Expiration Dates

I saw the way we danced in the wobbly reflection of a public transit bus as it passed, and I laughed, and it was like laughing could expel both air and consequences, and the way my bones creak and ligaments strain and muscles ache, I feel like I’ll need a robot body if we ever get that far technologically in my lifetime, and you smile and call me old, and I know it’s a joke, and I know I’m 30 and you’re 25, but it stings just a bit because I’ve been realizing lately that all my pop culture references are dated now, and I go out of my way to eat healthy foods, and now I’m mentally reminding myself that when I get home, I need to open up the fridge, and feel the cool air for just a second, and check all my expiration dates just to be safe.

 

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Superhero Days

 

I’m remembering my superhero days, tying old blankets around my neck and imagining them as capes, kindergarten baseball cap turned around and pulled down so I was looking through the hole in the back, and it was the cheap adjustable type with the plastic pegs, so I had it set to the last peg so it could be my mask, and the way I’d come home from school and park myself in front of the TV for an episode of Darkwing Duck before going outside our old apartment building and playacting what I’d just seen.

It was using the plastic coin bank bust of Michael Keaton’s Batman–the one with stickers to approximate facial features–not as a coin bank, because I didn’t have any money, but as an idol, a totem, something to watch over me when I went to sleep. It was the dollar store Wolverine costume I put together for Halloween, and using butter knives to approximate the claws’ snikt. It was seeing a neat and tidy world where the needy were helped and injustices were set right within the confines of a cathode-ray tube.

I carried these stories with me into and through adolescence, gravitating more then for the edgy, the dark, but still stowing away those ideals, those values, those blueprints for a better life and a higher calling. It was things like going out for daily runs in preparation for a Batman fan film I was going to do with some friends, the budget slightly higher than those childhood dollar store days but barely, and putting on our version of the cape and cowl, and sweating terribly as we shot one setup after another, but feeling the weight of being that type of character–that type of person–if only for a short film. It was, after the shoot was over, going back to my job at the movie theater and working to get myself through community college–next stop film school.

After a pivot from film to fiction, and some success in publishing, it was working to get myself into fighting shape, using the fiction to inspire the fact. Krav Maga first, then MMA, drilling and drilling, hitting bags, sparring, cardio, more drilling, and realizing that there is reality to these hero-journey stories we consume on the regular, rather there is if we let there be, and no matter how tread and re-tread the stories might be, there is gold there.

And for me, it was that first night going out, and being able to actually help, that did it. It was in the nights that followed, showing up, and getting to know the people in my community as I helped them. It was being able to reach back in time and let that little kid dressed as Wolverine know that one day he’d do it for real. He’d feed and clothe the needy. Protect people. Help them. Literally fight crime. He’d make good on that dream he always had.

 

(If you’d like to read/see more about my journey as Night Watch, you can do that here!)

Shapes and Patterns

It’s in the way you can’t quite see your reflection now, coming away, and the great undoing that time can be. It’s in the way we smiled past punched-out teeth in the backyard boxing ring we made, cleared the ground of obstacles and debris and hit each other on the grass, midday sun gassing us a little earlier than we might expect, and thinking then and now that whether we liked it or not, fighting was in our nature. It was in the lights coming on to signal the end of the competition, and going back inside our apartments with busted lips and swollen eyes, going back to some GBA or N64 game, finishing up homework and explaining away the injuries to our parents with something about recess football. It was in dripping bloody noses into mashed potatoes, green beans, tasting blood past meatloaf, and learning how to launder out stains from clothing. It was tossing out the gloves when we got bored of that, and finding a different backyard to fight in when Zuhaib’s dad got laid off and was home all day and might see us. It was sleeping with my head sandwiched between two pillows to drown out the sound of my parents fighting. It was getting up at 5:30 to be able to hear something approaching silence. It was staying out in the cold past curfew and plunging my hands in the snow so I might feel something, regardless of what that something might be. It was sneaking back in through the broken patio door, hands as iceblocks, and running them under hot water until the tears streamed down my face and mingled with the water to bring me my healing. It was of course the way that I would punch myself in the stomach, to toughen up when backyard fight club was set to start up again, and the way that I couldn’t seem to shake myself of the habit, or any other habit really. It was getting up even earlier to watch the cartoons I used to watch when I was really little, before the punched-out teeth and frostbit hands, the ones where the good guys always won no matter what.

And those action figures. The ones with the bendy arms and legs and the tacky paint jobs, and how when I broke my arm in a fight I tried to rearrange the arm into one of those impossible configurations, if only for a moment.

How I imagined a giant, invisible hand holding me, lifting me into the air. Rearranging my limbs and actions into their own pre-ordained shapes and patterns.

 

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In Transit

To see yourself in pictures that will never be taken: a ghost of a ghost. To feel these faux-polaroids in your mind’s hands and the shape of them, the wear in the corners from wallet’s contact, and the genuine smiles, the eyes getting in on it, the weight and the wait till “cheese.” To hear the sound of the word divorce. To feel this dissolution in the heart-hurt, the shortness of breath, the physical signs that tell you you are dying. To remember that sometimes your brain can’t tell the difference between emotional death and actual. To rehear these same words spoken by your parents when you were about the age your daughter is now. To sound out the syllables like some rehearsed song in a language you don’t understand. To recall a period of your life where you saw the things that separate–the screen doors, the foggy windows–and not the views just past them. To see your daughter’s face with that same far away look, that bubble world of unknowing. To get sleep using cheap beer and sleeping pills, and to cry your vomit into the toilet when the world comes back to you. To dump these pills and to buy more when you can’t sleep again. To get on a bus and a train with these bodies around you, and the way that spills collect in pools under certain seats like portents of doom, waiting for changes in inertia to strike unsuspecting feet and bags. To see what’s become of your life as one great spill, something to slosh around and rapidly change states. To fall asleep in transit and to wake up when a mechanical voice announces a stop you’ve never been to before. To get off the train. To wake up in night snow, midnight inebriation, and the no-feel of where your skin made contact with it. To leave vomit the color of your frostbit skin and to howl your pain at a moon covered by clouds. To be taken in past red letters and bright lights and hallways choked with sick people, and to almost see the label you will receive, Just Another Drunk Off the Street, and the stinging stain of this. To be visited by the receiving and the attending, and to be given literature with meeting dates and times as you convalesce in a rented bed, steep fee but not as steep as death.

To be let out after a time, and to read about continuing treatment, and to put this in your pocket. To breathe. To go to the place you remember and to make that first date, feeling almost remade, re-naissanced, reborn.

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What You Always Wanted

There’s a saying about getting what you always wanted, and she’s trying to parse out exactly how it goes without having to Google it. She’s not needing the meaning for posting purposes or anything like that–call it simple curiosity. She’s been doing her outreach for a while now, and her own unique way of showcasing the words of others (getting stories printed wrap-around style on drink cups) has only just now started to take off in a holy-shit, five-news-appearances-in-just-as-many-days sort of way.

She told herself that this is okay, and it is, the long nights spent scouring the streets of the internet, looking for a person who hasn’t been heard but who desperately deserves to be, because giving voice to the voiceless is her specialty, and she almost stopped and took another course of action when she found out that a major restaurant chain had started printing flash fiction on cups, but she kept going with her idea when she realized that they were only publishing established writers, big names, people who would be recognized. But the way she did it, you’d be reading stories you didn’t even know you needed to read, written by your hairdresser, or your mailman, or the woman you pass by every day who’s sleeping on the street.

She started doing it on a whim, self-funded, and whatever wasn’t for rent or absolutely-necessary-food got funneled into this side-project she did after work, testing out different food safe printing techniques, different cup materials, biodegradable a must, and then different inks, collaborating with various artists to spice it up a bit, etc. It was one of those things that tended to dominate conversations with friends and family after a while, and she could tell that while they were supportive, they were also looking for the opportunity for topic change when she went on about it for too long.

The thing about it is that she herself didn’t even really write until she was well into adulthood, and by then there were all those fears and self doubts, the thoughts of old dogs and new tricks, the fire alarm that blares in your head and tells you that you are Too Far Behind, that you will Never Catch Up. When she was a kid, it was AP classes and constant studying, and her parents were the live-vicariously-through-their-kid type that saw her journal scribblings as time better spent cramming, as opposed to the poesy of a budding genius. So she stopped writing for about 12 years.

When she started writing again, really writing, it was like she was coming to after a deep and dreamless sleep, and there were suddenly too many things to do all at once. She immediately had to write in every genre, every style, until she finally felt that she had Caught Up. Mixed in with all of that was reading every literary magazine she could get her hands on, devouring content like it was her job, which even back then she had the feeling that it was–or that it could be.

There comes a time when all of your hard work pays off, when the camera is on you and the kind and smiling person behind the camera and slightly to the left or right of it is waiting for an answer to the question they just asked you, and you have to pause for a second. Not because of anxiety, or rather not only that. You have to take a second to appreciate the fact that this is happening. You are not dreaming, this is not a joke, you are actually exactly where you wanted to be when you first started out.

She remembers the saying about getting what you always wanted, or at least an iteration of it. The old Willy Wonka film, the one she grew up on and still returns to every couple years. The last lines of the film:

“Don’t forget what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he always wanted.”

“What happened?”

“He lived happily ever after.”

Poor Yorick

He keeps his feet bramble-beat, mud-puddle sheen, elastic waistband stretched past use and hanging, sagging really, on hips left to mottle in the sun, worn down from it, but he’s not worn, no sir, and can’t you see that smile on his face meant to tell you as much? If you’ll give him a dollar for some food then that’s your prerogative, but he understands if you can’t, if you need it for yourself, etc.

He’s been out on the street long enough to know the prognosis of the city. He studies its lungs as they choke for air in the twilight hours, its murmuring heart as it wakes up for another day.  It susurrates to itself, leaves as whispered self-encouragement, until the rain sticks the words to the ground like haphazard tattoos from the city’s younger days.

They call him York, because that’s where he’s from, NYC, but the way it comes out his mouth when he’s been cold all day and he’s got brain fog and his tongue is stuck in a slow-mo movie, it comes out like Yorick, and that’s fine too, if people call him that, he figures, because it’s only a name. Just poor Yorick out here on the streets, trying to make every dollar count and stretch.

And he’s here, stretching too, under this melange of sunrise sky, these oranges, reds, purples in places, it’s beautiful if you notice it, if you really stop and see it and pay attention to the design of it, like a massive oil painting in appearance, but this one’s been done in photons.

He thinks he’s lucky, he says as much when people ask him, and he’s past worrying much beyond the next six hours or so. Anything further is beyond his immediate control, doesn’t exist, and so doesn’t matter just yet. It can’t matter.

Weightless dreams when sleep comes easy, which is rare, but these dreams are like glimpses of heaven when they come to Yorick, dreams not so much of flying as floating as a feather would, on the breeze, without sore ankles and tired eyes, dreams where he sees his kids again, and they’re safe, and happy, and the same age that they were back when he last saw them, when he could see them, when they called out to him in their sing-song voices and hugged his legs that were to them the size of tree stumps.

He isn’t hard on himself the way he used to be. Doesn’t curse fate, or God, or any other unseen force that might’ve put him where he is right now. He gets up with the light and goes to sleep with the darkness, fixing himself to the firmament because that’s the only thing he can count on most days, and that’s just fine by him.

He’s got a person over at the library who’s helping him with the internet and the computers and the websites. He was on the street long before the dot-com boom, and this librarian has been kind enough to show him how it all works, why it matters, what it can do.

Yorick’s got pages of research now, the librarian lets him print for free within reason, and he keeps it in his back pocket and reviews the data by the light of a streetlamp near where he usually sleeps for the night. Pages and pages of entries, permutations and possibilities of where his kids might be, separated by cities and states, their names common enough to give him scores of results, dozens of possible addresses and email addresses and phone numbers.

At night, he pores over these pages and eliminates the dead ends and the false starts, writes notes in the margins when he thinks he might be onto something. By day, the kind librarian helps him draft emails, encourages him to get even more use out of the library, and checks out books for him under her card, because you need a permanent address to get a library card, and Yorick hasn’t had one of those for the better part of 30 years.

It’s months of this, searching, hunting, crossing out, scribbling on the pages, checking the email inbox that the librarian set up for him, day in and day out, watching the sun rise and fall, his hopes with it, all of it, changing in the way that you only can with age, by the force of time, until that one day, with a simple reply, just the one word at first, but that’s all Yorick will need for now, because a simple “hi” from his daughter is worth more than hundreds of kind words from the mouths of strangers out on the street.

 

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Something Like Clarity

Getting up in the morning, so early that you’re the only one up in your household, maybe on your block, and just sitting and breathing.

There’s something to be said for emptiness–of not being devoid of something but of being inside that blank slate state of true happiness. Apart from excitement, from joy, because a real content is just itself inside of itself–the word and the definition.

Getting up and exercising, having breakfast, brushing your teeth, because you know that schedule and routine works for you, and though you’re not in crisis mode right now, you have been before, and you know that these little things can help keep you out of it. Of not being afraid of crisis anymore so much as respecting it, recognizing it, and taking regular, concrete steps to keep it contained. You used to think the crisis and chaos in you was something to be eradicated, but now you know it’s not that simple.

Of making progress, scary in itself, and a feeling like when you were a kid just learning to ride your bike and your parent let go of you, that realization of your progress mingled with the terror that you might fall at any moment. Of sipping this fear in your morning coffee, letting it pass before moving on to more important things.

It’s the quiet struggles that no one knows about, the ones that all of us have. It’s the whispered self-encouragement, the half-smile that you sometimes have to force but which you won’t give up on, the smiling past tears and seeing this cloudy world, this bubble world, and being okay with the momentary blurriness to get at something like clarity.

Start From One

The last time I made a big, personal, maddening, heartening, and major life change like this, I felt like I had no way out, no alternative, and it was this or nothing. It’s not nearly as serious this time around, just something I really want to do for myself, and that’s both a relief and an anomaly. It’s always been that I get hooked on things easily, and it used to be that I’d get hooked on all the wrong things, ballooning in weight and stress, pre-diabetic, high blood pressure, eyes and mind myopic and bloodshot, stuck in behavior loops that seemed out of my control, dangerous and destructive, and the genuine belief that my time was running out, that I was living on borrowed time and it’d all be over soon. Unsustainable living like an engine sputtering and stuttering in the cold, smoke and fumes signifying something I didn’t want to see or acknowledge. It’s true that you can get addicted to pain and hardship, to despair, and that when you’re in that headspace, the notion of getting out of it is at best laughable and at worst the enemy of the disease you now find yourself affected by. It’s a parasite, a self-serving organism that feeds on your insecurities and doubts, your justifications and hollow ameliorations. And then you get the double-edged sword of talking about it, of sharing this struggle with others, which is especially dangerous when you’re still in the middle of it and everything you see and hear is a portent of either doom or salvation. You run the risk of turning yourself to salt by looking back that much, and there’s no sense in rewriting a story you haven’t finished yet. But now I’ll live with these feelings, these experiences and lessons learned, a lifetime covering every genre–from horror to mystery, mystery to drama, drama to comedy, always switching from one to the next, but it’s a slipstream existence, with genres bleeding at the edges, and the punchlines don’t get a laugh till it’s years later and you’ve achieved the required time and distance from the joke, till you can see how perfectly it was crafted. But there’s always that potent, monolithic, very human ability to start from one. To go back to the beginning and try again. I’ve recreated myself over and over again over the years, to the point where the me from seven years ago is unrecognizable from the me I am now. A Ship of Theseus paradox I didn’t know would happen but which I now welcome. Any rebirth requires a prior death, a doing-away of what was before to make way for what could be.

The Genesis of Genesis

When I was younger, I wanted to put everything I made into a category, a code, identifying theme and character, plot and arc, never fully immersing myself in the work, or else only in fits and starts before I’d look at the strings again and ruin the illusion. I guess that’s just how you have to start, or at least how I had to start, because it all seemed to work out in the end, but for a while there it was like banging my head against the wall, magic-appreciation-wise, because it didn’t seem as fun to constantly see what you were doing with a story, to not be in it but somewhere apart from it, outside of the action. But that’s the beginning of creation, the genesis of genesis, making every story about the creation of story, pieces populated by characters who know they’re characters, and the only magic you can find then is in look-ma-no-hands writerly showmanship, pointing out to the audience just how much you know about what you’re doing, making your characters just as self aware as you hoped you were appearing then at the time. That’s what I was doing. And it’s fun to go back and look at this work now, to see just how much it’s all changed, replacing sarcasm with honesty, irony with earnestness. Wanting to participate in a radical new sincerity, still, less jaded now than I was then, even though I know publication, know the slog of it, the hours and hours that go into rejection after rejection, until something clicks into place and gives you temporary respite, and you’ve gotten a piece out into the world, just to start the process over again. It’s like that now, and it makes it easier going through this process when I’m doing that for others now too, having to accept and reject and coach and advocate and do all the rest that comes along with editing, and the world seems much smaller than it once did, more accessible, less daunting, when you can read the work of people in countries you’ve never visited and get a piece of that experience for yourself, see the similarities that outweigh the differences, recognize these disparate struggles as the same as your own, and you realize that this is what they mean when they use that oft-tread phrase, coming-of-age, as if it’s something you just stumble upon one day, as if it isn’t something you have to work for, over time, developing your voice even as life develops your character, desperation giving way to something more calm, more sustainable as you develop faith in the process and let it happen the way it’s going to happen. And suddenly you’re back where you were when you started, in a room by yourself, smiling at something you’ve written, something you’ve read, seeing for yourself the magic of the written word, of the stories we can tell as people.

 

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Old Habits Die Hard

Sometimes I feel like I’m making up for lost time even though I know that, realistically, I’m working myself to the grave, and that I’ve already justified my seed again and again and again, and that I continue to do so, that I proved my point years ago and now it’s all just verging on masochism. I know that. But old habits die hard, and if I’m not hurting myself physically, then I guess this is just the next step down.

I convince myself daily that this pain is okay, that it’s useful, that the suffering I’m charting now is a “grind” where in years past it was much more destructive and purposeless. And that’s true, I guess, to an extent, but I’ve never been one for moderation, so I clock 50 hours in a week and then write stories like these and craft feature screenplays, novel manuscripts, edit the work of other writers, start investigative journalism projects with local professionals, defining myself not by inner terrain but by output, by outward progress. The inner terrain bleeds out, anyway–it can’t help but bleed out. And then I sit in the dark, willing sleep to come so I can do it all over again the next day. Make no mistake–I love my life and the people, places and things I now find within it. I just haven’t given myself time to rest.

I feel I’m guiding myself by the same principle that I did when I was self-harming, only now aimed toward a productive end. I don’t know if I’ll live a long life, but now that’s chalked up more to adverse family medical history than by a potential suicide I once felt compelled to see through to the end.

And I still have trouble accepting help, and I still have trouble taking care of myself, because I lived an entire life of not doing so, of feeling like I was living on borrowed time. I don’t want to live that way anymore, and I know that it’ll take time and effort to undo habits of the past, but at least the intention is there. You can’t do anything without right intention.

I guess the thing that gives me hope most is that I’m being honest about everything now. I know that I’m exhausted, that I’m burning myself out. I know why I’m doing it, and I know I need to stop. And yet I find myself here, at this keyboard, typing up something new. Old habits really do die hard.

I think I’ll take next weekend off. I won’t work, won’t write, will do nothing but rest and recuperate. Because for once, I feel like I truly should, and for once, I feel like I actually deserve it.

 

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