Definition of a Dysfunctional Human Being

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Many of you have noticed the activity on the site lately, the five essays I published over the past two months:

“Blurry”

“Clutch”

“Look”

“Represent”

“Open”

Simple concepts, universal themes that I hoped everybody could relate to while still acknowledging that this is meRaw. Uncut. Digging beneath the surface to reveal the true self, dealing with restrained demons, accepting me for who I am, [insert any of the other psychobabble phrases/cliches I’ve had to listen to over the years].

Basically, five pieces of nonfiction written by me for the exact reason I ever picked up a pen and paper in the first place: to figure out why my head is so screwed up.

I wrote these essays over the span of four years between undergrad and graduate school, and until now have had them sitting on my computer just–quite literally–taking up space (not a lot of space, obviously, but space nonetheless).

Never sent them out to magazines for potential publication, never even really considered trying to have anybody look at them other than the few of my colleagues who helped me revise them over the years.

And sure, these essays are creative nonfiction. On some level they’re meant to entertain, yes, but they’re also meant to be an outlet for issues I can’t talk about candidly in real life (which pretty much applies to all my issues).

In other words, these essays were/are therapy. My actual thoughts, the inclinations and ideas and memories that make up who I am, make me tick from day to day. Which therefore made them much too personal for public consumption.

So I filed them away and didn’t really think much of it. Set to work on the marketable stuff, the funny stuff, the suspenseful stuff, stories that would entertain people. Make them laugh, not cry.

And so it went for years, these essays tucked into a folder deep in my portfolio, collecting the equivalent of digital dust.

Then one day, a month and a half ago–couple of days after Quarter Life Crisis was published, actually–I was in a nostalgic mood and decided to go back and read one of the essays, “Open”, the story of my two friends who were murdered in cold blood one night when I was almost nineteen.

I wrote “Open” as an undergrad at Florida State about three years after the incidents in the story took place, a couple of months after I was made to testify in the trial of my friends’ murderer, Jonathon Nodal. “Open” was written, initially, for a nonfiction workshop class, and when my professor–Ned Stuckey-French–read it he immediately told me to revise it and send it out. He had connections, he said, and I  should come to him when I was ready.

Which seemed like not too bad an idea at the time. I mean, this was what I was aspiring to be, right? A Published Author, capital P and A (also my initials. Coincidence? …Yeah, definitely, but still kind of cool). And sure, I considered myself primarily a fiction writer, but a publication is a publication.

Work went on throughout that semester and the next, and–along with my other works–I kept tinkering with “Open” (titled “Knock at the Door” back then), hoping to be able to hand it over to Ned one day and see where it ended up.

Yet, after months of messing around with structure and details and the exact progression of my memories, the essay was still affecting me in a way that made it hard to put in front of other people. I’d print it out and be ready to mail it off, then leave the manila folder sitting on my desk and never make it to the post office, or I’d look at a magazine’s submission requirements and find something small that made me sure they’d reject the story outright and that I should just not send it to them at all. Eventually I had to admit to myself that I just wasn’t ready to put the experience out there.

The beginning of my senior year at FSU, there was a writing contest in the English department, a categorical competition leading to the presentation of Spring writing awards given to undergraduate and graduate students every year.

At the announcement, Ned urged me to enter “Open” in the nonfiction portion. I was skeptical at first, having already figured out that putting that particular essay out there for public viewing wasn’t an ideal situation for me.

Sit and wait around while people pored over it? Analyzed it, dissected it and, ultimately, told me it wasn’t good enough?

Hell no. Karen and Justin deserve more than that.

But Ned was enthusiastic, and he was (and still is) a renowned professor in one of the most recognized creative writing programs in the country; if he said “Open” was good enough, then I’d take his word for it.

The day I won the George and Ruth Yost Award for Best Personal Essay, I was happy. At first. I got the email notifying me I’d won, that I’d be receiving a plaque acknowledging the award and a check for $100–not a lot of money, but definitely a decent chunk of change for any college  student (at the time it was a common thing to find me digging for coins in my couch just to buy some ramen noodles). I was elated. Not just that I’d won an award or that I got some money for it, but that I had won an award for my writing.

You see, up to that point, I’d been writing in the dark. Sure, people had told me that I had some talent, that I had passion (whatever that meant). But I had been at it for years by that point and had yet to get anything published. I’d written story after story and even made a three-hundred page effort at writing a horror novel, and all I’d received were rejection letter after rejection letter.

After my recent failed attempt to get into various graduate programs across the country (rejected by every single one that first time around), the industry was starting to get to me. I still had another two semesters of undergrad left, and a couple more workshops to refine my ability, but I was crashing. I seriously needed some motivation, a kind word, anything.

And I got it when I won that award. And it really helped. For like…a day.

Then I deposited the check, used it to pay part of my rent–I lived in Tallahassee, rent was like $350 a month or something crazy cheap like that–then sat down in front of my computer to look over what had just won me that money. I started to read the essay again, this time in a new light, with validation and a sense that my future as a writer had become very promising. Then I finished it, and I was suddenly so dejected that I couldn’t really do anything but just sit there crying at my computer with the blinds in my apartment drawn while I read the words I’d written about my friends and ex-girlfriend over and over again and thought about how my first bit of recognition as an aspiring writer would occur because of their death.

I decided right then I wasn’t going to publish that essay. I wasn’t going to send it out and risk rejection letters, risk critiques, risk succumbing to the ever-present anger that I’d been doing such a good job (or a better job) of keeping control of up to that point.

So I filed it away. For years. Came back to check on it every once in a while, read the words and remind myself about what had happened (not exactly necessary, seeing as there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about them), but ultimately keeping it to myself.

Cut to a few months ago, staring at the essay once again on my computer. Thirty years old now, an author with a published novel and a dozen or so published short stories under my belt, and I’d suddenly had an entire paradigm shift.

Suddenly, I wanted nothing more than for people to read about my friends, read about what had happened to them, read about how it had and still does affect me as a writer and as a human being. How it shaped me, motivated me, depressed me, nearly killed me, and ultimately brought me into adulthood in the most violent way possible.

But the fear of rejection still sat inside me, the thought that I wouldn’t be able to handle the inevitable form letters I’d receive if I sent it to a mainstream magazine.

So I figured I’d do it myself, on this medium here, this blog I’ve been using to promote my work for over two years now.

It was then I realized I had done the same thing–filed away for sentimental reasons–to a couple of other essays I’d written over the years, essays that had started out as me trying to tell a true story, essays that turned into declarations of the heart and ultimately helped me get over some crucial moment in my life, gaining so much emotional weight that the thought of them sitting on some apathetic editor’s desk (not a knock against you editors; I’ve been there, I know how daunting that slush pile can be) made me sick to my stomach.

So I decided to publish them all on here, and once that was done I’d compile them into a single short eBook. And since these essays define who I am, I would call the eBook Definition, and give it away for free.

Because I don’t want to be angry about this shit anymore.

Because I don’t want to sit alone with my own thoughts in my head anymore.

Because one thing I’ve realized over these years of rehabbing on society is that you’ve got to open up to the people around you if you ever want to grow into a functioning individual.

And I don’t really know any way of opening up more than this.

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Download Definition for free by clicking on the cover:

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Open: In Loving Memory of Justin Morejon and Karen Urbina

o·pen adjective /ˈōpən/

  1. allowing access, passage, or a view through an empty space; not closed or blocked up.
  2. exposed to view; uncovered.

______________________________

1901144_731365446897660_1979170527_nThe moment Vero moves her hand off my thigh and pulls her cell phone out, I know I’m not getting laid.

Sitting here dejected, studying the different faces moving through the food court at Dadeland Mall accompanied by the steady buzz of rapid-fire Spanish—Miami’s background music—I listen to Vero talk to her best friend Karen on the phone and I act like I’m not paying attention. Her white spring dress rises up her thigh as she crosses her legs, her coiled, coffee-colored hair bouncing across her shoulders as she nods.

Karen’s voice is barely audible on the phone from my distance, nothing more than a faint chirping sound in my ears. Still, I know what Vero’s about to ask me even before she pulls the phone down and places the earpiece against her right breast and says, “You don’t mind if we go hang out with Justin and Karen, do you?”

* * *

Vero and I pull up in front of Justin’s house and park behind his sporty red Nissan, the same one he did donuts in outside Karen’s a few days ago while I sat in the passenger seat and held on for dear life, screaming like a little bitch. The thought makes me want to smile now, but my annoyance at this whole not-getting-laid business keeps it at bay. I stare for a moment at the adjustable basketball hoop hanging over Justin’s mom’s driveway. The first hoop I was ever able to dunk on, though I had to lower it to get up there.

Vero stares at me when I hesitate to get out of the car, keeps walking towards the front door but looks back at me the whole time, her eyes getting wider with each step. I can feel her glare burning a hole in the side of my head, and I glance at her as she stands by the front porch and motions violently for me to get over there. I consider the situation for a moment. Then I get over there.

Vero asks me what’s wrong when I reach her side. I tell her nothing and she sighs loudly, knocking on the door. Nobody comes and she mutters under her breath, stepping back and pulling out her phone and leaning against my chest. A sudden heat rises down low as I feel the curve of her ass arching up beneath her dress and pressing against my crotch. Her hair smells like vanilla, and her smooth tanned skin draws my eyes straight down her neck to her cleavage.

She hangs up the phone and shakes her head, moving away from me to knock on the door again. I glance at the window and see a distant light peeking through the blinds, surrounded by darkness. I tell her that they probably left for a moment and maybe we should leave too. She says no. I sulk. She notices my expression and turns on me, tells me that Justin asked personally for me to come, that he hasn’t chilled with me in a while and he’s looking forward to it.

And the feeling hits me then: fucking guilt. So annoying.

I look down at the potted bush next to my leg and sheepishly brush it with my foot. Vero asks me to call Justin’s cell, and I’m happy to have something to do so I oblige. I take out my phone, searching through the contacts for Justin’s number and pressing DIAL as Vero goes to the window and tries to peek inside. The phone rings in my ear once, twice, three times, voice mail. I frown and try to remember a time when Justin didn’t answer the phone when I called. I come up with nothing.

I end the call and tell Vero nobody answered, so she knocks on the window. I think I see a shadow move, but decide it’s a piece of furniture and a trick of light. Vero tells me to call the house phone this time and I do, a little exasperated. The phone rings and I can hear it through the door, from inside the house. Justin’s mom’s voice tells us to leave a message, and Vero exhales noisily, and that’s pretty much my limit with this whole situation. I throw my hands up, approaching the door and banging on it. No result, so I walk to the window, rapping on it with my fist, my knuckles hitting the glass harder and harder each time until I’m pretty sure I’ll break the damn thing if nobody responds.

Vero tells me to stop. I roll my eyes, look at her and ask if she wants to go inside or not, because I don’t care either way. She stays quiet and I walk around to the side of the house, Vero following me and asking what I’m doing. As an answer, I approach Justin’s fence, grab the top of the wooden posts and pull myself up, halfway over before I feel a hand on my back. When I glance down at her, she’s staring up at me with this look in her eyes—like she wants to eat me—and she says we should go. I look at her skeptically and glance over the other side of the fence, at Justin’s backyard, the grass glistening in the fading sunlight.

I lower myself back to the ground and Vero grabs my hand, pulls me toward the driveway. When she looks back at me, her smile’s different now. Different from the one she had coming out of my car earlier. That one was painted on, obscenely wide and gleaming in anticipation of the hours of female bonding ahead of her, during which Justin and I would sit back and marvel at their ability to talk about any single subject inexhaustibly. This smile now, though—this is the smile that I wait for, the smile of chance, the smile of opportunity.

The smile that means I’m gonna get some.

She says we’ll come back later. I say okay. As I drive away, Justin’s car dwindles to a blood-red stain in my rear view mirror, sitting listlessly in the driveway.

* * *

Ten miles away, at the same place we always go to when we want to have sex and her parents are home: third floor of the parking garage next to the office buildings across from her apartment. It’s Sunday evening and there are three cars parked in the entire lot, one of which is missing a tire and looks as if the owner doesn’t care much about getting a new one.

Vero turns to me when we park, leaning across the center console. I take off my seatbelt and fidget in my seat, looking at her restlessly until she smiles at me, pressing her head to my chest and rubbing my leg. The promise in her finger’s touch instantly settles my nerves and my pulse, and I lay back, relax. She looks out the windshield at the sky and I follow her gaze. We sit like this for a moment, my mind jumping back and forth from the stars to her bare thigh. I brush it with a finger. She shaved.

She apologizes for being so insistent on going to Karen and Justin’s. I tell her it’s no problem, my hand on her stomach. She says she was only acting like that because she never gets to hang out with Karen anymore, and I don’t hang out with Justin as much as I used to. I smile and nod, moving my hand a little lower.

She tells me she loves me. I say it back, and lean in.

Her kiss is light then heavy with passion and, all at once, we’re in the backseat. I marvel at this aspect, the familiarity of it, the mystery, the paradox. After a year, I still feel the dreamlike state, a hangover from our first time so many months ago. The move from the front seat to the back is awkward, clumsy, full of grunts and giggles and apologies. Her lightly tanned skin is clammy against my moist palms and her hair gets in my mouth a few times. Yet the feigned privacy, the thrill of it, the chance of getting caught, the bragging rights, the heat, the sweat, the skin and lips and hips and heavy breathing still amazes me in its ability to be both horribly satisfying and every bit as self-indulgent as adolescent lust is meant to be. When I enter her, her back arches as it always does. Her hands grasp my back as they always do, yet I can’t help thinking this time’s unique, because it’s now and not tomorrow, or yesterday.

After, we lie chest to chest and steady our breathing. My pants bunched up at my ankles, her dress reduced to a thick belt of fabric around her waist. Her underwear’s still clenched in my fist, and I hand it to her slowly. She smiles as she takes it, nudging me to the side a bit. When they’re at her waist I move against her again and we lie in silence, her stroking my head, me with a hand tangled in her hair. After a moment, she pulls my head up with both her hands so I’m looking in her eyes, and says—quietly—that Karen and Justin never called us back to tell us why they weren’t there.

I push her away from me and jump up. She apologizes quickly but I open the door anyways and step out of the car. She tries to yank me back in but I pull from her grip and stand outside, my pants dragging on the concrete. I look around before stooping to grab the waist and jerk the pants up, buckling the belt with sweaty hands. She continues to call for me but I ignore her, turning my face north, towards Kendall Drive below. And right at that moment, Miami hits me: the drone of passing cars, the scent of exhaust fumes saturating the air, the oncoming headlights, fading away taillights and skyscraping condominiums and apartment buildings. All of it hijacks my senses as I stare transfixed, and within seconds my frown relaxes.

Vero’s voice floats behind me, and she sounds cute. I try to stay upset but can’t find it in me to be mad while watching the heartbeat of this city, the soul of my hometown. So I turn to her. She’s fully dressed now though, and moping in the backseat. I walk over and touch her hand and she pulls away. I smile and tell her to call them, Justin and Karen. She doesn’t want to. She wants to go home now and do her math homework and she needs my help because she hates algebra. I keep smiling and tell her okay. Whatever she wants. I help her out of the backseat and walk her around to the passenger door, listening to the slap of her sandals against the concrete, echoing into the night. And though she’s obviously still pissed, I know it won’t last. So, ultimately, tonight was a success.

* * *

At Vero’s apartment, in her room, we do homework and talk pleasantly and it’s nearly a full hour before my cell phone rings.

I pull it out and Vero pauses midsentence as I barely check the caller ID before answering. A sniffle comes from the other end followed by silence, and my curiosity flickers. I glance at the caller ID again, see that it’s Janelle, and the ramifications of her calling my phone fully hit me. Janelle is not supposed to be dialing my phone number. I mean, yeah, Janelle and I used to be friends, before Vero. But Vero is a jealous girl. And in that jealousy, her scope is wide. Janelle is one of many casualties. This phone call cannot end good for me. There’s a quick sob on the other end of the line, more sniffling.

“Janelle?” I say finally. “What’s wrong?”

“They’re dead, Patrick,” she says, voice clouded with tears.

“What?”

“Justin and Karen are—”

My grip tightens on the phone and for a second all I see is a flare of red. I grind my teeth and hang up on Janelle, slamming my phone to the ground. I have no clue what that was about. It’s bad enough she’s calling my phone knowing that my girlfriend and her don’t get along, but this? Who the fuck prank calls somebody like that?

I turn to Vero and she looks pissed. I’m trying to explain the absurdity of the call to her when the phone rings again.

“What the fuck?” I answer.

On the other end, I hear the gruff voice of Janelle’s boyfriend, Angel.

“Turn to FOX,” he grunts. My phone beeps as he hangs up and I pull it away, looking at the small screen with CALL ENDED displayed and feeling as if a finger has just brushed the side of my face through the earpiece. Vero’s still glaring at me, but my own anger’s subsided, replaced with a confused sort of wonderment. I quietly pick up the remote next to my foot and turn on the television, thinking about earlier when we were at Justin’s house, about the fence that surrounds it, the backyard with the pool and the trees.

When the TV flickers on, the first thing I see are the words, splashed across the bottom of the screen in a bland caption font: Double Homicide. There’s a house above them, surrounded by yellow tape and a damp, glistening lawn that needs mowing. The house looks familiar in that way that all houses in Miami are familiar, like any other crime scene you see in any other news story: droves of people out front, the red and blue sheen of police lights flashing against their faces. I’m trying to figure out what makes this situation unique when Vero’s screaming crashes into my thoughts.

I flinch and look at my girlfriend, at her transformed face, fine features suddenly buried beneath a grimace that looks as painful as it must feel. She stands up shakily and stumbles out of the room and I look back at the TV and try to believe that the familiarity of the house is a mere coincidence. Then the camera pans and I see the red paint job of the sports car in the driveway, the lowered basketball hoop. The only one I’ve ever been able to dunk on. The camera pans back to its original position, the car and basketball hoop disappear, and there’s just the house again. It looks different through the eyes of a news camera; not like the place I’ve been to so many times before but more like a monument, a museum. I look at the porch I stood on not even two hours ago and Justin’s mother and father—divorced for a while now—are crying and hugging each other by the front door.

I finally notice the reporter at the corner of the screen, a Hispanic woman with too much makeup on. She’s talking and the volume is on but I can’t hear her voice over Vero’s moaning in the hallway, so I read the caption on the TV as it changes:

Breaking News: Teenage Couple Murdered in Perrine

I wonder who the couple is and I feel stupid because that is Justin’s house on the screen, and the only teenage couple I know that could possibly have been in that house are Justin and Karen. But that is clearly impossible. Clearly. We were just there.

My stomach churning erratically, I stand up and am immediately hit by a wave of dizziness and nausea that forces me back onto the bed. Eventually I make my way to the door and then the hallway, holding onto the wall as I move towards the living room and see the TV around the corner, displaying Justin’s house once again, and I realize that I half-expected there to be something different on this TV, on this side of the apartment. Maybe Family Guy or another episode of The Simpson’s. Maybe there was just something wrong with Vero’s television. But it’s on here too, and now I’m beginning to wonder if what the caption says is true. But it can’t be. Clearly. People get murdered every day, but not couples, not teenage couples, not teenage couples that hang out at Justin’s house. That shit does not happen, not in real life at least. I look at Vero and her mother’s screaming with her now too, hugging her, restraining her, and I want to help but I can’t stop thinking about movies all of a sudden, about how this shit only happens in movies. Spiderman. American Beauty. Fight Club. Death and destruction, it’s entertaining when you’re sitting in the comfort of a theater with a bag of popcorn on your lap. Even real life events glimpsed on CNN or the 10:00 news seem so distant.

9/11 didn’t actually happen, it was just some crazy shit I saw on TV in homeroom last year.

There’s no actual War going on in Iraq right now, people are just bored and don’t have anything else to talk about.

I’ll watch that stuff all day long because it clearly isn’t real and clearly doesn’t happen in real life. Therefore—there-fucking-fore—none of this can actually be happening right now. I could be dreaming actually. I close my eyes and pinch myself. Open my eyes.

Justin’s house is still on the TV.

Vero’s dad—Pops, as he’s known to family and friends—sits close and reaches for the volume button, and I almost tell him to stop. His hand shakes and his face is a deathly gray though and—as the volume goes up, rising from the depths and through the unnerving sound of Vero’s sobs to fill the sudden void that’s sucked the room of all energy—the reporter’s voice hits my ears like a baseball thrown at a window, bits and pieces reaching me in shards of sound-bites like broken glass.

“…beaten to death with a blunt object…discovered by Morejon’s cousin…authorities are searching for a suspect…”

And like that my stomach goes numb, filling with something I can’t discern. It could be anger, or resentment, or a mixture of both. Regardless, its staggering depth freezes me. I can feel it everywhere, in every joint, every appendage, every organ, every brain cell, and I suddenly want nothing more than to do something—anything—to make it go away.

I look over at the door to my left and see Pops’ golf clubs. I walk over slowly and grab one, feeling the weight of the metal beneath the rubber grip of the handle. I tap it against the floor, give it a wiggle to see how heavy the backswing will be, and open the front door. I’m almost out when I feel an arm around my waist, pulling me back inside. I look behind me and see that it’s Pops, his face stony and tear-streaked. I look at his arms and wonder why he’s holding me back, try to keep moving forward against his grip but he flexes his bicep. Pops is a big Cuban man, burly chest and beefy arms. I’m not going anywhere as long as he’s holding me. I pull forward again anyways and he pulls back harder and I trip, dropping the club to the floor and—as it falls from my grip and I feel the blazing red indentation its left in my palm from my death grasp—every bit of my own restraint falls away with it.

I turn on Pops and try to take his hands off me forcefully, but he picks me up off the floor like I’m a puppy or something, dragging me back inside and I can honestly say that there is nothing I want more in this world right now than for him to let me go and give me back the golf club. But Pops pulls me back into the apartment anyways, against my will so that—naturally—I’m screaming bloody fucking murder though I don’t know when I started, just know that my throat is already raw. I struggle, scratch, claw, slap, punch, kick and scream against this man’s grip, these arms that are keeping me from the golf club and the night air outside. He drags me into the bedroom hallway and back to his and Yvonne’s room and I grab onto the door handles as we pass the other rooms, my teeth grinding painfully, and I fucking wish his arm was between them so he would let me go, but he doesn’t, instead throwing me on the bed and trapping me there with his body weight and I hate him.

I fucking hate him.

I hate him and Yvonne, I hate Vero, I hate FOX and Justin’s house and Justin and Karen and the newscaster who told me they were dead and the paint on Justin’s wall in his room and the blunt object that somebody used to beat them with. I hate them all, everybody, everything around me with a passion so furious I can feel my body temperature rising, beads of sweat bursting through the pores in my forehead. But most of all I hate myself for hating them all and wanting this all to just go away, for wanting to not give a flying fuck about any of this, about Justin or Karen or anybody; for trying—actively trying—to not give a fuck, because not giving a fuck has got to be better than knowing this, feeling this, better than wanting to mortally wound somebody or something which seems to be the only thing I can imagine myself doing that could possibly quench this thirst that’s developed in my throat all of a sudden, and I wonder if the dryness is because I’m still screaming though now my screams aren’t as loud as they were before because Pops has got my head buried in the bed and is holding me down as he whispers in my ear, saying the same thing over and over and over again, his voice like a monk’s mantra just repeating

“—okay brother, it’s gonna be okay brother, it’s gonna be—”

the same words and I want him to stop, struggle against him because I want to get away from him so he’ll stop but I can’t. I glance up in time to see Vero step into the doorway, looking scared and grief-stricken, and I wonder if she looks like that because I tried to hit her because if I didn’t try to hit her I wish I had, wish I could hit her right now square in the face and then hit her dad then her mom and little brother and older sister and everybody, including myself, even though all of that’s only a distant second to my true desire which is for Pops to stop fucking telling me it’s going to be okay because it’ll never be okay that Karen and Justin are dead; even now in this manic stage I can see that, see that it will never ever be okay that they’re fucking dead, which is exactly the opposite of being alive and healthy and cooking me spaghetti for dinner and painting Justin’s room and talking about stupid crap then laughing about that stupid crap and making funny noises when they find out we were having sex when we should have been there because I’m a horny bastard who’s too preoccupied with fucking his girlfriend to notice my friends are dead while I’m here on this bed, pinned under a heavy Cuban man with beer on his breath. And all I want is for him to stop saying it’s going to fucking be okay.

And with that my body goes limp. My eyes blur at once and my cheeks start to twitch. The first heave is the worst, and I feel bile in the back of my throat as my chest convulses and my mouth bursts open, emitting the thunderous sob that’s sat in my stomach since the moment I turned on the television and saw Justin’s house with the words Double Homicide sitting underneath, like an epitaph on a gravestone.

I cry until I can’t breathe then I pass out, not noticing when Pops gets off me, not noticing when Vero lies on the bed, a couple of feet away from me, patting my shoulder and sobbing quietly to herself, both our eyes closed off to the world.

* * *

I open my eyes and I’m in the Miami-Dade police station, sitting next to Vero, though I barely remember driving here. There are people around, but I stare at the tile on the floor, occasionally glancing up at my girlfriend. She doesn’t look at me and I can’t remember the last time I looked her in the eyes. I have nightmares now, all the time. In them I’m alone on Justin’s porch, knocking endlessly. Jonathan—Justin’s murderous cousin—is standing on the other side with a demonic grin on his face, pushing Justin’s body out of the way so he can open the door and let me in. In the dream, I wonder where Veronica is for all of a second before Jonathan gets the door open and hits me in the face with his bat.

This is how it ends, every single time. It’s a hell of a way to wake up.

The detective calls Vero into his office and I look away as she passes in front of me. We’ve both agreed to omit the sex from our statements. It isn’t lying, exactly, more like the omission of insignificant information. Our sex lives have no bearing on this tragedy whatsoever. It won’t help put Jonathan away, won’t help the case at all. The conviction’s a sure thing anyways; Jonathan already confessed to it all, though there’s still no motive.

I tell myself it doesn’t matter whether or not there’s a motive; all that matters is he’s going to get what he deserves, and justice will be served. Justin and Karen will be avenged in the long run. I tell myself these things and hope they will make me feel better. They don’t. Tears fill my eyes again and I sniffle. An officer glances at me from behind a desk then quickly looks away.

Vero comes out of the office and sits back down quietly. I get up and walk in when the detective calls me, answer his questions without extraneous detail.

When did we get to the house? Around six-thirty.

What time did we leave? A few minutes later.

Where did we go? (Pause) Home.

When we leave, Vero cries to herself quietly in the car. I don’t try to console her. I don’t know how anymore. All I know is being awake hurts in a way it never did before, so I drop her off and take a Xanax, lying in my old bedroom at my parent’s house and staring at the ceiling before drifting off.

* * *

I open my eyes again and I’m at Justin’s grave, an image of Vero’s face sitting in my mind like a mirage. We broke up less than an hour ago and I had the sudden urge to come here, so I did. But now I can’t really remember why.

The grass over Justin’s grave has grown in and it doesn’t look so fresh anymore. I sit in front of the headstone and write him a letter, apologizing, asking him to forgive us for not being there, forgive me for continuing to grow, while he will forever remain the same age. I tell him that I loved them, that I loved Vero, that I still have a lot of love to give, though I’m too young and fucked up to dig through the mounds of anger burying it.

I say goodbye and leave the letter under a rock next to the pot of flowers his mom and sister keep fresh, then sit in my car and close my eyes. I don’t fall asleep, but I wish I would.

* * *

Eyes open, and I’m sitting in the District Attorney’s office with a row of gory, explicit pictures in front of me, dated almost three years ago. I wonder why it all won’t just go away, and suddenly I’m so fucking angry, so unbelievably pissed off that I want to reach over the desk in front of me, grab the lawyer by his fucking tie and strangle him to death with it. It’s a flash emotion, here and gone in a second, but in that second I’m scared to death of myself, of what I realize I’m capable of, even if it’s only in my head. Of what we’re all capable of given the right combo of anger and resentment, as evidenced by the photos in front of me. I stare at my fists, willing them to unclench.

Vero is in the hallway waiting for the photos to be taken away so she can come back in without breaking down. I look at them again and my throat tightens and I want to tell this man as politely as possible that I’m getting the fuck out of here, that they can get somebody else to do this shit. I can’t take my eyes off the pictures though, so I just answer his questions with a blank stare and a mouth that’s gone dry.

Yes, I know, Justin and Karen’s parents have gone through enough.

Yes, I know, they don’t want to see these pictures.

Sure, I guess, I’ll identify the deceased at the trial.

That’s Karen, but her arms and legs were tan before, not purple. That’s Justin, but he never used to look like that. His face wasn’t always that swollen, bruised and battered. He used to be clean cut, light brown eyes and a baby face, much younger in appearance than his almost nineteen years. He still is, in my mind, though it’s hard to keep that image now that I’ve seen these pictures. Thanks for that.

What was he like? Really cool dude. Really, really fucking cool.

The D.A. takes the pictures away and calls Vero back in. I glance at her as he talks. She doesn’t look in my direction.

I walk out of the courthouse and Vero stops me outside. She’s gained a little weight since I last saw her, not in a bad way. Just…different. She looks older. The bags under her eyes are covered with makeup. There’s a cigarette in her hand and it looks odd when she puts it to her lips. I puff on mine. She asks me how I’ve been. I tell her I’m getting better. She says the same. I don’t believe her. I don’t think she believes me either.

* * *

Open my eyes and I’m in a court room, behind a witness stand with those damn pictures in front of me again. Close my eyes then open them again, and I’m staring at a newspaper, reporting Jonathan’s consecutive life sentences. Close them again, then open them and I’m back in front of the house where it all went down, sold now to a family who either have no idea what happened in their home years ago or have coaxed themselves into believing it has nothing to do with them. And, in a sense, I guess it doesn’t. To them, if they’ve heard about it, it’s probably all played out like a movie. Shit happens, and the survivors move on. I hate myself for understanding.

I watch the house from my car, my backseat packed with the few remaining possessions that I didn’t want to put in the UHaul my parents are driving up to Tallahassee, for my college apartment.

I want to go knock on their door, ask if I can come in and just look around. But there’s a new car in the driveway, and the basketball hoop’s gone. This isn’t the same place. It never will be again. Part of me’s glad, and that part of me reeks of self-loathing. I watch the house for a few more minutes then wipe my face, turn the car around and drive off.

profile tatt jandk 2008

Represent: Memoir of a Tattoo Addict

rep·re·sent verb \ˌre-pri-ˈzent\

  1. to act or speak officially for
  2. to serve as a sign or symbol of
  3. to bring clearly before the mind

_________________________________

Mid-2003: Miami (Hialeah), FL

Sitting in a flea market in Hialeah when I should be in my 2:00 Calc class, I know deep down I’m not doing things the way people who care about me expect me to do them. But every time I try and think about it further past that point, the last blunt I smoked sort of personifies itself, pops its smoldering cherry in front of my face and tilts to the side curiously, like “Hey, what’s up? Uh…we’re supposed to be high, remember?”

So I just sit here instead, staring up at my girlfriend, Veronica, who’s smiling giddily and clapping her hands at what I’m about to do. The guy standing behind me has pupils the size of my fist and he smiles creepily as I hand my shirt to Vero. The smile itself isn’t necessarily creepy but I’m creeped out anyways because I’m sitting in front of him shirtless, and getting smiled at in that situation will make most anybody uncomfortable.

There’s a lot of wiping and snapping of rubber gloves and then a whirring sound like a mini-chainsaw whistles into my ears right before a sharp jolt in my back gives way to a grinding pain that feels like he’s running a million razor blades across the entire expanse of my upper back. An hour later my shoulders are numb and my eyes are watery. A wad of bloody napkins fill a red biohazard trash bag behind me and the man with the huge pupils smiles again. I smile back tentatively, shake his hand and drop a hundred dollars in his other palm, a small price to pay.

I’ve joined the ranks now. Some of the greats have sat in chairs exactly like the one I just got up from: Method Man, Travis Barker, Jesse James, Wesley Snipes in Blade.

Vero walks next to me wearing shorts that just barely cover her tanned butt cheeks, her hair glistening with gel. She pulls the neck of my shirt down and stares at the bandage. Beneath it is a fresh, twisting, jagged and simultaneously curling ink pattern that stretches between my shoulders and constitutes what is commonly known as a “tribal design” but which I will refer to as “my first tattoo” because it is more personal and implies that there will be more and—therefore—sounds much cooler. Vero slaps me right beneath the spot on my back and laughs as I wince.

I describe the paradoxically numbing pain and she tells me it sounds like what a sunburn feels like for her. I’ve never had a sunburn, so I have no basis on which to agree or disagree with her. I know this is different though, a more lasting effect. Self-inflicted, and therefore righteous.

 

Early 2004: Miami (Cutler Ridge), FL

Hanging out in an Athlete’s Foot in Cutler Ridge Mall while Philip (aka Flip) and his manager, Karla, discuss shoe orders, sitting on the counter and swinging my feet so everybody who passes by will have no choice but to notice my new kicks. Or get kicked.

Flip is obsessed with shoes (hence the job at Athlete’s Foot) and has been since way before we became friends a year ago. His infatuation has passed on to me a bit and—in an attempt to expand on my shoe connoisseur-ship—I’ve recently bought three pairs of Airforce Ones, two pairs of Timberland’s, and various other models of Nike, Reebok, and Adidas sneakers. I have no idea what the hell I’m going to do with ten pairs of shoes. I don’t even think I have ten outfits to wear them with. Flip insists, though, that brand-new kicks are a necessary part of our attire on the nights we decide to go out and wreak havoc across Miami. And since Flip has been my main source of escapism since I got kicked out of school and Veronica left me, I take his fashion tips as gold and cash them in whenever I can afford to.

Karla changes topics and starts discussing a brand new tattoo her boyfriend did for her. He’s an artist at a parlor a few blocks away and he’s branded an angel onto her lower back, no charge. I ask her if she could get him to give me one too and she says she could probably get him to do it for cheap, though “free” is a price reserved for the person he’s fucking. Understandable.

I tell her what I’ve been thinking about getting: a Jamaican flag imbedded in a cross with a ribbon wrapped around the whole contraption with the inscription “One Love” spelled out in jagged lettering. I’m not particularly religious or anything, nor do I have such a profound respect for my parents’ country that I feel the need to display it everywhere I go. It’s just—I saw the same tattoo of a Puerto Rican flag on some guy buying Jordans an hour ago, and I think it would look cool on me.

I ask Karla to find out the price and she calls her boyfriend right there in the store. A customer comes up to her holding a pair of K-Swiss running shoes and asks if she has them in his size. Karla waves the guy towards Flip, and Flip tells him to put the shoes back and pick up something worth buying.

When Karla gets off the phone, she quotes me forty dollars and says her boyfriend can do it for me tonight. Forty dollars for a tattoo is equivalent to paying a dollar for a bag of Starbuck’s coffee. That shit just does not happen. I thank Karla profusely and leave.

The moment I’m by myself, I immediately feel the anxiety that’s been ever-present for months now, years even. It manifests itself in many forms, and right now I’m nervous about making a habit out of these tattoos, as I have with so many other things, all of which cost money. But I really want another one, if for no other reason than to get myself out of my own head.

I smoke a joint to calm my nerves, then make my way to Karla’s boyfriend’s house a few hours after sunset, bleary eyed and extremely passive. When he comes to the door, Karla’s boyfriend tells me that everything’s set up in the back room, then takes me through a living room where two girls a couple years younger than me sit at a table eating and watching what looks like the Spanish version of Oprah. They don’t glance up and I don’t acknowledge them, just keep walking into the back room where there’s a little girl sitting on the ground watching Finding Nemo on DVD and a woman hanging clothes on a wire draping over a combination sink/counter in the corner. A table is set up next to a bed in the middle of the room and Karla’s boyfriend arranges bottles of ink and Vaseline on it while I watch. I wonder if this setting is to be expected for the duration of my time here and—even more—if all of this is safe to have going on at the same time. Then I decide that for a forty dollar tattoo, I’ll watch Finding Nemo with the little girl twice and hang the damn clothes for the woman myself.

Karla’s boyfriend says all of three words to me (“‘sup” and “sit here”) before he pulls out a packaged needle and tears it open. He mutters something about how I should make sure to never get a tattoo without first physically seeing (he points at his eyes when he says this) the artist open a fresh needle in front of me, to make sure it’s sterilized. I’ve never met this guy or had a conversation with him before now, but I act like I didn’t already know that and thank him anyways.

By the time he gets started, I’m high enough off the one joint I smoked earlier to realize that Finding Nemo is by far one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen, though I’ve seen it once already when it was in theaters and can’t remember being half as amused then as I am now. I laugh so hard at the part with the stoned turtles transporting Nemo across the ocean that my eyes tear up and my nose starts to run and Karla’s boyfriend sighs loudly, moving the buzzing ink gun away from my skin, only restarting after I apologize and solemnly promise to keep still.

I go home after and smoke another joint in my car then play two hours of Prince of Persia on my Playstation 2 in my underwear, feeling more confident than I have in months. In fact, the way I feel right now, I wish it could be like this all the time, instead of the normal feeling of emptiness in the pit of my stomach.

I don’t know why I’m depressed all the time; all I know is I’m not right now.  I got my fix, and right now I feel triumphant, accomplished, two things I can’t remember feeling for any sustained period of time recently. I’ve made a decision–a decision with lifelong consequences–and stuck to it. I’ve gotten something that, twenty years from now, I can show to people and say “I got that when I was twenty years old, when I still cared about shit enough to feel passionate about that shit. And I loved every minute of it.”

My father comes in the room at one point and tries to kill my buzz with something about kicking me out if I don’t do something with my life, but I believe I already have done something with my life, and it’s sitting right here on my arm. So I keep playing the video game and ignore him until he leaves, then I pause the game and stare lovingly at the glistening wound on my arm.

 

Late 2005: Miami (Kendall), FL

With two tattoos, I think I’m a veteran, which establishes a belief system in me.

My first tattoo—the tribal design—was just an initial taste. It doesn’t actually mean anything to me now, other than as a reminder of a time when I didn’t take anything seriously. If I had known how important these things would be to me—how important life would eventually become—I would have gotten something more conducive to my current mentality, to my need for outward recognition of my inward struggle to assert myself. To my general search for a purpose.

The second tattoo, the Jamaican flag, means something now, now that I know about the power of representation. But it’s not the same to respect something in retrospect. I barely paid attention when the guy did it all that time ago. I just sat in his bedroom blazed out of my mind watching a children’s film.

It’s too late now for those tattoos to garner some deeper meaning. So I can only move forward, start actually representing.

That’s how I see myself now, how I view the person I’ve become over the past year or so. I got kicked out of college because they didn’t understand me, didn’t understand my need to fully represent who I am. I’m a represent-er, full of represent-ation, and I’m in a completely represent-ful state of mind when my girlfriend Raquel and I walk into Lou’s Tattoos on US1, near Kendall Drive.

My “crew,” we call ourselves Caribbean Alliance, a reference to our varying Caribbean backgrounds, the countries our parents moved to the U.S. from before they conceived us. Collectively, we represent four nations: Jamaica (me), Barbados and Trinidad (Robert), and the Bahamas (Joe). Sam’s family’s from Atlanta, but nobody really mentions it (we can’t very well call ourselves Caribbean and Georgia Alliance. That’d just be weird.)

In Lou’s Tattoo’s, I look proudly at a guy who is definitely not named Lou (I think his name’s like Raul or Ernesto or something) and tell him I want the initials of my crew on my right arm. I would actually love to get the whole crew name, all 17 letters of it, but I know this is Miami and Miami tattoo prices are in the hundreds and I don’t have the hook up on ink like I did last time I wanted some work done.

Karla and her boyfriend-with-the-Finding-Nemo-loving-sister were mainly Flip’s friends, and I haven’t hung out with Flip since the night we went to a party at his friend’s house and I got completely hammered then broke a Corona bottle against a tree and tried to slit some guy’s throat after he called me an idiot for dancing in the rain.

I woke up the next morning in my bed at my parent’s house wearing the same outfit from the night before, covered in bloodstains and smeared mud, my car parked diagonally in the grass next to the driveway, and I thought I was for sure going to jail; in moments I’d hear the sirens and there’d be a loud knock at the door and a man with a bullhorn yelling for me to come out with my hands up. They wouldn’t even have to do an investigation; the evidence was right there on my shirt. Then I took a shower and realized the blood was mine, the result of what seemed like a million tiny glass cuts all over both my arms. I glimpsed a small sliver of beer bottle jutting from my palm and sighed thankfully.

I called Flip that night after I’d finally managed half an hour of not puking into the toilet and asked him what happened and he told me we might have to stop hanging out. I shrugged it off as just one more person who didn’t understand how I represented, then took a couple of Xanax and called it a night.

I tell the guy who is not Lou to put just the two letters on my arm: C for Caribbean and A for Alliance. He tells me I’d love to, for a hundred dollars. I cringe at the price for just two letters (he doesn’t even shade them in all the way) but smile as I hand him my entire Saturday night’s worth of tips from Applebees, where I met Raquel and where I’ve been a server now for about six months.

Raquel joins me in the back room as the guy who is not Lou digs into my arm with a needle, wiping, injecting, wiping, injecting some more. Raquel smiles encouragingly and I smile back at her, struggling to keep my arm and lips from twitching. I’ve done this before. It’s nothing. Really. I’m a pro now and besides, this is for a great cause. People will recognize me now. They’ll see me on the streets, at parties and clubs drinking with my boys, and they’ll know that I’m real. Because the ink in my arms tells them so.

 

Late-2007: Tallahassee, FL

100_0791Cassandra pokes me in the back with her toe while I’m playing Need for Speed: Carbon on my Xbox 360. I turn and look at her, smile. She lies on my bed smiling back at me, her flat stomach accentuated by a belly button ring and a small tattoo of a scorpion near her lower right hip. I find this tattoo just as irresistible as the rest of her, and seeing it every day now for the past few weeks has renewed a desire for body art in me. It’s been so long since my last tattoo that I don’t even remember if and/or how much it hurt. I do know that I’m tired of having to find reasons to wear sleeveless shirts though, to show off the tattoos I do have. Tallahassee is as hot as anywhere in Florida, but mosquito bites are a bitch to deal with and, besides, I’m nowhere near muscular enough to wear so many damn basketball jerseys. Cassandra likes the style though. I like hers. She agrees I should get another tattoo. She might get one too. I think I’m falling in love.

It hasn’t been this good for me in a while. In fact, it’s taken me over nine months to get used to living on my own, away from the parents who have—along with me—realized that I spent the better part of my early twenties being a complete asshole. I’ve finally come out of my self-induced stupor and quit drinking and smoking long enough to do something with myself.

Now, I’ve slipped into a routine of comfort that is symbolized by this woman lying next to me. I ask her if she’s serious about getting another tattoo and she says yes. I’ve never actually had somebody I know get a tattoo the same time as me. It sounds fun, an indication of my social maturation.

I spend a few days thoroughly searching for something to represent the progression of my life since retrying this college thing. I think about my ups and downs as I do, and I figure that I’m not the first person to see a pattern of rise and fall in his/her life. So I scour the internet looking for tattoos other people have that represent this cycle (because this is still all about representation, people. That hasn’t changed).

I settle on a symbol I’ve seen before but which still resonates with me, a tattoo designed to be read both forwards and backwards: forwards it reads “life,” backwards “death.” If that’s not the ultimate cycle, I don’t know what is.

In the parlor I realize that I’m getting tired of having tattoos done in situations where I have to act cool in front of a girl. This is my fourth one and just once I’d like to stare down at myself while the guy with the needle is digging into my skin and scream bloody murder until he’s done. But with Cassandra in the room, I simply tell him to put the Life and Death tattoo on my right leg then grit my teeth, smile, and try to hold a nonchalant conversation with my girlfriend as she stares wide eyed at me like I’m fucking Ghandi. She asks how I can be so calm—”doesn’t it hurt?”—and instead of saying yes, it hurts like hell, I shrug and raise an eyebrow as if to say, what, this little thing? Pshhh. I’ve had worse mosquito bites.

 

Early 2008: Tallahassee, FL

blog profileI stand in the mirror slouched, staring at my naked body. There are four spots that stand out from the rest, glaring at me with engraved art that doesn’t really match up with the direction my life seems to be going in right now. In the year since I started at Florida State, I’ve learned more about the craft of constructing prose than I thought was possible to absorb in such a short period of time. I think about nothing else but a future writing career. And stories, God, stories: ideas, first drafts, revision revision revision. I wake up wondering how much time I’m going to get to write today, and go to sleep wondering about tomorrow. The world around me is a vibrant tree of information, with fruitful prompts hanging around every corner.

Cassandra doesn’t understand how it is I can sit in front of a computer for hours a day just typing. I tell her I don’t understand how she can’t. It’s become a point of contention between us, among other things. It’s cathartic for me, revelatory, and it makes the tattoos I have now seem worthless.

Whatever happened to representation?

I sit down at the computer and vow to come up with something original for my skin. I tell myself to think of tattoos the way I think of writing, as an expression of a messy mind. When I don’t write for extended periods of time, I start to get agitated. I’m not very articulate when it comes to talking to people. My words get jumbled up, I start to stutter and then I get nervous because of it which makes me stutter more, and then I laugh to alleviate the tension which just makes me look crazy. Writing fixes all of that, puts my thoughts down using a medium I understand and that understands me; the comforting blankness of the word processor and the cursor blinking in front of me with all the potential of a newborn baby’s future.

Sometimes I feel like the only way I stay sane is by grabbing the pile of crap tossing around my brain and throwing it out onto paper, or my skin. I’m addicted to the fix of expression, as addicted to it as I have been in the past to drugs and alcohol.

And like that my ears perk up. I hop forward, grab a pencil and a sheet of paper and start sketching. When I’m done, I head straight to the tattoo parlor. Cassandra joins me again, opting out of getting one for herself and instead just sitting across from me as the artist digs in. When he’s finished, I pull one of my sleeveless shirts out of retirement and run a bunch of errands around the city, flexing my arms every chance I get.

The tattoo is of a hand holding a pen, writing the word addict. I think this is clever, more clever than any of the stories I’ve written lately. A hand, writing the word addict. Writing Addict. Get it?

This is what I say to people that night and for weeks after, and they all look at me with raised eyebrows while I nod my head and smile expectantly. After a while I realize that I’ve kind of killed the entire thing by over-explaining it, and I further realize that I’m one of those guys who’s so eager for people to understand the joke that he forgets what the damn point of the joke was in the first place. I come to the conclusion that body art should never be voluntarily explained, then stop pretending I have a chronic itch on my arm just so I can pull my sleeve up to scratch it and wait for people’s reactions.

 

Late-2008: Tallahassee, FL

profile tatt jandk 2008In the mirror again, I look at my five visible tattoos and feel a rush of guilt. Tattoos are, first and foremost, about the things that mean a lot to me. I look at each one (the representation of my heritage, the representation of my love for writing, my childhood friends, my obsession with the cycle of life and death, the “tribal”) and I realize that there is something missing, something that should have been the first thing I looked into.  In all my rushing around to engrave ink into my skin, I skipped the one tattoo idea that almost every tattoo enthusiast points to whenever they’re asked that one question: “which one means the most to you?”

The memorial tattoo.

It’s been almost five years since my friends Karen and Justin died, since I slipped into a rut that led me way down then ultimately back up to a halfway decent life. Five years in which I proudly went from being an ignorant fuck-up to a slightly more knowledgeable one. Five years is way longer than it should have taken me to pay my respects.

I quickly draft up a cross with a ribbon wrapped around it, add the “R.I.P.” above their carefully constructed names, then hit it to the tattoo parlor. Cassandra joins me and I can’t help but talk to her about Karen and Justin on the way. Their youth, their happiness, the senseless way they were murdered. I don’t go into the details: one, because she knows them; two, because they’re not the point. The point is that they should be here, experiencing life with me. Instead, I have to live with them in my memories. And now, on my skin. Which is better than nothing.

We continue driving, and I try to switch the conversation to the usual subjects, the subtle assertion of my coolness for putting myself through another bout of pain for the sake of artistic representation. But my words falter even before they come out, and we end up just listening to the radio and staring out the window.

Outside it’s dreary in Tallahassee, the rain clouds filling the sky like thick plumes of smoke, and I realize I’m depressed. But not like the chronic depression I’ve suffered for years now, ever since I realized how fragile life was; this is a different sort of feeling. That other type would’ve made me turn this car around and bolt back to my apartment to sit in its solitary safety, in front of the TV with a video game controller in my hand, comatose for hours and dependent on Cassandra (or any girlfriend at any time in my life I’ve now realized; you could plug anybody in there when I’m in that frame of mind and they’d do the trick) for social sustenance.

But this new depression keeps me driving, turning a corner and parking and stepping out of the car and standing right in front of the tattoo parlor, my resolve never faltering, my independence never in question.

It’s then I realize that I don’t feel nearly as much representation as I did the last time around, or any of the other times. Not even close. Come to think of it, this isn’t even about representing anymore. I don’t even really know what the hell I was trying so hard to represent in the first place. These things I do, they’re not the acts of a cool, calm and collected mind state. I’m starting to look like a walking canvas, like a piece of abstract art, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past year or two it’s that art and the act of creating art are wholly messy endeavors. As are these tattoos lacing my body; just one more addiction in a consistently obsessed, compulsive life.

This realization is accompanied by another: I haven’t changed. I’m still the same guy I’ve always been, the same guy who fell in with both good and bad people in and out of high school, the same guy who falls apart in hard times, the same guy who seems to be on a lifelong mission to find out who the hell he is. Individuals don’t change, they just learn how not to be sad for the same reasons anymore.

I am an addict, the type of person who obsesses over things, and I always will be. I’ve just managed to replace my past addictions with less self-destructive ones like these tattoos and my writing, which might allow me to head in a respectable direction, or at least a not-so-bad one.

As long as I always see the artist open the package with the needle in it.

I look at Cassandra as we walk inside and I think that I can stop acting in front of her, in front of everybody, if just at least for this one tattoo. In the parlor, my posture, for once, is in its normal slouched form. There is no puffed-out-chest attitude today. All that stuff has passed, if at least for just this moment.

As the artist puts on his black latex gloves and rubs the Vaseline on my back, right behind my heart, I’m relieved by the freedom of vulnerability. The buzzing ink gun approaches and I stare at my girlfriend and smile. When the needle touches my skin, she asks me if the tattooed memorial to my dead friends hurts, and I figure I’m allowed to confess on at least this one occasion, for this particular tattoo. The environment I grew up in, men can express pain in the events of either death or major epiphanies. And, in a way, this feels like a little of both.

Which is enough justification for me to tell her, with tears in my eyes, that this hurts like hell. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

___________________________________

Pick up Quarter Life Crisis: A Novel at GetOverCollege.com, available now.

Look: A Relationship Defined

look /lo͝ok/

  1. verb: direct one’s gaze toward someone or something or in a specified direction.
  2. noun: the appearance of someone or something, especially as expressing a particular quality.
  3. exclamation: used to call attention to what one is going to say.

___________________________

SL2056There’s an eerie feeling that permeates the car as we get closer to Palm Coast. It’s like a winter fog’s coming in through the vents, even though it’s a mid-June afternoon in Central Florida. I glance over at Cassie and she’s looking out the window at I-95 racing beneath us. We pull off at the exit and she points at the large, detailed welcome sign that displays Palm Coast’s name over a beach background.

“You know they spent a million dollars on that?” she says, then looks back out the window. “I remember everybody being all pissed off about it.”

“Mm-hmm,” I say. I do know this about her hometown. She knows I do too, she tells me every time we see it.

“Waste of money,” she says.

“Mm-hmm,” I say again.

“You ok?” she asks, turning to me. Her eyebrows slant downward, giving the impression that she’s concerned. But her pupils shift rapidly, searching my face, and her mouth is puckered so that her lips jut out a little in a slight pout. She’s not concerned, she’s annoyed.

“Yeah,” I say. “You?”

“I’m fine,” she says, looking away. “You’ve said like two words since we left the apartment.”

The drive from Orlando to Palm Coast is an hour long. I definitely said more than two words during that time. At least ten, if not more. I both commented on someone’s FSU license plate (Florida State University, my alma mater; it’s ingrained in me to comment when I see a fellow Seminole), and explicitly ranted about someone’s erratic driving on I-10. Not huge speeches or anything, I know, but enough to be able to point out that her statement is, in fact, inaccurate. I’m not going to do that though. That would be a small and very short-lived victory on my part, as it would undoubtedly open me up to a daylong argument. The last time I did that—pointed out that she was fucking exaggerating—things escalated and I ended up with a broken car windshield and a cop standing outside our apartment telling us to stop yelling at each other.

“I haven’t not been saying anything,” I say, then quickly add, “I’ve been driving.”

I pause, flinch a little.

“Mm-hmm,” she says, and I sigh. The temperature drops a couple more degrees as I pull into the public park, that imaginary fog filling the air even more. It’s the park we’ve just pulled into that’s escalating the negative vibe though, not just the vibe in the car itself. The vibe during the entire drive over here, during the entire past year or so. That’s something else altogether, a by-product of something developing within me, within Cassie, within us. Something I haven’t consciously admitted to myself yet, though it’s inadvertently driven every single one of my actions over the last eight or nine months, every lingering moment at the Starbucks on University of Central Florida’s campus, where I work on my graduate thesis and debate going home at all, every second glance at the girls that come in there in droves for their iced lattes and skinny mocha frappuccinos, every “accidental” missed turn into the apartment complex where we live. Cassie’s right, in a sense. I mean, I did say more than two words on the way here, sure, I know I did.

But talking and communicating, as any Dr. Phil enthusiast will tell you, are two completely different things. I am not a Dr. Phil enthusiast, though. She is.

* * *

I pull up to Cawthon Hall at FSU, open my cell phone and text Cassie to come downstairs from her dorm room. A few minutes later she runs down the steps and walks tentatively up to my car. She’s smiling nervously, squinting to see through the tinted windows. She opens the door, climbs in the passenger seat and we stare at each other for a moment. My skin tingles with tension.

“Hi,” I say.

“Hi,” she says, then giggles and looks out the window.

I chuckle, leaning back in the driver’s seat a little to make myself seem more relaxed. I am anything but relaxed. After two weeks—days worth of phone calls, three days of officially being a couple, anticipation of this very moment where we would return to Tallahassee from our semester break and get to actually see each other as boyfriend and girlfriend for the first time—this moment has grown into one that can barely carry its own weight. Which might actually be a good thing, I think. I pull off from the curb and think that this might be a very good thing, the sexual and emotional strain that’s smothering me right now. Maybe my brain will just overload with sensory detail, say fuck it and just give up on sustaining the nervous twitch in my thigh and the itchy, sweaty feeling beneath my shirt.

“I’m really glad you’re here,” she says.

I smile at her, hesitate, then move my hand on top of hers. She grabs it, squeezes, and my heart beats a little faster.

We arrive at a local Cracker Barrel and go inside, get a small table in a back corner. We talk about our time in our respective hometowns—me: Miami, her: Palm Coast—the upcoming Fall semester and our families. She asks me about my writing, my short stories and the novel I’m working on, about my hopes for the future. I tell her about my plans to enter an MFA program when I graduate in a year, my dreams of writing for a living, of traveling, experiencing any and everything and putting it all down on paper. She smiles a lot and tells me that’s awesome. I ask her what she wants and she thinks she wants to teach, she’s not sure yet. She’s a freshman, she has time. I put my fork and knife down and place my hand on top of hers again. She doesn’t grab it, instead brushes her finger lightly back and forth across my palm.

“Are you nervous?” I ask.

Her face turns red.

“No,” she says, then smiles and covers her mouth. “Why?”

“Your face is red,” I say, and it turns redder.

“Yeah,” she says. “It does that.”

“So you are nervous,” I say. This is my tactic; a recently adopted one (recent as in five minutes ago), but one that seems to be working. It consists of me displacing my own nervousness by commenting on hers, thereby bringing hers to the surface and helping me to shove mine deep, deep down and act like I don’t feel like I’m about to puke.

“Whatever,” she says, grinning and looking away. “Obviously I’m nervous.”

“It’s cute,” I say.

“It’s just—last time I saw you we weren’t boyfriend and girlfriend. And now we are. It’s weird.”

“It doesn’t have to be,” I say. I lean over and put my mouth against hers. She parts her lips and our tongues slide against each other, and I understand completely what people mean when they talk about electricity and sparks and all that stuff.

Half an hour later we’re at my apartment and the soft kiss from the restaurant has transformed into something animalistic. Within moments of being in my room and slamming the door closed we’re naked and on my bed, touching each other’s bodies in exploratory ways, laying a hand down for just a second before moving it to a new spot, then another, and another.

Afterwards, we lie there silently, listening to the sound of each other’s breathing.

“I didn’t expect that,” she says.

“What?” I say. I come off sounding a little hurt. The male ego is a fragile thing, and my mind instantly takes her words in a negative connotation. She sits up and leans over me.

“I thought we were going to wait a while before we had sex,” she says.

“Really?” I say. “I didn’t.”

She giggles and kisses me.

“I’m happy,” she says.

“Me too,” I say.

“Wanna go again?” she asks, nibbling on my ear.

“Awesome,” I say, rolling back on top of her.

* * *

Cassie opens the door and makes a move to get out of the car. I don’t.

“You ready?” she asks me.

I look at her, shrug.

“You?” I reply.

“Yeah,” she says. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

She gives me a weird look as she says this, staring me down then up then glancing out the window and flaring her nostrils a little. This is the weird look, her weird look, the only look that can simultaneously piss me off and make me feel like a two year old.

I ignore it, open the door and get out, walking through the gated entrance of the park. There are kids everywhere: screaming little babies, prepubescent bad-asses with devious eyes, and full blown young adults who look at all the younger ones like they’re dogs without leashes. I instantly redirect the tension I felt in the car towards the scene I’m approaching. I already didn’t want to be here, but watching all these kids running around and screaming is making parts of my face twitch. I don’t know why I feel like this—I usually love kids—but it has something to do with the look Cassie just gave me. The look I’ve gotten used to, despite my strongest efforts not to. I’m walking like we’re marching to our deaths when Ally—Cassie’s best friend and the reason we’re here—lets out a squeal and runs over to hug her. I stand patiently and wait for the semantics to be dispensed.

“It’s been so long,” Ally says.

Cassie nods, smiles, and Ally glances at me.

“Hi, Patrick,” she says.

“What’s up,” I say, looking at the pavilion Ally ran over from. There are two tables beneath it and, as we make our way over, I see that one has a vast assortment of food and food-related items: cake, chips, hot dogs, hamburgers, plates, napkins. The other table is piled with presents, with more presents on the ground surrounding it.  Big ones, small ones, reused bags, leftover wrapping paper from Christmas. For one moment I find myself actually jealous at the turnout, wondering why, in any person’s life, the stockpile of birthday presents seems to reduce exponentially as the amount of candles on your cake increases. I don’t even remember what I got for my birthday last year, and here’s this baby who has no idea what’s going on right now getting all types of shit that she’s going to grow out of in like two months. Fucking waste.

Then I tell myself it’s stupid to be jealous of a baby’s birthday presents. Then I tell myself that telling myself an emotion is stupid is counterproductive. Then I just tell myself to shut up.

Something hits me in the leg and I look down to see a pudgy, freckled kid with ketchup stains on the corners of his mouth grabbing onto my pants in an effort not to fall over. Behind me, everywhere, are the ever-present children, littering the concrete and grassy areas around the pavilion like worms after a storm. Ally, who is still standing next to Cassie, who is standing in front of me, turns around and plucks one of them from the ground. I assume this one is hers by the way the baby girl automatically grabs onto Ally’s cheeks and hair.

“She’s getting so big,” Cassie says. I step to the side and catch a glimpse of her eyes as she says this, the gleam in her pupils. She glances at me and I look away quickly before she notices I noticed.

“I know,” Ally says. “Still remember being pregnant.” She chuckles and rolls her eyes. “Glad that’s over with.”

Cassie laughs and looks at me again so I chuckle, turn, and walk away. Standing by the presents I look at a few of the tags, names I don’t recognize next to drawings of happy faces and clown faces and children in pink pajamas. Ally recently turned twenty. This is her baby’s first birthday party. In attendance are many other nineteen and twenty year olds with their own babies of various ages. I am twenty six, and this party is having the very disorienting effect of making me feel both extremely old and extremely young at the same time. This isn’t a new feeling for me. In fact, I’ve become uncomfortably aware that I’ve experienced this feeling much too often over the past year or so. Yet, every time it pops up, it’s still just as unwelcome as it was the time before. It’s usually associated with Cassie and her friends, and I’m starting to think the age difference that wasn’t an issue when she was eighteen and I was twenty-three and we were both undergraduates at FSU has crossed some invisible barrier into the territory of “an issue.”

Cassie motions for me to come back over by her and I oblige because it’s just what I do in situations like this. It’s what my father does, and what I assume his father did before him—we stand next to our girlfriends or wives (or whatever she is to us) when we’re at social functions, especially when she calls us over. It’s not so much a requirement as a choice between two outcomes: either follow the rules and make her happy or risk a night of frigidity. We can drift, wander, make small talk with the other husbands or boyfriends or whatevers, but she is Home Base. It’s protocol.

I make my way through the sea of miniature people surrounding Cassie and find out when I arrive that she’s called me over with a specific purpose in mind. Ally’s mother has made an appearance. I stand in front of the older, bleached blonde woman and stare. She stares back, smiling absently. I met this woman a month ago, on another visit here to Palm Coast. I helped her fix her cell phone then. The mp3 player wouldn’t work and she was frustrated, repeating her woes over and over and over until I decided I needed to either do something about it or leave. There was nothing wrong with the phone, she just didn’t know how to use it, so I showed her. She stares at me now as if she’s never seen me before. According to what I’ve heard about her and her love for white, powdery substances, she probably believes she never has. I smile, hold out my hand.

“I’m Patrick,” I say. “Cassie’s boyfriend. Nice to meet you.”

I try, occasionally, to be amicable.

There are about two dozen people under this pavilion besides Cassie and me, and each of them has their own story to tell. I figure this out after about half an hour of milling around, smiling and nodding with my hands in my pocket and a piece of gum working its way around furiously in my mouth.

Everybody’s buzzing with internal conflict, with the shifty look in their eyes characteristic of people with something nagging at their tongues, begging to be freed from the shackles of mere internal dialogue. The problem is that—from what I’ve gathered during the preparatory conversations I’ve had with Cassie leading up to this day and the way each person here keeps taking furtive glances at another person who is also taking furtive glances back at them—each of their stories involves somebody else who is also under this pavilion. The result is hard to describe, other than to say that it almost feels like there’s a large vacuum under the pavilion, confined to the pavilion, sucking everybody’s words out of their mouths even as they’re speaking them. For the half an hour leading up to the cake-cutting/present-opening portion of the day, I stand around listening to people not-talking about each other, which is basically the equivalent of listening to people talk about nothing whatsoever.

After twenty minutes of this I want to go play on the jungle gym on the other side of the park, anything to get away from here. Protocol advises against that though, so I just pull out my cell phone and pretend I’m checking something important.

* * *

Cassie sits across the living room flipping through the TV channels and pouting. I know exactly why she’s pouting, why she’s been pouting for like two days now. And yet, I refuse to comment on it. It’s not that I don’t want to, it’s that I’m fucking tired. We’ve been together for two years now and you’d think I’d be used to this. I’m not. I turn towards her.

“You hungry?” I ask.

She shakes her head, does that thing with her bottom lip meant to indicate “no, not really, I’m not hungry, thanks anyways.” She doesn’t look at me as she does this, which automatically gives the gesture an added note of hostility. I sigh.

“Can we talk about this?” I say finally.

“Talk about what?” she asks, looking at me and raising her eyebrows in a look of genuine confusion. She should be an actress. I want to scream at her, tell her to stop looking at me like she doesn’t know what the fuck I’m talking about. That’s exactly what she wants me to do though, so I smile.

“You know what,” I say simply.

She looks back at the TV, flips a few more channels.

“Nothing to talk about,” she says.

“Well,” I say. “We’ve barely talked in two days. So I think there is something to talk about.”

“You want me to be honest?” she says. She doesn’t wait for me to answer, just puts the remote down and turns to me. “We’ve been together for two years,” she says. “I’m transferring to UCF for you, and we’re both going to be living in Orlando. I’m doing that for you, Patrick, and now you’re acting like it’s such a problem to do this for me.” She pauses. “It makes no sense why you want to get separate apartments.”

I stare at her, try to see how set in her opinion she is right now. If I have any wiggle room. I can’t tell. I didn’t ask her to move to Orlando with me, or to transfer schools. That was all her decision. I don’t think it’s wise to point this out.

“I just think we need to give each other some space,” I say.

“I practically live with you right now,” she says.

I want to say “exactly.” I don’t. That is the thing I most want to say and the last thing that I ever would. I also want to point out to her that her two year qualifier on our relationship doesn’t include all the many details that I think are very legitimate reasons why we are not ready to move in together: the fact that, in these two years, both of us have had sex with other people; the fact that, in the past two years, on numerous occasions, both of us have grown enraged and destroyed items belonging to each other, many of them expensive and/or sentimental; the fact that, in the past two years, we have both become much angrier people than either one of us were before we started dating.

“Do you love me?” she asks suddenly.

“Of course I love you,” I say. The words fly out of my mouth, as if my brain is jumping for joy that there is something it knows the proper response to.

“If we’re going to be together in the long run,” she says. “I just don’t see why we can’t be practical, save money, get a place together.”

I glare at her, at her ability to slip the word “practical” in that statement and make it sound like it belongs. Then I sigh, close my eyes and rub my forehead.

“I just,” I say, then stop. I have nothing. “If we do it, I want two bedrooms,” I say finally. “I need an office. That’s all I’m saying, a place to get my work done, get away from—” I pause. “The world.”

She stares at me and a smile slowly breaks across her face.

“Sure,” she says. “You need space like that, that’s fine. I didn’t know that’s what you meant. I can give you all the space you want.”

She hops up and jumps over to me, grabs me and hugs me and falls into my lap. I laugh even though there’s this feeling in my chest, like a hollow space has just opened up right below my heart and is widening, threatening to engulf my entire life source.

She kisses me then moves her face about an inch away from mine, so our eyes are directly in front of each other. So I can see the exact shade of green in hers perfectly, part of her overall beauty, searching my eyes for something, I don’t know what.

“We’re moving in together,” she says, triumphantly.

“Yeah,” I say, hug her. “Awesome.”

* * *

Eventually, the children start to get rowdy and Ally decides it’s time to open the presents. I stand in viewing distance, next to Cassie. Edwin—the father of Ally’s child, and her recently proposed fiancé—sits next to her and essentially plays garbage man. Ally grabs present after present, pulling off the wrapping paper and dropping the crumpled pieces in Edwin’s lap, at which point he swiftly shoves them into a large black garbage bag and turns back, waiting for more. There is an unmistakable blankness in this guy’s eyes that I don’t think anybody else notices. He’s just turned nineteen and looks all of sixteen. I do not envy this guy a bit, I will say that. I don’t, however, feel sorry for him. Because he doesn’t look miserable, not even the slightest bit melancholy. The only emotion on his face, actually, is complacence. Edwin’s just fine right now. Which, for some reason, upsets me. It upsets me that this guy, this kid, is okay with his position in life. He’s okay being an accessory to this situation, known to most everybody in this room as “Ally’s fiancé” or “Ally’s baby daddy.” He’s okay with his future.

I look around, wondering if anybody else sees what I see: the vacant look in Edwin’s eyes, the automatic quality to his smiles and movements. Nobody seems to notice. They all look like they’re having fun, actually. I find this odd until I realize that there are quite a number of guys here with looks in their eyes similar to Edwin’s. It’s not that they don’t notice him, it’s that there’s nothing for them to notice.

For the first time since I arrived I feel like an outcast, which gives me the fleeting desire to pick up one of the kids scampering around me and hold them like they’re my own, smile and point at the presents and tell them that their birthday will be soon and similar. For just a second I want to do this. Just a second.

The reason Ally needs Edwin’s assistance with discarded-wrapping-paper-pick-up is because she’s busy with the rest of the parents surrounding her, making oohing and aawing sounds at the tiny clothes and shoes and playpens bestowed upon her child. She shows every gift to us, the crowd, before turning and showing them to her baby daughter who grabs the corner of each item and swiftly shoves it in her mouth, which prompts another bout of oohs and aaws. Cassie is part of the oohing and aawing crowd and, without realizing it, I’ve moved about ten feet away from her. She doesn’t notice, which is good. I don’t want to have to explain the move. I don’t know if I could if I tried, actually.

After presents, there’s the cake cutting, which seems to excite everybody into a frenzy of conversation.

“I’ll get the candles,” Edwin says, running over to a fluttering plastic bag on the food table.

“Bring her here, Ally,” Ally’s mother says. She motions towards the cake and Ally shoots her a glare.

“I got it, Ma,” she replies.

“This is so nice,” somebody else says and I turn to stare into the crowd of faces, any of which could have been the speaker. A few others look at me expectantly and I look back at the cake and clap my hands together. I have no idea why I do this, it just seems appropriate given the sudden excitement.

Ally lights the one candle Edwin sticks in the cake and holds her baby’s face half a foot from the flame and says “blow,” then blows the candle out herself. Everybody claps and rubs the baby’s and Ally’s backs and, for just a brief second, before I can stifle the urge and keep myself in the reverie of the moment, I wonder what’s the point of any of this. What has ever been the point of it. I know from pictures and family stories that my parents did the same things with me when I was a baby. I also know that I don’t remember being a one year old and having my mother blow out a candle for me, and neither will this baby. Ally’s daughter doesn’t know what the hell anybody’s talking about, so in a sense everybody here is tricking themselves into believing that an infant just made a birthday wish and blew out a candle.

The thought process continues unabated as I watch somebody hand Ally a plate with a slice of cake on it and Ally turns and drops it in the crib next to the food table. She places her daughter in the crib next to the slice of cake and, naturally, the first thing the baby does is smear icing all over her face. Another bout of oohs and aaws. It hits me then that the only truly realistic person here is this baby, completely oblivious (for the time being) to this perpetual necessity of ritual. I’m momentarily moved by the utter cuteness of Ally’s child until Cassie turns and catches me smiling and looks positively delighted.

“Isn’t she cute?” she asks.

My smile instantly disappears and I nod. I wait what seems like an appropriate amount of time to completely separate my words from the words she just spoke, then lean in towards her.

“Can we go soon?” I ask.

She looks up and I can tell she’s trying not to glare at me. After three years, I can tell what trying-not-to-glare-at-me looks like. It’s a variation of the look she gave me in the car when I asked if she was ready—the same look down then up and nostril flare—only this one is much more subtle. It’s its own type of glare, a different sort of love-hatred you can only have with somebody you’ve been through a certain number of rough patches with—too many to give a number to if people ask, other than to say “we’ve been through some shit.” I also know that the trying-not-to- portion of her trying-not-to-glare-at-me look is not for my benefit, but hers. She doesn’t want to be embarrassed in front of these people by allowing her annoyance to be visible. Which gives the look that much more of a sinister tint.

“You said you wouldn’t,” she whispers, loud enough that it’s like a scream in my ears but low enough that nobody else overhears.

“Wouldn’t what?” I ask.

“We talked about this,” she says. “On the way here. Don’t rush, we’ll leave when we’re ready.”

I want to point out that she just contradicted her earlier declaration that I hadn’t said more than two words during the ride over here. I don’t, though.

* * *

I will be playing NBA 2K11 when it happens. Cassie will come in, lay on the bed and sigh. I will keep pressing buttons on my Playstation 3 controller, take Dwyane Wade down the court of American Airlines Arena and dunk on somebody. She’ll sigh again. I’ll glance at her and she’ll be staring at the TV, so I’ll look back at it and keep playing. She’ll sigh again and I’ll pause the game.

“What?” I will ask. I won’t even try to hide the annoyance in my voice.

“Nothing,” she’ll say.

“Ok,” I’ll respond, turning back to the game and unpausing it. She will wait a while before getting up and heading out of the room, stopping in the doorway.

“You don’t even try anymore,” she’ll say.

I’ll pause the game and close my eyes, rubbing my forehead. When I open my eyes, I will look at her and realize I don’t see her so much anymore. It will almost be like she’s blending in with the wall. I will see everything around her, the things behind her, the things outside of the apartment that could be happening right then, in the future for me. But I won’t see her. I’ll squint.

“What are you talking about?” I’ll ask.

“You don’t even try,” she’ll repeat.

“Try what?”

“I’ve been trying to talk to you for days now.”

“Really?” I’ll say. “Where was I?”

“Here,” she’ll say, then look down at the carpet. “Not really, though.”

“Here we go,” I’ll say, rolling my eyes.

“I don’t know what’s wrong,” she’ll say. “But we’re not acting right. You’ve barely talked to me since you got back from Miami.”

I will think back to my visit to Miami the weekend before. A few days after Ally’s baby’s birthday party, my parents ask me to come down and house-sit while they are out of town, and I spend the weekend writing. I write for hours and hours, uninterrupted, then watch episodes of Californication and Dexter from Netflix, play video games and my guitar and masturbate in the shower by myself, blissful solitude. It will be, undoubtedly, the best weekend I’ve had in months.

“I’ve been talking to you just fine, Cassie,” I’ll say. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“You haven’t talked to me about what I want to talk about,” she’ll say.

“What’s that?”

“I don’t want to talk about it now,” she’ll say.

I will groan, loud.

“I don’t want to hear this shit right now,” I’ll say.

“You know we haven’t had sex in like two weeks?”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t know that was a problem.”

“It’s not,” she’ll say. “At least, it wouldn’t be if we were being sweet with each other in other ways.”

“Cassie, I don’t want to deal with this right now.”

“You never want to deal with anything.”

I’ll look at her and it will hit me like it usually does, the urge to get as far away from her as I can. My shirt will begin to feel like it’s shrinking, constricting my breathing until I clear my throat, pull at the collar.

“Can you just go away, please?” I’ll ask.

“No,” she’ll say. “We need to talk.”

“Cassie,” I’ll say, closing my eyes. “Just leave me alone for right now. Like five minutes.”

She’ll stay standing there until I open my eyes and stare at her. I’ve told her on numerous occasions that I get claustrophobic in certain situations, that I can’t handle confrontation the way some people can. She insists, though, that she can’t just walk away when she’s upset, give me a minute to calm down, cool off, think rationally. Instead, she stays and pushes, prods.

“You don’t listen to me,” she’ll say. “And it really bothers me.”

“Seriously, Cassie.”

“Why can’t you just listen to me?”

“Why can’t you just leave me the fuck alone?”

And just like that, things will escalate. The way they always do, only this time there will be a sense of finality to it. Some dam will burst in me and every negative emotion I’ve felt for the past three years will come rushing out. I’ll tell her everything, every desire, every lack of desire, every twist and turn in my head that’s been sitting beneath the surface for so long. I’ll tell her I don’t want to marry her, I’ll tell her I don’t want to have kids with her, I’ll tell her I never wanted to move in together, that the only reason I stayed in Florida for graduate school was because of her and that I’ve come to regret that decision. I’ll tell her I feel constricted, and I don’t know if I can do it anymore. When I’m done she’ll barely be coherent and I’ll feel like shit. I will not want it to end like this, but she’ll pack up her things anyway and walk out. And I’ll know that it doesn’t matter how I want it to end. It never did.

* * *

I step back over to the table with the food, stare at it for a moment then grab a plate and start to grab chips from a big bowl, then decide that, fuck it, I’ll have a hamburger. Bun, ketchup, burger. People are still milling around when I’m done eating so I decide to have a hot dog. Bun, ketchup, dog. Still no interesting developments so I walk about twenty feet away from the pavilion, hoping it will prompt something to happen, anything that will get me out of here.

I glance at the parking lot and briefly wonder what it would feel like to just get in my car and drive off, back to Orlando, back to our two-bedroom apartment where we’ve decided to try having separate rooms in an attempt to give ourselves some personal space, a trial that’s only resulted in me wondering even more why we ever agreed to move in together in the first place. Part of it was her prodding, yeah, but part of me also thought it would fix things, despite the numerous accounts of other’s personal experiences in which they assert that, hell no, moving in together will not fix anything. Quite the opposite.

Then, for just a second, I seriously consider leaving. Not to Orlando, though, but somewhere further. Away from not just Cassie but anybody connected to this life I have right now. This life so structured around personal relationships. I finger the key ring in my pocket and stare longingly at the headlights of my car and think about running over to it, hopping in the driver’s seat and just driving north, or west, to California, L.A., to sell my car and hop a boat then just keep on going, to Hawaii, take up residence in Honolulu and serve tables at a resort restaurant during the nights, meet people and experience things then write about it all in the mornings, lying on the beach with nothing but a six pack and a takeout container from the closest restaurant. No franchises, keep it local. No aspirations other than my own. No goals other than to die happy. Nobody to distract me from achieving it.

I turn and Cassie is still there talking to Ally, peeking at me every few seconds with an impatient look on her face. This one is characterized by contrast: when she’s looking at Ally and her baby, her eyes are slits, due to her smiling cheeks pushing the bottom lid closed a little. Then she looks at me and her smile drops, her eyes go wide and her eyebrows raise, a slight jerk of her neck. “Get the hell over here,” it screams. The diversity of her facial muscle capabilities baffles me. I walk back to the pavilion, making sure to keep a wide berth from the cake table and crib.

Eventually, finally, things start to wind down and the goodbyes commence. Ten minutes later we’ve finally said bye to everybody and bye to Ally five times. We’re making our way back to the car when Ally calls out and approaches us and I sigh as discretely as I can.

“So good to see you today,” she says to Cassie.

Cassie hugs her and I stand next to them with my hands in my pocket.

“We’ve got to visit more,” Cassie says to Ally. She doesn’t look at me when she says this, and I realize I’ve stopped expecting her to.

“So glad you came,” Ally says, and they hug again.

In the car there’s silence for the first ten minutes. We’re on I-95 when Cassie reaches over from the passenger seat and turns on the radio, then turns the volume down a little.

“That was nice,” she says.

I don’t know why she does that—turns on the music right before she talks—but she does. Like she needs background filler or something. I’m not in a good mood.

“Yeah,” I say.

“So many kids,” she says.

“Yup,” I say.

“I don’t know if I can do that,” she says.

I look over at her, surprised. There’s a moment of silence between us and some guy on the radio tells us to call him if we wreck our car.

“Really?” I say.

“Yeah,” she says. “It was a little depressing. I feel like we all just graduated high school, and now here I am going to my best friends’ baby’s birthday parties. It’s just so…weird.”

“Yeah,” I say. Another moment of silence in which I ponder taking the bait or not. What the hell. “I don’t know if I could do it either.”

She turns and looks at me, raising an eyebrow.

“It wouldn’t be that bad though,” she says, then nods and pats my hand. “Didn’t seem that bad at all.”

She says nothing after this and, for a while, we drive in silence, the trees on I-95 speeding past us at 90 miles an hour. In the silence, I allow my mind to wander and catch a glimpse of the future, of everything that will come, the eventual end of me and Cassie’s relationship, the eventual end of Ally and Edwin’s engagement, the months of self-reflection and elation and freedom and bouts of self-doubt and ponderings on the meaning of life and love. The vision is overwhelming, extensive, emotional, visceral, and extremely uncomfortable to experience with my girlfriend sitting right next to me. It’s a vision of an alternate reality like no other, one I can see coming into existence but have no idea how to get to. So I stifle it all, an ability I’ve become quite adept at, though my cracks are starting to show. Eventually I look over at her and she looks at me and smiles the same smile I’ve seen every day for the past 36 months. I smile back, reflexively.

“I think we’d make awesome parents,” she says. “You can see it, can’t you?”

I keep my eyes on the road and give a stellar, successful effort at not letting my smile slip in the slightest.

“Sure,” I say. “Awesome.”

______________________________

Pick up Quarter Life Crisis at GetOverCollege.com, available now.

 

Clutch: A Boy’s Life

clutch \kləch\

1. adjective: (in sport) denoting or occurring in a critical situation in which the outcome of a game or competition is at stake.

2. verb: grasp or seize (something) tightly or eagerly.

_____________________

basketball black white resizedRobert and I stand in front of the pull-up bars in the field out back of Southwood Middle School, staring at them like they’re Mount Everest. We bet each other about twenty minutes ago who could do the most. I think we both regret it now.

I glance at Robert and he nods.

“You first,” he says.

I sigh, push my glasses up the bridge of my nose and pull up my pants, which slip right back below my butt cheeks. The pants are zippered but unbuttoned at the waist, held up by a loose belt and my bony hips. I recently found out clothes that fit properly aren’t cool. My parents won’t buy me clothes five sizes too big for me though, so I improvise.

I step up and grip the pull-up bar with my palms facing me so that I can see my dirt-stained fingernails. I take a deep breath and pull up and there’s an instant burn in my triceps and right below my armpits.

“One,” I gasp.

“Nope, that doesn’t count,” Robert says. “You jumped.”

I drop to the ground and glare at him, about to argue when a sudden loud giggling erupts behind us. We turn to another group of students walking towards the field, all girls. Our attention instantly shifts.

Robert turns back to me, staring wide-eyed, nodding at the pull-up bars then at me. He doesn’t have to say anything. I know. I grip the pull-up bar tighter, grit my teeth, glance back one more time to make sure the girls are a little closer, then face forward and grunt as I pull myself up.

“One,” I say. Again. “Two.” My arms seem thinner than ever, the puny muscles burning like there’s acid right below the thin layer of skin. I feel like the soft tissue around my ribs is going to rip apart and gather in a ball near my stomach. “Three.” My shoe slips off into the sand under me and I ignore it, pull myself up again, twice. “Four, Five.”

I drop my feet down to the ground and swing my arms around me the way the ninth graders on the basketball team do afterschool when they’re done doing pushups, while Robert and I play on the court next to them and act like we’re not watching.

“Alright,” Robert says, stepping forward and gripping the bar. He takes one quick glance at the girls then begins furiously yanking upwards on the bar and making all sorts of grunting noises, counting loudly.

I look at the girls again. There are four of them, all caramel-textured and soft looking. It awes me still, that supple quality that girls have, like the sun shines on them differently than it does us guys. Like it caresses them, soaks into their skin and clothes and soothes them.

Us, though. Robert and I have both grown two shades darker in the past two weeks alone. The sun doesn’t caress us. It beats us until we submit. And when we don’t, it steps it up a notch until we pass out.

Two of the girls glance back at us and my chest clenches. I look away and try to seem nonchalant but since I chose to look at the sky instead of the ground—directly into the sun—I’m guessing I look less nonchalant and more like a half-blind idiot. My pants slip a little and I pull them up.

Robert drops down and looks back at me, breathing hard and swinging his arms around.

“Twelve,” he says. “I win.”

“Doesn’t count,” I say, looking at the girls. “You didn’t go all the way down.”

“Yeah I did.”

“No you didn’t,” I say. “I saw you.”

He stays quiet looking me up and down. His eyes stop at my feet.

“What’s wrong with your foot?”

I look at my feet. I forgot to put my shoe back on after it slipped into the sand while I was doing my pull-ups, and there’s a huge hole in my left sock, my big toe sticking out. I can’t remember the last time my mom told me to cut my toenails, and the nail on this toe is long and curving.

I look up and Robert’s staring at me with a smirk on his face.

“Shut up,” I say.

“It’s like a gargoyle’s foot,” he says.

“Shut up,” I say again, grabbing my shoe and putting it on.

“Could cut somebody’s throat with that thing,” he says.

“Shut. Up.”

Robert laughs and we walk over to the basketball court to play a game before the bell rings.

* * *

Robert’s parents are Caribbean like mine. He’s a little darker than me with a real skinny neck that he used to hide back in middle school with an ever-present towel or t-shirt draped across his shoulders, like he was constantly ready to go to the beach. This was way before he filled out, way before I filled out. My glasses were still the size of milk glasses back then, my teeth still in a pre-braces state of disarray, and my dad still cut my hair in a high top fade.

I met Robert in our seventh grade P.E. class, headed by Coach Clarke. Coach made us stand in lines on the basketball court during roll call, facing forward like a bunch of soldiers, all of us trying really hard not to laugh when he told us “respect me and my court or there will be punishment.” Coach Clarke’s glasses made mine look designer. They were big and square and magnified his eyes to fish-like proportions.

Robert stood next to me every day that first semester, looking content, antsy, ready to do whatever was on the agenda each day. I never was. I just wanted roll call to be over and for everybody to scatter so I could take out the book I had tucked under my shirt and make my way to the spot over by the loading dock behind the cafeteria, near the basketball court, hidden from view. I could see everybody from there but nobody really noticed me. I was invisible. I liked it that way.

One day I sat down against the wall and pulled out my book, as usual—this one a volume in Christopher Pike’s Last Vampire series. I opened up to the marked page and began to read. Moments later, a shadow covered the words and I looked up to see Robert staring down at me, outlined by the sun behind his head like he was the savior himself.

“What you doing?” he asked.

I looked down at my book then back up at him, saying nothing.

“You a nerd or something?” he asked. He said this in a way I’d never heard before, like he really expected an answer. I stayed quiet.

“You’re never going to get a girl sitting in a corner reading,” he said. “You gotta play some ball to get attention. It’s fun. Come on.”

I didn’t move at first and I didn’t ask why he assumed I even wanted a girl’s attention. I mean, I did, but that was beside the point.

Robert grabbed the book out of my hand and looked at the cover, then shrugged and switched it to his other hand, reaching out towards me. After a moment’s hesitation, I gripped his hand and he pulled me up and pushed me towards the basketball court.

“Quit lying, man,” Robert says suddenly, stopping me mid-sentence. “That’s not how it happened. I didn’t say anything about you reading.”

We’re driving down US-1, me in the passenger seat of his black Ford Escape. I look at him and his head is practically shaved, his hair cut so low. His Air Force uniform is starched, and it looks odd on him, baggy, like he’s wearing somebody else’s stuff. It probably doesn’t look odd to anybody else, but it does to me. It’s funny, the power of memories.

I tell him that’s how I remember what happened.

“That’s not how it went,” he says. “I looked over at you sitting there and I remembered you because we were like the only kids who had to wait after school every day for our moms while everybody else took the bus.” He pauses. “And I needed one more person for a full court game. You were the only one left.”

That makes me feel very important, I tell him. Robert chuckles and tells me to stop being sensitive. I’m pretty sure that he grabbed the book out of my hand that day.

“Why would I do that?” he asks. “I wouldn’t do that. That’s mean. I’d do that now. I wouldn’t do that then. Quit making stuff up.”

We turn a couple of times and then I look out the window and Southwood Middle School sits there, silent on this Sunday afternoon. It’s the first time I’ve seen it in over a decade.

A couple of years ago there was a student at Southwood Middle named Jaime Gough. One morning, in the minutes before the bell rang for school to start—that period of time during me and Robert’s stint in middle school when we used to hit the courts and try to get at least a game of 21 in, if not a full-blown half court pickup game—fourteen year old Gough was in a bathroom on the second floor. He was taking a piss, or washing his hands, or just checking himself in the mirror maybe, when Michael Hernandez—a classmate of his—walked in with a knife, grabbed Gough, stabbed him 40 times then slit his throat.

“I heard,” Robert says. He looks at the school solemnly. “Crazy ass kids.”

I really do remember Robert taking the book from me.

“Nope,” Robert says. “And it was Coach Carter. Coach Clarke was the chick.”

Maybe he’s right. Either way, that’s how we met.

* * *

They got rid of the ninth grade class at Southwood this summer and added incoming sixth graders. So when we come back at the beginning of the ‘97-‘98 school year as eighth graders, we suddenly find ourselves the oldest people in the school, walking around with a bunch of twelve year olds looking up to us like we’re gods.

Early release days we get out of class at 1:30 instead of 3:40 so that the teachers can have their monthly conference. Robert and I are among a few stragglers waiting the couple of hours for their parents to pick them up after work. I brought my basketball to school today though, so we’re okay with it.

I bounce the ball back and forth between my legs near the bench Robert’s sitting on, listening to him talk about the things that are going to change when we get to high school in a few months. Mid-conversation, two guys walk up to us from the other side of the patio. One’s name is Sam, the other Nick, cousins that we associate with occasionally.

Sam says what’s up to Robert, pounds my fist. Nick stares at my basketball.

“Y’all playing out back?” Sam asks. Sam is huge for an eighth grader, six feet and really gangly. Nick is shorter than his cousin but still bigger than me, which isn’t saying much.

“In a minute,” Rob answers.

“Let me hold the ball,” Nick says. I know Sam better than I know Nick and I glance at him first.

“No,” I say, and bounce the ball between my legs for effect. I don’t know why I say no, I just do.

“Let me hold the ball,” Nick says again. He pauses then adds, “I’ll give it back in a sec.”

Robert and Sam are watching me now, seeing what I’m going to do. I don’t know if this is a punk situation, but it sure smells like one.

A punk situation is defined as an interaction in which one or more parties are asked to do something which–in doing so–will make them look inferior to the opposing party and bring on a period of both self- and third-party-inflicted scorn that can last anywhere from a half hour to an entire school year to the rest of your life.

I don’t want to get punked, and if this isn’t a punk situation then Nick can hold the ball, fine. But if it is, then no.

Just to be sure, I shake my head again. No.

Nick glances at Sam and Sam doesn’t look back so Nick takes a few steps in my direction, looks around covertly, then pulls his shirt up. The sun glints off metal and momentarily blinds me. I move my eyes out of the glare and see that, tucked in the waistband of Nick’s pants, is a gun. A pretty damn big gun too. I stare at it and it doesn’t register to me at first what it is and before I can react, Nick grabs the basketball off the palm of my hand. I flinch and look up at him and he’s smiling.

“Look,” Nick says, staring at his cousin and nodding towards me. He drops his shirt over the weapon. “He’s scared,” he says. He tests the weight of the ball in his hand then bounces it between his legs and looks up at me. “Relax, bruh. I’ll give it back in a minute.”

I look at Robert from the corner of my eye and he looks back at me and I guess he can see what the look in my eyes says because he just shakes his head then looks at the ground and plays with his fingers.

Yup. I’ve just been punked.

Nick comes back over and hands me the ball. I take it without a word and just stand there. The four of us stare at each other for a few seconds, nobody saying anything. Finally Sam looks up at me, almost tiredly.

“We playing?” he asks.

I shrug.

“Yeah,” Robert says, getting up.

I bounce the ball between my legs and we all move in the direction of the basketball courts.

* * *

Two weeks before I leave Miami for Tallahassee, one week before my twenty-third birthday, I’m in my room clicking on various windows of Internet Explorer on my computer. One of them shows an apartment search site, the other my acceptance letter from Florida State University. I’m staring at the letter—still sort of reeling by how fast all of this is happening—when Robert calls and tells me he’s coming over. Robert lives with his dad now, up in North Miami, which is way north of where I live. He’s been visiting my way more frequently lately though, ever since he quit/got fired from his job at PRC for assaulting his manager.

We both have some issues: anger, emotional, whatever. Mine are triggered by a depression that I’m beginning to think is clinical. When it hits me, the only thing that seems to make it go away is giving in to the attached rage. Or getting drunk. I’m not like other people who are in denial about their issues though. At least I don’t think I am. I know it’s true, I’m fucked up. But Robert and I never talk about it, not with each other at least. It’s hard to talk about anger with somebody you’ve never really been angry at. It’s hard to talk about emotional issues with somebody who’s always been your escape from them.

On the phone right now, Robert wants to know if I want to go to Tropical Park with him. I say okay and he picks me up from my parent’s house. We get to the park and it’s empty, so we grab our basketballs and start launching them at the rim. I haven’t held a basketball in a while. I’m a little rusty and it takes me a few minutes of dribbling to get the familiarity back in my wrist, in the feel of the grip against my palm.

Soon I’m confident enough to set up behind the three point line and test out my form. I cock back then snap forward and the ball sails out of my hands, arcing perfectly in line with the rim—right on target—then misses everything. It hits the ground with a hollow thonk and bounces into the grass.

“You need to get back on the court,” Robert says.

I haven’t had any time for anything but finishing up my Associate’s degree and working. I bartend now on weekends, at the Applebees in Cutler Ridge mall, ten hour shifts Friday through Monday.

“You working when you go up to Tallahassee?” Robert asks.

I shrug. I need to go up there in a couple of days to check out the apartment. I ask him if he wants to come with me. Robert smiles and nods.

“Be nice to get a road trip in before I leave,” he says.

I think he’s mistaken, or I heard wrong. Sounded like he said when he leaves, as opposed to when I leave.

“I joined the Air Force,” he says coolly. “Aced my ASVAB. Start training in three weeks.” He shoots the ball and it hits the rim and there’s this moment where the ball hangs in the air, for just a second. It’s a moment we both know well, the moment when things could go good or bad, win or lose. The ball comes down on the side of the rim and bounces off towards the parking lot. Robert looks at me, then trots off to get it.

* * *

It’s spring, two thousand one, and America is still resting comfortably in its own false sense of security. In a few months, the whole country will be shocked into submission by nineteen suicidal hijackers on four commercial airliners, but today things are pretty chill.

My parents live across the street from Robert’s high school, Coral Reef High, and I walk over there every day to play ball on the brand new courts in the back. Robert and I have teamed up with a mutual friend, Joe, and have been dominating the three-on-three matchups this entire semester.

We have a combination that’s worked for a while now. Joe is the fastest of us, long-limbed and well coordinated. Robert’s got the ball handling skills; most of the time he doesn’t even look in Joe’s or my direction. He just points to a spot on the court and when we get there, the balls in our hands and we’re suddenly wide open. I’m the shooter of the team, the clutch man. My dad put a hoop in our front yard years ago and I’ve spent hours out there practicing the most ridiculous shots possible; I mean, falling on the ground, behind the back, upside-down grunting type shit. Sometimes they even go in.

When it’s the three of us on that court, it’s like we’re on a mission or something. We don’t talk except to yell out plays. We don’t laugh unless someone tries to fight us, and then only to brush them off and keep the game in motion. We are in the “–ic” stages of our lives: stoic, energetic, optimistic. We’re all under five foot ten, but it’s eleventh grade. Growth spurts and NBA careers are still a possibility.

This particular day, we step onto the court in beat up Nikes and faded shorts and two guys approach us, one of them asking if we want to play a game. Robert looks them over. He’s our unofficial spokesman.

“Full court?” Robert asks. He wants to see how serious they are. We’ve made a vow to only play full-court three-on-three games from now on. We have stamina from all the logged hours, and we like to use it to our advantage. In a full court battle, by game point the other team is looking at the opposite rim like it’s a football field away, which is about the time Robert and Joe and I give each other knowing looks and go in for the kill.

“Full court’s fine,” the kid says. He has a shiny set of braces in his mouth and his hair is blond, buzz cut.

“Who’s your three?” Robert asks.

“Me,” Braces says, pointing to himself then turning and pointing at the kid behind him, a chubby boy with glasses. “My cousin,” he says, then points at another kid, lankier than Joe. “And that guy over there. You guys down?”

I shrug and grab the basketball from him, dribble it through my legs and stare at Braces menacingly.

We choose the rim that faces away from the wind and give them the ball first. They bring it up court and Braces has got some confidence, some decent handles, evident in the fluidity of his crossovers and passes. He keeps up for most of the game, as does the lanky kid Joe is guarding, but Braces’ chubby cousin doesn’t fare so well. He loses a few passes, bricks most of his shots off the backboard or misses the rim altogether. Eventually Braces just stops giving his cousin the ball and tries to take over. He’s good and he keeps the score close with a few nice moves, pulling Rob off the chubby cousin for the necessary double team.

Near the end of the game with the score tied at fourteen, our ball, Rob makes his way up the court, proudly yelling “Game point!” Robert’s shirt is drenched, as usual. He sweats more than any guy I’ve ever seen in my life. I’m not smelling too fresh myself. This game has turned out to be more intense than I thought it would be. Braces is on me like a leech. I broke him down a couple of times in the beginning but he recovered quickly. I’m glad the game’s almost over. I’m tired. I’m having a shitload of fun.

Robert reaches mid-court then suddenly takes off, gunning straight for the basket. Chubby cousin has been covering Robert most of the game, very inefficiently, and he tries to move as Robert speeds away, but he’s left in the dust. Braces, forgetting completely about me, cuts a diagonal line across the court to head off Robert at the rim, leaving me standing alone out by the three point line.

What he doesn’t understand, though, is this is all planned. Like I said: Joe’s the speed, Robert’s the ball handler.

Then there’s me. The clutch man.

At the rim Robert hops, fakes a shot, then turns in mid-air and tosses the ball back across the court to where I’m standing. The ball hits my palms and everybody turns, watching as I cock back and let the ball fly. It arcs, rotating backwards as it moves forward, and hits the rim. I hold my breath as the ball hangs in the air for just a moment before falling through the net with a snap.

“Game,” Robert says nonchalantly.

I look at the chubby cousin and his face is red, almost swollen. I pat him on his back as I walk by and he flinches. We all gather around the foul line and Braces has his hands on his hips, breathing roughly.

“Good game,” he gasps.

We all agree, nodding, too tired to give verbal affirmation. There are only five of us in this little post-game circle. We’re missing one. I look around and see that chubby cousin’s over by the benches, his face still red.

“Your cousin alright?” I ask Braces, nodding towards the estranged kid.

Braces looks over at him and shrugs.

“Doesn’t like to lose,” he says. “He doesn’t play much.”

We all nod and don’t say anything more about it. We don’t want to be mean.

“You’re pretty good,” Robert says to Braces. “You’re in one of my classes, right?”

“Yeah,” Braces says. “I gotta head out though. My mom’s probably waiting.”

We nod, tell him our names as he pounds all our fists: me, Joe, and Robert.

“Justin,” he says. He backs away from us and points over at his cousin. “That’s Jonathan.”

We wave and he jogs towards his cousin and they make their way off the court. The cousin—Jonathan’s—shoulders are slouched as they leave. Justin’s are held high, as they always will be for the rest of his life.

We will play ball with Justin again a couple more times on the courts behind Coral Reef, and I will play with him occasionally at his house after I find out he lives only three blocks away from me. We will never again play with his cousin Jonathan though.

A year from now, my girlfriend’s best friend will meet Justin by chance and start dating him. Justin will have gotten rid of the braces by then and his smile will be wide, gleaming white. Justin will eventually start hanging around me and my girlfriend, and we will laugh at the coincidence and remember the first time we played ball together. He will ask me how Robert is and he and I will hang out and talk about basketball and music and life in general while waiting to pick up our girlfriends from school to go hang out as two couples, four friends.

I will not, however, see Jonathan the chubby cousin again until after I graduate high school, on the day he visits Justin’s mother’s house while Justin and his girlfriend are home alone painting Justin’s room. On that afternoon, Jonathan will pretend he is going to help Justin paint, waiting until the two have their backs turned before picking up a baseball bat and beating Justin and his girlfriend to death.

My girlfriend and I will arrive moments after Jonathan’s done his deed. Our arrival will have been planned from earlier–a night of spaghetti and movies in a double date format–and we will knock on the door and call the house repeatedly until we’re thoroughly convinced our friends have sold us out. We will not know that—directly behind the front door—Jonathan will be standing right over the body of his dead cousin, blood spattered on his shoes, baseball bat raised in the air as he shuffles his feet, waiting for us to try and open the door. I will hear this shuffle and think nothing of it, leaves on the ground or something. My girlfriend and I will then choose to leave, opting not to try the door.

All of this will happen within a year and a half, and it will change me forever, permanently scarring my view of the world and humanity. But right now, right here, on this court behind Coral Reef High, a few months before my senior year, Justin has gained our respect. Which is the beginning and end of our understanding of what life really means. We have won a hard fought pick-up game and that’s all that matters.

We—Robert, Joe and I—are kings. We accept our crown.

* * *

Robert calls me a few weeks after my first day at Florida State. When my cell phone rings that night, there’s a lot of static on the other end and then the line disconnects. I look up the 651 area code and see that it’s Minnesota. I don’t know anybody in Minnesota, so I don’t call back. An hour or so later though, the phone rings again. This time there’s a bit of static but it clears after a moment and I hear Robert on the other end. I’m so surprised that I don’t say anything for a while. I thought they’d killed him over there, or sent him straight to Iraq the moment he was done training, without letting him contact anybody. Just disappeared, like a CIA problem or something.

They owned Robert the moment he signed those papers, I know that. I don’t know very much else about what it’s like in military training camps, except what I’ve seen in the movies. I’ve heard Air Force training isn’t as intensive as, say, the Marines or the Army, but I figure it’s still a pretty hellish situation. I say so to Robert and he chuckles. It’s the first time I’ve ever heard him sound like that. He sounds different, indifferent and yet wired, like they’ve been slipping cocaine-laced sleeping pills in his food.

“Crazy shit, man,” he says, still chuckling. “Crazy. Wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.”

I don’t know what he means by that or why he’s laughing while he says it. I’d really like to know.

“Let’s just say.” He pauses. “First day in, my C.O. told me to lace my shoes up and I rolled my eyes at him, because they were laced up, you know what I’m saying?” Robert pauses to chuckle again. “He punched me in the side of the head, damn near knocked me out. Stuck me in solitary for the night.” He says this all without emotion, like he’s just passing on information from somebody else. “Pretty much sums it up.”

I wonder what solitary confinement is like.

“I don’t remember,” Robert says.

He changes the subject, asks me how I’ve been. I don’t know what to tell him. I want to tell him we made a mistake. We should have stayed in Miami, both of us. It was safe down there, familiar. I want to tell him my depression’s returned with a fucking vengeance, and it seems that the past two years that I thought it was going away for good, it was actually just sitting below the surface festering, waiting for its chance to wreak further havoc. I’m seconds away from drinking again. The way I used to, like alcohol’s water in a desert.

Robert tells me they put sentry guards in front of the bathrooms at his training camp. The guard’s job is to wait a couple of minutes after a soldier goes in to take a piss, and if said soldier doesn’t come out in a reasonable amount of time, the guard goes in to check on them. The purpose is to make sure nobody commits suicide. There have been incidents.

Robert’s 1800 miles away from home. I’m five hundred. I have a car I can hop in and be home in eight hours if I really want to. It’s a possibility. Robert’s just finished basic training and still has another two months of technical training before he can even try to go home.

I tell Robert that everything’s fine on my end. Tell him to call me as soon as he gets back to Miami so I can come down and we can hang out. He agrees and sounds upbeat but I’m not convinced. The tone of his voice doesn’t change during the entire conversation. Not once.

* * *

I knock on Robert’s bedroom window. He doesn’t bother to look outside, just comes and opens the front door. Joe’s already there, playing Time Crisis 3 on Robert’s dad’s big screen. Robert’s dad works the third shift at the hospital as a psycho-therapist, so we have the house to ourselves every night from eleven to six am. We just graduated high school a year ago, so this is heaven for us.

I walk in and there’s pizza ready on the counter. I grab a slice and plop down on the couch, pound Joe’s fist, and wait for Robert to finish whatever he’s doing. This is a nightly routine, ever since Justin died, ever since my girlfriend and I broke up, ever since I got kicked out of college and lost another job. The fifth one in a year and a half. I’m beginning to think it really isn’t everybody else’s fault, that maybe I should actually try and get my shit together.

Regardless, I try to avoid going home as much as possible now. My parents don’t have anything good to say to me these days, and I think I’ve had enough negativity for the time being.

Robert comes out and Joe pauses the game and pulls out a handful of little brown sticks from his pocket. He says it’s some mid-level shit he got from a friend. Blunts made with chocolate-flavored Dutches. Rob doesn’t smoke, but he hangs with Joe and I while we do. Joe asks whose car we’re going to smoke in. I say mine and we head out.

In the car, Joe and I split one of the blunts and within minutes we’re laughing maniacally. Rob’s laughing the hardest out of all of us, so I tell him he’s got a contact high, which just makes him laugh harder.

I describe to them the first time I had sex and how, when I came, I couldn’t control myself and ended up jamming my chin right into the girl’s shoulder, leaving a bruise. That leaves them rolling, and I’m happier than I’ve been in days. Rob talks about fingering some girl on a packed bus on the way home from school. Joe tells us a detailed story about the first time he fucked a girl in the ass and we change the subject.

Soon we’re talking about basketball. It always comes to this, tales of our different conquests. Robert talks about the first time he ever touched the rim, how happy he was that he could jump that high. I talk about the time when, at Victoria Park, I did a mean crossover and left this kid down on one knee, looking back at me as I drove straight to the rim for the layup. Joe talks about the time he blocked somebody so hard, their shot sailed into the grass, everybody on the court letting out a harmonious “ooooooh.”

After a while, the weed starts to wear off, as does the conversation. It’s getting late. The pizza inside’s cold. I need to look for a job in the morning, figure out my school situation. I step out of the car and a cloud of smoke follows me. I pound Robert and Joe’s fists, tell them I’ll see them tomorrow. They nod and, in the background, the sky is purple and fiery with the rising sun. We all scatter like cockroaches before anybody can see us.

* * *

I pull up to the park and get out of my car. Robert’s sitting on a low wooden fence, staring at the basketball court. He’s lost a lot of weight. He looks almost like he did in middle school, frail but strong at the same time. The only thing that’s changed really is his eyes. They’re darker, more pronounced. Not so innocent. I sit next to him and he hands me a bottle of Powerade.

I look around for his girlfriend, Patricia.

“She went to the store to get more Powerade,” he says, then motions towards the court. “You want to play?”

Last time I played was like two years ago, right before he left for basic training.

“Yeah,” he says. “I remember that. You don’t get on the court enough.”

I haven’t had any time for basketball. Haven’t had any time for anything much really. I start graduate school in a few months and there are preparations to be made. I have to look for an apartment in Orlando, near UCF. Fill out forms, find some money. I shouldn’t even be down here right now. I should be in Tallahassee packing up my stuff.

“Orlando’s better than Tallahassee,” he says. “Closer to the south. You’ll be happy.”

I tell him that’s the reason I chose to go there. And yet, I didn’t want to get too close. I could have come back to Miami if I wanted. I got accepted to the FIU’s grad program.

“Why didn’t you?” he asks.

I just got over Miami. I don’t want to stir up old feelings.

“Good choice,” he says. He sips his Powerade and I sip mine. I wonder why he asked me to come all the way up here to play ball. We’re damn near in Fort Laurderdale. It took me an hour and a half to drive here.

“I just wanted you to see what a nice park looks like,” he says. “Rich people live around here. They keep the place clean.”

I chuckle at that. Robert doesn’t smile.

We sit in silence for a while and watch the young high school kids play on the court. I notice that most of them are Asian. I find this an odd phenomenon. I can honestly say I’ve never seen this many Asian guys on a basketball court before. It’s just an observation, though the thought still makes me feel slightly racist.

“I love playing with Asian dudes,” Robert says. “They laugh about everything. Nobody fights. Nobody gets mad.” He shrugs. “It’s just fun.”

Robert smiles at that, and this time I don’t. He finishes his Powerade and I notice that he’s drenched with sweat. He already played a game. I didn’t realize. I need to warm up, get my blood moving, catch up with him.

“Come on then,” he says, adding under his breath, “Old ass.”

“Shut up,” I say, and we head to the court.

_____________________

Pick up Quarter Life Crisis at GetOverCollege.com, available now.

Blurry: Observations of a Drunk

blur·ry \blər-ē\

1. adjective: lacking definition or focus

_____________________________

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In the past four hours, I’ve had somewhere around six shots of tequila, a quarter gallon of vodka, and at least a six pack of beer. In other words, I’m drunk as shit. Totally guilty of WUI: Writing Under Intoxication. Pretty universally a bad idea (see: drunk texting)

By time this gets to you though, weeks or months or even years from now, sitting in your living room, or at your office desk, or right next to me as I stare at you eagerly awaiting your critique, or in a doctor’s office waiting room somewhere maybe—if I’m lucky, doctor’s office waiting rooms are like the mecca of publishing; get there and you have officially arrived—I’ll have soberly revised it at least a dozen times.

Depending on how far along in the process you see it, I’ll have spent hours—months even—obsessing over sentence structure, placement of passages, contextual references that give a sense of place, time, tone, cultural makeup, and–most importantly–completely edited out all signs of the drunkenness that inspired this shit.

I will have tried to make sense of what I wrote when I was senseless. And it will have been a fucking process, an ongoing one.

So, essentially, you’re reading a sober man’s version of a drunk man’s recollections. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Syndrome, my friends like to call it. Story of my life.

* * *

The first purely romantic film I remember watching was Grease.

I’d gone to live with my aunt in Jamaica at the time while my parent’s tried to salvage our lives in Miami after Hurricane Andrew came through and turned the city into a junkyard. One day I was bored, alone in the house with nobody but the housekeeper. I decided to raid the VHS tapes my aunt had stockpiled in her bedroom, and I came across Grease, one of the few I had never seen. So I stuck it in the VCR, standing on my toes to reach the volume button on the TV my aunt had set up on top of her enormous dresser. Two hours later, I rewound it and watched it again. And again. And again.

I didn’t know what it was about the film that made it different each time I saw it. I still don’t. All I know is that I thought Olivia Newton John was pretty, and she gave me an unfamiliar but pleasant rushing sensation in my chest and stomach every time she walked up to John Travolta in her cheerleading uniform, smile wide and gleaming as she screamed “Danny!” when they meet again after their Summer of Love. And that final scene got me every time: Danny and Sandy hugging inside the Grease Lightning as it floats off into the sunset. I wanted that—whatever that was—so bad. So bad that, after one of the many viewings, I cried during the credits, wishing I could know what happened next. I was eight years old.

I haven’t seen Grease in years. I doubt it would have the same effect on me now. I’d have to be drunk to pick it up in the first place, and I’d analyze the shit out of it the whole way through, find all the plot holes and stale dialogue and rail on the unrealistic quality of musicals in general and, ultimately—just to make sure my point was loud and clear—I’d point out the fact that all happy endings are just stories that got cut short, before everybody got divorced, or just grew old and died.

Somewhere along the way, I’d recognize that the little boy who first watched Grease dozens of times in his aunt’s bedroom, recognize that he didn’t give a damn about any of that, that he’s still inside me awestruck. And I would do my best to ignore him.

* * *

John takes a sip of his drink and starts laughing. I start laughing along with him, and soon we’re both hysterical. Of course, we’re laughing about nothing, about the fact that we’re both eighteen and drinking malt liquor and eating bags of chips and loads of other junk food that I stole from my job at Eckerd’s. Just grabbed a couple of plastic bags from behind the counter, went around the store putting stuff in them, then walked out like I’d paid for it all: two six packs of Smirnoff Ice, two bags of Doritos, a bag of Cheetos, couple of Hot Pockets, DiGiorno Pizza, deodorant, body wash, some condoms for when I see Veronica tomorrow.

“I can’t believe you stole all this shit,” John says. He’s nodding his head to Eminem’s “Superman”, playing on his computer.

I clink my Smirnoff glass against his. John laughs again and we finish our drinks and grab more.

John turns on his Sega Dreamcast and starts playing NFL 2K2. I turn to his computer and check my email. My mother’s sent me another one, begging me to come back home. I read the first line, then the last, then delete it. My stomach hurt for hours after the first email she sent me a few weeks ago, the bottomless feeling building steadily as I read each line. So now I just skim. I want to go back home, to stop the tears I know are plaguing her. But I can’t. I don’t know why I can’t, something just snapped after that last argument between my dad and me, the one that reached nuclear proportions and brought us within inches of bloodshed. Ever since, I’ve been living here, on a mattress on the floor of my best friend’s bedroom. Stubbornly refusing to go back to my parent’s house, where rent is free but expectations are high. It’s not their fault, I know. They’re both great. I haven’t been the easiest person to deal with the past year or so, not since I embarked on the vessel of instability that is me and Veronica’s relationship.

“Vero would kick my ass if she knew about this,” I say, looking at the bags of stolen merchandise strewn around the tiny bedroom.

“Definitely,” John says, nodding as he jiggles the Dreamcast controller around.

“Fuck it,” I say, shrugging.

John pauses the game and gives me a look and I give him an exaggerated one back.

“I don’t give a shit,” I mutter.

“Sure,” he says. “You don’t give a shit. Unless she walked through that door right now.”

I smile, my eyes shifting to his bedroom door before I let the smile drop. I think about my parents, probably arguing about me right now.

“Yeah,” I say.

“Hey,” he says.

I look at him and he’s holding his bottle out towards me.

“Good times, bro.”

The sound of clinking glass, and I nod.

“Good times.”

* * *

Driving home from Wall Street in Downtown Orlando at 2 AM. Puddle of Mudd’s “Blurry” playing on my car stereo, the thumping bass from the two 12 inch subwoofers in my trunk making it so the music is all I can think about right now. It’s also doing wonders to mask the sound of me crying.

“Blurry” is the most successful single of Puddle of Mudd’s career so far, a career that’s spanned almost twenty years now. It was released in December of 2001, during my senior year in high school. That was a decade ago, and I remember things now when I hear this song that make me feel old, memories of a time when things were so much easier. A time when I didn’t have all these goddamn memories. None of this is why I’m crying right now though.

I reach over and turn up the volume until the little digital panel reads VOL MAX. I wipe my eyes but it’s still hard to see the road. I glance at the fingers of my left hand, the Black and Mild clasped between them, thin wisps of smoke curling up slowly, tethered to the burning cherry until they hit the open car window and escape into the cool night air. I take a drag and sniff.

There are many things wrong with me right now, not the least of which is embedded in the fact that I knew I was going to cry when I put this song on, and yet I put it on anyways. I’m not crying because of anything that actually exists within my life either. This song isn’t connected to some specific memory in me that is, in itself, conjuring up the tears.

I’m crying because of what’s not there, the things I never had to begin with. Which is what makes it so much more pathetic. I’m crying because this song is Wes Scantlin–the lead singer of Puddle of Mudd–mourning a break up between him and the mother of his son. Mourning the fact that he doesn’t get to see his son as much as he wants to. I’m crying because I miss my son, even though I don’t have one. I’m crying because I haven’t wanted something this bad in what seems like ever, and it sucks because what I want is simply to know what I want.

I’m crying because I’m drunk.

* * *

I wake up suddenly. Somebody just smacked me in my stomach.

“You’ve been snoring all night,” an unfamiliar voice says from next to me.

Things happen like this nowadays. Life of a recently single twenty-six year old grad student. It’s not too frequent, and not always under these exact circumstances, but the general vibe of this situation feels familiar. There’s a piercing pain in the left side of my head, my mouth tastes like ash and stale bread and I have no idea where I am. Check, check, and check.

I look over and stare into the face of beauty, exotic, half naked and athletic, covered in intricate tattoos, piercings on her hips, her lips, her eyebrows, ears filled with metal studs. I don’t normally go for girls like this, but it works on her. I only wish I knew her name, and that she wasn’t staring at me like I’d long ago overstayed my welcome. I recognize her, at least, though I admit the chemistry was a lot different last night when she was standing behind the bar, making drinks and laughing at my attempts to make fun of the karaoke singers in the background.

“You’ve got to go,” she says, then pauses. “I mean, I’ve got to go. Run errands. So you’ve got to go.”

I nod thoughtfully which just makes my head hurt even more. I get up from the bed and realize I’m completely naked. I glimpse my underwear in a corner, grab them, search for my pants, grab them, and am in the process of finding my shirt when she says:

“There’s food in the kitchen. If you want something before you go.”

I open my mouth to respond but nothing comes out. I just shake my head.

“Ok,” she says, then disappears into the bathroom.

I find my shirt as she steps back out fully dressed in half a minute, like some sort of superhero.

“Did we,” I croak. Cough. “Did we…” I glance at the bed.

“Fuck?” she asks, tiredly.

“Yeah,” I answer.

“Yeah,” she answers back, walking up to me and giving me a small peck on the lips. “I had fun.” She walks back to the bathroom door and pauses, obviously waiting for me to leave. “I’ll give you a call later.”

I leave, hop in my car—which is parked crookedly in the driveway—and use the GPS on my iPhone to figure out where I am. Soon I’ve got my bearings and I’m headed east on 408, towards my apartment near UCF.

My phone rings and it’s my roommate, Tina, one of the many people I left my apartment with last night on the way to the bar I never made it home from. I sigh before I answer.

“Hello?” I say.

“Hey,” she says. There’s a voice in the background, music, the sound of a dog barking. “Where are you?” she asks.

“Driving,” I say.

“I need a ride back to my car,” she says. “Jen does too. Can you drop us off?”

I put down the visor in front of me, but the sun is too low for it to block so I scoot up in my chair and crane my neck to shade my eyes.

“I guess,” I say. There’s a moment of silence and I can almost hear the wheels spinning in her head as she tries to pinpoint exactly what’s odd about this exchange. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m awake and driving around at 10 am, when normally I’d be laid out in my bed until at least noon. Maybe it’s the fact that there’s so much background noise from the wind rushing in through my open car window, indicating that I am driving at high speed and, therefore, am either on a highway or about to get a speeding ticket. Maybe it’s the fact that I sound like a frog crawled into my mouth and died with its hands wrapped around my vocal cords.

“Are you just now getting home?” she asks.

I say nothing.

“The bartender?” she asks.

I grunt and there’s groaning and laughter in the background. I don’t join them, instead taking deep breaths as my gag reflex kicks in and everything I consumed last night attempts to exit my body the fastest way possible. I move the phone away from my ear and squint, unable to keep up the neck craning to utilize the visor. I spot my shades by the center console and snatch them up, putting them on and blocking out the sun which, along with the laughing on the other end of the phone line and the nausea and the encounter I just had at what’s-her-name’s house a few minutes ago, is really making me want to go back to sleep until tomorrow. Or the next millennium.

Drunken sex is not like normal sex. Sex with a stranger is not like sex with somebody you know. So it’s only fitting that drunken sex with a stranger is not like anything else on this planet, not anything good at least. It is also highly glorified throughout television and movies and literature and all other types of media when it really shouldn’t be.

I’m not saying this on some sort of moral agenda. I’ve never really given a crap about morals. My sentiments are more selfish actually. The fact is that, nine times out of ten, drunken sex with a stranger is just plain not good. And even if it is, it rarely turns into a lasting memory.

It also happens to be dangerous. Not the good type of dangerous either, but the really bad one with the potential for a slow death, shunned by friends and family alike.

I know this when I’m sober, as do most people. The problem with drunken sex, though, is that the parties involved are drunk. Which kind of makes everything else a moot point.

“What was her name again?” Tina asks.

“I don’t know,” I say, which elicits another round of groans.

“That’s horrible,” Tina says. Jen says something in the background and Tina laughs. “Did you wear a rubber?”

“I don’t know,” I say again.

“Gross.”

“I’m not drinking anymore,” I say.

“Pat,” Tina says, chuckling. “That’s exactly what you said yesterday.”

* * *

I grew up heavily influenced by music, movies, television, and books. My favorite band at the height of MTV’s music video popularity back in the nineties was Nirvana, the lead singer of which was a known alcoholic and drug addict who allegedly shot himself in the head with a shotgun.

High school was all about Eminem, bootlegging his albums off of Napster because my parents wouldn’t give me money to buy CD’s deemed too offensive, due to misogynistic lyrics and drug and alcohol references.

My favorite beach/smoking music? Sublime. Lead singer? Bradley Nowell. Cause of death? Heroine overdose.

Lil Wayne and his Drank (codeine cough syrup) were on my radar for a while.

Jonathan Davis, lead singer of Korn, the band I related to most as a teenager, was a heavy drinker until he went on a three week alcohol binge in ’98, which led to him swearing the stuff off forever.

A few of my favorite actors/actresses: Johnny Depp, Samuel L. Jackson, Drew Barrymore, Robert Downey Jr., Mel Gibson, Michael Douglas, Angelina Jolie, Charlie Sheen, Martin Lawrence, Ben Affleck, Colin Farrell. The rehab conglomerate.

My favorite author was and still is Stephen King, the first person to get me interested in the written word. In King’s autobiography/writing manifesto On Writing, he admits he was an alcoholic and drug addict during most of the early years of his career and claims that there is an entire novel—Cujo, a bestseller that was subsequently made into a movie in 1983, the year I was born—that he doesn’t remember writing.

Many of these celebrities (the ones that survived at least) have changed their ways, most of them crediting family, friends, wives and husbands.

Today, the four TV shows I watch regularly are the Showtime series’ Dexter, Californication, and Weeds, and the HBO series Entourage. Dexter is about a cop (named Dexter) who also happens to be a serial killer, addicted to murder and the related gruesome shit. Californication is about Hank Moody, a famous author who also happens to be a sex addict and alcoholic. Weeds is about (among other things) Nancy Botwin, a suburban housewife turned drug dealer after her husband dies from a heart attack. Entourage is about a group of friends making it in Hollywood amidst a never-ending supply of drugs, alcohol, sex, and cynicism. I empathize with all of them, mostly because all of these characters’ storylines are laced with this underlying paradox: an inability to be alone and, concurrently, ever really be emotionally connected to anybody. I tell people I love the shows because the writers and actors are amazing, and they are. But that’s not all of it.

I’m not saying all this shit’s influenced me, or made me do anything I wouldn’t have done otherwise. I’m not one of these people who think the entertainment industry should be bleached until it’s nothing more than sugarcoated bullshit. I’m responsible for my own actions, as is everybody else. Reality is reality, and I like to see things portrayed as close to real as possible. And I’m not saying that any of these people are bad. We all make decisions based on personal needs and–regardless of outside influences–our lives are ours to do with what we please.

I don’t know what I’m saying, actually. I’m drunk.

* * *

I’m in a Starbucks with my computer open, trying to get some work done on my graduate thesis and failing. I can’t stop myself from repeatedly glancing at the girl sitting across from me. She’s beautiful, engrossed in a textbook with a picture of Shakespeare on the cover and chewing the cap of her pen in that way women do that makes it seem calculated, even though she probably has no idea she’s even doing it.

I want to concentrate on my work, but I can’t as long as she’s sitting across from me.

I want to say something to her, but I can’t because I’m sober.

So I sit here and pretend I’m working even though I’m not doing anything but waiting. For something. Anything.

My friends say I should just say hi in these situations, introduce myself, let things go from there. Occasionally it’ll blossom into something more, something meaningful, something that I’ve heard so much about and which has eluded me for far too long. The very least that can happen is I’d get shot down and end up right back where I started, albeit with a slightly bruised ego. I used to be able to do just that, back in high school when the simple fact that you went to the same school as a girl was enough to spark a conversation.

Every time I imagine approaching somebody in places like these now though—the Starbucks’ or the Publix’s or the Wal-Mart’s or the Barnes and Nobles’—it’s like something locks up inside of me. All my senses shut off and send me into a black hole, so deep inside my own mind that it’s like I’m watching the world on a TV screen, unable to control anything but the volume.

Unless I’m drunk. Things are different when I’m drunk. I’m never drunk when I’m at Starbucks though. It would be a problem if I was. The thought still has its appeal.

I grit my teeth and lean forward, towards the girl, thinking of an opening line. Maybe something about Shakespeare, about Romeo and Juliet’s untimely demise, dead before they had the chance to realize they were just being hormonal. Or an inquiry about her major, hopefully a connection on the English Literature front. Maybe just use my friends’ approach: say hi and give her my name. I open my mouth and the girl looks up at me. Her eyes are piercing, like green marbles embedded beneath her carefully plucked eyebrows. I close my mouth, stand up and walk over to the barista, order a cup of coffee. They hand it to me and I return to my chair, to staring at my computer. The girl leaves half an hour later, after I’ve finished my second cup of Pike’s Place roast. Part of me is glad to see her leave, so I can stop thinking about what I’m not doing and actually get some work done.

Part of me.

* * *

Cass calls me almost every weekend, from her parent’s house in Palm Coast about a hundred miles away from the apartment we used to share in Orlando. She’s usually drunk when she does. Usually I am too, either out at a bar Downtown or here, in the apartment, watching movies and occasionally strumming my guitar. She used to call to try and remind me that we were in love at some point, convince me that we could be again. Now she just calls to yell at me.

I sit in front of the television with a cup. There’s vodka in the cup, a splash of Red Bull. I’m thinking about the frequency of these phone calls and staring at the rolling credits on my TV screen, the remainder of the movie I just finished watching. It was a generic romantic comedy, nothing special. Just another on a long list of romantic comedies I’ve found myself drawn to these past few months. I feel something whenever I watch them, even as I’m methodically lambasting them. Something I can’t describe to myself, or to my friends because they’ll think I’m sappy. Something I can’t describe to Cass because she’ll think I’ve learned how to stop being an asshole, which–unfortunately–I haven’t. Something I can’t describe to my parents because they’ll think I need help.

I wish I could love Cass the way I used to. Probably on some level–beneath all this anger and alcohol–I still do. I didn’t drink this much while we were together, did it in moderation like so many other functioning members of society. The only time I feel what I think is the potential for romantic love now, though, is when I see it portrayed on TV or in movies or novels. And even then, the feeling’s gone the moment I flip to that last white page, or the screen turns black and the list of cast members appears, that surge of emotion in my chest replaced by the ever-present emptiness.

This seems to be the essence of it all: I’m in love with the idea of love. The idea of everything. Whenever I get like this, William Carlos Williams’ quote pops into my mind: “No ideas but in things,” and I can’t help but wonder if he’d still have the same quick summation of life if he’d lived right now, in the 21st century.

Things just seem different these days. No ideas but in ideas, the way I see it. I sip my drink.

* * *

I shouldn’t be driving right now, but handing Raquel my car keys would have been both an admission that I’m full of shit and more reason for her to believe I give a shit what she says. Which I do, of course. I just act like I don’t. I have no clue why.

I take a swig of my beer and turn onto US-1.

I don’t know why I’m so pissed at my girlfriend. She didn’t do anything but try to help. Yet here I am, seething. My eyes are wild, jiggling in my head like chunks of ice in a shaken glass, distorting everything on the road. I don’t know how this is possible. Xanax is a depressant. I took two. Alcohol is too, and this is my sixth beer. Or seventh. Or fourth. I feel like I’m on crack right now though.

She had her keys and purse in her hand. That’s what pissed me off, actually. She had them out and ready, like I didn’t even have a choice. Like I was coming home with her no matter what. Which is bullshit. You can’t force somebody to come with you. You can’t force somebody to do anything, especially not to love you. You can’t force yourself to love.

I glance at myself in the rearview mirror and see a stranger with bloodshot eyes.

I pull my eyes away from my reflection and focus on the sky, the haze of streetlights reflecting off each other and blocking out everything but the moon. Driving down US-1 towards my parent’s house, the moon is a giant yellow eye staring down at me. As if the heavens themselves are observing my every move. Watching. Judging. I think of death again, of the people I’ve lost, a recurring thought process in situations like this one, which have been way too prevalent the past few months.  I think of all the people with dead friends and family members and lovers. So young, so tragic. We’re all too young to die in my opinion. Unless you actually want to. Make it your decision.

But why would someone want to do that? Control, maybe? Maybe if they felt their life was purposeless? Maybe if they felt they were hurting others and themselves more than they were helping?

What have I done today that left a positive impression on anybody?

This week? This month? This year?

My car rumbles over some reflectors in the middle of the street and I swerve back into my lane. Almost went into oncoming. Almost. There’s an SUV approaching, separated from me only by the grassy median. I see him, or her. Doesn’t really matter, guy or girl. It’s an SUV, the gender of the driver is extraneous detail. So tempting all of a sudden. So simple. One and done, blaze of glory, easy way out, etcetera etcetera. I mean, from what I can tell, that’s a Lincoln Navigator. A big ass Lincoln Navigator versus my shitbox Toyota Corolla. And I’m not wearing my seatbelt. The driver will barely feel a thing. I’ll feel even less. Two weeks, tops, and they’ll be back on the road. And I’ll be done, finally. All I have to do is let go of the steering wheel. Just. Let. Go.

The sudden blast of the horn is loud and blatant. The SUV’s headlights are intense, staring at me through my windshield. The horn sounds monstrous, like a bright white, wide eyed demon in my head dashing around, roaring and destroying everything. The driver yells something but I can’t make out what he or she is saying because of that horn, that goddamn horn. Endlessly alarming. Endless because I hear it even after I jerk the steering wheel back to the right, feel the wind of the other car’s side view mirror skirting past my head through my window, pull to a jerking stop on the median and sit there for a few minutes. The Falls Shopping Center is to my right, Bennigans to my left, and all I see is the shiny afterglow of headlights in my eyes. But none of this matches the intensity of that horn, jolting me from my thoughts, from myself. I hear it even now, with my eyes wide, breathing labored.

I stare at nothing, then the street, the few cars passing by to my left, drivers craning their necks. I wait, for sirens maybe, or just an angry face popping in front of my eyes, mouth open in a yell. Nothing happens though, and soon I realize nothing probably will. Maybe ever. This is all I’ve got. I laugh, then I cry. Then I finish my drink.

* * *

In Miami—in any major city—people don’t get to see the stars very much. The more street lights and building lights, the less visibility, the lights themselves casting a yellow fog over the sky that blocks out what’s above them. In Orlando the sky’s a little clearer, especially around my apartment where there are a lot of trees to block the beams out. Still nowhere near as clear as it is out here though, in the sand by the ocean on Cocoa Beach.

Behind me there’s a group of people, some of them friends, some of them not. They’re attempting to light a blunt in the face of the wind rolling off the water, across the sand and forcefully into our bodies. The air smells of salt and sand, the sound of wave on top of wave crashing into one another and drowning out the drunken laughter coming from behind me. I try to stare at the sky without breaking eye contact, but I keep stumbling whenever I do it for too long. I sip my drink and take a few more steps, stumble again. Finally I just sit down in the sand and finish my beer, gazing into the distance, towards the perfectly gleaming diamonds in the sky.

As I stare at the stars and the deep blackness housing them, a feeling envelops me, starting at my feet and traveling to the top of my head. It breaks through the intoxication and momentarily allows me to forget my surroundings, the past and the future, everything but the sights and sounds in front of me. My chest seizes and, for just a second, I want to die. Not like I’ve wanted to before either, this is different. I want to die so that this will be the last thing I ever did, ever heard, ever saw.

“What the hell are you doing over here?”

I jump, turn and see one of my friends standing a few feet away from me. I turn away quickly, wiping at my tear-streaked face. It’s dark out here though, and he’s too drunk to notice.

“Just watching the ocean,” I say. I take a deep breath. “I love it out here.”

There’s a moment of silence and I turn back to see him staring out at the ocean too.

“So creepy,” he says.

“Creepy?” I say.

“Yeah,” he says. “Like, if you just started swimming right now—jumped in and just took off, you’d die.” He pauses. “You’d never reach land, and if you swam too far you wouldn’t be able to get back.”

I don’t know what to say to that, so I just stay quiet. We stare out at the ocean in silence together for a moment.

“I still fucking love Florida,” he says finally.

I nod, then realize he can’t see me nodding.

“Me too,” I say.

“You coming?” he asks.

“Yeah,” I say, though I keep staring at the sky, willing the feeling to come back, the feeling of being in this moment and this moment alone.

I wait, and wait, and wait, but the feeling’s gone. I’m drunk again. Just drunk.

So I sigh and walk back to the party.

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Pick up Quarter Life Crisis: A Novel at GetOverCollege.com, available now.

Quarter Life Crisis is Here! (In a Good Way)

Final Cover 1

It always baffles me how the human mind works in certain situations. I’ve been talking about/promoting Quarter Life Crisis for so long now that it’s become something of a myth to me. Even though I can pull it up on my computer whenever I want and look through it (which I’ve told myself not to do anymore because if I find any mistakes I’m going to lose my shit), even though I just recently had a reading where I read a couple of chapters and sold a number of copies, even though I’ve seen the pre-order statistics laid out in front of me, it still seems like Quarter Life Crisis is just a figment of my imagination (which…I guess, technically…it is HAHA! Smh).

Anyways, it’s here. Quarter Life Crisis. Today. Right now. And I’m urging everybody to order it today so we can raise those first day sales stats, moving Quarter Life Crisis up the charts.

Head over to http://GetOverCollege.com for all the links to the various bookstores selling it and order one–eBook or print–then get to reading and let me know what you think by leaving a review on Barnes and Noble or Amazon or Goodreads or all of the above or some other site I may or may not have heard of. Just make sure to get involved in the discussion, throw some feedback my way. It’s the only way I can gauge the reaction of the general public when it comes to this novel, which is also one of the few ways I can see what I’m doing right and what I’m doing wrong when it comes to both writing and marketing.

Either way, I hope you all enjoy this thing I put roughly four years of my time into. It’s been a process, an arduous but fun one, and I’m glad you all are here with me at the apex of it all.

Thanks again. See you on the flip side.

-PAJr.