Break

Break

 

We’re smoking and laughing, and I’m surprised that I’m staying awake despite the fact that I’m going on hour forty-three of being awake. The woman I have a crush on is bumming smokes from the pack I leave between us on the thin plastic table. I’m chain smoking, a habit that’s becoming more regular every time I drink. The drinking’s becoming more regular too.

The day started warm but ended cold. December only ever remembers it’s a winter month at night when you’re this far south. My fingers brush against the woman’s as we both reach for a cigarette. We laugh over the shared addiction, then all four of us laugh over how we’re all lighting up at the same time. Misery loves company as much as it loves cliché.

It happens when I light up. The little flame seems so bright it practically sparkles. My neck has felt stiff since I got here but like an idiot I ignored it. If I’m lucky it’s just a migraine.

Then my legs lock, and I realize I haven’t lit my cigarette yet. The flame is so bright I feel like the image of my friends is burning away. I take a quick puff and light my smoke halfway before tucking the lighter in my pocket.

My legs lock up. I have to clench my teeth before they’re loose enough to bend at the knee, and before things get bad I mumble something about grabbing another pack from my car. The three of them nod and drink and keep talking. The woman I have a crush on gives me a quick look of concern but that could just be me worrying that they’ll notice.

I get in the car and drop into the passenger seat, and as I lock the door my body seizes and I curl into a ball. The intense aggravation I felt as I walked has blown into full-scale fury, and I tuck my head between my knees to fight off the urge to scream.

I feel my phone vibrate in my pocket, and like an idiot I look to see who it is. A girl I used to love has texted me: “I miss you.” In two minutes the message will melt my heart, but right now I want to pull the phone apart in my hands. She saw me like this once. She lies, but doesn’t mean to. She could only miss something fixable.

I fight off the urge to roll out a pill and crush it in my teeth. It’s a short-term solution with long-term consequences of growing intensity. I’m doing good. I breathe and tighten myself. My legs and back are screaming from exertion but I stay still. If I rock the car they’ll see, and if they see they’ll know.

I’ve only dug my nails into my scalp. I haven’t left any marks. I take deep breaths, and my flushed skin now feels like ice. The adrenaline that roared through me makes me shake a little. That’s okay. It’s chilly. I’m supposed to shake a little.

The urge to be alone is still there. The urge to turn everyone away and just drive off will last until dawn. But it wasn’t that bad this time. The regular pills did their work. I didn’t hear whispers this time.

I calm down, grab another pack of smokes, and walk back to the garage. I send a text to another state: “I miss you too.” The woman I have a crush on smiles as I sit back down. I light another cigarette and listen to a joke one of our friends makes. I laugh even though I just want to yell.

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Fear and Feeling

Hallway

Recently I learned that there is a secret room in the basement of the building I work in. Though this will sound like absolute bullshit, the room is dark, covered in fading wallpaper, and is filled with broken dolls and torn teddy bears. And, naturally, some of those items are nailed to the wall.

There’s also a sink and bathroom that has seen recent and regular use. I’m not always a nice person, so I made sure to tell all of this to the girl who replaced me for the evening shift before I left. She’s told me before that she’s heard humming and moving below the floor, and this new tidbit of info caused her to give me a petrified look before I almost literally skipped out the door.

We love scary stories because they take our fears and transplant them outside the realm of everyday occurrence. We feel scared when we think we’re alone with a ghost. We are terrified when a human being comes at us with a knife. The things monsters might do lie in imagined, ethereal possibility, but we see our own actions every day.

As a teenager, I loved sneaking into cemeteries late at night. The local graveyard is huge, and I could burn hours just wandering around. I remember a scary moment as I sat beneath a tree, beside an old tomb that had been broken open long ago by falling branches. There was heat lightning in the sky, and something seemed to be scratching and muttering from inside the concrete hole. I was spooked, but I did not literally hide the way I did when I thought I heard living human voices, trailing along a set of railroad tracks, laughing and growing nearer…

There’s a psychiatric hospital in a nearby town that is largely closed down. I used to sneak into the larger buildings with an old girlfriend. We dropped dry ice in mildewed bathtubs filled with water, we looked through old x-rays, we studied forgotten maps leading to patients’ graves outside. Most of those graves seemed to be unmarked. Friends of ours loved to spin stories about ghosts still wandering the collapsing halls, and old patients who still lived in tunnels beneath the hospital grounds.

We need ghosts and monsters because metaphor absolves us of the sin of oversight. We thrill to scary urban legends about serial killers, because otherwise we would be left to sympathize with the old man muttering to himself in the cold. We tell stories of voodoo queens, because it hurts us less to fear an old woman who sleeps outside than it would to feel for her. We ask each other if we believe in ghosts, when our own indulgence compels us to never notice them.

***

Images taken from “Abandoned: A Look Inside Central State Hospital of Milledgeville, Georgia,” by Monica Waller. Follow this link to purchase her work.

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Filed under Miscellaneous, Non-Fiction

Presumed Assumption

An admittedly weird quirk of mine is to judge others based on the level of assumption and presumption they live their life by. This is admittedly difficult, as we all carry long-term assumptions, regardless of how substantiated they are. It’s a deep part of our evolutionary behavior; those who carried the most assumptions in our hunter-gatherer days tended to be the ones who avoided disease and predation. But as society grew more complex, and continues to do so, assumption is little more than defective behavior. To live your life in a state of presumption is to live it with an extra set of eyes you inexplicably keep closed.

There’s no real rhyme to how I level judgment, which is okay because my judgment is of zero consequence anyhow. Presumptions as to my level of competency can be hot buttons for me. I try not to, but I lose a little respect for managers who assume I’ve widely misunderstood a simple concept based on a small mistake, likely one made simply because I did not have time to finish a chore before leaving for the day. I keep quiet when men think I’ve said “ma’am” instead of “man,” usually only pointing out their idiocy if they begin to give me shit based on their mistake.

There are assumptions made out of fear, though, and those are a little harder to hold against people. I had one woman break up with me because she assumed that if we broke up we wouldn’t be friends any longer. How do you get mad over something that innocent? Another broke things off because she thought she was angering me. I don’t know why she thought this, but when it came to light I thought to myself We throw away our years based on assumption.

We avoid jobs we assume we can’t do. We ignore degrees we assume we can’t master. We keep our heads down because we assume the light of day is too bright to behold. Loves are missed because we assume the other person isn’t interested. We are safe, we are adventurous, we fail, because we presume things should be the way we make them be.

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Adultolescence

adulthood

 

During a slow period at work, when there are no customers and everything’s been stocked and cleaned, I sit at the computers by the registers and look up random things on Wikipedia. My coworker, a nice enough guy, looms over my shoulder, talking a mile a minute about every subject I search for. It wouldn’t be so bad except that he’s explaining the meaning of whatever it is I’m typing in, not understanding that I’m just passing the time. I try to be polite and engage him while he speaks, but it becomes tiresome and eventually I just ignore him. He’s in college and eager to show off what he’s learned. He lectures me on subjects I’ve studied more thoroughly than he has. He wonders why I’m not amazed by information I already know. He’s young and he resents it.

While I study for my GRE, I’ve taken a job at a local grocery store. It’s a cute, mostly locally sourced place owned by two friends I admire a lot, who were kind enough to hire me. The pay is low but the work is light, and there are days where it feels as though I’m simply being paid to hang out.

I’m one of the older employees there, and while the age difference between me and most of the other workers isn’t tremendous, it’s enough that I notice it. At 28, there’s no way I can pretend I’m not young, but I feel disgustingly grownup compared to the other workers. It’s silly, really, but when I refer to them, I don’t think the word “people” so much as I think the word “kids.”

The early 20s are often referred to jokingly as extended adolescence, but whenever I mention that to someone in their late 20s, there’s this knowing nod that we both share. It’s awkward when jokes are unintentionally accurate.

Do you remember what you were doing when it hit you? When you realized life after 25 was noticeably different than life before 25?

There are people who have forgotten how dramatic this dichotomy is, and they’ll scoff when you bring it up, but how many of you remember waking up with a staggering hangover at 26, and remembering how you would shake it off with zero effort just four years ago? When did you feel the first tell-tale sign of buckling in your knees after jumping the last stair, a jump that had never registered in your hips at 24? How many of you remember the exact moment when you understood you were only growing older from now on, instead of growing up?

The kids wouldn’t believe me if I told them any of this. Other “kids” haven’t, and I suspect they can’t. It’s almost impossible to understand the dramatic change in their self-perception that waits for them around the very next visible corner.

And it’s not just the body that has changed on me, it’s perception as well. I see these kids groan over workloads I’ve come to see as routine. Easier than routine, really. The café will get four sandwich orders at once, and complaints will fly when customers are out of earshot. At my last job, twenty orders at once just meant the hotel guests had woken up.

You have to understand that they’re not ungrateful or lazy or spoiled, or any other bullshit coded anti-youth phrase you were about to mutter. They’re just kids. They’re getting their feet wet and remarking on the temperature. They’re not rejecting the world, they just have to force themselves to mold into it, the way everyone eventually does.

And I know this, but still they seem so young and even at just 28, I think to myself they have so much growing to do. And then I laugh at myself for being so ridiculously patronizing. Who issued me the license to discount them for their slightly more noticeable youth?

But I do it anyway. Sometimes it’ll take me a moment to register when teenagers I’m around are talking to me. They probably think I’m awkward but the truth is I simply don’t have any interest in what they’re saying. They seem put-off when I brush off invitations to hang out. They stammer when I cut them off mid-sentence so I can get back to work.

Part of the wisdom of adulthood is in remembering the social power you wield. Teenagers will never threaten your place in the world the way you think they will. Every bully thinks they’re the persecuted one.

My coworker notices I’ve stopped responding. I didn’t do it out of spite. I only did it because it was never truly a conversation. He’s a person who talks at you, not to you. But he’s sensitive and worries a lot, and he’s only 20, so he asks if he’s bugging me. I say no and keep reading, but he’s still unsure.

“You can tell me if I am,” he says. “Am I? I didn’t mean anything by it. It’s just if I am you can say something.” Like everyone who doesn’t yet know how to be taken seriously, he affects a condescending tone. “You know that, right?”

And he keeps talking, and asking questions, and I can say nothing back. I can only answer the questions he asks by waiting until he lives through the next few years of his life.

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Filed under Miscellaneous, Non-Fiction

Grateful

 

I generally enjoy Thanksgiving. The revisionist history behind it is extremely suspect, but the simple act of eating amongst loved ones and expressing gratitude over what you have in life still strikes me as the most basically earnest celebration anyone could ever hold. And as much as I complain in life, I truly am grateful for a lot, but I’m not sure I’m grateful for the same things everyone else is.

I’m grateful that I can keep myself from arguing over politics. This is a big deal, as I’m one of about two liberals in a heavily red family. My cousins are the type who enjoy getting drunk as fast as possible, as a prelude to expounding on some truly amusing, though distressingly racist, political conspiracy theories. I receive phone calls from elderly relatives in Alabama who bizarrely refer to Obama as “your president,” though I’m pretty sure Alabama’s in the same country Georgia is. The guy who mails my holiday cards snorts over the “Happy Holidays” stamps he sells me himself, and wonders aloud where Christmas has gone. But since I’m not related to him, I tell him it’s probably right where it was when Bing Crosby first sang “Happy Holiday” in 1942. People always forget how old that phrase is.

I’m grateful that the women I’ve been attracted to in life have been ones who weren’t afraid to put me in my place when I needed it. I wish I could’ve avoided the general trap of male entitlement, but of course we’re a few generations away from that scourge ever being truly wiped away clean. I was once scolded by a friend I also had a crush on, when it dawned on her that I valued our friendship only as far as it took me to being intimate with her. Even I didn’t realize this at the time, but she was right. That revelation stayed with me a long time. Understanding my transgression helps me remain close with my ex, to be there for her when she needs me to be, and only as far as friendship will allow. It’s why I refuse to indulge petulance from other men, who feel scorned when another autonomous human being turns down their advances. It’s helped me realize you only ever grow up; you’re never truly grown.

I’m grateful I understand that cats and dogs are basically the same animal. Gerbils, ferrets, rabbits too, for that matter. Love them, care for them, show that you care, and they’ll follow you to the end of the world. I have friends who adamantly disagree with me on this. I never say it to their faces, but I would never trust them around any of my pets. There are no pets that take care of themselves. I feel that understanding this keeps my animals safe. When they curl up to me at night, purring or wagging their tails, I’m so grateful for their presence I could explode.

I’m grateful I understand the difference between acquaintances and true friends. I can enjoy a beer with an acquaintance. I can talk for hours about books and TV shows with them. But I can make jokes about my sex life with friends. I can tell them I can’t go out because my anxiety meds aren’t working that night, and that panic attacks will hit me if I step out the door. I can let honest emotion creep into my voice with friends. I can trust them around my phone and my wallet, my family and my pets.

I’m grateful I can type this inside a house. It’s such a basic thing, but we take for granted how fortunate we are to be under a roof when rain comes, to be against a wall when the wind blows.

I’m grateful my body moves when I want it to, that I understand the meaning behind letters that, when you get down to it, are little more than arbitrary swirling lines.

I’m grateful for cigarettes and alcohol, for sunny autumn days and wooded places where other people never go. I’m grateful for sex and food and clean water and the smell of burning leaves. I’m grateful to be here, and alive, and aware.

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Stride

old slide

 

There’s a park in my hometown that I frequented a lot as a child. It’s old but well-maintained. Most of the play sets are constructed out of heavy wood and steel, and the metal bridge spanning the ditch from the parking lot to the play area has a little heart scratched inside the green paint. Inside the heart it reads “J.K. & H.A. 1967.”

This place seemed gigantic when I was little. Journeying from the play sets to the baseball field by the road felt like an honest hike. Splashes from the pool carried like noise from some distant highway. The ditch beside the parking lot required careful climbing if one wanted to collect the tadpoles that always swam in the green puddles after a rain.

I could cross the entire thing in less than two minutes now, without the slightest effort. I’m taller than the jungle gym that used to feel so dangerous to climb. I used to sit at the top and daydream that I was King Kong.

There’s a “nature trail” that leads through some trees in back. In this small town, “nature trail” means that you can just barely see the houses through the bushes on either side. Here I remember the thrill of autumn games of flashlight tag, and noticing with excitement as the sky turned dark and the moon began to shine. On those nights, when you had an hour of night before the park would close, the dark figures behind the flashlights could be anyone you wanted them to be.

I walk along that trail now, and there’s nothing here beyond my ability to control. Rustles in the leaves are simply scared chipmunks. The trail is now paved, and comfortable to follow. Children no longer issue cryptic warnings about things seen in the brush. They see me for what I am: a grownup, separate from whatever threats lurk in their imaginations.

This expansive land shrinks beneath my footsteps as I walk it. I can’t pretend I don’t hear the sounds of sprinklers and power tools behind the foliage. Once limitless days are shortened and frittered away. Sweet crushes have become lost loves, or, worse, just forgotten.

I walk to my car. It used to be a hero’s journey to enter and leave this sandy, leaf-strewn land. I climb into the driver’s seat. I am in the street and headed home within ten seconds. Later, it will take me longer to do the dishes than it did to stroll the length of my childhood continent.

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Filed under Non-Fiction

Theft

Cash

 

I watched a man rob himself once.

It was as weird as it sounds. During lunch rush I manned the register, taking orders and giving change. At one point I rang a twenty as a ten, and the customer pointed it out to me. He was polite about it, and I thanked him for it. It was my error at that point.

The mistake was noticed because I recited his change as $6.41. He pointed out that he’d given me a twenty. He was right, and I also noticed that I read the total as his change. I corrected myself, and he acknowledged he’d just thought about it too. I’d goofed, but it was an honest mistake and we both knew it. We’d worked through it and it was done.

At least…I thought it was. The guy leaned over the counter and stared directly into the cash drawer. This made me nervous, but customers do weird things all the time, everywhere, so I just let it go, and kept an eye out in case he tried to reach inside.

“Now you’re giving me too much,” he stated. I wasn’t. I had a five tucked between my pinkie and ring finger. It had been put with the tens and I was holding it separately until I gave the man his change.

“No sir, I got it. $13.59 is your change…”

“That’s $18.59.” He enunciated like school was in session. Polite in a condescending way. I kept my tone even and simply said: “Yes sir, it is. Your change is $13.59.”

I tucked the five in its proper compartment, handed him his change, and watched as confusion scrunched his face. “Wait, that’s not right either. You said my change was $6.41.”

“Sir…”

“No, listen, I saw the change on your screen…”

“That was the total, actually. The total was $6.41. And from twenty the change…”

“That was the change.” He wasn’t rude, but he was insistent. There wasn’t any stopping him now. He wouldn’t hear me. He counted out six dollars and thrust it at me. He then, carefully, counted forty-one cents, and dropped it directly into the drawer.

“I mean, it’s no big deal,” he reassured me. “Mistakes happen. It’s alright.”

Now, I admit, I could have pressed the issue. I could have made another, clearer attempt at explaining the problem.

But my temper was threatening to flare. When people who are in the wrong condescend to me, I instantly write them off as less than whatever I’d considered them before. You can assume me wrong. That’s no problem. I often am wrong. I was wrong not thirty seconds before. But do not assume I remain wrong.

I watched this guy walk downstairs to meet his law professor and fellow grad students. He was self-confident in a way that seemed to make him believe in everything he did, mistakes included. He was content and overcharged for a sandwich by double.

I sat the mistaken change aside and worked through the orders. I wondered how much more the man would lose to himself. Who could he call if he finally caught his hands in his own wallet?

I delivered his order, and then ignored him. I put the extra change in a paper bag and taped it closed. In marker I wrote: “TIPS FOR WHOEVER WANTS THEM.” I left the bag on the counter.

The money was still there when I clocked out. Maybe, in small streams of pennies and dimes, it’ll find its way home to its absent master. Or maybe its current will slip between his fingers, and spill upon thirstier folk.

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Filed under Non-Fiction