a thing you have to try to do.”
Melina, “Jesse didn’t do anything wrong, it was (Pause) I don’t exactly know what it was. I think as he got older he became more cautious. Ironically, the thing that attracted me to him was his risk taking, his carefreeness. I think he regretted having to grow up and become a responsible adult, but his minister father ingrained in him that scarfing ones self is next to godliness. He started delaying gratification, putting money away in 401K’s, working long hours. It was like he was trying to earn his way into heaven, or at least please his folks. We were always making plans to go to Italy and rent a little house in Tuscany. I don’t know if once that feeling is gone if there’s anyway to rekindle it. Maybe that’s why we never went, maybe it wouldn’t turn out the way we hoped it would. Maybe it would confirm what we already knew. Maybe the chasm had grown too wide, the distance between us was too far to reach one another. And then after all the putting off of pleasure he gets cancer and fucking dies. Maybe cancer was only a symptom of a worse disease, losing faith, losing your self. Life can be fucking cruel”
Michael, “Yeah, a lasting love is illusive. Sorry about Jesse, (Pause) sorry about (Pause) the death of a love too.”
Melina, (Put her hand on Michaels shoulder) “Oh, wait. I almost forgot. I brought something special for you. It’s in my car, come on.”
Melina, (Melina is the the drivers seat and Michael in the passenger seat.) “Close your eyes.” (She reaches into the backseat). “Okay, open your eyes.” (She hands him a guitar).
Michael, “What the (Pause). This is Jesse’s Martin guitar. This was like a part of his body. I have so many great memories of him playing this guitar at parties, jam sessions and in dark living rooms On Sunday afternoons we’d hangout at San Brannon Park drinking Ripple and playing music. Are you sure you want to give me this? This is a huge part of his legacy.”
Melina, “He’d want you to have it. He wouldn’t want anyone else to play it but you. He always said that guitars were shaped like a woman’s body. And, that’s what made him want to hold his guitar in his arms and caress it. He was romantic that way. I use to keep it on a stand in my living room, but (Pause) but it was like holding on to something or someone that was never coming back. I finally put it in its case and slid it under my bed. It was like sleeping with a ghost. Go ahead and exercise those old ghosts, give it light, give it life again, hold it, love it——let it make beautiful music.”
Michael, “I was pissed at Jesse for a long time. I blamed him for taking you away from me.”
Melina, “He didn’t take me away from you. You left me to go to LA and become a rockstar. You said you had a record deal and you’d probably be going on the road and you needed some space so you could get your music career going.”
Michael, (Shakes his head as he reflexes on the past).“I never got a record deal. The Record company said I’d have to go on the road and build up a following before they’d risk putting money into me. I ended up doing gigs in shitty little bars from Southern California to nowheres-ville Arkansas. I thought touring would be glamorous and exciting. There’s nothing further from the truth. You can only play ‘Johnny Be Good’ so many times and put your heart and soul into it. The last gig I played was at a Veterans of Foreign War hall for a bunch of drunk bikers. A big fight broke out with some opposing biker club. I heard a gun go off so I picked up my gear and ran for the door. That was it, I was through with my rock and roll dream. After that, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I was lost. I probably wrote you a dozen letters, but I couldn’t find the right words to say. I tried calling but I guess your number had changed. I messed up. And what hurt the most is knowing it was my ego that cost me my future with you.”
Melina, “I’ve often wondered what life would be like if things had turned out differently. But, I guess things worked out alright for you. You have Lyne and you have a good life.”
Michael, “Like I said, when I came back home I didn’t really know what to do with myself. I got a job framing houses for Lyne’s dad and he kind of took me under his wing. He introduced me to his daughter and we started dating. I got my contractors license and the next logical step was marriage. Love and logic are two opposing ways of approaching life. Logic is using your brain, love is following your heart. I think I should have followed my heart.”
Melina, “I wasn’t sure if I should give this back to you.” (She reaches back into the backseat). “You left this flannel shirt at my apartment a million years ago.”
Michael, “I use to call that my lucky shirt. I was wearing it when I first met you.”
Melina, “This is kind of weird to say, but when you first left, I use to wear it to bed. It was soft and warm and it smelled like you.”
Michael, “And what do I smell like?”
Melinda, “You smell like the woods, like a forest. It’s a scent of pine needles, a tad bit of desert sagebrush and fresh rain on earthy mud.”
Michael, “Hum, I smell like earthy mud? That doesn’t sound too appealing. I suppose it’s better than sweat and grime.” (Both laugh).
Melina, “Well having a piece of someones clothing is kind of an intimate thing. It’s holding something that was once against their skin. Their body movements leave wrinkles imprinted on the cloth, the fabric still carries their scent. Sorry if that sounds crazy to you.”
Michael, “It’s a funny thing, I came back home after all these years and everything and everyone seems strange and different. The only thing that feels familiar to me is you. (There’s a reflective pause) I think I’ve always loved you and alway will. You’ve had a hold on me. Through the years I’ve fantasized about you a thousand times. Sorry if that sounds weird or creepy.————.”
Melina, (Puts on a devilish smile). “I guess I’ll take that as a complement.”
Michael, “I suppose, once you distance yourself from a place, a time or a person you realize a lot of things. Sometimes the long way is the only way home.———(Silence) Do you have the case I can put the guitar in?” (They both reach back at the same time and their heads slightly bump into one another’s).
Melina, (They both laugh at the awkwardness of the situation. There’s an emotionally charged silence.) “You can touch me if you want.”
Michael, (Slowly leans into Melina to give her a kiss. Theres an abrupt tapping on the fogged window).
Lyne, “What are you guys doing out here? It’s freezing out here.”
Michael, (Shakes his head in frustration as he rolls down the window). “Melina and I were sharing some old memories. She wants to give me Jesse’s Martin.”
Lyne, “Why don’t you bring it in the house and everyone can jam.”
Michael, “Yeah, sure.”
They come back in the house. Michael sits down and starts to tune the guitar. Everyone is feeling buzzed. The guests begin to clammer, “Play something, come on, play something for us.”
Michael, (Smiles) “Shawn, give me a beat on that cajon.” (Shawn sits on the cajon and starts playing a medium groove. Michael starts playing the guitar and singing ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’. The guests sing along. Michael can feel Melina’s eyes on him. Song ends, everyone applauds while hooting and hollering).
Michael, “Let me get a drink and then we’ll do another one.” (Makes his way over to the liquor table where Shawn is standing).
Shawn, “Nice jam bro. Isn’t that Jesse’s old Martin?”
Michael, “ Yeah, Melina gave it to me. She said Jesse would have wanted it that way. It’s almost like I can feel him when I play it. There’s worn marks on the fretboard where his fingers once played. It has a few nicks and scratches, but don’t all old things have a few scars.”
Shawn, “For sure.”
Michael, “You won’t believe what almost happened. Melina took me out to her car to get the guitar and we started talking and stuff. Something just happened. It wasn’t planned or like some kind of drunken hookup. I felt this thing I haven’t felt for a long time. I haven’t felt it sense I was with Melina all those years ago. It a feeling I forgot even exists. We were almost gonna kiss and Lyne came wrapping on the car window. It’s as if she knew something was up. I swear she has some kind of radar that tracks my every freakin move.”
Shawn, (Smiles and shakes his head). “Dude, that kind of soulmate energy permeates a room. Everyone’s buzzed and having a good time, no ones gonna say anything. But, I think everyone can kind of pick up on that thing between you two; even Lyne.”
Michael, “Man, I’m so sick of pretending and doing without. It’s fucking exhausting. I just want to feel that feeling again. I want to fucking feel alive again, to feel understood, loved——-to have real sex with someone who enjoys it. Is that fucking asking too much?”
Shawn, “I don’t know man. I think most of the dudes I know would love to have a ‘do over’. Life without compromises is a young man’s game. Ya gotta ask yourself, when does the hug become a choke hold.”
Lyne, (Approaches Shawn and Michael). “We need to leave soon, I have a nail appointment first thing in the morning.”
Michael, “Hey, we’re having some fun for once. Let’s just hangout for a little while longer.”
Lyne, (Looks over towards Melina). Yeah ‘we’re’——- or should I say you, are having a lot of fun. In a half hour I’m leaving. If you don’t want to come home, then get a ride with one of your (Spoken with sarcasm) friends.” (She turns and walks away).
Michael, “Goddamn ultimatums. It’s taking every single fiber of my being to not just say fuck it, fine——I’m going home with Melina.”
Shawn, “Loves a powerful drug bro. It’s done in many a good man. Like you said, It’s really not fair that you only get one chance to get this life right. What are you gonna do?”
Michael, “I don’t know man. But I know one thing, true love never dies. It’s a hard thing to explain. There’s something about the way she talks——the tone of her voice sets me at ease. I could listen to her voice for hours. I would never be afraid to tell her anything, cause I know she’d understand. There’s something familiar in her laugh. I like how her body moves through space. Graceful, like a dancer who needs no music.”
Shawn, “Regrets a hard thing to have to live with. Lookout bro, here she comes.”
Melina, “I’m gonna be leaving. It was really great to see you again. (She gives Michael a hug). “Oh, I left the guitar case in the back bedroom where they put everyone’s coats. I miss you.”
Michael, “I miss you too.”
Lyne, (She’s wearing a stern look on her face). “Get our coats and let’s go. I’m cold, I’m tired and I’ve got a headache.”
Michael, “You’re always cold, tired and have a headache.”
(He heads to the back bedroom. He opens the guitar case to put up the guitar. He picks up a note that was left in the case). ‘Michael, I left you a little something to remember me by. Something that’s been close to my body and against my skin. I hope I smell like the things I know you love, peppermint ice cream, Jameson Irish whiskey and second chances. P.S. Damn, it’s gonna be a bit cold driving home commando style, Ha Ha.”
(Michael retrieves a pair of red panties from the guitar case. He puts them to his face and inhales deeply. He shakes his head in disbelief and starts to laugh. He then says out loud). “Second Chances?”
The song “In Spite Of Ourselves” by John Prine begins to play.
These times are strange, no they’re a mess. There’s this constant background hum coming up from my backside. I don’t know if it’s coming from inside my head or is it a demon creating this lingering static in the ether. There’s always been horrors, but today it grinds on and on through social media, newscasts and radio talkshows. People are angry, living on the edge. We’ve become victims of a constant bombardment of bad news filtering into our psyche. People on the street wear the mask of emotional fatigue on their drawn faces. Where do we go from here? Everyone’s looking for a way to turn down the static.
This is what pushed the pioneers west, the thought that somewhere,, somehow, someplace—-things have got to be better than this—-All the same, we tote our clutter and emotional baggage along with us. No matter where we go——there we are. There’s no escaping this house of mirrors. There’s no out running our shadow, but we can always change the stories we tell ourselves. We’re the star of our own life, why not make it a comedy rather than a tragedy. There’s no better time than now, no better place than here. The static grows louder. I swiftly turn around, but there’s no one there——-“Huuuuummmmmmm——“
You’d think that after all the laws, politic’s and religion we’d be more civil and kinder to one another——-fat chance. We have no choice but to seek solace in one another. We’re awful, deceitful, jealous and——-mean vermin. But at the end of the day, it’s too hard to go it alone. It’s only through tolerance and acceptance that we keep our companionships alive. We’re all uniquely the same——in irony there is truth.
One time strangers become our friends and lovers, but then they slip away becoming strangers once again. The longer we know someone the harder it is to see them anew. The rags of our past distorts “what was” with “what is”.
I miss the peace that comes with silence. It feels as though this static is growing louder——do you hear it too? “HUUUUMMMMMM——”
Turn the dial, change your frequency, adjust the station, fine tune your antenna away from the static——–and find your music.
I can’t go back in time so I keep moving. My movement isn’t always forward, sometimes it’s backwards, sometimes in a circle. Movement offers me a false sense of progress. This life seldom dispenses second chances, it offers up lessons. I keep moving, I keep reaching out.
It’s a lonely quest, scavenging through life in search of purpose, love and someone to relate to. To be understood is to be loved. To expect to be understood is “crazy”. If you want to be loved in spite of all your weird idiosyncrasies and foibles, adopt a rescue dog. If you want to be exploited and abused, allow a cat to adopt you…Relationships are built on such subtle differences. Friends will change without telling you, others may ghost you for unknown reasons and some pass away never to be seen again———at least not in this life.
I worry, “Did I let everyone I love know how much I appreciate them in my life (Note to self, tell everyone I appreciate them in my life, excluding those occasional assholes). I fret over the thought that perhaps I never let my parents know how much I respected and loved them. We become so accustom to our parents unconditional love, that it’s easy to take this gift for granted. My parents stuck by me, in-spite all my stupid life decisions. Time goes by quickly, words are free, don’t hold back——let those you care for, know how much you love them.
These days I lack a meaningful connections with others,…….Maybe I could better define this malady as a disassociation syndrome. In other words, so many things no longer fit together—My “Why’s” far out weigh my “How’s”……..The veneer of this thing called reality is wearing thin. Everything seems so unreal and strange to me. I stumble about thinking, “Is this the way things are supposed to be?” “Is this the way I supposed to be?” We all have our own brand of craziness, we just become comfortable by wrapping it in our own private shiny distractions. If you don’t know how the trick is done, then it’s magic——misdirection, sleight of hand, illusion, Love?? Life??
It’s mid October, the season that gives way to the beauty that comes with the death of a fading summer. Leaves turn golden, red and purple before being swept away in the autumn winds. Outside its dark and cold, the sun surrenders its dominion over the sky earlier and earlier, this relieves me of the guilt of fixing myself a drink too early, but as we all know, there’s always an excuse for drinking. I hear the faint fizz of carbonation over ice cubes——my oh my, Jameson and Ginger-ale in my favorite tumbler.
It’s the season of tangled sheets, as ghosts whisper under beds and the hellhounds bay up at an angry moon. I swear I hear the footsteps of shadowy specters moving across the creaking hardwood floor. The doorknob to my closet appears to be slowly turning. I foolishly decide to step deeper into this nocturnal quicksand. There’s something bittersweet about allowing my darker angels to run loose. I flip through my playlists and click on “Sade”. God almighty, her music always takes me there. It’s got that hypnotic groove that’s made for soul searching, lovemaking——it’s drenched in unrepentant sensuality. The beat pulls me into a grinding pocket. I feel like having a cigarette, but I had to give that up over a decade ago, it’s always the hardest thing to give up on something that you know you’ll remorselessly love forever——and she taught me——forever is a long time!
Some woman know they have it from an early age and they carry it with them through old age. She has it, she knows how to use it——-she exudes a steamy erotic energy. It affords her an unfair advantage. “It” has nothing to do with beauty or flash, it’’s in the way her body moves through space, it’s that certain look in her hungry eyes. Her heated body radiates the fragrance of lust. When her hand nonchalantly brushes up against my skin, it’s as if a million volts of electricity convulses through my body. All those other bland pretty girls have no lightening in their soul; they leave no ache in those empty places, no burn in ones darkness.
The prisons and insane asylums are filled with men who’ve let this black magic rule them, clouding their better judgement and making them do the bad things they never thought they were capable of doing. I search through a junk drawer and find a single crippled cigarette, I rip off the bent filter and take a deep drag and then slowly exhale the blue smoke. It hangs in the air, mysteriously taking the shape of a maligned dragon. I feel myself going back on things I swore I’d never do. I scroll through my phone contacts and wonder if her number is still the same. The thought of her warm damp voice invades my nervous system with a shot of adrenaline, causing my hands to tremble. I hesitate with my finger hovering over the green call button. “King Of Sorrow” begins to play on my mix.