Drink

It’s winter, and I’m sixteen years old. That puts us at 2006. It’s Saturday, 2 AM, and I’m off of work at the theater. The buses don’t run this late, but I wouldn’t want to take one even if they did. I’m walking home.

There’s a hole in the bottom of my right shoe, and theater wages make it hard to get a new pair. I’ve been making my pants last, too. Where there should be a button, instead a paper clip is keeping my pants from falling. I’m supposed to wear black dress socks, but those are too expensive, so I wear regular socks instead. I walk so that I can avoid most of the snow that’s on the sidewalk, but it’s impossible to avoid all of it.

Soon enough, my right sock is cold and wet, and my foot starts going numb. I tell myself this is fine. All of my bandages have come off, and I don’t have to wear a back brace anymore, but I’m still feeling the effects of getting hit and dragged by a car last summer. Still feeling the effects of Tallulah leaving me, too.

I don’t even get to see her at work anymore. I think she switched shifts to avoid me. I said something wrong, and now she’s out of my life for good it seems. It hits me that a single moment can alter the course of a life forever.

In my back pocket is a full bottle of Jim Beam. I found it underneath a seat while I was ushing. I guess whoever snuck it in dropped it without even noticing. They were probably too drunk to notice, to be honest. Company policy is that I’m supposed to turn in all items that I find while cleaning, especially if they’re illicit items like this.  I don’t know why I pocketed it instead. I’m not a drinker. I’ve had a beer here and there (mostly under peer pressure from Drew), but nothing serious. Even so, I open the bottle and start drinking.

I know enough to know that this isn’t the kind of drink you’re supposed to chug, but I do anyway. I’ve never done something like this before, so I don’t know how it’s going to affect me. I just drink.

My throat is burning terribly, but I’m already halfway done, so I decide to keep going. Tallulah thinks that drinking is for people who try too hard to be cool. I never told her about the beers I drank with Drew. I just agreed with her.

I don’t even know if she still works at the theater anymore. I wonder if she’s going to follow through with her plan to go to school at the Art Institute. I wonder how she’s doing.

I feel like I’m swimming through the air. My feet aren’t going where I want them to, and at first I tell myself that it’s because of the hole in my shoe, the numbness in my foot. The first time I fall down onto the snow, I tell myself that it was a long shift and my legs are tired, my balance is off. It takes me puking on the snow to admit that I’m fucked up.

The world is split in two, halved. I have puke on my work shirt. Our washer’s broken, so I don’t know what I’m going to do. We don’t even have detergent. I’ll probably just scrub it with dish soap and hang it in my room to dry.

I decide that I am going to lie in the snow. My brain is telling me that this is okay, that this is preferable to stumbling through the snow. I don’t know where the sidewalk is anymore. I drop to my knees and flip over onto my back. It takes a little while for the cold to come in, but it does come. Slow, like pain that waits. I think that I might fall asleep right where I am.

I lie there for minutes or hours, I can’t tell. Everything is cold. I hear a car squeal on its brakes and slam on its horn. I think there’s going to be a crash, but then there isn’t. The driver rolls down his window and yells over at me. He asks if I’m okay. I manage to stand, and I wave in his direction. I tell him no, I’m not okay, but I think I will be.

He looks at me for a while before deciding that it’s okay to leave. I watch him go until I can no longer see him, and then I turn back toward home. I don’t listen to my brain anymore. I just walk.

Burn

It’s summer, and I’m fourteen years old. That puts us at 2004. I’m in my room alone, watching the dust motes pass in front of the light that’s filtering through my window. It’s a matter of focus. Either I can look out the window and focus on the too-full dumpster out there, or I can pay attention to the dust motes hanging in the air like tiny planets. I’m alone in here.

A few weeks ago, I was in the hospital visiting Rodhi, watching his chest rise and fall as he was Resting. Only no one else would call it Resting. They’d call it being in a coma. I wasn’t there when his chest stopped rising, stopped falling, but I was there for what happened after, there to watch him be taken up on the wind, his mother standing in front of him, chanting words in Malayalam that I still don’t understand.

He’s gone now, and I’m standing in my room. I can sit down, but I don’t want to. I’m wearing my school uniform even though it’s a Saturday, polo shirt neatly tucked into khakis, belt completing the picture. I don’t know why I’m doing these things. Drew’s at a friend’s house. It seems like I haven’t seen him in days, weeks, and when I do see him he’s stumbling in drunk in the middle of the night, calling out my name in the darkness, trying to wake me, and I’m pretending like I’m asleep even though I’m not. I want to talk to him, but not like that.

I walk over to his side of the room, made obvious by the mounds of clothes and CDs and games and snacks and dirty dishes. My side of the room is almost too clean. I know I shouldn’t, but I start going through his things. I find pictures of friends, girlfriends, sports memorabilia, lighters, dice with suggestive verbs on them. I don’t know what I’m doing.

I sift through movie tickets and receipts and half-completed homework assignments that will never be turned in. Is this what a person is? The tiny bits of miscellania and junk that they leave behind? I don’t know who I am.

On the top of Drew’s dresser, in the center of it, there’s a big bottle of cologne. I pick it up. The bottle is wine-dark, almost black, and I can see that it’s almost full. I hold the bottle in front of my face, spray, and walk into the mist like I’ve seen Drew do so many times before. It makes me smell like a grownup. I spray it again on my neck, my chest, my wrists. I spray it on my hands till they’re soaking wet and rub it all over my body. I hold the bottle in front of my face again, but this time I turn it towards me. I open my mouth and spray.

It tastes like liquid fire. I turn and look at the little motes of dust hanging in the air. Outside, sitting on top of the dumpster, is a single bird. It chirps. I unscrew the bottle’s top and start drinking the cologne inside. It burns terribly, and every instinct inside of me tells me to stop, but I don’t. When I finally finish drinking the bottle, I cough uncontrollably. I try not to make a sound because my mom is home, but I can’t stop the coughing, so I go to the bathroom and I lock the door and I turn the faucet on full blast. My body is telling me to stick my finger down my throat, to drink water, to wash my mouth out, to do something, but I just let the water run, try not to look at myself in the mirror.

When I finally stop coughing, I turn the water off and go back to my room. It’s already gotten dark outside, and I can no longer see the dust motes hanging in the air. I go to bed a little bit after that. I sit on my mattress for hours, unable to fully grasp the fact that I am going to die soon. I wonder if it will be slow or fast, painful or painless, and then I start wondering what it was like for Rodhi. No one can really say, because he was hardly even there at all. One moment he was breathing, and the next he wasn’t. It was as simple as that.

I’m surprised to find that I wake up the next morning. My stomach hurts and my throat burns, but I’m still alive. One day passes after another; the pain in my body slowly recedes.

The other type of pain still lingers, though.

Wave

It’s summer, and I’m twelve years old. That puts us at 2002. Mom and Dad are telling me to get in the car, that we’re going to the Fourth of July parade. I want to shoot off bottle rockets and firecrackers with Rodhi, but they’re making me go stand in the heat with little kids as we all wave to the floats as they pass us by. Mom can tell I’m mad; she preemptively tells me not to slam the car door. I do anyway, and little flakes of rust fall off the car. The hole at the bottom of my door is getting bigger with each car trip it seems, and no amount of screaming from Mom has gotten me to stop yet. Drew isn’t coming with. He said he was going to the parade in Chicago instead of our dinky little one in Des Plaines, and he was probably telling the truth. He left out the part where he’d be getting absolutely plastered with his friends, though.

The parade goes as expected, for the most part. Local politicians waving from convertibles, fire trucks blasting their horns, the Jesse White Tumblers doing a high-flying routine, little kids handing out candy to other little kids. Considering the temperature is in the 90s, the best part about it is when one of the floats comes by and blasts the onlookers with super soakers. I actually run into the line of fire to cool down.

The crowd is engaged despite the heat, clapping and cheering as expected. But then they go quiet.

I turn to my left, squint to make out the float that’s getting the silent treatment. More and more people turn and wait to see. Eventually, the float is right in front of us. It’s for a group called the Muslim Interfaith Alliance. The adults on the float keep up their smiling and waving despite the reception, but you can see the hurt on the kids’ faces. Worse than the hurt is the confusion. They have absolutely no idea why they’re being treated this way.

I look around, thinking that at least one person will wave at them, but no one does. No one says a word. I turn to my parents. My mom looks like she’s waiting for the light to change. My dad has his arms crossed. I turn back to the float. When I do, a kid on the float about my age locks eyes with me. I want to smile, to wave, but I don’t. I stand there and watch the float go by.

When we get home, I immediately go outside and take my illicit fireworks with me. I walk far away from my complex, closer to Meadow Lane, and pull out the lighter I stole from Drew.

I think of calling Rodhi outside, but I don’t. Think of launching bottle rockets into the air, whipping firecrackers at stop signs, but I don’t do that either. What I do is take out one of the firecrackers and hold it in my hand. What I do is study its every detail, the red and white stripes that lead to a stark black fuse at the end. I’ve blown up so many taped-on action figures to bits with these things, sent up ripples in Good Lake, and the creek next to Meadow, and the pond over in the abandoned fisherman’s lagoon where Drew and other teenagers get covertly high.

I bring lighter to fuse and ignite it. Watch as the fuse burns away, faster and faster. I think of throwing it, but I don’t. Instead, I close my hand around the firecracker and watch as the last of the fuse disappears into my closed hand. And then it goes off. There is the bang, close, like a gunshot. There is the sudden pain, replaced at once by numbness in my hand, the hand blown reflexively open by the blast and stained with the black of the powder, the red of my blood. I don’t make a sound as I watch the blood flow and then stop.

I turn toward my complex and walk, holding my hand open as I go. I can’t feel it for hours afterward.

Move

It’s winter, and I’m ten years old. That puts us at 2000. Rodhi and I are out in our boots and coats and gloves and hats, wandering down Good Avenue, which can’t be distinguished between the grass or even the lake next to it because of the snow. Rodhi floats the idea of snatching a few of his dad’s tennis rackets and duct-taping them to our shoes to approximate what we’ve seen in shows about frozen tundras and intrepid explorers, but he chickens out at the last second. My winter gloves are secondhand, several seasons old, with tiny tears in the seams making them unsuitable for snowball fights. I’m stubborn, though, so I use them anyway. I just make every snowball count before my hands get too cold.

When we’re done with that, we take one of my action figures and find a good spot to throw him into the snow. We’ve done this for years, waiting for the thaw so that we can become archaeologists uncovering an ancient find. This year, I toss in my Wolverine action figure. The snow is soft powder, so he falls all the way through to the bottom. We make note of where he fell and take a picture of the spot with an old disposable I found lying around at home. We have so many disposables sitting there at home, some of them untouched for years, and who can say what pictures are already there when I snatch it.

Rodhi and I vow to save up lunch money and get the pictures developed when the time comes. The snow and the cold have been here for weeks, and they show no signs of letting up. This is a true Chicago winter. We leave our artifact behind and turn back for Bay Colony, for our apartment complex. Then we see LC and his crew. We both freeze, looking for an exit but not seeing one. We could turn around and run the other way, but it’d only be a matter of time before they caught us. And if they didn’t, LC knows where we live. They could just turn around and wait at our complex until they found us.

They fan out. Fernando moves to our left to block one end of the street, and Chaz goes to our right to block the other end. LC stands in front of us, facing the lake. The wind howls in our ears. Snow still falls from the sky. LC pulls out a knife, and the other two pick up sticks. They close in around us slowly, a smile growing on LC’s face.

We back up as far as we can, until we’re sure there’s no more ground behind us. LC swings his knife at the air in front of us and tells us to move. Rodhi and I stand there, neither of us doing anything.

Fernando hits Rodhi in the chest with his stick. I put my hands up and motion for Rodhi to follow me out onto the ice, and he does. LC keeps telling us to go out farther, farther. When we stop, he throws rocks at us and threatens to throw bigger rocks out onto the ice. So we keep going. I can hear the ice groaning beneath our feet, but I try not to let on, for Rodhi’s sake.

Then the ice breaks.

First Rodhi is there, then he isn’t. He disappears into a dark hole. The water is calm for a second, and then there’s splashing. And then there’s me slowly sliding over to where he fell in. And then there’s me getting down onto my belly as LC and his crew laugh behind us. And then there’s me reaching my hand in and finding Rodhi’s. There’s me pulling him out and using all my strength to slide him away from the hole in the ice, one of his shoes now missing.

The crew’s laughter recedes behind us as they all run back home, and Rodhi is already shivering by the time he’s flat on his back on the ice. I help him back up, and we get off of the ice and back onto ground as carefully as possible. I don’t know what else to do, so I take him to my Hideaway. My Hideaway is a tunnel underneath the city of Des Plaines, a tunnel you can access by a manhole that some teenager pried the bolts off of long ago. There’s something like a room down there, made out of hollowed-out concrete, and I write little stories by the light of the lightning bugs I keep in jars down there. That’s where I go when things get really bad at home.

I’ve never taken anyone else down here or even told anyone about it, but it seems like the right thing to do. I take off my jacket when we get down there and put it around Rodhi. I huddle up close to him and try to help him stay warm. He shivers for a while but eventually starts getting warmer and quiets down. Without the sound of his shivering, it’s silent down there, and the only thing you can see are the lightning bugs blinking in Morse code.

Neither of us says anything. Rodhi turns and looks at me. I don’t know what to say. He leans in and kisses me, and I kiss him back.

When it’s time to go, I walk him back to our complex. We never speak another word about this day.

my ex // perience

this is my ex
//
perience

where the heat doesn’t go down
inside
in a town
where you can take a barbed-wire bat
to the leg
mistaken for a King
or a GD
when you’re just a kid
where you can
walk past grown men fighting
as a child
walking to a friend’s house
at a time when you could see
where everyone was
by the number of bikes left strewn
on the front lawn

this is my ex
//
perience

FIVE:2:ONE Love!

Good news! My story “Sit” was just accepted for publication in a magazine called FIVE:2:ONE. The story goes live June 23rd, and as a bonus they asked if I’d do an audio or video reading of the story to accompany the text. As a “thank you” to all of you awesome folks who read and support my work, I want to show you the video early:

Smile

It’s spring, and I’m eight years old. That puts us at 1998. Mom and Dad are heading out for a couple hours, leaving Drew in charge of the place. They’ve got to run a few errands before coming back to pick us up so we can all do family pictures at Sears. We’re supposed to go through our closets and find our Good Clothes. Our Good Clothes are the pants that we can still hold up with safety pins, the shirts whose holes are low enough where we can hide them by tucking them in.

My Good Clothes are hand-me-downs from Drew’s old Good Clothes, and the sizing is all off. After Mom and Dad leave, Drew starts vacuuming. This is weird, because they didn’t ask him to, and Drew never vacuums. I sit on the couch like a lump while he moves around the apartment, not quite knowing what to do when it gets to the couch. I scoot to one end of it so that he can clean without me in the way, but I keep getting in the way. He detaches the hose from the vacuum and starts to clean the couch cushions. I get up from the couch and start to walk away. He tells me to get out of the fucking way. I yell that I already did, partially because the vacuum is running and I have to yell to be heard, and partially because I’m angry. He drops the vacuum but leaves it running and walks toward me.

Before I can respond, he’s punched me in the stomach so hard that I can’t make a sound when I hit the ground. When I can move, I start to get up, but he pushes me from behind. I scramble around and get to the back of the couch, but he’s already there. From here, no one could see me. With the vacuum on, no one could hear me.

Drew starts hitting and kicking me. No method, no technique, just anger. I’m crying by now, trying not to because apparently that makes me a little bitch, and I’m doing the best I can to kick him and get back to my feet. In this moment, it hits me for the first time that you can be completely trapped. That you can be hurt and hurt badly with no chance of escape. That the people who hurt you can be the people who love you. I thought those things in simpler terms as I saw Drew through a cloudy bubble world of tears, trying to catch my breath and reaching up to grab his arms as they came down.

When I can, I get back up to my feet and run for the vacuum’s power cord. Drew chases behind me, tries to stop me, but he’s too slow. I yank the cord out of the wall and run for the other room, yelling for someone to help. I hardly finish the word when my legs are pulled out from under me. My face hits the floor, and when I can turn over and open my eyes, nothing seems to be put together just right.

I take slow, deep breaths. The vacuum is back on. For a moment, I imagine that everything that just happened was a dream, that I fell asleep, or fell down and hit my head, and I imagined everything. That Drew was finishing up the vacuuming, and we’d play some N64 after, maybe race in Mario Kart. But that’s not right.

Drew is walking over to me with the vacuum still on in the background to cover up the noise. I can’t be sad anymore, so I get angry. I think of the words I’d heard hurled between Mom and Dad, the words I’d heard the big kids use. Drew pulls his fist back, and I scowl at him:

“Fuck you. I hate you.”

I brace for the hit and take in a breath. The hit never comes. Instead, Drew studies me like I’m a lizard who said the same words. He doesn’t know what to make of it.

By the time Mom and Dad get home, I’ve already cleaned up and gotten dressed for family pictures. When we get to Sears, the photographer puts the family in every configuration possible–Mom and Dad, Dad and Drew, Mom and Drew, me with both, the whole family. Then:

“Let’s get the brothers.”

The photographer has Drew and I get in close with an “act like you love him” that he immediately laughs at right after he says it. We get a little closer for the picture. The photographer adjusts our posture while a void opens up between us. It seems like there is no light and no sound. He tells Drew to put his arm around my shoulder, and Drew does. When he’s satisfied, the photographer gets behind the camera and looks at us:

“Smile!”