Lost in the options, hanging out back of a Taco Bell, a stained and worn strip of cardboard sitting on the concrete next to us, blasting some Reggie Watts off of a smartphone, shaking a can of spray paint that’s half out, and Sammy’s rendering a Renaissance mural on the wall, a bloodmapped mattress off at the end of the alley, from some old motel, a seedy place next to the exact replica of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the only tourist trap and place of note in this small Illinois town, small relative to the size of Chicago, though infested by denizens of same, with driveby shootings in the middle of Touhy Avenue, civilians caught in the crossfire, never able to react to the light as it turns green, and we passed by the art park on our bike ride over here, the one with anything and everything on display, modern art, experimental, abstract, the homeless people on the side of the street, next to the canal, shooting heroin in between bouts of panhandling, the software designer from Florida among them, the guy I talked to, the guy I walked past on my way home from MMA one night, soaking wet with sweat, asking him about his life, finding out the details, offering to draft up an interview, maybe a series, online, hashing out the social media details, getting his story out to an audience so the world could understand what it’s like, what the experience of homelessness is, always seeing it through the lens of passive news viewer or vaguely worried passerby, not knowing when to make eye contact if at all, all of us wanting to ignore the fact that we can all be at this place at any time, are always one paycheck, one decision away from having nothing, and I knew this from the time I was a boy, before even my mom became homeless, when I could see it firsthand, could see the way that life had melted her, shaped her into someone she wasn’t, always a respectable member of society until you aren’t, until people have a reason and excuse to cast you aside, and I’m thinking about these things while Sammy is doing his work on the Taco Bell wall, an ethereal representation of Sodom and Gomorrah, cities quickly turning to ash, burning, eating themselves, with a figure of the Madonna in the foreground, with the baby Messiah suckling at her breast, looking content, peaceful, maybe with no idea what’s going on behind her, just pausing in this moment to have her likeness captured, and we’re talking about childhood books that were read to us when we were little, Goodnight Moon, Where the Wild Things Are, thinking back to a time when things weren’t fucked up, or not quite as fucked up as they are now, a time before responsibility and accountability, and there are sirens in the distance, Skokie cops, and Sammy has to get the last details right before we go, has to get it just right, because there’s no way we can come back here again, not even once, because once we’ve tagged a place we’re gone from there for good, so he finishes, and we take our last swigs of the wine we bought and brought, and we run away to the next street where we can ride off in peace.
When I got the call and heard that my little brother had attempted suicide, there was that long, false, beautiful moment where my brain decided this was Not Real. This was an incredibly tasteless joke, or maybe it’d been a case of mistaken identity. I’d talked with him the week before, seen him in person last month when I’d flown back home, and he’d seemed fine. Stressed, maybe, but okay. A couple weeks later, he’d downed a bottle of pills and waited for an end that refused to come.
I know that discovery, that mix of shock and relief and disappointment. I’ve been in that position, been hospitalized for it, seen the looks on the faces of the people who matter most to me, and now I couldn’t help but make the same face. Couldn’t help but sort through the years, looking for any clues that this could possibly happen. Regressed mentally until I was a little kid myself, holding my little brother for the first time, just a baby, with no concept of the fact that what was just given to him could so easily be taken away.
When I got off the phone and reality finally caught up, I walked into the bathroom and knelt in front of the toilet. My stomach heaved, mouth stayed open, but nothing came out. Like words left unsaid for years, gathering, with no outlet, no exit, mingled and mangled until they’re unrecognizable and you can no longer say what needs to be said.
I cried. I allowed myself that much.
Powerlessness is an old friend. I knew him well when I was younger, but I thought we’d parted ways for good. I was wrong. How much consoling and comforting can you do from 800 miles away? What can you say over a static-y line that could make all of this go away? To see that kid at knee-height again, tearing through the house and laughing as you pretend to be a monster and give chase? What words can you offer beyond the ones that everyone already says, the words I myself had heard in the hospital, from friends and family and staff?
When I was sure I wouldn’t throw up, I got the number for his facility and called. Hearing his voice was like hearing someone come back from the dead, with every nuance and vocal quality vivid and obvious. I’d never pinpointed the details before, always subconsciously assumed that he’d always be there for me to listen to. I’d taken those things for granted.
What is a person made of? Is it the tiny changes in inflection when they’re making a joke? The glint in their eye when they haven’t seen you in months? For my brother, it was being able to be sarcastic in any situation, including and especially when relaying the facts of a suicide attempt. It was asking about family members and hoping they were okay, as if what had just happened to him was insignificant. It was the way that every “I love you” that came out of his mouth was genuine. True. And always would be.
Later that night, lying in bed, I checked my phone. I didn’t want to call anyone–I had already called them all. So I scrolled down the list, down and down, so fast that I could no longer see the names, just inbound or outbound.
like a kid sitting on the floor
at the Scholastic Fair
debating stealing a book
because he can’t afford it
eats public assistance at lunch
can already see the looks of shame
on the faces
of his parents
when they walk into the principal’s office
so he doesn’t
so he puts it back
and tries to picture imagined worlds
his mind won’t be shown.
like hearing “don’t peek”
from the lips
of his first girlfriend
removing her bra straps
and the space between them is filled
and when they touch
it’s a revelation
and when they finish
he tells her stories
makes them up on the spot
like he did
as a kid
when the only time you heard
was during a game
of hide and seek
like seeing your name
on the cover
of a book
and you don’t know
how it got there
even though you do
the steps that got you
from point A to B
and if you try real hard
you can almost see
the kid that would go hungry
can almost see
the kid with ripped-up
and eyes that wanted
but couldn’t always
and now you’re at the top
of a tall
breathing in the thin air
and seeing all
you can see
“I guess this is like log 42 or something I don’t know I’ve lost track anyway I don’t even know if this tape recorder still works but if it does I’m just going to play this back for Microsoft Sam and see if he can turn the talk to text so I can put it on a floppy disk for later Sanford’s asleep right now and I’m trying not to wake him so I’m walking my bike down the tunnel it’s kind of creepy the way the chain click echoes down the tunnel click click click like some sort of weird alien getting ready to jump me or something I mean I’ve seen crazier stuff I wouldn’t be that surprised Sanford still doesn’t believe me about the world out there about how I saw myself above ground as a little kid coming out of cryosleep he thinks it’s too far-fetched but I say living down in tunnels Underground with all sorts of weird ghoulies and all that jazz is pretty far-fetched too I’m trying to figure out a way to get back there back to that cold white room with the Weird Science e dude but I don’t know how I don’t know maybe it’s like a video game you know let’s say you get murked in like Pac-Man or something what happens game over right who’s to say that’s not the same thing here the simulations a lot more advanced but it’s still a Sim I don’t know maybe if I just find one of the outflow tunnels the tunnels that shoot down into the ground and extend for miles the ones I’ve heard stories about where people fall into them and you can never hear them hit the bottom sometimes I think that if I jump into one of those I might just wake back up in the real world and I want to try it I really do but I know that if I tell Sanford this ish he’s just going to make me about face and March on back home you know I’ve known Sanny B since we were both super little and I love the guy he’s my brother but he doesn’t always know what’s up and the wack thing is that I can’t tell him that it would crush him I don’t know if I’ll end up jumping into one of those tunnels or push on to climb out to the top into the above ground but I guess we’ll find out at the very least when I feed this thing into Microsoft Sam it’s going to sound freaking hilarious I can hear his voice now sounding like a cross between a robot and an alien trying to sound human but yeah that’s what’s up right now I guess I’ll go wake up Sanford so we can continue our Quest and sheez.”
“So here’s a dream: I’m in a wide open green field, and the sun is shining.”
“Like the actual sun?”
“The actual one. And I know I don’t know what the sun’s like, but in the dream I do. It’s warm, and bright, and it makes my skin feel good, and I just feel like smiling when I’m under it.”
“How bright is it?”
“Super bright. So bright it hurts to look directly at it. So I look at what it’s shining on instead: the grass, the trees, all that.”
“Grass and trees?”
“Yep. The grass is itchy when you lie on it, but it’s still super nice. There’s bugs in the grass, but mostly just ants and stuff, not the weird creepy crawlies you find here in the tunnels.”
“Yeah. And the trees are plants, but they’re crazy strong. Like you could karate chop one and not even leave a mark.”
“I’m telling you, Sanford. But in the dream, the green field doesn’t go on forever. There’s like clear borders and stuff. I’m boxed in, you know?”
“And right outside the border, everything is crazy messed up. Like exactly how you’ve said above ground probably looks like. Fire, destruction, all that jazz.”
“Brimstone confirmed. And if you get close to the border, it smells sour, like the air is burnt. There are people crying, only you can’t see them. You can hear them, but they’re out of sight.”
“Can you cross the border?”
“Yeah, but I’m scared to. In the dream, I’m not 20. I’m like 11 or 12. I’m freaked out, you know?”
“And the weird thing is that I can sense that nothing will ever change in this green field. I’ll stay the same age forever. I’ll never get sick, never die, but I can’t leave the field. If I leave it, I’ll suffer. But I want to leave it. I don’t want to get hurt, but I need to know what’s out there. I need to know who’s out there. Because I get the distinct impression in the dream that my parents are alive somewhere out there. I have no idea where they are, but I’ve got to find them. You dig?”
“I dig. So this is like your cryo dream? Where you saw your mom and pop getting blasted by some evil science dude?”
“Kind of. Like I’m the same person, same age, but this is for sure a dream. The cryo thing was real.”
“It was real.”
“Okay, User. So what else about the dream?”
“It keeps going on like that. On and on and on.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean everything keeps moving and changing outside of the green field. The sun above me stays right there, but a second sun outside the border rises and falls, rises and falls. Gnarly trees grow up, birds nest in them, plants sprout out of the broken concrete, and all of this happens in seconds.”
“Like that dude we saw back there in the tunnel who kept going through life cycles and junk?”
“Yeah, only it wasn’t one guy getting born and dying again and again, it was everything. And the more time that passed, the less cries I could hear. Instead of cries, I just heard birds chirping and nice little rainstorms and sheez.”
“Sounds kinda nice.”
“Yeah, except in the dream, I know that with each cry that goes quiet, there’s one less person out there. I’m okay in this green field, but it’s only me in here. I’m alone.”
“So how does it end?”
“It doesn’t. Not really, anyway. I want to leave the field, but I’m afraid of suffering out there. I want to stay safe in the field, but I don’t want to be alone. So I don’t do anything. Then I wake up.”
“So, uh… What do you want to do now?”
“I want to find the green field.”
“Like stay safe and all that?”
“No, the actual green field.”
“User, it’s not gonna be there. It’s not real.”
“Right. Fire and brimstone. But the thing is, fire and brimstone doesn’t last forever. It can’t. There’s cycles. The world’s gonna be bad for a while, then it’ll get kind of good. Then it’ll get mondo sucky, but then it’ll get way better. The fire will die out, and the plants will sprout. How long have we been living in these tunnels? How long has it been since our ancestors came down here? We really have no idea what it’s like up there. And we’ll never know unless we try and find a way out.”
“Yeah. I’m in, bro. If it keeps you away from the cryo stuff and focused on the real world that’s right in front of you, I’m all gung ho about it, my dude.”
“The cryo stuff’s real, too. I have a family out there, and I’m going to train my brain to wake up and find them. But in the meantime, I want to see what above ground looks like.”
“Well then you know what I’ve gotta say?”
It’s summer, and I’m twenty-two years old. That puts us at 2012. I got my BA yesterday. I wanted to enjoy my graduation, and I did, but I couldn’t really focus. My brain was only half there, floating over story concepts and character sketches that I’d been hashing out up until the last day of the last semester. I don’t feel like I earned my degree. I mean, I fulfilled all the prerequisites, passed all my classes and all that, but I don’t feel like I wrote the story I needed to write before I could graduate. Maybe that should be put down as a requirement in the future.
I’ve written so many stories, created so many characters. I’ve written flash fiction, micro, short stories, novels, but I haven’t hit on that one thing yet. I don’t know, maybe I’m being too picky. All I know is that here I am one day after graduating college, and I hardly feel any different.
I want to be understood.
If there’s a point to all of this, I guess it’s to tell lies to get at the truth. Isn’t that what fiction is? But who determines what the truth is? Is it the thing that happened, or the feeling of it? If you come back to it in 20 years’ time, is it still the same truth you remembered?
I’m sitting on the beach, scribbling away in this notebook and trying to keep the sand off the pages. I’ve got to transfer this over to digital at some point, I just don’t know when. I’ve got to do a lot of things. I miss my friends and family, and not just the ones who have died. I miss my home. Maybe I’ll go back. Or maybe I’ll just write about it. Maybe both.
My mentor always got this smile on her face when she handed me her notes on one of my stories. At first I just ignored it because the notes were really good, but eventually I got curious. She told me she could tell I fictionalized things just enough where I could hide from the reader. She said she could see the fear beneath the words. I took it personally and started saying I wasn’t afraid and that she didn’t know what she was talking about, and she told me it’s okay to be afraid. It’s good, actually. Follow the fear, that’s where all the good stories come from. So I calmed down, and composed myself, and apologized, and thanked her, and then I kept turning in the stories that made her smile like that. She kept smiling like that all four years that I was there, kept smiling like that even during my last semester. When graduation was over and she gave me a hug, I looked and saw that same smile on her face. She said she knew I was going to be great, and I could tell she meant it. Even so, I felt like something inside of me had fallen from a great height.
I’m sitting on this beach with my toes in the sand, watching the New York sky shift from pink to purple. The night’s getting away from me, and I feel like I have to do something. I don’t know what, but I have to do something. I pull out another notebook that I have with me, one that’s labeled CNF for creative nonfiction. My mentor gave this to me as a gift years ago. She’s the one who scrawled “CNF” on its cover.
I flip open to the first page, and there’s nothing there. There’s nothing on any of the pages. I close my eyes and I see Des Plaines, IL in all its bittersweet glory, smell the growing spring and setting summer as the cicadas scream in the background. I see my old complex, our apartment in Bay Colony, and the pond at the center of it that I used to go down to when I was a kid. I feel a smooth stone in my hand before I skip it across the pond’s surface, watch the willows’ fronds dip down and reflect themselves over water too tired to move. I see a thousand reflections of myself in a thousand mirrors until I’m right here where I am. It seems like I’ve lived many lifetimes, but I’m still here.
That’s what I’ll write about. That’s what I can do. I take the CNF notebook and look at that blank first page. All I need is the title. Once I have the title, I have the story.
I already know what it is. I scribble it down and look at it, and even now I can tell that it’s right.
It says Here’s Waldo.
It’s summer, and I’m twenty years old. That puts us at 2010. I’m sitting in the bath, and it’s perfectly cold. The air above my head is different. It’s so hot that I can almost see the heat shimmer in this apartment that has no AC. Reb will go in after I’m done, because if the heat is bad for me it’ll only be worse for a dog. In the meantime, he sits next to the bathtub and smiles as he pants.
My roommate left abruptly about a month ago, breaking the lease and leaving me with no way to cover the rest of the rent. Student loan refunds can only help so much, and I learn quickly that New York City rent is on another planet compared to Des Plaines, IL rent.
I take to sipping cheap beer while sitting in the tub, convincing myself that I’m drinking to fill myself up while at the same time cooling myself down, trying to ignore the fact that my dad used to do the same thing with the same brand of beer. My empties form a mountain in the corner of the bathroom, and I amuse myself by thinking it’s an art installation.
A memory comes from an indeterminate age. All I know is that I was small enough for the bathroom’s door knob to be at eye level, the bathroom where my father called me over. He called me over, and I went, not knowing how drunk he was or even fully understanding the concept of being drunk. I just knew that sometimes Daddy fell over while he was trying to walk to the fridge, and you never knew if he would start laughing or yelling after he got back up. I knew beer bottles being hurled against the wall and my mom telling me that Mommy and Daddy were just kidding, just playing a game. I knew my dad driving us home from a little league game and stopping the car, opening the door to puke. I knew the effect, but the cause eluded me.
But in this memory where I am at door knob height, my father calls me into the bathroom, and I go, and when I open the door he’s soaking in the tub with an open can in his hand. His eyes are glassy, and there’s a vein visible on his forehead. In this memory, he tells me that he’s empty. He tells me that he needs another beer. He asks if I can be a good boy and do that for him. I nod my head and see that all around him there are bubbles like the bubble baths I always insist on having. My father notices and smiles. He tells me he’s having a bubble bath just like I always do. He smiles, and he looks at me, and he says that sometimes he likes the bubbles and sometimes he doesn’t. He puts his hand in the water between his legs and starts swishing the bubbles away, back and forth.
The memory stops.
I’m here in my own bathtub more than a decade removed, in another state, and my chest is tightening. It feels like I am being pulled outside of myself. My shoulders and back start to hurt, and it’s only when they do that I realize my entire body is tensed up. I feel like I’m beneath the surface of a great body of water, splashing and flailing. I don’t know what to do, but then I remember that I do.
I’ve been going to a Zen Buddhist temple for a few months now, and I watch and listen as the techniques and words come back to me. An image of a stream with leaves calmly floating down it. Understanding that thoughts will pass, that they don’t have any more of a hold over you than what you give them. That the breath regulates everything and not the other way around. That memories can’t kill you no matter how painful they might be. That you only need to sit and breathe and be.
I don’t know how long I stay there in that tub, but the pain leaves my shoulders and back, and eventually I can breathe again. I come back into my body and can feel and hear and see things normally again. I just breathe.
It’s summer, and I’m four years old. That puts us at 1994. Mom, Dad, and I are at a waterpark that doesn’t exist anymore, and I’m running around and splashing. My nose burns from trying to inhale while underwater, and the chlorine’s effects have spread to my eyes, making everything look impressionistic. This is my earliest memory.
Drew isn’t there. He’s at a friend’s, maybe, or football practice, I can’t remember. Either way, I’m wandering around while Mom suns and Dad goes to get himself a drink.
There are some other kids there, but not very many, and most of them are so young that they can’t even stand yet. I look from them to my mother to them again. A little farther past, there’s the main pool where all the older kids and adults are swimming.
The main part of the pool is open, but at the end, at the deep end, there’s one of those pool dividers to set up lanes for competitive swimming. A bunch of teenagers are messing around in those lanes, holding onto the dividers, dunking their heads under, and reappearing on the other side. The lifeguards aren’t watching.
I run over to the edge of the main pool, laughing, having no concept of the world other than what’s right here. I crouch down and put my small hands on the edge. I dip my toes in. One of the lane dividers is just a few feet in front of me. It would be so easy to reach it. The teenagers are still over there splashing, dunking, and carrying each other on their shoulders. I scoot off of the edge and fall into the pool.
The extent of my knowledge about swimming at this time has come from Drew holding me afloat in the pool while I doggy paddle, so my body goes back to that out of instinct. It doesn’t work, though. I splash and thrash, but I can’t keep my head above water. Even under there, I can still hear the happy sounds of people enjoying themselves, but the sounds seem to be coming from miles away.
I know it’ll burn, but I open my eyes anyway. Everything is harsh. Harsh blue of the water, harsh reds and oranges of bathing suits, faraway wrinkled feet, and beneath me a Band-Aid swirling in the pool’s eddy. My senses do that desperate thing where every sensory detail stands out all at once, so I can see the smudge of blood left on the Band-Aid’s bandage strip, and in that moment I see my own mother putting a Band-Aid on me. I was running around with a dollar store cap gun trying to shoot bad guys, and I fell down, skinning my knee. She came up to me, still smoking a cigarette, and put a Band-Aid where my skin had been cut open, her not knowing then that she shouldn’t be blowing smoke in my face while doing it.
I look past the Band-Aid and see the teenagers, who are moving away. I want to call out to them, but they won’t hear me. They don’t even know I’m there. One of the lane dividers is a couple feet away, but it might as well be a couple miles away. I’ve moved maybe a few inches from where I started, just far enough where I can’t reach the edge of the pool anymore.
I don’t have a fully-formed concept of death yet. I’ve killed bugs by this point and have seen roadkill in the Bay Colony parking lot from where a squirrel had no chance against a truck, me going over there when my parents weren’t looking, which was pretty easy to do, crouching down and talking to the squirrel, poking at its body and at its head, its mouth opening when I do, and a few flies coming out, me recoiling and not understanding, running home but not crying, being horrified but also curious. I knew those things, but that was about it. None of my family members had died yet. That would come later. For all I knew, this moment would last forever.
When I open my mouth to breathe, it isn’t like opening my eyes and feeling the burn of the chlorine. It’s much worse, but then it isn’t so bad as the darkness sets in, everything going from too harsh to too dim, and then it fades altogether and I’m just not there.
The next thing I remember is me opening my eyes. I’m on my back next to the pool with cold water on my mouth and chest. I’m looking up at a lifeguard who looks absolutely terrified. My mother is next to him, and when she sees that I’m alive, she starts crying uncontrollably. My dad is next to her. His face is hard to read, but it’s red, almost purple. It looks like he’s getting ready to fight someone, though he doesn’t know who.
The day I saw my mom again, it was cloudy, and gray, and cold, and I got off the bus about a mile early to pick up kitty litter. I hadn’t planned the stop, wasn’t even sure I needed to, but I did it anyway. Maybe a part of me knew what would happen.
Lugging the 20 lb. box home wasn’t practical, but I was stubborn. On the way back, there was a rehab facility. Physical rehab, not drug. I always had to make the distinction later, when explaining to others where my mom was living. The thing was, at base, my mom was homeless. Sure, she was staying at this rehab facility and getting just enough surgeries to prolong her stay and keep herself off the street, but she was technically homeless. I don’t know, though. Saying that implies that she had a home to begin with. She had houses, apartments, and duplexes, but no home. I guess I never had one either.
I definitely knew that she was staying there, but the part of me that knew that wasn’t conscious at the time. I was just lugging the kitty litter home, already breaking a sweat even in the chilly November air. By the time I got to the rehab facility, I was swimming in my thoughts.
I saw her standing there, smoking a cig outside the place, talking with a fellow resident. She was about a block away and hadn’t seen me. She hadn’t seen me in years.
I actually froze. I remember that. I stood there, totally still, kitty litter in hand, and had no idea what I was going to do. I looked across the street, considered jaywalking and moving briskly past, hiding my face until I was out of view. I thought of turning back, no destination planned. I thought of doing many things, but what I actually did was walk right up to her. What I actually did was greet her, and set the kitty litter down, and tell her that we needed to talk.
She didn’t know what to do.
The person she was talking to gave me a knowing look and walked away, cigarette cherry glowing in the wind. And there was my mom standing in front of me. Her face was bloated, scarred, and worn from all that the elements had done to her, all of the rage that her body had inflicted. Her eyes were hazy skies threatening rain, foggy like antique marbles. Her mouth was a straight line.
Historically, her thing was to initiate a hug in the hopes that it would make me forget about how she’d treated me. But she didn’t do that this time. What she did was stand there with her arms at her sides, awkward and tense. She was never contemplative, not one to ever stay silent, but no words would come to her. She’d look like she was on the verge of saying something, but then she’d falter.
Looking at her there, standing in her tattered shawl draped over hunched shoulders, face wrecked and body worn out, all of my anger went away. It wasn’t replaced by love, but by a mournfulness. It was like I was looking at a dead person who hadn’t been put in the ground yet.
I hadn’t seen her in years.
It looked like she’d only anticipated being outside for a quick smoke, her shawl insufficient against the cold Chicago air. Or maybe that’s all she had. I remembered hearing that she’d had all her things stolen from her one night while she slept at a homeless shelter in the city. And there I was, standing in my nice jacket, wearing my nice jeans and nice shoes. Everything was nice.
We talked for hours. I led the conversation at first, updating her on everything that was going on in my life. For a time, we were able to set aside the past, all those hurled insults and slammed doors and broken homes. We were old friends maybe, catching up over a cup of coffee.
She told me all about how she’d regularly walk over to the Vineyard Church in Evanston, detail the services and the people and the conversations. We were just C&E parishioners growing up: Christmas and Easter. But now she was going to church once a week, if not more. I could tell she needed it, and that was fine.
I remember feeling the heat escape my body, noticing the cold as it seeped into my bones. Me, with my nice jacket, half-frozen. But it didn’t seem to bother her. I figured all those months of homelessness probably got her used to it.
We both knew when it was time to go. I’d realize when I got home, after I fought past the preliminary tears, then the cries, then the sobs on my walk back that we’d been talking for four hours. But I wouldn’t know then. All I knew was that I had to hug her, and to hug her for real. Like it mattered, because it did. And when I turned to go, she called out to me in a worried voice I’d never quite heard before:
“Don’t forget the kitty litter.”
It’s amazing the lengths you’ll go to to connect two homes in your head. You’ll take a walk next to a razor-wire-fence-protected golf course and remember a similar one back home, the only difference being that here there’s North Carolina red dirt in place of the rich black kind you’ll find in Chicagoland. You’ll pass by the hole that’s been cut into the fence and see yourself as a weed-grazing adolescent, sneaking into a defunct fisherman’s lagoon to get covertly high while your parents fought back home.
You’ll walk an hour or more in this land that isn’t yours and transpose old haunts from where you used to live. You’ll find an open, empty field in the middle of nowhere and pretend it’s the one just off Western Ave. back in Chicago, the one that was so wide and so vast that you could actually find something like quiet, right there, in the busyness of the city. The cars that streamed past in the distance were so far away that they might as well have been lightning bugs dancing in the summer sky. But there are no lightning bugs circling this North Carolina field. Nothing but land and air, sweat and earth.
These comparisons are unavoidable. Every slice of pizza you have will be compared against what you’re accustomed to, every Carolinian hill will remind you of the flatness of the Illinois earth. But still, this is your adopted land. Your transplanted town. So you walk. You remember the failed relationship, failed job, failed lifestyle that got you here. All of these failures that led you to where you are now, scarred and battle-worn but otherwise okay. Otherwise thriving. You watch as pounds are shed from your body, pounds you put on back home when it seemed like you were in a hole that went down for miles without even a glimpse of sun. You walk and fight, train and run. You go from proving yourself to others to proving yourself to yourself. You stay hungry.
In a matter of months, you go from barely getting out of bed to make a package of ramen before falling asleep again to working for yourself, doing MMA training, and working on getting your master’s. You realize the absurdity of this transformation as you go on another one of your walks, passing this razor wire that’s meant to protect the golf course from the denizens of your neighborhood. You laugh at the concept of it.
You write some more, like you did in the old days, simply putting yourself on the page. It’s fiction, sure, but it’s real enough that you’re basically in there. You’re basically contained in that little box, waiting for someone else to read you. You read Wallace and Tolstoy and Beatty and Murakami and Hoban. You write like a fucking madman. You stay hungry.
It seems as though anything you decide to do simply happens. You’ll come to realize that this is actually a more involved process, that it requires a mental toughness you’ve honed over years of putting up with unbelievably crazy shit. You’ll remember the story you heard over and over again at the Zen temple you used to go to back home. The one about the ambitious monk who wanted to reach enlightenment, who desperately asked his teacher what he had to do to reach it. And the way your own teacher’s eyes would light up when he’d relate what the story’s teacher had said, that the ambitious monk had to chop wood and carry water.
You didn’t understand it then, but you think you might have an idea now. The thing was all that mattered. If you wanted to be a writer, you had to write. If you wanted to be a fighter, you had to train. If you wanted to be a student, you had to study. It was as simple and difficult as that.
People will ask you how you keep up with all of it, how you stay so active, always looking for a new challenge, always trying to beat yourself at whatever you’re doing. You’ll laugh and shrug it off, but there will be an answer, an answer you’ll never give but will always think. The answer is that the alternative is worse than death. It’s an alternative you watched your parents go through, with crumbling marriage and lost jobs and addictions and homelessness. It’s an alternative you saw the beginnings of in yourself back home, toward the end, working a job you hated, engaged and stuck in a relationship that was breaking you down into tiny tiny parts, confronting your past traumas in bits and pieces, here and there, only remembering scattered details but never seeing the whole picture, like an ant unaware of the human world that surrounds it.
You’re a little more achey, a little more creaky, but you’re stronger. You’re smarter. Nothing can really bring you down the way things used to before. It’s funny. There aren’t any Zen temples for you to visit where you live now, but you understand the teachings better now than you did back then. You don’t try to win the approval of others, you just do the thing. You don’t chase enlightenment, you just chop wood and carry water. You stay hungry.