What #BeingBlackMeans to Unicorns

Yes, I know this isn't a freaking unicorn.

Yes, I know this isn’t a freaking unicorn.

Let me start off by saying that I don’t like being black.

I hate it, actually.

To paraphrase/shout-out Louis CK (how black of me, huh?), if I could travel back to a point before I was born and choose to be white, I would do it. Every single time.

Louis CK’s one of my favorite comedians. So is Bill Burr, who also loves to talk about race. There’s a lot of white comedians on that list actually. Most of them are black though, I admit. Kevin Hart’s one of my favorites of all time, black or white. Dave Chappelle’s probably about half a spot above him. Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor ran the 70s and 80s in my opinion (though I wasn’t around for most of those decades). D.L. Hughley, Steve Harvey, Bernie Mack, Cedric the Entertainer (yes I just named all the Kings of Comedy), Aries Spears, Bill Bellamy, Rickey Smiley, the list goes on.

I love sports too, and we all know how black people fit in there. I honestly believe Dwyane Wade’s one of the greatest basketball players of my generation and probably all time. If you were as into the Heat in 2006 (and forever, #HeatLifer) as I was, you’d think so too. And Wade’s wife, Gabrielle Union? One of the most talented and beautiful women to ever grace an NBA sideline or your nearest TV/movie screen.

I’m a movie fanatic too, as any of my white or black friends can attest to. Denzel Washington? Classic. G.O.A.T. type stuff. Will Smith’s up there too. Forrest Whittaker, Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington, Halle Berry, Taraji P. Henson, Sanaa Lathan, that dude that played Martin Luther King in Selma, that dude that played James Brown in Get on Up and played Jackie Robinson in 42 right before that and played a black football player in Draft Day right before that and seems slated to play every important black figure in every black-people-centered film for the next decade. All of them are amazing on screen, especially when it comes to commercializing racism.

If I had the choice though? Wouldn’t wanna be any of them.

In fact, if I did have the choice—as in, I could switch to any body at any point in my life—I’d go back to when I was a little kid and shove a white boy out of his skin so quick his soul would break a hip.

And then I’d move forward with my current non-fantastical aspiration to live as stress-free and enjoyable a life as possible. And I’m guessing I’d have a whole lot more success in my new white skin.

…Now, let me clarify by saying no, I don’t hate myself.

I don’t think white people are better than black people.

I don’t hate the black community.

I don’t hate the color of my skin, or want to rip my face off when I look in the mirror.

I don’t want to go sit in a bleach bath so I can turn that weird shade of yellow that occurs when people, for some insane reason, do that shit.

I don’t want to scrub my skin until it bleeds, willing the blackness away, and I don’t want to surround myself with an unending and unvarying sea of white people so that I ostensibly become white by association.

I don’t want to actually do anything to change myself, because I love the person I’ve shaped myself into these past 31 years.

I just hate being black, in America, the same way I’d hate having bowel cancer.

Because it’s shitty, sometimes literally.

Because it hurts, a lot of the time.

Because at some point, no matter what you do, you’re going to lose your dignity because of it. And possibly your life.

Because regardless of how badly you want things to change—how badly you want that cancer to just not exist anymore—there’s nothing you can do except try and live with it as long as you can.

***

Ever since I was old enough to realize that my skin color was the first thing people noticed about me, I’ve fought the notion of involving race in my life. To be fair, the inclination is partly because I am and always have been a naturally “non-confrontational” person.

Passive, is what people would call it really. The nice alternative to “coward.”

The sentiment doesn’t carry a completely negative connotation though. As I grew older, my natural personality type developed and expanded to instill in me a liberal mind state, my desire for peace going beyond race and manifesting itself as a plea to all opposing groups: man vs. woman, LGBT communities vs. non-LGBT communities, the Middle Eastern region vs. each other and pretty much every other country on the planet. Black people vs. the same redneck population that hates our guts just for existing (and presumably walking out on our jobs 150 years ago).

And the basis of this sentiment has always been: let sleeping dogs lie.

Why instigate when you can coexist quietly?

Why stir shit up when you can just go on about your business and pretend nothing bad is happening around you, whatsoever?

I was forced to ask myself that question at an early age, and my answer was…you just don’t. Stir shit up, that is.

I also figured the best way to achieve that was to say or do as little as possible to draw attention to the part of me that seemed to piss people off so much: my skin color.

Or at least, that’s how I used to feel.

Last week most of America watched the above video of the University of Oklahoma Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) fraternity students who got caught singing a racist chant on a bus ride to a frat social. And yeah, whatever, it pissed me off. That’s bound to happen to every black person in the country who sees anything like that; if it didn’t piss you off then you haven’t thought about it long enough.

But what triggered my anger wasn’t necessarily the video so much as the response.

It was the apology, and then the excuses, culminating in a couple of MSNBC Morning Joe anchors blaming the entire incident on hip hop and white kid’s adoption of the culture.

As if black rappers make songs about the positives of hanging niggers from trees.

As if hip hop and college fraternities born in the antebellum south have that sort of connection.

As if hip hop culture was even conceived for white people; as if they’re not just borrowing it, rendering it inadmissible as an excuse for this shitty behavior.

That’s like someone checking out the Communist Manifesto from the local library and subsequently grabbing a bunch of friends then shooting up the White House with automatic weapons.

And the public turning around and blaming it on the library.

That doesn’t even make sense.

But even more telling than the shocked response from white folks (I have absolutely no idea how anybody could be “shocked” about this shit at this point; it’s been on the news in some form every day for…forever) was the collective reaction to it that I saw from my black friends.

It wasn’t outrage. Maybe from public figures, but not from the majority of Regular Joes like me.

It wasn’t horror.

It wasn’t even a laugh-it-off-then-roll-your-eyes-and-be-the-bigger-man response.

Instead, most of the black people in my life reacted to that video with some form of fatigue. That weary shake of the head and shrug of the shoulders, as if to say “Didn’t this just happen last week? I just…I just don’t give a shit anymore.”

Because it’s the same goddamn response we got the last time this happened. And the time before that. And the time before that. And the time…you get the point.

It’s become a six-step formula for racism’s release in American society during the digital age:

  1. Racist says something…well…racist, and someone captures it all on video.
  2. Said video gets posted to social media and goes viral.
  3. The racist is ridiculed and hated upon for their slip-up (always painted as a one-time incident).
  4. The racist then issues the most sincere written apology money can buy, begging for some “time to heal” with his/her/their family without the public outrage/death threats by email, phone, Twitter, Facebook, etc. As if the backlash is something that’s been unfairly cast upon them. Like a disease; out of their control.
  5. The American public finds a way to either justify it or brush it under the rug.
  6. America forgets about the entire thing until the next racist says something racist on somebody else’s camera phone (usually don’t have to wait too long for that either; a week, tops).

And all the while you hear the complaints from the ostriches of society that racism is being brought up too much, too frequently in TV and movies and radio and online on social media.

Complaints that white people have to hear about it too much, more than necessary, just get over it already, quit bitching, you’re making me uncomfortable, why are black people so hung up on racism?

“It’s over!”

All while black people have to live with the institutional racism that is not only thriving but digging its claws deeper and deeper into society on a daily basis.

In other words, it’s become part of the entire American social system, from national media straight down to the people you hang out and work with. On a personal level, my blackness has been a universal conversation starter at almost every job I’ve ever had, and I’d say roughly 15% of those conversations have been respectful.

Therefore, saying it doesn’t exist is like saying the United States economy doesn’t exist: we wouldn’t be here without it.

On the other end, black people also have to sit back and accept the fact that the black community really isn’t doing shit to change anything but bitching and moaning. Like they’re waiting for somebody to do it for them.

Martin Luther King started the Civil Rights Movement. Yet for some odd reason, in the years since his death, people have associated him with ending it, as if things were fixed when he passed.

All of this isn’t the real reason I’m on here ranting right now though.

I have absolutely no desire to be a civil rights activist.

I can’t attempt to speak for other people, because I’ve seen the way people think, and we really are all completely different from one another, and pretty chaotic when left to our own devices. And stubborn, also. Extremely stubborn.

But I can tell you my experience of being an educated black kid growing up in Florida.

Or a unicorn, as a friend likes to call me.

***

When I was around eight, I got in a fight with a white kid at my school, Palmetto Elementary; an overwhelmingly white institution in the overwhelmingly white neighborhood of Pinecrest in the overwhelmingly Hispanic city of Miami.

This kid I fought, he was really white too, freckles and red hair and sunburns and thin nose and all. We were in after-school care together, the place where all the kids whose parents couldn’t get out of work at three o’clock had to stay until their parents could pick them up.

That day, the whole lot of us were out in the field behind the school playing baseball when the redhead kid hit me with a pitch, very obviously on purpose. When I pointed out to him that he’d hit me, he said who cares, it counted as a strike. I told him that was stupid. He said I was stupid—a stupid black boy, to be exact—then he jumped on me and punched me in the head half a dozen times. So I stood up, enraged, grabbed the child’s aluminum bat he’d knocked out of my hand, and hit him right in the ass. Not my best swing, and probably the worst place you could hit somebody if you really wanted to hurt them. I was never all that good at baseball anyways. After I hit him, we started wailing on each other until somebody pulled us apart.

At some point after being separated, me and the redhead kid both ended up in the office with tears in our eyes and  snot in our nose. I don’t know why the other kid was crying, but I knew why I was: I was about 99.9% sure I would get the ass whooping of a lifetime when my parents arrived.

I’d never been in a full-on fight before, with kids circling around us and all. For a moment it had been exhilarating. But now things were too real, and I just wanted to go home, have somebody tell me this wasn’t the end of the world, that I hadn’t done anything wrong.

Me and the other boy sat there like that on the chairs in the main office’s waiting room for about ten minutes, largely ignored by all the office personnel until the head supervisor of after-school care—a woman whose name I still can’t accurately remember except that it started with an F, so I’ll call her…just tossing ideas here…Ms. Fire Witch—heard me crying and came flying around the corner of her office door with her bright red hair trailing her head like fire (hence Ms. Fire Witch).

Ms. Fire Witch told me to shut up, told me to stop crying, told me I’d brought this on myself, told me the only reason I was upset was because I knew what I’d done had been “disgusting” (I remember her specifically using the word “disgusting”; it’s been my main association with that word to this day) and that I knew I was going to be in big trouble; possibly expelled and sent back to the school I was supposed to go to, which I most certainly wouldn’t like. My original zoned school was Colonial Elementary, but Colonial’s grade in the school rating system was very low. My parents wanted me to get a good education so they transferred me to Palmetto (and yes, you guessed it, Colonial was in a predominantly black neighborhood, which is a whole other issue in itself and I’m trying really hard to stay on track right now and failing miserably as we speak so let’s keep it moving).

Ms. Fire Witch got in my face and pointed fingers and peeled her lips back like a snarling pitbull as she berated me. I’m surprised she didn’t spit on me in the process, but I’m pretty sure she wanted to. I was a fucking wreck afterwards.

She didn’t say any of that shit to the kid sitting next to me, who had long since stopped crying and was playing around with a hole in his t-shirt. At that point, she’d already been told every detail of our altercation.

In the end, she made the mistake of yelling all this a little too late in the evening, so that my mom walked in to pick me up on the tail end of Ms. Fire Witch’s rant. And so Ms. Fire Witch suffered the wrath of a Jamaican mother. And I got a Burger King kid’s meal out of the ordeal.

I wrote about this a few years back in a non-fiction story called “Defense” that was eventually published in Midwest Literary Magazine (now defunct, so I’ve republished it as a blog post here). I never really thought about it much at the time though, why I felt the need to write that particular story. Not until now at least.

Now, looking back, I realize that moment defined who I am today.

The parts I’m trying to fix, that is.

I would never hit anybody now, or even pick a verbal fight with them unless I knew them extremely well and therefore knew that the argument would stay civil (and even then). This is partly because, like I said, I hate confrontation, which is considered a good thing in a civilized society so I’ve never really had to own up to the actual basis for my inclinations, which is:

Fighting or arguing for me is pointless.

Because no matter what, no matter where I am or what exactly I’m doing or who I’m doing it with or what the initial result of the altercation is, I don’t get to actually win. Ever. Not in the long or short run.

Sure, I might knock somebody out. Or stun them with a verbal jab. But I still don’t ever win.

This phenomenon is known as a Pyrrhic Victory, aka a Hollow Win. The classic phrase: winning the battle but losing the war? Pyrrhic. Pretty much sums it all up.

I realized this as an eight year old, and it has dictated nearly every move I’ve made in the 23 years since.

It’s no coincidence that in third grade—not months after that first fight—I became the fanatic reader and writer that I still am to this day, using written words to vent frustrations I couldn’t voice, and books to form a wall between myself and a society I deemed too intense, a wall that I was able to add layers onto as I grew older (i.e. headphones, my computer, video games, cell phones, school, TV, social media, this blog post, etc.)

You see, I was born and raised as a thinker, and still am, hence the extensive schooling and obsessive writing schedule. So back then, in my eight year old thinker’s mind, I came to the simple and logical conclusion that being black means being automatically thought aggressive by physical presence alone.

Logic then dictated that the only way to counteract this image was by being quiet, and doing what I was told.

So I shut up and got to work.

***

Today, Patrick Anderson Jr. is a common representation of the 21st century educated black man.

Learned how to read at 3; gifted program throughout elementary school; tested in the 75th percentile for high school seniors on the SAT…in the 7th grade (95th percentile my senior year); consistently high grades whenever I got out of my books long enough to remember to turn in my assignments; correspondence and acceptance letters from Yale, Duke, UCLA, NYU, UM, FSU, UF, UCF (all the Florida schools actually), MIT, Cambridge and a couple others before I embarrassingly decided to stay in Miami at FIU because of a girl (I eventually transferred to FSU though, Go Noles).

My résumé: Associates Degree, Bachelor’s Degree, Master’s Degree, university teaching credentials and New York press experience. I’ve had a dozen short stories and a novel published, and I’m working on two crime thrillers at the moment, one requiring extensive research on the history of Miami during the Cocaine Cowboys era as well as the history of Jamaica in the 80s.

Yet, to methis is how deep it is, that even as I write this and know who I am and what I’m capable of accomplishing the feeling is still there, rooted in my consciousness, screwing with the confidence I’ve worked so hard to build—I will always be that little boy who was urged not to fight for anything ever again. And nodded his head okay.

I’ve seen and comprehended every ounce of racism that’s come my way since I was a kid. I just also saw and comprehended how futile any resistance actually was, because it wasn’t like you could pinpoint a target, place a red dot on their forehead and say “That’s racism. Get his ass!”

It was everywhere—is everywhere, in everything.

To be black in America is to be forced to constantly think about race, which is to say you’re never really not thinking about it, even when you’re being quiet. Which is also to say that you only have two options in your approach to dealing with the rest of America, black or non-black: you can either always talk about race, as a lot of black people I know do to the annoyance of pretty much everybody, or you can ignore it and become…the rest of us.

Marginalized.

That isn’t a euphemism. I mean that quite literally: being black in America means thinking about being black in America. Every. Fucking. Day.

I’ve tried most of my life to get away from race, but it follows me everywhere.

I’ve tried at multiple points in my life to be the non-racial writer, the non-racial boyfriend, the non-racial friend, employee, boss, teacher, all of it.

I tried to be the black person who tries as hard as he can not to be labeled “The Black Person.”

Yet it hasn’t done a thing but made it more apparent why being black is something that I have no choice but to define myself by.

All my life I’ve been the Black Guy, frequently The Only Black Guy, which ultimately taught me how to live while being black in my surrounding society. And what I learned was this:

Being black means being overly cautious about your temper, to avoid being labeled the “angry black guy.”

Being black is being told you’re being “too black” any time you assert yourself.

Being black is having to listen to other people tell white guys who talk like ignorant idiots, wear clothes eighty sizes too big for them, and otherwise act absolutely nothing like you, that they’re trying to be black.

Being black means dating is restrictive, with the choices being either 1) date other black people, which is fine when you live in a black area but limits the hell out of your choices when 81% of your hometown is white or Hispanic, or 2) date outside your race but remember to ask the necessary questions, of which there’s really only one:

“Is she into black guys?”

Being black means that’s a legitimate question, and a whole lot of times the answer is flat out “No.” And a lot of other times, when the answer is “Yes,” there’s an agenda attached. Like dating a black guy is the equivalent of joining the Peace Corps and traveling to Africa to volunteer at some impoverished village. Matter of fact, they should add that question as its own qualifier on Match.com on their Profile Search page, a little check-box labeled “Has to Be Into Black Guys,” right next to “Hobbies” and “Education Level.” I might’ve used the site more if they had.

Being black means having to work to get the type of respect other races receive just by waking up in the morning.

Being black means choosing a side, all your life, or risk becoming a social pariah. And the sides are many, and none of them will ever completely accept you as a good representation of the blackness they need for their group.

Being black in the above situation means you’ll  always be the exception.

Being black means walking outside with an automatic target on your forehead, whether it’s from mildly insulting “jokes” tossed nonchalantly in your direction like flippant grenades, or blatant displays of hatred and brutality that cut like daggers to the throat. Just by walking outside. Shit, sometimes you don’t have to wait that long (ever been black with a white roommate? You don’t even have to get out of bed).

Being black means being labeled the “Sensitive Black Guy” if you get angry about any of the above, and “Cool” if you pretend you don’t.

Being black means waking up every day fully aware that you are black, and that to a lot of people that’s a detriment to your character, a sign that you are less of a person, and you always will be, no matter how many other things you do with your life.

Being black should be a simple fact about a person, like they’re left handed, or they have green eyes, or their hair is naturally blonde.

Instead, being black is a lifestyle, one that you can’t ever get out of. And not a very good one at that.

Being black means receiving skeptical, borderline frightened looks from people who don’t know you, when you’re just walking by—down the street or into a store or wherever—and having to subtly convince them by your own actions that you aren’t dangerous, even though you’ve never done anything to make anybody think that about you in the first place.

Being black means being called a mythical creature—a unicorn, for instance—when you have nothing more than a lot of questions, and the desire to find answers.

Being black means you can’t say things like “being black means…” without alienating half the people you know who subconsciously subscribe to the racist views our society prides itself on.

***

When I started at Palmetto Elementary—right after my Jamaican immigrant parents worked their asses off to buy us a house in a nice neighborhood then worked their asses off to get it fixed after Hurricane Andrew destroyed it—I remember walking into school that first day of third grade and seeing a sea of white faces and thinking this was what people called a Good School.

In Junior High I found some solidarity with the other Caribbean-American kids at Southwood Middle, but it soon became apparent that there were factions within those groups too: you were either all about the Caribbean, or you weren’t really Caribbean at all. A natural and justifiable response to the animosity from mainstream America, but a whole other problem in itself.

In high school it was back to the sea of white faces (and Hispanic, but when you’re black there’s really no difference is there?). By then I had gotten used to it though, to the point that it actually felt weird when I was surrounded by black people. Still feels weird to this day, to be honest; I just got back from Savannah, Georgia this past weekend, and I can’t remember the last time I saw that many black people in one place. It was a little awkward, like waking up one day, walking outside and seeing the streets filled with Great Danes.

But more importantly, high school is where I started dating. And make no mistake, I’m mentioning dating again on purpose: if you want a conclusive report on the state of American racism, talk to a black guy who’s dating outside of his race.

My high school dating life, and largely my dating life as a whole, can be summed up by a conversation I recently had with a Colombian ex-girlfriend of mine from tenth grade, who confessed to me that part of the reason we broke up back then—seemingly out of nowhere—was because she didn’t want to be the Hispanic girl dating the black guy anymore.

Not because she was racist, but because racist people kept harassing her.

I knew nothing about this because she didn’t tell me. She didn’t want to hurt my feelings. And I’m not even in the slightest mad at her. I can’t say I wouldn’t have done the same thing.

Most guys like me, we just want to be happy. That’s literally it, the end all and be all of our desires. And a lot of the times for black guys—especially Caribbean black guys—happiness is in family, friends, the love of a good woman (or man, to each his own), and good times with all of the above.

Yet all those things mean something completely different to a black person in America than they do for pretty much every other race in this country.

Because happiness is there, yes.

Family is there, yes.

Yes, you can definitely have all the things everybody else has when you’re black.

You can just have the diet version.

There’s a limit placed on black people in American society that nothing—absolutely nothing—can beat.

Oprah is Oprah, powerful as shit and rich as hell. But she’s still a black woman. There are certain parts of this country she can’t walk into without protection specifically because she’s black, and there are millions—repeat, millions­—of people in this country who are way down the economic totem pole from her but would still cringe at even the thought of having to be her for a day.

And Oprah’s worth three billion dollars.

You really think I ever had a chance?

***

My point (I’m getting there, I promise, hold on just a little bit longer) is that racism hasn’t gone anywhere.

It hasn’t even dulled, really.

It’s just gone the way of the underground railroad: visible enough so you know it exists, but you’ll never get anybody to admit to it.

At some point in American history, living as a black person went from being a work status, to a crime, to a condition. And while the first two were horrific in their violence and backbreaking will, that last one is genetic, ingrained in our blood, a pigment change on a cellular pre-birth level that dictated how our life would be from the moment we took our first breath.

I’ve stayed quiet about it for my entire life, ignored it and even denied it on a few occasions. Looked at other black people straight-faced and declared “Racism is over. So shut up about it already.”

But this string of recent events in my life—both personally and in America as a nation—makes it impossible to ignore any longer. For me, at least.

Because while black people are real, living and breathing human beings—and educated black people’s numbers are way stronger in comparison to previous years—the roots of racism are fighting progress every step of the way. And I can say definitively and without hyperbole that the percentage of black people who are okay with this shit is zero.

That’s the actual unicorn aspect of it all.

And unfortunately, unicorns really don’t exist.

***

SPOILER ALERT

One last point: I watched this movie recently called Dear White People.

It was a great movie, amazing dialogue and acting and overall writing and directing.

But it was mostly amazing because it was the most realistic depiction I’ve seen in a while of what race relations are actually like today.

The movie takes place at a prestigious college, where a mixed-race woman uses her radio host platform to create a satirical show called “Dear White People” in which she attempts to turn systemic racism on its head. What results is the funniest, truest, and most depressing set of scenes possible. Scenes that mirror a bunch of real life stories I and other black people I know experience or hear about every day, including last week’s bullshit with Oklahoma’s SAE students.

But the really poignant thing about the movie is the last few seconds.

Because by time the credits start to roll, you get the sense that this entire thing has been a whole lot of screaming into the wind, and absolutely nothing has changed.

In other words, the story just…ends.

Amazing Grace: Fighting a Lack of Empathy in the Internet Age

chuck-carlton-atlas-holding-the-world-on-his-shouldersEvery time I witness a worldwide internet phenomenon growing in size and momentum then digging down deep to anchor itself in the upper echelons of web browser histories across the planet, I’m awed by humanity’s ability in this Age of Social Media to rally around any one thing of moderate interest (i.e. that goddamn dress from last week; WHO CARES WHAT COLOR IT IS…though it’s black and blue for sure).

Just as much as this phenomenon exists though, there are always the detractors (me included, occasionally) who get up in arms about people spending hours arguing about a dress, or sports, or some movie or TV show or awards show about TV or movies, all while rebels are (still) killing millions in Sudan and other African countries, ISIS is off beheading anybody who even looks at them funny, and global warming threatens to suffocate us all by time my generation’s great-grandkids are born.

And I get both sides of that argument, I really do. People like to be happy, so discussing things like dresses and movies and sports allow them the freedom to both socialize and be comfortable with their happiness. Who am I to begrudge anybody that?

On the other end though, I get the argument as well: it can sometimes feel like first-world citizens are being a bit selfish and borderline sadistic when you hear them bitching about why Chick-Fil-A is closed on Sundays while the global sex slave trade’s generating $32 billion a year and regularly claiming two million children in the same time span.

But in all the arguments between the entertained and the (marginally) empathetic, people keep ignoring the role human nature plays in this, which is to say we’re sensory creatures. If we can’t see it, hear it, taste it, or touch it, it’s nearly impossible for us to connect with it. I’ve never met anyone who survived one of the Sudanese genocides (though I hope I do someday). And I’ve never met anybody in ISIS (though I definitely do NOT hope I do someday). So finding some sort of larger picture to identify with in the limited frame that is North American society is not as easy as picking up the latest issue of The Times and reading.

I did, however, meet a woman at the Metrorail station with my dad one day.

It was 2005, and we were on the way home from a Miami Heat playoff game, taking the train back to my dad’s car near Dadeland Mall. The woman was homeless, sitting in a corner near the rails by herself staring off into the distance. I don’t remember her name (because I was admittedly not listening when she told us) so I’ll call her Grace, because she just seemed like a Grace (and also because Grace made it easier for me to title this blog post, don’t judge).

Grace was old. Her hands were wrinkled, as was her face, and she had these giant bags under her eyes that looked like sap moving slowly down a tree. Her lips were bright red with lipstick, almost blood-red. The rest of her face was makeup-less, and her hair was long and gray. I’d say Grace was in her 70’s at the time, though she could’ve been younger and all her years weathering the streets had just aged her prematurely. Grace was also relatively stylish in comparison with the rest of the people like her at the train station, wearing her frumpy purple flapper-like dress and large flowered hat cocked to the side. Her clothes were faded but clean, and she split her possessions between a huge black purse and a rolling suitcase that looked like it had been tossed down a mountain-side then dusted off and stuffed with heirlooms. Which was what Grace had in there: everything in the world she cared about, right at her side.

My dad stopped to talk to Grace that day, standing on the Metrorail platform three blocks from American Airlines Arena, and I remember being annoyed when he did. Really annoyed. I was 21 at the time (which means mentally I was about 14; I’ve aged slowly in a lot of ways over the years, pretty much all of them unflattering), so annoyance was my thing.

I remember being annoyed not because I wanted to spend time alone with my dad, not because the Heat had just won the game but lost our savior Dwyane Wade to a rib muscle tear (Game 5 of the ’05 Eastern Conference Finals, devastating injury), and not because Grace smelled and I didn’t feel like standing next to her (she actually didn’t smell bad at all—kind of musty, like mothballs, but not bad).

I got mad because Grace was homeless, and at 21 years old, talking to homeless people made me uncomfortable.

Yet I was with my dad, and it was around Father’s Day so I owed it to him to at least join him in this effort, whatever that effort was. I think that was the other reason I was aggravated too; I didn’t get my dad’s motivation. We’d passed countless homeless people throughout the years; usually while driving so stopping to talk wasn’t really an option, but still. I knew we were waiting on the train and just standing around, but couldn’t we just stand around on the other side of the platform?

Dad wasn’t having it.

So I stood by his side while he talked to Grace about her upbringing, how she’d been living in Miami since the 70’s and had gone through a bunch of ups and downs on the way to that train platform.

Grace also told us—and this was the part that got my hands out of my pockets, the scowl off my face, making eye contact with Grace instead of staring out at the rails wondering when the hell the train would show up—that she considered her time right then, standing on that platform with all her worldly possessions at her side, as one of the higher points in her life.

Because she was happy. She wasn’t going hungry and nobody was hurting her and she still possessed all the things she cared about, so Grace was happy.

“I’m happy,” she said, just like that, then smiled, revealing a mouth that was missing a few teeth but wasn’t in nearly the jacked-up condition I thought it’d be in.

And I remember wondering how somebody could possibly be happy under those conditions, without a home or a TV or a car or people in her life to have her back the way my dad did, or my mom, or my friends.

I mean, happy? Content maybe, but how could she be happy?

I called bullshit.

Yet my dad was eating this up, and it wasn’t until he started answering Grace’s follow-up questions that I found out why, and also found out why he’d stopped to talk to her in the first place.

You see, my father’s an immigrant from Jamaica, came up here in his early 20’s a year and a half after marrying my mother and about a year before she became pregnant with me, so around 1982. Before that, he was raised in Kingston, Jamaica’s capital, pretty much on his own. His mother (my grandmother, who I never met) was a wonderful woman who died when he was twelve, and his father (grandfather, also never met) was a degenerate alcoholic and child abuser who had a habit of leaving his children at home by themselves for weeks, sometimes months at a time with no money or food. He did this frequently and angrily, returning home eventually to whoop my dad and all his brother’s and sister’s asses for letting the house get dirty while he was gone. He acted like this straight up until the day he died, when my dad was a teen, leaving his offspring to be scattered around Jamaica, fending for themselves.

I knew all of this already, of course. My mom and dad had told me the cliff-notes version of his childhood when I was a teen myself, but (as with stories in the internet age) I couldn’t identify with it personally, and therefore never really thought about what my dad had to go through just to be alive today.

However, what I didn’t know was that—for a period of time after my grandfather passed—my dad had also been homeless. I found this out at the same time Grace did.

“I still remember it like it was yesterday,” my dad told Grace, looking at me and placing a hand on my back. “And I could’ve never handled it the way you are.”

By time the train showed up, we were shaking Grace’s hand, my dad slipping a couple of bucks in his and handing them off to her.

We went home after that, and the next day I woke up in my room and got ready for school at Miami-Dade Community College as usual, wearing clothes from my closet. Later I drove my car to my classes, then went home to go play my video games before going to my job and, even later, hanging with my friends. I studied for my tests and wrote my stories and in 2006 left Miami to attend my college (Go Noles) and later my graduate school (Go Knights). I did any number of things between 21 and my current age of 31 that I could claim to be mine, experiencing my experiences and possessing my possessions and fighting tooth and nail for all of it because I felt it was what I deserved. For being alive, for striving to be happy. And I don’t blame myself. Like I said, it’s human nature.

But for that evening, after talking to Grace, I was extremely aware that everything I had—everything I could call my possession—existed in my life only because of this man who looked and acted a lot like me (or I like him, if you want to get technical about it), who at one point in his life had been living on the streets of a third world country like any number of American homeless kids populating our cities today. The same type of kid I’d typically shun, unless I was “in a generous mood.”

So here’s the stats, the unemotional numbers and percentages that symbolize a domestic problem that is much closer to home than Sudan or ISIS or even Global Warming but still fails to draw the empathy necessary to galvanize the masses, because it’s not in our faces every minute of every day:

  • There are over 1.75 million homeless people in the United States at any given moment, raking in an average whopping income of $348 a month.
  • There are over 31 million people going hungry in our country as you’re reading this.
  • Twelve million children are living below the poverty level from coast to coast.
  • Over 6,200 families rely on homeless shelter for their nightly lodging. And that’s just in New York City.

None of these numbers (and the countless other associated stats) mean shit unless you can identify with them, match them up to a face, an actual living and breathing human being to sort of jar that emotional connection out of you.

For me, that face isn’t Grace. It’s my dad.

There’s a lot of different ways to connect with your fellow human being. You don’t always need to be constantly aware of what’s happening in the world-at-large (though I recommend it) and I’m definitely not suggesting that people should walk around with some proverbial boulder of worldwide guilt sitting on their shoulders. I’m just saying empathy has become extremely underrated in modern society, and in many cases I see it on the verge of extinction. Whether that’s technology’s fault or just the further evolution of mankind, I don’t know. But I like to remind myself every once in a while about Grace and my dad, and the day I realized that the greatest man in my life—the man who helped bring me into this world—used to be a statistic too.

The U.S. Just Got Punked By North Korea and George Clooney’s the Only One Who Seems to Give a Shit

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I haven’t written on here in a while, partly because I’ve been busy with my new job, partly because I’ve been working on my new novel, and partly because I haven’t really had anything blog-worthy to write about.

That isn’t to say there aren’t a bunch of social issues out there that I’ve got an opinion on and that have people losing their minds all over  the country. But it’s been years since I really talked about anything on here other than my own shit (and it’s my blog, that’s to be expected, DON’T JUDGE ME!), so I figured I’d let everybody else vomit out their opinions all over the place and I’d just “do me”, as I’m prone to do.

Yet, as a well-documented film enthusiast (read: super ultra movie nerd), I feel like I’ve got to at least throw my two cents in on this one issue, especially since I’ve been raving about it privately for days to friends and family alike.

I’m pretty sure everybody’s heard about the issue with Sony being hacked, the Seth Rogen/James Franco movie The Interview, and North Korea’s involvement with all of it.

Last night, Deadline posted an interview conducted between columnist Mike Fleming Jr. and a pretty ticked-off George Clooney, in which Clooney states that he tried to start a petition supporting Sony’s plans to release The Interview anyways, despite numerous cyber-attacks and physical threats demanding the movie’s cancellation (theaters will be attacked, the terrorists said). A noble, righteous cause by Clooney, though totally unsurprising since this just seems just like something he would do.

Only, Clooney’s petition was quickly shot down by nearly every top-tier name in Hollywood. Which is disheartening but a bit understandable, considering the collective emotional state of the industry: people are scared. To be attacked in any way–whether it be through hacking, the silver-tongue of the media, or physically through the efforts of the North Korean government–is not the type of thing anybody would voluntarily wish on themselves.

However, George Clooney’s response to this fear–and to Sony’s resulting decision to cave and cancel The Interview’s release–was great:

“Stick it online,” Clooney said. “Do whatever you can to get this movie out. Not because everybody has to see the movie, but because I’m not going to be told we can’t see the movie. That’s the most important part. We cannot be told we can’t see something by Kim Jong-un, of all fucking people.”

Which brings up two points:

1) George Clooney is still the man (and has been for years, pretty sure most people can agree on this point).

2) He’s absolutely right.

And this isn’t just me supporting a guy who I believe is an expert when it comes to matters resting at the intersection of politics and entertainment. It’s something I’ve been saying all week, a point that goes beyond the subject matter  of The Interview.

The Comedy Central Roast Of James Franco - ShowI am a fan of Seth Rogen and James Franco, and I did plan on seeing The Interview next week if it had been released. But I knew what to expect going in. Rogen and Franco are the same two people that made–whether individually or as partners–Pineapple Express, Neighbors, This is the End, The Green Hornet, and Knocked Up. Their careers are deeply associated with the likes of Judd Apatow, Jason Segel, Kristen Wiig, Jonah Hill, and Michael Cera. Despite the few names on that list that have gone out and done serious work (Franco and Hill are the only two I can think of off the top of my head, with Wiig’s Skeleton Twins hopefully marking the beginning of her quest for higher-caliber performances), for the most part these people are not known for their cutting-edge sense of social responsibility, or their expert use of political satire. They’re known for really good on-screen chemistry, a knack for comedic improvisation, and a fascination with dick and vagina jokes. I guarantee The Interview is no different and–while probably hilarious–I doubt that there’s even the slightest amount of political value within the film itself.

But this has never been about the movie.

Why this sits so uneasily in my stomach (and apparently George Clooney’s and whoever else is in agreement with him) is because of the overall progression of events these past couple of weeks, and what it means to us as Americans. Because essentially what just happened to us is another country–a nuclear-weapon-armed communist government run by a psychopath who’s the same age as me (I can barely balance my budget, much less run a violently oppressive dictatorship)–told us “You can’t watch that movie. And if you do, we’ll beat the shit out of you.” And we just held our hands up and said:

“Okay. Just please, don’t hurt me.”

00000868There’s an underlying tone of cowardice here that is unsettling for many reasons. Because while this is the movie industry we’re talking about today–not even the movie industry as a whole, but a single movie released by a single company for a demographic that typically doesn’t give a shit about politics outside of whether or not marijuana will be nationally legalized anytime soon–our response to these cyber attacks and physical threats have opened a door that should have never even existed.

By allowing North Korea to win in this situation, the U.S. (and yes, Sony does represent the U.S. in this instance, whether it wants to or not, at least when it comes to worldwide perception), we basically just allowed communism to impose its will on our way of life, possibly for the first time since the Cold War and Joe McCarthy left the country annoyingly paranoid. Which is–I thought–the last thing the American people wanted again.

Which leads to the real question: How does this end now?

What happens when a major electrical company gets hacked and sabotaged, accompanied by a strongly-worded email demanding they shut down servers or “We’ll blow up all your power stations?”

What happens when officials at shipping companies like Fed Ex and UPS walk into work one day only to find a message splashed across their computer screens: “Stop all shipping now, or we’ll start blowing up trucks and planes”?

What happens when a New York Times columnist gets an order to cease writing that controversial exposé or “We will make 9/11 look like a 4th of July fireworks display”?

Previously I would’ve said the result of all these situations was a given. U.S. organizations–both government and private–would collectively hold up their middle fingers and shake their heads no, adamant in their advocacy of a single, unalterable American principle: We Do Not Negotiate With Terrorists. And we do not give up our rights, to anybody, for any reason.

Except now, apparently we do.

3366563115_9466d16e02_zThe first amendment is important, arguably the most important amendment in our constitution. Yet I feel like many people like to tout this fact even though they’ve forgotten why it’s true. It’s not just so cocky internet trolls can have a defense to toss around while they’re busy posting comments about how Mike Brown should’ve been shot in the face, or Darren Wilson and all police officers should be rounded up and dropped off the side of the Grand Canyon (both detestable statements I’ve actually seen, the former one multiple times).

The first amendment ensures our right to disseminate information freely, which in turn serves as a natural deterrent to the very oppression and murderous mentality we see present in the governments of countries like North Korea, Cuba, and China.

There’s a reason media is the first thing dictators confiscate when they’re installing their new regimes. Control what the people read, watch, and hear, and you control the people.

The first amendment is meant to keep the words and voices and non-violent actions of Americans untainted by outside influence. It’s our livelihood, our patio and backyard, a crucial piece of our country’s landscape that we maintain and protect and admire, simply for its sheer beauty and accessibility.

And we just allowed North Korea to waltz on our property, scream at our frolicking children, and take a shit in our pool (albeit in the shallow end).

While The Interview is hardly the sophisticated satire people would’ve proudly rallied around in the ultra-socially-conscious 60’s and 70’s, it is an essentially American film, indicative of an American way of life most citizens would agree is eons better than the alternative.

Yet we just took the first (small) step in sacrificing that way of life, placing ourselves on the wrong side of this particular fork in the road.

I just hope we reverse enough to get back on the right path.

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.

_____________________

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.”

______________________________

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