When people say, “smoking causes lung cancer,” he gets the urge to smoke.
Lying in bed with a fever, nose stuffy, chest on fire, coughing up gooey stuff the color of mint toothpaste (minus the flavor), he still wants a cigarette.
He doesn’t light up anymore — he’s learned to resist the urge — but it used to be automatic. And when he did inhale that first breath of tar, the feeling was wondrous and raw, like saying fuck it and scratching a mosquito bite that won’t go away. Just digging his nails into the center until the itch was gone, replaced by pain and bloodstains beneath his fingernails.
* * *
Game three of the ‘92 NBA Finals, he’s eight years old and sitting in the living room with his dad, watching the Bulls vs. the Trailblazers, Clyde Drexler vs. Michael Jordan. The seven game series tied 1-1, Jordan takes the ball up-court near the end of the second quarter and the eight-year-old watches, understanding two things: 1) Jordan’s buying time for a hole to the basket to open up, and 2) his dad’s pissed because Jordan won’t pass the goddamn ball.
MJ protects the ball with one arm, dribbling with the other, then it’s like a spark lights beneath his feet as he puts the ball between his legs and takes off with such a ferocious burst of speed that the defender barely has time to fall on his ass.
A second later Jordan hits a jumper from twenty feet out and the eight-year-old picks up the basketball his dad bought him a few months ago. He tries to dribble it through his legs like Jordan just did, as fast as he just did. Jordan’s just shy of thirty though; the eight-year-old is eight years old, with eight-year-old legs and eight-year-old reflexes. The ball hits his knee on his first try, bounces across the living room and knocks over the small table next to the couch, shattering a lamp and a glass of fruit punch and leaving the floor sticky for two days. His mom flips. His dad waits until she leaves the room then winks at him.
Four and a half years later, the now-twelve-year-old and his family sit on the turnpike on a Friday night in October, stuck in a traffic jam caused by construction on their way up to Orlando. He’s talking to his parents from the backseat about his new middle school when there’s an explosion and he’s suddenly sprawled across his mother’s lap in the passenger seat of the car.
When they get out in the middle of the highway and survey the damage — the car accordion-like, rear bumper reaching around to touch the front — he bursts into tears. Then he feels stupid for crying. So he cries harder.
The guy who hit them stands next to his shattered Ford F-150 with a flat, drunken look in his eyes that mirrors the broken glass on the concrete, glowing in the haze of a dozen headlights.
His dad sprains his wrist bracing himself against the steering wheel. His mother gets whiplash that will eventually require surgery to fix, and still after will cause her continuous pain. His sister bumps her head on the car roof. The twelve-year-old cracks two ribs and bruises his knee. The drunk guy is uninjured.
The physical therapist the twelve-year-old visits the next week tells him that — with some electro-shock therapy and a restriction on physical activity (“stay away from that basketball court,” she tells him) — he’ll be back in working order by spring. It takes ‘til summer.
When his parents ask why his ribs are taking so long to heal, he tells them it’s probably because his friends like to bump into him when they’re joking around. He doesn’t tell them most of the collisions take place on the basketball court behind the building, after school.
* * *
He’s in ninth grade when he smokes his first blunt, during lunch behind the wall across from the school with one of the few guys he still talks to from middle school. When his friend pulls the weed out — rolled tightly in a Backwood — the ninth-grader stares at it then looks up at his friend, as if he’s transformed into something foreign.
Bits of green flecked across his palm, the sticky and wet blunt is enigmatic, full of possibility and horror; something he’s heard so many tales about that it’s turned into a myth, like winning the lottery, or contracting an STD.
His friend lights it up and takes a hit like a pro then passes it to him and succumbs to his coughing fit. The ninth-grader watches his friend — wondering if he’s in actual pain or just going through some sort of customary ritual — before he puts the blunt to his lips and inhales.
The smoke hits his lungs like a sledgehammer and he drops the damned thing in the red clay beneath their feet, convinced it’s going to burst into flames and transform into some sort of demonic blazing snake. Clawing at his chest, he sucks at the air around him in a frenzy before his head fills with helium and his entire body goes numb.
No matter how many people tell you your first experience with pot is the highest you’ll ever get, you still aren’t prepared.
Ten minutes after that first hit — and a second, less painful one just so he won’t look like a punk — he throws up behind the baseball bleachers in a gray, steel garbage can. The vomit is clear, mostly water since he hasn’t eaten that day. When he’s done, he wipes his mouth with a numb hand, stumbles back to the school’s main building, then detours to the boy’s bathroom to dry-heave some more in a greasy toilet.
Two hours later he’s at his friend’s house staring at a Limp Bizkit poster on the wall, wondering how he got there in the first place. A glance in the mirror reflects eyes swollen as two rotten apples, black worm-pits set deep in each. He finds this hilarious. He finds everything hilarious and can’t stop laughing, even though he’s scared shitless that he’s going to forget something essential, like hiding this from his parents, or breathing.
He spends the next four hours begging for it — the feeling of losing control of his mind — to go away. When it ebbs, he sleeps for ten hours and wakes up thirstier and hungrier than he’s ever been in his life.
Months later, he looks back on that day and envies those virgin lungs as he smokes his morning blunt in his parent’s backyard before school, wishing the high would teleport him through the rest of this tedious day.
* * *
He’s fifteen when he has his first sexual experience, with a girl he started dating because she told him she liked him. He doesn’t know if he likes her, all he knows is she seems willing to do anything for him. It’s awkward and hard for him to comprehend, because he doesn’t feel like he deserves the treatment — how could someone possibly like me that much? — yet, he can’t seem to turn anything down.
Hanging out after school one day, he’s laying his head on her lap and they’re talking about nothing when she asks if a girl’s ever given him head.
He has no idea how to answer that so he just stares at her while his face heats up.
In the end, she makes the decision for him, grabbing his hand and dragging him into an upstairs girl’s bathroom near the back of the school. He doesn’t want to go in at first, and he’s both paranoid as hell and awed the moment he passes the threshold, as if stepping through the wardrobe into Narnia. Sanitary napkin wrappers on the floor, tampon strings protruding from the garbage can, toilet paper on the ceiling, a mysterious puddle in the corner.
It’s just like the guy’s bathroom, only girly.
Dragging him into a dirty stall, she pushes him against the side and pushes her lips against his for a moment before reaching for his belt buckle. He studies the door as she drops his pants, Fuck this’s and Fuck that’s etched in the tile like a prom guestbook. She tells him to relax. He lies and tells her he is relaxed.
Afterwards, she tries to kiss him and he turns his head away, wondering why his stomach feels like it’s turned inside out. They break up the next week. He doesn’t look her in the eyes when it goes down.
A year later, he and his best friend are swimming in a pool owned by the parents of two sister cheerleaders from his best friend’s high school, while their parents are out. After some coercion, they convince the girls to take each of them into their respective bedrooms. Inside the girl’s room, it’s like something’s taken him over, controlling his every move, an animal desire that overpowers all doubt. His hands don’t even shake when he pulls off her bikini bottom.
* * *
The first time he gets drunk he’s seventeen. It’s midway through his senior year, and he’s recently received acceptance letters to a few universities—FSU, UF, FAMU, Duke, UNC—and opted to turn them all down to stay in Miami and attend Florida International University (FIU).
Majority of these decisions have to do with his girlfriend, with whom he’s just had a typically vicious fight with the night before he wakes up and fills a 20-ounce Gatorade bottle half with Wray and Nephews Overproof Rum, the rest with grape soda (it’s all they have).
He thinks bringing this concoction to school will be a tangible representation of his independence. He’ll drink it and be drunk all day and she’ll see him and get pissed and know he’s a man. And then he’ll win. All of this seems logical at the time.
He drinks the entire bottle sitting in the back of the school bus, wincing with every burning swallow. By time he steps onto school property, he’s plastered. By time he finds out his girlfriend’s stayed home that day, he doesn’t care all that much. He doesn’t care about anything, actually, except trying to walk straight.
His friends help him to AP Calc and deposit him in a chair, then leave him to fend for himself. He’s sitting there trying to make the chalkboard stop spinning when one of the girls sitting next to him pokes his shoulder.
“Are you ok?” she asks.
“Yeah,” he says, only his tongue isn’t working so it comes out sounding more like “Uh.”
“You don’t look ok,” she says.
He knows the girl, has been in classes with her for all four years of high school. They aren’t close, just loose acquaintances due to proximity. He still feels bad, though, when he bends over and vomits all over her book bag.
Before anybody can say anything, he gets up and stumbles out of the room into the boy’s bathroom down the hall, pukes again in a toilet, then falls into a damp, putrid corner and sits there staring at the flickering fluorescent ceiling lights until he passes out.
He makes it home without further incident that day, after a security guard who coached him during his brief stint as a wide receiver on the J.V. football team finds him in the bathroom and decides to let him sleep it off in the nurse’s office and not report him to the Assistant Principal.
The security guard probably believes that — once he sobers up — he’ll learn his lesson and not need additional punishment. And he does learn, kind of. He’s sick for days after that, swearing off alcohol for the rest of his life to anybody who asks him to confirm the rumors: that Patrick came to school drunk and passed out in the upstairs main hallway bathroom in a puddle of puke and piss.
But he always feels the remnants of that day in his memory, the one thing about the experience that sticks with him, tucked away in the file cabinet of his mind like some insurance policy contract: he didn’t care while he was drunk. About anything. And it felt so damn good.
By the end of the year, two of his friends have been murdered in his friend’s bedroom — beaten to death with a baseball bat — which is just a little more than he can handle without some sort of pharmaceutical help. And it’s as he’s sitting in his bedroom in a Xanax haze that he remembers that day in his high school bathroom, the feeling of just letting go and being drunk. Only drunk, nothing else.
He goes out that night with some older friends and drinks until he forgets why he’s upset.
The next day, he remembers, so he goes out and drinks until he forgets again.
He tries to kill himself for the first time a year later — attempted head-on collision with an SUV — but he’s not drunk enough to go through with it and turns the car at the last second.
* * *
He’s nineteen and high as hell the first time he steals, working in the pharmacy at an Eckerd’s Drug Store a few blocks from his parent’s house. A few months after failing his first semester at FIU, a few months before he loses his scholarship.
The nineteen-year-old smokes his customary joint before his shift in his ’97 Corolla — the only distraction that can get him through an entire shift — and proceeds to his stool in front of the register to study boxes of allergy medication for most of the day. Around mid-afternoon he realizes he’s bored, so he steps out from behind the counter and picks the nearest magazine of interest off the shelf: a copy of Maxim.
He flips through it until the end of his shift then leaves and he’s in his parent’s driveway before he realizes the magazine’s still in his hand. He makes a note to put it back on the shelf when he goes in for his next shift. Then he forgets about it.
He forgets about a lot of things over the next couple of weeks, some by accident, most not. Three months later, his manager fires him and promises she’ll press charges if he ever sets foot back in the store.
He’s reminded of the incident eight months later when Chuck — his manager at Johnny Rockets, his fourth job in a year — fires him for voiding checks and stealing money from the register. Chuck and the nineteen-year-old joked around a lot while he was there, so Chuck isn’t as condemning about the whole thing. He just doesn’t want to lose his job.
Chuck promises he won’t press charges though, because he likes the nineteen-year-old. Despite his faults.
* * *
When the twenty-year-old picks up a pen in the summer of 2004 and starts writing for the first time since high school English, it’s with the intention of composing a suicide note.
He does it in a local Starbucks one afternoon. Sitting at a corner table with a hangover and a cup of coffee, he opens the tattered notebook he found in the back of his closet, near some other ones he filled with poetry and various rants and raves back in high school, back when it seemed the only logical way to organize his mind was to get it down on paper. Before he started hating every one of his thoughts.
He puts pen to paper and writes down two words — “Dear everybody” — then sits back, studying the chicken-scratch and surveying the room around him. He observes each person in the café — each individual residing in his/her own little bubble of self-made security — and thinks of what the word “everybody” entails.
Then he think about how different each of these people are from each other, how different they are from him, and how the word “everybody” does not even begin to describe humanity.
Sure, he writes “everybody,” and means it how it’s supposed to sound:
“Everybody, I direct the following tirade at you.”
But that doesn’t mean that “everybody” will receive this letter the same. Some might enjoy reading it, might even enjoy the condition they find him in right before they read it (he hasn’t figured out the details on that event just yet). Others might not even want to see the paper it was written on. His parents will read it with disgust, fear, hatred, love, and loads of sorrow all wrapped up in a soft tortilla of tears, and nobody else will be able to muster that many emotions out of one piece of scribbled-on paper.
Sitting forward he continues writing, but no matter how many words he puts down it doesn’t seem to be enough. He writes and writes and soon it’s like his soul’s been rubbed raw, and he forgets why he started writing in the first place, only that he can’t stop now. Maybe ever.
Three hours later he sits back and reads over what he’s got, two separate documents: a declaration of depression and the first draft of his first short story, a southern tale about a farmer that kills his wife, feeds her to his livestock, then convinces himself she ran away. The man just wants to be happy, despite his mistakes. He’s batshit crazy and a sadistic murderer, but a small part of the twenty-year-old understands him anyways.
The twenty-year-old places this notebook housing the first draft of that story deep in his closet, where it sits to this day. The story’s never been published and never will be (it isn’t very good…pretty bad, actually), but it gave him a taste. Just a taste. Which is all he’s ever really needed to start.