Category Archives: Creative nonfiction

Sunday writing 20150607: The Love Lecture

“Love is a state of balance,” I say to the nearly empty lecture hall. “A person can hate a thing he loves; there’s no contradiction in both loving and hating a thing. Man was made, I think, to experience both pleasure and pain, fear and amusement, intense like and intense dislike. Without a balancing of polarities, nothing would ever be known.

“I think the whole of human experience fits inside a perfect circle, and all emotions are its diameters. The two points at the outside of the circle are the two possible extremes, and the center is nothing–zen-like, right?–but we’re never there, neither filling to the edge nor fully balanced in the center. Our selves are each some blob made out of the measures of our placements for each category, mapping our experience of the infinite possibilities of our emotions.

“I can’t accept the notion that humans only have several basic emotions and that all non-basic emotions are just mixes of the basics. We experience life in polarities, not in vectors, and saying all rage is “anger” is like saying morose just means sad: the statement itself may be technically true, but some technical truths abuse the Truth.

“That’s why the semantics here are important. It matters that love is not an emotion. Love is a state, and it weathers emotions, or it bears them. In fact, love is the circle and contains within it all the polar possibilities of our experience. The more capacity we have for love, the larger our circle grows, the more extreme our emotional possibilities. The absence of emotion is death; curtailment of emotion is to live like the dead. That’s why I can’t accept Buddhism.”

“What do you mean,” she called out from the peanut gallery, “that you can’t accept Buddhism?”

“I mean–” I started. I paused and took a breath, pacing behind the podium before reapproaching.

“I mean: If Buddhism were about experiencing all that life has to offer and realizing the emotions are just emotions and there’s a greater existence we can have separate from them, then great. I mean, that’s life, and that’s live, to participate in everything life has to offer and still maintain a balance, that from minute to minute life just happens, and there’s nothing particularly binding about any of it but us and our narratives and our dreams.

“But that’s not the Buddhism we’re studying in class. Buddhism is about minimizing suffering, and I can’t accept that. Suffering is part of the human experience, and we can’t just dismiss it and say that all we want is pleasure. If we live without suffering, we live without pleasure, too, and that’s not balance, that’s nothing. To live life without active participation, to passively wait for all interference to leave and to call the void balance is to turn our back on part of life. And, and maybe even to reject God himself.

“I mean that there is no pleasure without pain. There are no smiles without tears. We have no peace without strife. To minimize suffering is to minimize all, and to minimize all is to reject life even to the point of death.”

She called out: “You’re a dualist!” I think she was smirking, but I was too busy formulating to see.

“I–no,” I stammered, hesitating, considering. Augustine was a dualist. Fantasy writers are dualists. I believe in more than light and dark, good and evil, life versus death. “There are twos and threes to this thing: There is what you can be and what you are, and what you can be has poles and what you are is a point between them. In the ideal, there’s two. In practicality, there’s three.”

“Dualism,” she answered.

“All numbers can be reduced to multiplications of twos and threes. When you break the world down to its most basic parts, it reflects this basic truth. It is divided into multiplications of two and three.”

“But you said all things are three!”

“We don’t experience all that life has to offer all at once. There are factors that we’re missing in every day.”

Now I know she was smirking: “Are we denying God in all the thing we miss?”

“I–” I started again, but stopped, considering. “I believe so. Life requires both balance and participation.”

“Yes,” she answered.

“We must pursue both all that life has to offer and a balance.”

“Yes,” she said.

“Negation and suppression are rejections of life and God.”

“Yes,” she whispered.

“Balance and participation are worship of God.”

Yes, I felt her agreement. She stood and began shuffling out of her aisle seat and moved towards the stage.

I continued: “All that matters in life is that we’re on the circle and that we exist as averages on each line. We can’t help but do that except through avoidance and rejection. To participate in one’s own life is to live in worship. To avoid aspects of one’s own life is to live outside of God’s promise, which is to live without the act of worship.

“The more we grow in God, the more capable of participating in our own experiences we become, the larger our circle grows, the more effort required but the more experienced we must are at finding balance, at finding God’s peace.”

Face to face on the stage, she said, “Yes,” and cupped my cheek in her hand. She led me from the room, and we continued our adventure.

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Christina, a terror deep in my heart

The way that I met Christina was a total fluke, like most of the best things in life are. Sometime in the fall first semester of my sophomore year at Baylor Jennie and I had just broken up, but she was committed to remaining friends (she was still a freshman, and I was her best friend on campus apart from her roommate Rose) and had decided that we and my next door neighbor Jay and his girlfriend Brandy should all go to a movie together. Rose was invited but wouldn’t attend; she didn’t like me very much, or she was busy that night, or both. I dreaded what seemed essentially like a double date, so I began inviting everybody and anybody without any sort of filter.

The person I was most excited about having invited was a guy named Grayson. He was handsome and smart, built like a linebacker and as quick to answer classroom silence (with the correct answer, no less) as me–just the sort of person I’d like to know. We were taking the BIC’s Social World I class together, which meant every Tuesday and Thursday we would meet for an hour and a half in one of Tidwell’s old classrooms, and this was before my switch to the Great Texts program so I was only so acquainted with the building at the time. From outside it had the undeniable look of a phallus with a transept as long as the central tower was tall, meaning it had two bulbous two-story wings skirting a five-floor tower. I believe we would have met in the west wing, second floor.

I asked Grayson to the movie, and he said yes, and I smiled and asked a few of the people around us if they’d like to come too, and Christina said yes. I hadn’t noticed her much before, but she had an easy (if small) smile and straight brown hair draping vibrant brown eyes, and her skin had an almost iridescent glow. I believe she sat behind Grayson a row. I accepted, and she wrote her number on the inside cover of my Republic paperback, and we coordinated.

Of all the people who accepted my movie invitation, only Christina actually attended. She showed up at the doorstep of my shitty, wood-panneled, straight out of the 70s apartment with an awkward smile to spend the evening with a group of people she’d never met before, one of whom was my very recent ex-girlfriend who may or may not have been trying to keep the relationship alive.

We clearly got along, Christina and I, laughing and talking and getting to know each other, mimicking all the movement of a first date in front of Jennie, Jay, and Brandy, who had to content themselves to together playing third wheel. I was so interested in this new person and the sweet sound of her laugh and the softness of her hair that I didn’t pay my friends any mind. After the movie, Jennie went home in a huff–she wouldn’t forgive me for weeks–and Brandy went home at some point, which left just me, Christina, and Jay in my living room getting to know each other.

The movie we had gone to see was The Ring. I had never particularly liked horror–one of my childhood memories is my parents’ second honeymoon, when they left my sister and I at home with a live-in babysitter who made me watch Witches and screamed at me very like a witch every time something scary happened; I also remember the shivering fear I felt during Arachnophobia–so I didn’t pay it much mind at the time except to feel a few jitters under my skin and to act brave in front of this girl I was beginning to desperately want to befriend. Little did I know that I had just bought myself three years of nightmare fodder.

When I woke up on my couch in the morning, Christina and Jay were both gone. I must have fallen asleep while we were all still chatting, and they left me to go to their homes and sleep. I yawned and stretched and prepared to wake up, and then my TV turned on–

To static. Loud white noise filled the room.

I blinked at the TV for a minute and looked around the couch for a remote before remembering I didn’t have one. I squinted at the TV for a moment, remembering next the drowned girl crawling and the water spilling out of TV screens before each murder in The Ring. Ghosts aren’t real, I chided myself. This is just some fluke. I got up and went and turned the TV off, shrugging. I walked to the kitchen wondering whether I had woken up to the TV and its noise. Maybe Jay and Christina had tried to watch some cable and screwed up the TV settings before they left for the evening and just hadn’t turned it off. I shrugged again.

When I cracked open my fridge to grab some breakfast, the white noise filled my apartment again. I poked my head around the corner to see the TV playing static. I squinted suspiciously at the TV again, trying to figure out how it had turned back on. I resolved: I’ll turn off this TV again and stand a few feet back for a minute–in case of groping, ghostly arms looking to pierce me or drag me down to hell–and if it turns back on again, I’m fucking bolting. Fuck whether ghosts aren’t real or not.

So I walked up to it and I turned it off again. I stepped back out of arm’s reach of the TV. I waited.

It turned on. I bolted.

Outside, Christina and Jay had begun to laugh big belly laughs. I heard them before I had opened to door of my apartment. When I got outside, I saw Jay crouched under my living room window with a smart remote in his hand, which he and I had programmed to my TV the week before. Christina looked at me somewhat sheepishly. I suppose from my current vantage she was waiting for my reaction as a sort of social test, to see whether I had a sense of humor or would react violently or whatever she was waiting for. At the time, it seemed like an innocent reaction to their perfectly played prank. I cracked a smile, and I took a deep breath, and I said with a nod, “Good one.” Then we packed up and went to Denny’s.

I had only had one recurring nightmare before: My (unnamed, anonymous) friends were trapped on a docked submarine with a green-faced witch chasing them. I entered the submarine to help them escape, but all I found was the terror of long corridors and outstretched, sharp-nailed hands. I couldn’t help anyone, and the witch pursued me (and my friends?) around the submarine until it left dock, and submerged, and we were all trapped together forever. Sometimes my mother would wake me up before the witch caught me; sometimes I would wake up with a gasp as the hand finally stretched for a grab I couldn’t escape. I dreamt this maybe every few months between eleven and thirteen; I remember it occurred one morning before my family attended a regular Custer Road United Methodist service, and we only attended those for a year or two.

The witch from the submarine never permeated my waking life the way the drowned girl of The Ring came to. I saw her bloated rotting hand every time I closed my eyes in the shower. Sometimes in the dark of night before bed, I could see her silhouetted against the textured plaster of my bedroom. When Christina and I would take one of our cars and drive out into the darkness of a Texas night to kiss and fondle and chat under the stars, sometimes Christina’s straight brown hair would drape around her face to shadow or cover her features, and fear would stab my heart, and I would remind myself to breathe, that I shouldn’t fear a movie, that Christina and I were in love and her kiss and her hand softly resting on my chest was the fuel of my life. After I admitted my fear to her–with a laugh, pure posturing and silliness–Christina would climb on top of me in bed and move her hair into her face and lean over me, and the drape of it would tickle my cheeks, and always I found this electric, though sometimes with endearment and sometimes with fear.

I never dreamed again of the submarine witch. Instead, it became a drowned girl with damp brown hair for a face standing in the expansive lawn of some autumnal manse, brown leaves covering the grass between the road and the half-circle gravel driveway. She would stand there in the lawn and watch me from behind her hair, and I would bask in the utter terror of her presence, and leaves would rustle peacefully around us. Every few months I had that dream, me and The Ring’s ghost standing under fall skies in the lawn of some wealthy house.

Years passed before these dreams broke, before I could close my eyes in the shower without succumbing to a dreadly suspicion and opening my eyes to suds to make sure no girl had appeared in my tub. Still more years had to pass before I could think of Christina outside the scope of sheer dread. I didn’t (and don’t) think of her this way often, but as an introduction: It has been so difficult for my to write about college because behind this funny circumstance is a nugget of terrible truth: I fear that I lost happiness in college, that I sold it for a few tragic months, that I lost my ability to engage and empathize, which had always defined my idealism, itself my defining quality. What shell of a man must I be to lack those things today, and how (or even did I) lost myself so thoroughly along the way?

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Enter Christina

I’m determined to get this out of me even though the first memoir didn’t feel very cathartic. This is the start not to the second memoir but at least the second’s effort. Any interest?

**

If my sexual life began with licking an extant wound, at least I can that I did nothing conscious to make it worse. Whether I was gaining strength from the pneuma or trying to heal the lovely creatures I cannot say, but I did not bite, did not tear, did not do again to them what they had suffered or tell them that they had deserved what the world had given. I am not by nature intentionally cruel, though I can be cruel, and intentionally. The wounds I tasted were organic, undressed; Christina might be said to have salted me, treated my sores like margarita rims, her licking shifting the stinging chemicals further into my skin after she drank deeply of me. And like I had in the codeine-induced haze after my car accident watched the doctor sew up that hole in my arm, so, too, I watched Christina, fascinated by her lust for me, my attention and my torment. I cannot say where her sexual life began—perhaps with me, as she said, or perhaps with Billy or elsewhere—but I can say she was my first effort. Not my first ordeal, but my first trial. And we or I or she tried so hard, grasping at each other like ones falling to their deaths. Perhaps we didn’t catch hold because we were both falling, or perhaps neither of us had quite the grasp then, or perhaps the ground was just too close: we thought we’d die, but really we barely stumbled. Or rather someone caught her in the cradle of both his arms before she hit, and I crumpled at the ground, mostly just shocked. We had too little at stake.

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An empty city

“Basket Case,” Kiran said. “That song is my life right now.”

“Am I the the shrink or the whore?” I opened iTunes and typed in Green Day. No results. My harddrive crashed recently, amputating my music library.

“I dunno,” he answered. “Before you asked that, I would have said the shrink.”

I asked, “And now?” I left the room to rifle through my CD collection, grabbed two Green Day CDs: INTERNATIONAL SUPERHITS! and American Idiot.

“I dunno.”

Rip “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.”

I walk a lonely road, the only one that I have ever known. I don’t know where it goes.
I walk this empty street on the boulevard of broken dreams. The whole city sleeps and I’m the only one, I walk alone.

My song for while I was working the overnight shift for Allied Barton. Not that I listened to it while working there–I don’t even think I had it at the time–but I can’t listen to it now without thinking about that time.

In those hours boston was my city, those dark, starless hours of night, all the lights of Mass General were on and all the roads unused. I owned the city for a few lonely but potent moments. A civilization’s infrastructure at my disposal for no particular purpose: I did not have the wheels the concrete was placed down for; I had no use for the buildings around me.

Near 11pm, I would leave my rowhouse on Cambridge Street, and then I felt like Prufrock, awkward in my stiff short-sleeve Oxford and uncomfortable blackish uniform pants. One night some girls stopped to flirt with me, drunk enough to think a collared man in a hurry would make fair sport. Another night, an SUV drove by and a man leaned out the window and yelled URKLE at me. My hope is that he was drunk, too.

Left onto Blossom, and the Holiday Inn attendants always looked at me funny. I was the wrong color and income bracket to work an overnight security shift, and they all knew it. It took me a few years to realize it, but at its core Boston is a racist town, and I was taking a good job away from a black man who was likely in more need of regular money than me.

Do I need to defend these statements? All but two of my coworkers were black, one an overweight white man and one a Latina. My manager was black, as were his bosses. The only healthy whites I saw worked in corporate, where the color ratio was again established in a way I had seen before, white majority. Everyone at Hawthorne had worked the job for years, the young ones only four but the oldest among them for fifteen and twenty. I only stayed for four months, and I could see it in the Holiday Inn workers’ eyes that even they knew I wasn’t cut out for the work.

Hours alone in my little office. Close both windows and turn on the space heater; it’s the only way to get by in those Boston nights. The winter chill settled into Boston around one each night, though none of the daydwellers would ever know because the more comfortable fall weather came back with the morning sun. Do some homework. Get restless. Wonder why you don’t write, and then don’t. Wonder why you don’t, ad infinitum.

On my break at three o’clock, the city held a different story. Ashley liked me to come home on these breaks even though she had to wake up in the morning, so I would walk home. I lingered in the streets, daring cars to round the bend and give me a thrill of fear, but none ever did. Brick rose up as high as my limited perspective could see, and fluorescent lights flooded into the streets, and no one ever disturbed the windows.

I liked to walk through the hospital’s campus instead of around the corner with the gas station–the homeless didn’t go into those streets because of the private security patrol–but either way I had to pass the oxygen tanks, which for some reason reeked of death and fungus every night. Fog fell off them like a cheap movie stunt, which always put me in the mood for an adventure with a building caddycorner:

At one point a rowhouse, MGH had snatched it up and turned it into some research facility, the windows boarded up so no one could look in and yet things definitely went on in there. Someone had also posted a Biohazard sign near the door, RFID’d and coded rather than just locked. Now the building stood isolated on the corner of two small streets, surrounded on one side by a parking lot and the other by a parking structure. What exactly went on in that dilapidated building that they hadn’t just torn it down like the others for more parking space? Were there people in there now, as I passed by? Was the zombie apocalypse going to begin across the street from my home? Could this be the exact scenario by which writers come to write scary movies and zombie apocalypses? And then, because every night I would forget, a blast of warm and humid air smacked me in the face, and it smelled almost like exhaust against the cold and crisp night air. Every night with that fucking vent. And then I’d be at Cambridge Street and then home.

Only once did I disturb a man sleeping in my building’s entryspace. I opened the open door and reach my key out towards the lock on the closed door, and there underneath me was an apologetic man: I’m so sorry, he said as he scrambled to get something together on the floor, perhaps the never-attended-to and always-accumulating stack of Beacon Hill Times. Flustered, I told him, “It’s no problem,” but I had to wait for him to leave before I could move into the building. It made me sad when I came back down that night and he wasn’t there; I would not have begrudged him a night’s sleep.

Kalli would always hear me climbing up the four flights of stairs, and she would hop out of bed with a thunderous clomp as her long nails hit the wood floor. Then she would skitter in front of the door until I opened it like a young child capable of waiting with excitement at any time of day. Clip clip clip her nails would click, waking Ashley just enough so that when I came in she could say, “Hi, honey,” before turning over and falling back asleep. I would kiss her before going into the kitchen to reheat my dinner, and out of sympathy I would sit with my laptop in the living room and do something silent. Always during the day she would say she liked it better when I sat in the bedroom to eat.

When did I start playing World of Warcraft again? That job, that Allied Barton job, played a direct hand in it, as did Ashley wanting me to be awake on the weekends to spend time with her. At least twice per week I had to change my sleep schedule, and for a while TV was enough to stay up for thirty-six hours, but always after watching enough TV I’ll start playing video games: one is a much more engaging format than the other. And though Ashley knew the role WoW had played in the dissolution of my relationship with Sarah, her fight against it was minimal. Sometimes then, after scarfing dinner, I would watch quietly a TV show; later I would log into WoW and do part of the leveling to 80. On occasion I would jot notes that had filled my head while walking home.

**

Whew, that’s about as much as I can get down this morning. I hope it’s worth something to someone other than me, even if it’s not finished.

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Story embryo: The Homeless Youth of the Silver Line

You can see a million miles tonight, but you can’t get very far. -Counting Crows

**

This is a story about a morning where I sacrificed nothing.

“Thank you so much for coming with me, honey.” Even at five in the morning, she’s bushy-tailed, light-hearted. She’s a morning person, my sweet buoyant Ashley.

“It’s nothing, honey. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.” Then I smiled and said, “You know, unless I had only got three hours of sleep last night.”

She stuffed clothes quickly into her bag. “That’s not funny. I was very disappointed that morning.”

“I know, honey.” I rubbed my dry eyes again, hoping to moisten the sandy sleep away.

“It’s amazing how many more clothes you can fit in a bag when you fold them,” she stated. I laughed, but only in the back of my mind so she wouldn’t hear. She said, still folded over her red rolling backpack, “You’d better start getting ready. Are you going to take a shower?”

I rubbed at my eyes again before answering, “No.” I looked at her then and said, “I love you.”

“I love you, too. Now come on!”

I pulled some jeans out of my dirty clothes pile and put them on. I put on the first green shirt I pulled out of my dresser, but it had some crusty white filth around the waist so I took it off even though it smelled clean and through it in the dirty clothes bin. The next green shirt was just fine.

She asked, “Will you bring the suitcase downstairs and call the dog up for me?” I nodded, and she leashed Kalli and left.

I stumbled around the house for the next minute trying to get everything in order: I pulled my passport and keys out of my work khakis in the dirty clothes bin and then went out to the living room to grab my wallet and iPod. I shoved everything roughly into their corresponding pockets and then went to the kitchen to grab a glass of water. The difference between the living room and kitchen in this 420 sq. ft. apartment is floor type: most of the apartment is hardwood–the norm in Boston–but the kitchen is cheap, thin linoleum. But no wall separates the room, and I scan the coffee table and small dining table in the living room from the kitchen counter where I’m drinking the water to make sure I haven’t left anything behind.

The door buzzes and I press the buttons that open the front door for Ashley. I walk out into the staircase and whistle down the four flights so that Kalli can hear me and will come up. I hear Ashley shooing her and shake my head: she should know by now that Kalli won’t come upstairs unless whoever walked her leaves. Kalli likes to be chased.

As Kalli starts to come up, Finny boldly sticks his nose over the threshold of our apartment’s door. The tiger cat is generally scared of me, especially when the front door is open, but last night and today he’s been especially bold about his intention to escape. When Kalli rounds the third floor landing, Finny bolts for the staircase up to the roof. He usually bolts downstairs, so I’m a little tickled by the change.

I reach for him, but he skitters further up and away from me. I mutter, “Come on, man, really?” and pursue him. When I reach for him, his claws dig into the thin rough carpet, so I scoop him forward a little bit to loosen him. I can feel his little heart through his ribs beating frantically, and he starts to turn this way and that, desperate to escape. The reaction is also strange for him, usually so calm even when he’s in trouble and scared, but I just shrug it off and set him down gently in our front hall, where he looks up at me as if he’s confused, perhaps having expected something worse.

“It’s okay, Finny,” I say before moving to the closet to grab my coat, which I unhook from its hangar and put on. The hangar is the one that came with the coat and itself stands out from the rest of the apartment: I bought it when I was working at Fidelity, when I was living high on the hog, and the polished wood and gold-plated wiring represents a financial status not otherwise shown in our impoverished home: a bed without a frame, books still in boxes because we can afford bookshelves, even our furniture which is not even from Ikea but rather from the Goodwill or found for free through Craigslist. The home is almost entirely patchworked, ghetto-rigged; the hangar is singular, hiding in the closet only to hold my coat.

Which itself is as singular. I feel awkward telling people about my financial situation when I’m wearing it, a black wool Calvin Klien three-quarters length coat with silk and cashmere lining. I bought it at Macy’s on a whim because I had the extra money and a maternal coworker had urged me. Now the lining in ripped at both places where the coat rests against my pants pockets and one place in the back, perhaps where I sat on it awkwardly once. I can’t dream of getting it relined anytime soon; I haven’t even looked into the cost.

“Aw, thanks, honey!” Ashley cooes when she sees me round the last landing with her suitcase. I walk down the last flight of stairs and answer, “No problem. How cold is it outside?”

“Not so bad,” she says.

“Should I put on my scarf and hat?”

“No, it’s not so bad,” she says again.

But when we walk outside it feels like it’s less than ten degrees, cold for December even in Boston, and I don’t get a block before I put on my silk scarf and hat, accessory purchases to the coat. We chitchat idly on our way to the Charles/MGH T station. Even when the train comes and we board, sitting next to each other, the talk is much the same: two weeks until we see each other again, and it’s too bad about her grandmother, and remember that time we walked all the way to Government Center instead of just getting on at MGH, and I’ll be fine and don’t worry about me. Ashley is a caregiver; she likes to dote.

When we get to South Station I point out the entry to the Silver Line buses and follow her towards them. The top of the stairs is slightly clouded, and when we get there the smell of burnt rubber offends us. The air is thick with white smoke. She coughs and I hold my scarf to my nose, but nothing avails us. As we move off to the left towards the SL1-Logan part of the station, the cloud dissipates quickly, and when we turn around we can see it in its entirety: a fifteen-foot obstructed sphere of nastiness. I shake my head to clear away the smell, and we cluster around her suitcase, hugging and kissing our goodbyes.

“Excuse me,” a young male voice calls out loudly enough that we know he’s talking to everyone on the platform. I turn my head to see a hooded youth in a thin red vest with a long sleeve shirt and pants. His red eyes and the gray hollows around them show that he’s tired, exhausted. “I was wondering if I could get a dollar from any of you so I could get a coat from the Goodwill. See, they handed out coats last night, but they ran out and I was one of a few that couldn’t get one. But they’re selling them, and I just need fifteen dollars, and I just need a coat. It’s so cold out there I can’t stand it; I can’t even leave the station.”

He had whiskers around his face, probably five days of growth. And he did look tired and cold. Ashley said that she didn’t have any cash on her, but I had two dollars that she had given me the day before in my wallet.

“I’m not going to get drugs,” he said. Nobody had responded, though a handful of the thirty or so people around watched him idly. “It’s just so cold, I just want a coat. And I’m so tired, I haven’t slept in days–”

I thought of Rich and how he couldn’t sleep when he had been homeless

“–and it’s just so cold. Just fifteen dollars and I can get a coat,” he mumbled. His voice began to crack, and his eyes turned even more red, and tears beaded inside them. He didn’t cry, though, and he regained his composure.

“Do you want to?” I asked Ashley.

“I don’t have any money,” she said. I pulled out the two dollars and gave them to her, and she gave them to him, and he thanked us briefly and quietly and moved along the crowd to see if there were any others who might give. We heard him mumble as he shuffled his feet, “It’s just so hard, and I’m so cold, and I need some help. It’s shit like this that makes me border-line suicidal,” at which point I saw fear flash through Ashley’s eyes, but I just held her close and pressed my cheek against her forehead. “I’m getting Section 8 housing on the twenty-eighth,” he continued, “but I can’t wait that long. I can’t wait that long. And it’s so cold.”

“It’s a good thing he’s getting Section 8,” Ashley said.

“But the twenty-eighth is so far away,” I answered.

“You’re not thinking of inviting him back to our place, are you?” she asked. We had done it before, once, with Rich, but I said “No, that’s just when Kiran’s coming in.”

About three minutes later the SL1 showed up and nobody had given him any more money. He grumbled about people with so much that couldn’t even give him a dollar to help him get a coat. “I can’t ask one person for fifteen dollars,” he said, “but I can ask fifteen for one. But I’m not even getting that,” he said, and he looked at me as I boarded the bus. “It’s one out of sixty, and always someone like you that gives me more than what I’m asking for. Thank you,” he said, and I nodded, boarded the bus, and left him there. He didn’t try to hussle me or get anything else from me, and I didn’t see where he went off to.

A young woman in a white half-coat, maybe in her early thirties, ran onto the bus after me. “Oh, was he begging for money?” she asked. I said yeah. “He should get a job. Everywhere is hiring.” I said yeah again and sat down with Ashley. The woman sat down across the aisle.

I told Ashley, “I almost gave my hat to a woman at Harvard yesterday.”

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“Some homeless woman who was selling Spare Change. She looked so sad and cold. I wanted to give her my hat, but I couldn’t’ve replaced it.”

Ashley said, “I should’ve told him that I bought my coat at the Goodwill for fourteen dollars. That might’ve made him feel better.”

“Yes, it might have. You know, he’s the sort of character I should be searching out. He would’ve made a good article.”

“Yeah!” Ashley exclaimed, suddenly animated. “You could do like a collage of portraits of homeless people, like a years worth of people, where they go and what they do and why they’re there. That would be so interesting.”

“A similar article in The New Yorker back in the fifties helped launch them to national prominence,” I mentioned. “I can’t remember the name of the journalist, but he wrote about a homeless man named Joe Gould. And there was another at the turn of the century, I can’t remember that journalist’s name, either, who dressed himself up in rags and wrote about New York’s homeless population and how they get by.”

“Oh, so it’s not really new?” she asked, disappointed.

“Well, not sparkling new, but that doesn’t mean I can’t bring something to the table those authors didn’t.”

“What do you mean?”

“In each of those cases, homelessness was treated as something novel; it was exoticized, like it’s a foreign state that nobody knows anything about. But that’s not really the case today, people just treat it so flippantly, with stereotypes, you know? I could address that.”

“Yeah, people just don’t think that without a family to catch them in hard times they could be there. I mean, just think if we didn’t have our parents, or at least if we didn’t have yours.”

“Yours wouldn’t let you slip into homelessness, either. They may not pay to keep you in Boston, but they wouldn’t let you fall so far,” I said.

“But not everyone has that safety net,” she said.

“No, not everyone. Not most,” I answered.

“It’s good he got Section 8 housing,” she reiterated. “And then you could use the proceeds from the writing to go to like Wal-mart or something and buy coats in bulk, because the big charities can take care of food banks and stuff but obviously at least someone needs some help to get a coat.”

“That probably not the best way to go about it, but I like the idea,” I said. Then we quieted down since the bus had reached the airport, and we listened to the speaker list off the airlines at Terminal A and then Terminal B stop 1, where we got off. I walked her into the airport.

“Did you hear what that woman said to me, when she got on the bus?” I asked.

“No, what did she say?”

“That if he was homeless he should just get a job. ‘Everyone is hiring,'” I mocked.

“Yeah, that’s why you’re struggling to get a job,” Ashley scoffed. “God, that’s something my sister would’ve said.” She shook her head as we boarded the up escalator to the US Airways ticket counters.

“I would’ve given him the coat off my back if I could’ve afforded to replace it,” I said.

“I know, honey. I could see it in the way you watched him.” She put her hand on my shoulder.

“And that’s the extent of my generosity: I’ll give as long as it doesn’t inconvenience me. God, what a dick I am.”

“No, honey,” she cooed. “We just don’t have anything to give.”

So here I was at the airport with my girlfriend early in the morning to say goodbye, having given two dollars so that a young out-of-luck man who happened to cross my path could buy a coat, critical of myself. The story needs work, like what problems my parents had bailed me out of and how recently and the job change I was going through at the time, from an overnight concierge position to a cashier position at The Coop, where I’d work later that day for the third 9-hour shift in a row my third day on the job. But still, it’s a start.

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A Break-up Story: Vanessa

This guest post brought to you by Mani Afsari. Don’t forget to write for the Theme Thursday tonight! 🙂

**

I cringed when my phone went off, knowing full well who it was and what she wanted.  Somehow she had gotten the idea that we were a couple and therefore requested my attention and my company on a regular basis.  Such requests had never bothered me before, but with an inability to commit even an ounce of my freedom toward somebody else, I felt chained down.

“You should come over tonight for dinner, I’ll make us pasta.”

Hesitantly I looked at the text message like an obstacle to overcome.  I had already avoided her “I got laid off today” party the previous night, by telling her that I was busy.  I felt that I couldn’t use that excuse again.

I started to think of reasons.  Medical issues I’ve always thought were the dumbest excuses.  If I were sick, I’d like to see my girlfriend more than anyone.  I couldn’t use family emergencies either since I am not willing to lie about family problems to further my own agenda.  All I had left was that I was busy, which I wasn’t.  Back at square one.

I flipped open my phone, making sure to look up at the busy road, shift gears, and still type the message.  It was a fool’s idea of multitasking and had gotten me into near misses more than once.  I wish I had had something better to say.  I wished that I could’ve liked her more, that I didn’t pick her apart like I did.  I wish I didn’t have all these emotional issues.  In the end all I could come up with was “I’m busy tonight.”

Vanessa was no idiot.  She knew what was happening but still tried to fix it.  I had to make sure that she couldn’t.

I had already lined up another date for the following night with a tall, dark haired, incredibly skinny, full breasted girl.  I already felt bad enough about having planned this date while Vanessa was in the room next to me, after which I followed her back to her apartment to spend the night.  I could not bear the thought of continuing this “fling” that we had and having a date on the side as well.  I had known from the first date that Vanessa and I were not going to work out, but the idea of having someone with whom to share moments, sexual gratification, and alleviated loneliness seemed reason enough for me to indulge the relationship that we had.

I was looking to sabotage whatever it was that Vanessa and I had.  In order to do that, I had convinced myself that we had irreconcilable differences and that I was acting rationally.  I had blamed her for having too high of a sex drive, a problem which most men laugh at when mentioned.  Almost the whole of the time that Vanessa and I shared together was spent with me inside of her.  She thought she was showing me affection, but I wanted more than that. I blamed her.  Her hair was always a mess. I couldn’t stand the way she laughed.  She was not a good kisser.  (She wasn’t bad, but I found her style of kissing to be intense and therefore undesirable.)

“I think we moved too fast” was the only explanation I gave her.  My emotions were torn. I did not personally care for this girl.  I had no connection to her, and I did not even want to keep her as a friend.  The guilt came from knowing what the receiving end of that kind of apathetic behavior felt like.  Having been in her position and knowing full well the emotional damage that rejection of this kind can have, I could feel her pain as I drove on to work.  Surprisingly, the one benefit that these wounds have accomplished for me is complete disinterest in the feelings of other people, which made it easier to just walk away from Vanessa rather than confront the situation head on.

She sent me two more messages, neither of which I responded to, not because I had nothing to say but because I was afraid of the repercussions of continuing the conversation.  I knew that it could only end in her telling me how terrible a person I was.  In the first message she reminded me that it was my idea to go to the bedroom on the second date.  True as the statement was, at the time I was only voicing what Vanessa, straddling my lap, subconsciously grinding on me, was too embarrassed to say.  Regardless, she had at that time managed to keep her mouth shut, and I had not.

I hoped that it would be her final words, but I was wrong.  She left the conversation open ended.  She asked me to call her whenever I got my “shit together.”  From any other girl this statement would have been sarcastic, but with Vanessa meant it.

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Author: Mani Afsari

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A Highschool Story: Ms. Young

I don’t often couch stories with extraneous information, but here it seems relevant. If you’re not interested, please continue on to the story, which I feel is just as good without.

My friends know (my family may not) that I loathed Plano with every inch of my being while I was there. It started with the classroom and moved further out to the manicured lawns and streets. My entire sentient life there I spent attempting to leave in one form or another. Not the least reason for my frustration was my consistent poor performance in school.

That’s not to say that I tried really hard and failed. I hardly tried and rarely failed, but I was always looking for something that just didn’t seem to be there. Who knows at this point what it might have been, but as my life has progressed, I think the desire has morphed into a search for a mentor, for somebody to believe in me or perhaps just see me for my potential. Teachers, for all their intentions, seem to me incapable of fulfilling this role. I discuss this more in an article on Sadi Ranson-Polizzotti’s Tant Mieux, but suffice to say that teachers have to concern themselves more with your test scores than your potential out of mere practicality.

Some have argued with me, saying that my English teachers’ collective challenge to my ability could have been applied reverse psychology, hoping to make me shape up by telling me that half-assing it wouldn’t cut it. Perhaps if the fact of my performance in the classroom had been limited to one or two teachers, or even to five, I might agree that it’s possible. However, I nearly failed every English course I ever took in high school, I actually failed the only English course I took in college, and the closest course to an English course in my post-grad work is the closest one in which I came close to receiving less than an A.

Another theory, posed by no one who knows me but one I have to pose just to prove the example, is that I can’t think critically. Since I don’t cover all of the angles to any given topic, I deserve my low grade because it’s symptomatic of half-assed work. Well, my work history in addition to standardized test scores disagree with this theory, and hopefully there’s ample proof on this blog alone that such is not the case.

I posit, therefore, that English teachers simply didn’t understand. They didn’t see the promise in my essays not because it didn’t exist but because their academic dogmatism kept them tied to more traditional approaches (those things very near plagiarism that was call “essays,” as much a violation of intellectual property–even if the owner is long dead–as any basic example of unsolicited remix). Call me arrogant if you want, sure, and empty of promise, but in my opinion, English rooms are sterile and stifling environments that squelch creativity and independent thought. I have no love for them at all and, as soon as I had the choice in my academic career, avoided them to what I consider my benefit.

Of course, what’s happened here is that I’ve moved from loathing Plano and it’s English departments to loathing English teachers in general. Baylor had nothing to do with the PISD, and Emerson College in Boston, MA certainly bears no connection. So what do I do with this leftover rage towards Plano, most of which was tied up in my inability to make my peers there understand either my frustration with them or merely my simplest thoughts, a basic communication dilemma that continues to exist to this day? Well–and fuck you, Mani–I still hate Plano, even if I can forgive it this slight little bit.

**

Though in the English hall and an English classroom or Jasper High School, I chose Creative Writing because Ms. Young sold me its distinct image. Her classroom buzzed with energy because of her youth and zeal; unmarried and unburdened by the relentless years of classroom experience that weather away the beautiful composite face comprised of the students who supply her reason for having chosen education as a career, she’s decided to teach a course no other teacher felt willing to shoulder but which helped Plano appear more well-rounded. I’ve never found diversity (especially of thought) in an English classroom, but I decided to give her new course a shot.

Fifteen minutes before the bell rings, Ms. Young asks everyone to stop writing and requests that someone read the work they had accomplished that day. I look around at all the other students, a few of whom keep their eyes down while others look around like I do; white faces all around. No one looks at Ms. Young while she scans the room, afraid to volunteer by eye contact. She really is quite pretty with her long, thick brown hair and her pale but hopeful eyes. Her mouth hangs slightly open as her head turns from side to side, and her body, red sweater, and brown skirt are motionless. When I look away from her, my eyes land on the inspirational poster on the door about walking in footprints on the beach; I roll my eyes, keep my head down.

Marissa leans over and puts her hand on my shoulder so she can whisper, “You shouldn’t be afraid.”

I don’t turn my head to look at her, but I smirk. “Neither should you.”

“I’m not. I didn’t write anything.” I can imagine her crafty smile, resting lightly upon her pretty but slightly scarred face. She’s allergic to her own sweat, which causes her face to constantly break out. I look over my shoulder to make sure it’s there, pleading with me like I expect.

We chuckle quietly together, and I resign to volunteer. I can’t quite claim an alpha personality, and my decision doesn’t really stem from a desire to save Marissa from potential embarrassment. I feel compelled to end inefficiency in how my class spends its time when the silence drags on vulgarly.

Ms. Young smiles at me while I tremble in front of the class, my nerves suffering under a weird mix of terror and excitement. There’s only twelve students scattered amongst the tables in the classroom. I know everyone in here by name. I shouldn’t feel scared of them.

A wizard stands on a cliff ledge overlooking a village that trusted him for protection. (Already the shaking has subsided.) The flames from the village are strong enough to light his face, scarred more than wrinkled, experienced more than wise. (I forget the classroom; only the page and my scrawl exist.) He has failed them; he wants to shoulder their burden, the weight of his failure measured out by the ashes of burnt homes and the bodies of murdered victims, but finds himself unable. (I am the wizard; no, I am his sorrow and his guilt. No, I am the world he wants to bear. No.) His arms reach towards the stars as he screams out a long, undulating cry to the heavens: “I’m sorry!” (I’d never make it as an actor; I’m suddenly conscious of the other students again.) He leans forwards, finds himself capable after all.

I beam with pride. Students applaud lightly and nervously, not really sure about what they’ve just heard. Marissa smiles, the vain Catholic. The bell rings, and she and the other students bolt. I return to my seat and shove the paper in haphazardly.

“I don’t get it,” says Ms. Young.

I answer her quietly: “I know.” I’m not sure she hears me.

I leave the classroom without discussing the story with her. It wasn’t complicated, or maybe it was, but at any rate my mind had rushed to other subjects than my creation. Ms. Young had implied a request for me to breakdown the story; she had asked for me to treat it like literature and explain it to her. She claimed that she didn’t understand, but could she really not have? I wonder briefly, Can my incomprehensibility cover my life to such an extent as to umbrella every instance of  communication, both the fantastic and the academic?

I leave the carpeted English corridor and emerge over the polished tile of the hallway. In front of me, a metal banister splits the stairway in half. I approach it and rest my right hand on it, looking at the reflection of a florescent light obscured by my head and shoulders, the floor too opaque to show my reflection in detail. The bell rings for class to begin, but I’m lost in thought and not the type of student who frets over punctuality anyway.

English teachers pose literature as my nemesis with their superficial questions and their polite challenges and impolite grading, but I know truth doesn’t reside in rebellion. I don’t want to feel the weight of the world of ideas in my mind or to criticize anyone’s arrangement of words in an educated manner, but not because I don’t enjoy reading or thinking. Actively engaging a story takes away the passive pleasure of reading it, and I’m content with the passive pleasure, aren’t I, the satisfaction of writing, of reading, of thinking abstractly without criticizing specifically? I would have to submit to my formally recognized enemy, my teachers, if I engaged a work actively, wouldn’t I?

I’ve been told that by imposing academic structure on my mind, I will broaden my understanding of the world and multiply the number of subjects I can ponder. But the fact of the matter is—as I prove when I sit in the reigning creative silence of Ms. Young’s room—that I can hardly get my mind to shut up. The last thing I need from it is coherent categorical thoughts.

I utter words and phrases that apparently only I can understand. I formulate ideas that only I can stomach, only my tongue decipher. I’m not convinced that educating myself in the manner my teachers have suggested will help them understand me. Not only do I doubt their conjectures, I feel almost certain they are wrong.

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Author: Greg Freed

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