Lost Days

Life is on the other side of death. I’d learn this years later, living in another state, at a different job, with another person, in a different headspace, but I’d learn it all the same. Before I learned it, I found myself coming home just in time for the setting December sun, coming home from a hangout after Krav Maga after a writing session after work after a morning run. In those days, I’d fill up every waking minute of my day till nothing was left, coming home at 9, sometimes 10, not realizing then that I was doing anything I could to get away from you. I didn’t know it then, but these were my Lost Days.

The thing about toxic relationships is that when you’re in one, you hardly ever realize it. My head was in a fog, soul a million miles away, and I was dodging cars on Chicago streets with my bike, sometimes missing them by inches and not really caring what the outcome might be. When the idea of leaving you would cross my mind, I’d remember the years we’d already put into this thing and reconsider, as if recommitting to a years-long mistake would suddenly make it not a mistake.

I sat at this desk I’d been given day in and day out, performing mindless tasks, only to come home to arguing, or the cold shoulder if I was lucky. My writing was arguably the best it’s ever been in this period, and I know now that it’s because it was the perfect escape. I’d dealt with addiction before, but this one had none of the side effects I was used to. There was no writing hangover, no accompanying feeling of guilt and emptiness after I finished. There was just me exploring me and putting it on the page. And when I’d share my stories with you, make sure you were the first to know about a publication, you’d shrug it off. I remember you once told me to get back to you when I got published in a big magazine, but not until then.

You kept telling me to be something or stop being another thing. You said I wasn’t funny like I used to be. That I was too serious all the time, and quiet, and that I’d space out a lot. I know now that that’s because I was depressed and felt stuck, but I buried that idea deep down. I went to my Zen service, I went to Krav Maga, I went running, I had writing sessions, I hung out with old friends, and I went on bike rides. After a particularly nasty argument, I ran 18 miles–9 miles away from you and 9 miles back. I hadn’t planned it, it just sort of happened.

I think I published so I could remind myself that I was a writer, that I didn’t have to be trapped at that office job and in that toxic relationship forever. You started coming home late too, but not for the same reasons. You’d go out drinking with your work friends, come home at 2, 3 in the morning or sometimes not at all. When you wouldn’t come home, you were “staying with a friend.” And then there was the time you were tagged in a Facebook picture, your body right up against another guy at a party. How you laughed when I brought it up, how you said that you weren’t even touching him when there was literal photo evidence that you were. I didn’t know the term gaslighting then, didn’t know that that’s what you were doing. But I’d come to learn.

All the while, I put together my novel. It was framed as nonfiction, the main character telling his story, but I fictionalized it just enough for me to be comfortable sharing my own story with the world. I sent out excerpts from it and got a few published. It hit me that there were several places out there in the literary world that liked this story. That maybe I could get the book published too, as long as I tried hard and put myself out there. So I wrote, and I didn’t stop writing. I wrote long after I broke up with you, long after I moved to another state and started working for myself and found someone new, someone who actually valued who I was as a person. But let’s go back to the setting December sun.

I was on my way back home, sun disappearing behind Chicago skyline, crossing through Warren Park on my way back to our apartment, pedaling my bike through the light dusting of snow that was just then starting to cling to the ground. I was about halfway through the park when the handlebars came loose. My tools were at home, so I pedaled through it, the handlebars getting progressively more wobbly, until it was hard to steer at all. Then the chain fell off. I stopped the bike, got off, flipped it upside down, and worked on this chain that had never given me problems before. I worked for an hour or more in the biting cold, my hands covered in grease and so cold I could barely feel them. I toiled at this thing, trying to fix what I gradually realized was unfixable.

After enough time had passed, I just left it behind. I tipped the bike over till it fell on its side, and I walked away. I dialed the friend I’d just hung out with and asked him if I could crash at his place for the night. He said I could. Of course I could. So I turned around, and I walked through the gathering snow, and I never looked back.

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Wake Up

It started with a song, as these things all too often do. “Wake Up” by Arcade Fire. We were seventeen going on eighteen, and we’d jam to it on repeat to celebrate having graduated high school, all of us trying to figure out what it was we were going to do next.

Topher would storyboard Wallace’s ideas for new short films in between inking his own comics, paying out of pocket to get those first comics printed so that he could see his work on paper. He’d sneak them onto the shelves at all the local comic shops, load each issue with several business cards so that fans could follow him before he got his big break.

Wallace scripted out short films like crazy, relying on guerilla filmmaking to bring them to life. His budgets almost never exceeded $0, and he’d get the lay of a location before sneaking in and getting the shots he needed without getting caught. We snuck into hospital rooms, the back of a bookstore, a small concert venue, even bars so that we could get the shots we needed. It paid off, too–although the scripted dialogue left much to be desired, the locations looked professional and lent the productions an official look.

I kept my stories to myself at first, but soon enough I was showing them to Topher and Wallace, the latter adapting them into screenplays and the former drawing out characters and storyboards. Topher was talking about staying in Chicago to capitalize on the burgeoning art and comics scene, Wallace was serious about moving to LA and pursuing a career in film, and I was considering moving to New York City, the hub of publishing, to try to make it as a writer.

As the months went on, though, we drifted further and further apart. The stress of applying to colleges out of state and committing to our respective artforms was too much for us. The group fell apart, but the song played on:

“If the children don’t grow up,
our bodies get bigger but our hearts get torn up.
We’re just a million little gods causin’ rain storms,
turnin’ every good thing to rust.”

Topher moved into an apartment in the city, Wallace took a road trip to LA that he never came back from, and I flew to NYC. We stayed Facebook friends even though we stopped talking, and so we’d get glimpses here and there of what the others were up to. College was a challenge, but it seemed like we were all rising to the occasion. Every time I got a story read in class or performed at a cafe, every time I saw Wallace casting for a shoot or Topher putting out another issue of his comic all on his own, I wanted to reach out, wanted for us to come together like we used to, to share in our successes together. But the song continued:

“I guess we’ll just have to adjust.”

Years passed. As they did, I imagined just how many times that song came up on shuffle, how many times each of them got its lyrics inexplicably stuck in their heads. I wondered what they thought every time it happened, whether they thought of me or not. I knew they were watching just as I was–I’d occasionally catch Wallace liking one of my posts before realizing his mistake and unliking it, not fast enough where it wouldn’t show in my notifications. More years passed. We graduated. Wallace placed in a film festival. Topher took a junior position as a colorist. I published in a handful of magazines and was brought on board at a separate litmag as a reader. We were all hearing these lines playing in the background on repeat:

“With my lightnin’ bolts a glowin’,
I can see where I am goin’ to be”

We ignored what came after, though:

“when the reaper he reaches and touches my hand.”

Over the years, I’d return to those simpler times. I’d tell coming-of-age stories about what it meant to come into your own artistically at the same time that you were growing up. How these individual growths come to inform each other. Truth be told, if I hadn’t met Topher and Wallace, I might not even have taken writing seriously in the first place. But seeing them sketch and shoot constantly brought something out in me that I didn’t know I had. Now I stood on the cusp of breaking out as a writer, and I wasn’t even on speaking terms with these guys. All I had were the memories of reckless abandon, of being free from the clutches of high school and having our futures open wide in front of us. Now I was happy, I was settled, and I’d found someone to spend my life with, but I needed to write this final chapter. As I thought about how to approach this, the song’s beginning came back to me:

“Somethin’ filled up
my heart with nothin’.
Someone told me not to cry.”

And the song went on in my head, telling me that now that I’m older and my heart’s grown colder, I can see that it’s a lie. I heard the line that told me to wake up, to hold my mistake up. So what did I do? I started a group chat between the three of us. I agonized for ten minutes over what to say, whether I should type out a long message or not, but finally I just sent:

“Hey.”

And there was the end of the song again, instruments building to a crescendo, picking up speed, and the lead singer shouting out:

“You better look out below!”

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Show Me the Way to Earth

Chicago, Summer 2007. The Dark Knight was still a year away, but that didn’t stop us from running all over the city at all hours of the night, hunting for film sets. I was wrapped up like a mummy, complete with burn bandages and plastic back brace–the result of teenage stupidity telling me that car surfing after getting off work at the local movie theater would be a good idea.

We scrambled around downtown at two, three, four in the morning, me at sixteen years old, ignoring calls from my mother until the calls dropped off altogether and she let me do what I was going to do. We belted out songs as we hunted for sets. It was usually something from the Velvet Goldmine soundtrack, one of the few CDs sitting on the floor of Eric’s Jeep that wasn’t scratched to hell, having to dig past fast food garbage to get to it. One of our favorites was “Baby’s on Fire.” We had a choreographed dance and everything. We’d pretend to row invisible boats at “rescuers row row,” wiggle our arms at “blow the wind blow blow,” and click the shutters of invisible cameras at “photographers snip snap.”

We found an empty set on the edge of Lake Michigan that was cordoned off with caution tape, green screen behind it that would stand in for ferries in the movie. A security guard told us to not even think about it, but we snuck in the second he wasn’t paying attention. We found a half-full water bottle and speculated that Christian Bale or Heath Ledger could’ve drank from it. Considered putting it on eBay, but didn’t.

This was years before I’d end up going to film school, before I’d graduate from film to fiction, before I’d publish, so I took mental notes as Matt and Eric hashed out ideas for short films, did my best when I was cast in one of Eric’s shorts about two hitmen trying to figure out what to do with a dead body in a trunk, Tarantino written all over it. I played Batman in a fan film we shot in a single day, sweating to death in a slapped-together batsuit as we filmed in Eric’s sweltering basement that was meant to be an interrogation room.

I smoked my first cigarette that summer, hated it. Tried weed for the first time, didn’t hate it. I never anticipated myself doing these things, but then I never anticipated my parents getting divorced either. So I rode around with Eric in his Jeep for hours, neither of us knowing where we were going but neither of us really caring. There was that time we fell asleep in a Dunkin’ Donuts parking lot, windows open, music playing. That time we snatched a couple bikes that hadn’t been locked up and rode them down a hill that was tall and steep enough to cause serious injury if we fell off, which we miraculously didn’t.

I was invincible, as evidenced by the fact that I’d somehow survived hitting pavement at 30 mph and subsequently being dragged by a car. Right after it happened, I was covered in blood, my clothing in tatters. One of the witnesses on the scene was a guy who’d just walked out of a screening of Hostel: Part II, and the irony of this fact was not lost on me. Sure, I had to go home once a day to change my bandages, sure I had to take a shower sitting down, and sure I had to go to physical therapy, but I survived, and that was all that mattered. Nothing could stop me.

In terms of romance, it was the age of flirting over Myspace and making out in darkened theater auditoriums. My friends acted like I was a wounded puppy only when it would help me get a girl’s attention, otherwise not really bringing up my injuries, not treating me any different because of them.

I let my hair grow out, my idea of sticking it to the man before I’d have to go back for my junior year and adopt the clean cut look that my high school’s medieval dress code demanded. Decked myself out in every Batman tee I could find at Hot Topic before I’d have to go back to tucking polo shirts into khakis at school. I was a rebel with an expiration date.

Even as summer drew to a close, as my wounds healed and I prepared to go back to school and work both, we still found ourselves riding around in Eric’s old Jeep late at night, belting out the lyrics to songs by Shudder to Think, T. Rex, Brian Eno, and others, planning out our next short film in between CD swaps, wondering aloud how awesome The Dark Knight would end up being, quoting all the lines we’d heard in the trailers in the meantime.

We’d always seem to work our way back to one of the more soulful numbers off the Velvet Goldmine soundtrack, “The Ballad of Maxwell Demon.” The guitars would sweep off and into space as only good glam rock guitars could do, and we’d all belt out the opening lines together:

Got tired of wasting gas living above the planet
Mister, show me the way to earth

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Crack the Spine XVI

I’m extremely excited to announce that my work has been included in a print anthology for the first time, and that anthology is now on sale on Amazon! Just a few years ago, I didn’t have a single publication to my name, and I wasn’t sure if I ever would. So let this be a reminder that you can do it! Thank you so much to all of you awesome people who read and support my work. You’re amazing!

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