The Veteran

The local paper interviewed his parents. A reporter with a deep chocolaty voice and kind eyes came to their house and sat down right in the living room and asked them questions about him. She asked how it felt taking care of him. How they handled the commitment to him. She spared no detail, poking her pen into everything, from the way they’d dealt with him being in a coma to how long it took before they could stop changing his diapers because he’d managed to get to the bathroom on his own for the first time.

“It wasn’t even a question,” his mother said.

“Paul was always our first concern,” his father said.

In his room, bedridden, Paul listened. He had asked them not to let the reporter lady see him because he was tired and wanted to sleep. If they can lie, so can I, he thought, listening to the words seeping through the walls.

When the reporter left, his parents spoke softly and hugged one another. “We’ll get through this,” his mother said. “We’ll get him back on his feet in no time,” his father said. When they came in to check on him, Paul pretended to be asleep. He’d gotten to be even better at it since waking up from his coma. It was a skill he’d always had. His friends in service always made fun of him for sleeping so much – by military standards, of course. But he wasn’t a big sleeper at all. He’d never needed much of it. If he hadn’t had such disdain for anything that sounded even a little bit spiritual, he would have said that he was into meditating. He remembered long, sleepless nights when he was a teenager and obsessing over a girl. He’d lie there, hand still sticky, completely still but for the involuntary fluttering eyelids and muscle twitches that characterize slumber. When he bounced out of bed in the morning, his parents never suspected he hadn’t slept a wink.

Of course it was a question, Paul thought as his mother shut the door and his parents went off to do whatever it was they did on Sunday afternoons. He was basically an adult now, twenty-four, and he knew that parents weren’t perfect. He refused to believe that his mother hadn’t wondered what it would be like to have him recuperate at some rehab center for vets like him. She must have thought about everything she would lose from her life, keeping him at home and caring for him around the clock. She didn’t go to her chess club anymore, and he hadn’t heard of her meeting a friend out for coffee since before he’d gotten half his head blown off. He didn’t think his dad could have been so blase about the whole thing either. Paul knew about the woodworking shop his father had begun to assemble in the unused half of the garage, and he knew that the shelves and the chairs and the tables his father had planned on building would never come to fruition.

They’d also told the reporter that helping Paul achieve independence was what they wanted most in the world, because they knew he wanted to be a useful member of society. His muscles convulsed and he clenched his fists, practicing the movements his physical therapist wanted him to do. He wanted to tell his parents that they were sweet idiots. He didn’t want to be a useful member of society. He didn’t want anything. He wanted to have been left on the battlefield to bleed to death so that he wouldn’t have to ruin his parents’ retirement plans. They’d planned to learn how to take naps. They’d planned to take a cruise to Alaska. They’d planned so many things that didn’t involve him.

His only motivation for getting better was giving that back to them and getting the hell out of their life. The only society he wanted to be useful to was theirs, the society of two people, by removing himself as the third wheel.

In the Green Room

This is what they were thinking about as the crowd streamed in through the double doors to the auditorium and created a ruckus that could only be drunk:

They were thinking first and foremost about their bodies. They were thinking of their protruding stomachs or the skin peeking out from under shorts. They were thinking about the comparison the roused audience would no doubt begin to make. They were thinking they should have gone on a diet. They were thinking they were hungry. They were thinking about the cookie in their bag that would find its way to their mouths in seconds.

They were thinking about the end of the night. Which would be morning. They were thinking about the star charts they would fail to fill out because the night would be keeping them indoors, entertaining dozens of people with their feet up on the chairs in front of them and the smell of cigarettes lingering on their clothes and hair.

They were thinking about the impossibility of this endeavor, its endlessness and incomprehensiveness. Why were they here? Who thought they could do this? Who did they think they were? They were thinking about the panic accumulating in their bowels and the crunching of air through their throat and into their lungs. They were certain it was made of glass and scratching every bit of the way down. They were almost sure they were bleeding internally.

They were thinking about the boys whose hearts had been broken and about their own hearts breaking. They were thinking about the text they hadn’t received, the little plus signs they were slowly adding to the ‘against’ column that was outweighing the ‘for’. They were thinking about their love for their friends and the comfort they could take in the vividness of their lives outside the realm of their cellphone screens.

They were thinking about their parents and how proud or disappointed they would be if they were here.

They were thinking about love, because they always think about it one way or another.

They were thinking about life and death because these are matters of great importance.

They were thinking they would be on stage soon.

They stopped thinking. They moved. They felt. They reacted.

It Was Warm and Cold and Round and Square

I found a mystery on the beach today, half-buried in the sand. There were plenty of people around. Sunbathing, building sand-castles, running in and out of the sea. When they ran in, they were usually dry. When they ran back out, they were always wet. The water was cold that day. No one stayed in for very long. I didn’t wear my bathing suit. I was just in shorts and a t-shirt with the name of the company I work for inscribed on it. They give me free things like that sometimes. Once I got a big duffle bag. I use it to carry my laundry down. Some people say that’s free advertising. I say it’s a free bag.

I stepped right on the mystery at first. I was barefoot. My shoes were with the blanket I’d spread out on the sand. I didn’t want to take my shoes off at first. But the blanket kept flapping up in the wind and I needed something to weight it down with. So I took my shoes off. They were the kind you can wear without socks. So I was both shoeless and sockless. Completely barefooted. Once, feet were considered erotic. I guess they still are for some people, if you can believe what you read in the tabloids.

My foot still has a mark on it. The mystery was sharp. I jumped away from it and yelled a little yell. It hurt. Nobody was watching, though. Everyone was too involved in what a nice day it was. That’s probably why no one found the mystery before I did. Even though my foot was stinging, I got down on my knees to look closer at the thing that hurt me.

It was round and square and triangular. I pulled it out of the sand. It was pretty small. It was heavy and light. It was clear and opaque. It sang a little tune when I shook it. It rattled. It was the most ordinary and mysterious thing I’d ever seen. I guess that’s why they call it a mystery.

I took it home. I wrapped it in the blanket first. My neighbors would never let it stay on this street if they saw it. We’re a no-pets zone. Nobody wants dog poop on their lawn. I don’t have a lawn. I have a rock garden. It’s very relaxing. I use a rake and make shapes in the sand. Then I walk on all the zigzags and see my shoe-prints. I wear different shoes every day so that I won’t get bored. I have almost thirty pairs. That’s just enough.

Branded

Fred’s pops used to call everyone “old sport.” Fred’s pops drank soda and whiskey, or whiskey and soda, every night when he got home from work. Fred’s pops had a loud voice that boomed through rooms like a stereo system. Fred inherited nothing from his pops. He did not call people “old sport.” He did not drink whiskey and soda or soda and whiskey. He did not drink at all. He was allergic to alcohol. He tried drinking when he was in college, but threw up after having had four or five sips of anything, no matter what it was. He wasn’t the sharpest needle in the sewing kit, but he figured out there was something wrong with him and quit drinking entirely. Later, a doctor called his decision a wise one and confirmed that Fred was allergic. Fred’s voice was not loud. It was thin and wispy and went well with his thin neck and poet’s sensibilities.
Fred was what you’d call an aspirant. He aspired to many things. He aspired even when there was no logical reason for him to aspire. Working in the corner store that sold gumballs, candy-bars, coca-cola drinks and girly magazines, Fred had long passed the age at which this kind of job was seen as a stepping stone to bigger, better things. Everyone in town who knew him had already figured out that he was going to be a perpetual local, and they accepted this with gladness. There was nothing wrong with Fred. Helluva nice guy. Not a chip off the old block, people admitted, his pops had had more spunk in him, but still, nothing wrong with a soft-spoken, mild-mannered, effeminate guy like Fred. These days, people said, you had to accept all sorts. These days we’re all really equal, and if we, the people said, don’t want to know how come Fred hasn’t got a girlfriend, well, that’s just letting him mind his own business and us minding ours, isn’t that right?
Fred didn’t know what people said about him. His mother did, because she was a superb listener, trained by the best and brightest of the University of Chicago, where she had attended graduate school and received a Master’s Degree in psychology. She was everyone’s therapist, in such a small town, and she was very good at her job. She never mixed up Bertha from the pharmacy with Bertha who worked at the diner. She never told Todd that his best friend Joshua, who was also a client, was sleeping with his teenage daughter. She was ready for everyone with the same sagging cheeks punctured by her lips curving in a smile and always had a fresh supply of Kleenex for everyone.
Fred wasn’t anything like his mother, though. He often lost his concentration when other people were talking to him and would focus on what he perceived to be the exquisite features of a mulberry tree across the street or the epiphany-inducing colors of the sky. He claimed to love nature, but he didn’t really get out in it. He preferred the tamed version of the town to the muddy, smelly, stinging reality of the countryside.
But why natter on about Fred? All this is merely exposition to what is truly important, which is the day that changed everything for everyone in Fred’s town. The day in question was a windy Wednesday in October. There was nothing at all special or different about it, except that Fred looked around the shop he was working in and, instead of feeling contentment and pride and endless possibilities, as he apparently felt every other day, he felt a sudden melancholy. It seemed to him as if something was peeling off the shelves, as if the candy-bar wrappers were losing their sheen, the gumballs leaking of color.
And for the first time in years, ever since he had come back from a thoroughly mediocre college career, Fred felt dejected.
It was in the afternoon that he was found hanging from the ceiling fan of the store.
It was in the evening that his mother was notified.
It was the morning after that the local newspaper ran the story and an obituary was written out by a man who had been Fred’s friend in high school.
It was a week later that the police department leaked the letters found in Fred’s bedroom. The rejections were cruel and numerous, and his mother claimed never to have seen any of them, as Fred always visited her, never the other way around.
It was four weeks more until the idea to publish everything Fred had ever written and had rejected.
It was a mere six months after that that his mother had managed to crowdfund the project, find a book designer, a product manager, a lawyer and a publisher.
A year after Fred’s very timely death, his book came out. The reviews were mostly terrible, but there was a subset of men and women who believed in his poetry as in nothing else, and, among the literati, Fred became an interesting and divisive figure. He became a new-age Emily Dickinson, a rebirth (and redeath) of Kafka. He became a standard according to which writers everywhere compared themselves, positively or negatively.
If Fred had been alive to see any of these, not as himself but as an observer, he would have scoffed and accused himself of having succumbed to the cheapest and easiest of marketing tools, of being a Sylvia Plath, of being horrendously on brand.

Orange February

A slice of orange floated in Kera’s beer. She had made the mistake of dunking it into the drink with a straw until it was shredded. Perhaps it is more correct to say, then, that a slice of orange peel was floating in Kera’s beer. The pits had sunk to the bottom and were turning a nauseating vomit color.
Kera wished she could vomit. But she had no gag reflex to speak of, and hadn’t thrown up since her twelfth birthday. Exactly six years.
Her birthdays were not lucky. Nor were they pleasurable. They were blank, days of off-white skies and damp chilly breezes. The curse of February in the air.
The bartender leaned over and patted a customer on the cheek while Kera stared. The interaction was more interesting to her than the continued bobbing of the orange peel in her drink. The straw she had used was in her mouth, chewed flat, folded, and chewed again in its reduced-in-size state. The customer whose cheek was patted jerked his head up and banged his fists on the bar. The bartender laughed.
They seemed to know one another. Everyone in the bar seemed to represent a cult of daytime drinking that Kera longed to be part of. It was her third month drinking while the sun was still up, and even if it was hidden by the clouds at this point in time, the more important fact to note was that it was also hidden by the walls of the bar. In other words, Kera felt she had made a big step by not drinking on her rooftop, alone.

Old Indian Burial Ground

A sordid affair is the only kind worth having. Open the app, swipe to the right, ask a stranger if they want to see you naked. Take everyone, anyone, and make them yours. That’s how it’s done.

Don’t play innocent. This is not a rebuke. You are natural, au natural, unshaven, ungroomed, sparking with static in the winter months when you pull your sweater off your head. Your breath is tight in your chest, but that’s not the guilt. It’s just asthma. You smoke too much.

Drive down Lake Shore Drive in the little car you bought yourself with the last four semi-decent paychecks you got from work. Look at those waves. Remember, it’s not an ocean, even if it looks like it. Some of it froze this winter, and you remembered the times your father took you there to skate. He should have become less terrifying as the years wore on, but you fear him more than ever. He holds the bank accounts, he decides your future, he approves or disapproves.

It’s not your mother’s fault. Not entirely. Still, when she gets drunk every year on her birthday, she ends up crying over the toilet while you hold back her hair. She apologizes in between heaves for ever marrying such a monster. You don’t say anything. There’s nothing to say to a mother who says she’s sorry she met the man with whom she created you.

Your own marriage is failing too, but at least there aren’t any kids. You know your spouse is sleeping around. People from the office, people from the internet, people who you never would consider people until they cropped up on your significant other’s text list. In other words, lowlifes. You stopped judging months ago. Everyone is lonely, you suppose.

So have that affair. Just choose someone, anyone, and go to their apartment. Cry in their bed. Ask them to hold you. Ask them to make you a milkshake at three in the morning, and then dump it on them when you’re sick of all that ice-cream not coming through the straw. Just like the good old days, when you and your spouse didn’t worry so much about the bills.

Times are hard, now. Everyone says so. Don’t feel bad. You’ll feel better in the morning. Look up the definition of your feelings on Urban Dictionary. It’s sure to make you smile, sardonically at least.

You’re catering to no one, don’t you see? You can keep driving that car up and down forever, but it won’t get you anywhere. Eventually, you’ll have to stop to fill up for gas. It won’t be pretty, especially once your credit card is denied. Maybe you’ll get lucky, maybe you’ll get to keep the apartment.

Probably not. Your spouse has the better job. More money. A better lawyer, when it comes to that. Here’s what you should do. Make a mark on the back of your hand with a Sharpie of every day that passes and you’ll find out when your spouse serves you how many days you stayed married since you found out.

You could do the confrontation thing. Weep, hold each other, go to bed one more time for some limp and half-sincere love-making. But you won’t. Because that would mean admitting you’re unhappy. The only way you know how to get through the day is by being chipper. Sincere. Cheerful. Positively Tweety-Bird-like. Yellow and fluffy. That’s you all over.

Inside, you’re an old Indian burial ground the city is threatening to build a parking lot over. Except that you have no fight. You’ll lie there and take it. Maybe a few angry ghosts will rise up. But you don’t really believe in the supernatural.

When it finally does happen, you can just hear your father on the phone. He won’t say anything. He’ll just breathe, through his nose, right into the receiver. He’ll snuffle like a boar and you’ll be so disappointed in yourself. He’ll really bring home to you the essence of your failure.

Your mother, on the other hand, will just say she always knew it would happen. Then she’ll offer to set you up with her best friend’s kid again.

Forty-Two, With Kids

[Disclaimer: I don't know what's up with the formatting of this piece. Apologies. I'm not managing to fix it.]

Turn over. Get up. Get out.

Turn over a new leaf. Get up in the morning. Get out of your house.

Do this, do that, be here and there and everywhere. Eyes on the prize. Reach for the stars. Fulfill your dreams.

The usual existential teenage angst. No one tells you that it stays in your head until you’re forty-two and have two kids. But it’s not like those cheap movie antics, where your hero looks in the mirror one day and realizes that he’s wasted his life. That’s not how it happens. No, our hero (in this case it’s me, but it could be anyone in my position) is aware every single day of his life of the simultaneously fast and slow progression of things.

How can things be both slow and fast? In case you’re one of those remarkable people who hasn’t noticed the strange tricks time plays on you as you age, I’ll just point to one activity that I can guarantee works this way in 97% of the cases. Sex. When you’re having sex – assuming you’re not looking at the clock, and if you are, you’re probably not having as much fun as you should be – you can experience seconds as minutes and minutes as seconds and everything gets jumbled up, especially in those final moments, when you feel yourself tightening in and shooting out and flexing and curling in all at the same time.

Not that I have much sex anymore, but that’s how I remember it, and it’s not something you forget.

My children sharpened me. They made me smarter. But that doesn’t prevent me from wanting to cuff them on the back of the head some days. Or telling them they should shut the hell up because I want to relax. This is the sort of thing I think about, and feel guilty over, and repress.

Repression isn’t supposed to be healthy. Maybe that’s why my stomach hurts all the time.

It only occurred to me this morning that I was having a midlife crisis. Not in that apparently fun and conventional way. I don’t have the money to buy a big car to compensate for things I might need to compensate for. I’m not attractive enough to go out and have affairs with younger people. My midlife crisis involved sitting with my kids and watching recordings of TV shows I watched when I was a kid but that have been updated to modern times.

You wouldn’t believe Sesame Street if you tried to watch it today.

Then again, when I found some clips of Sesame Street from the 80s, I couldn’t believe it either. Trippy stuff. Catering to parents on acid and kids who didn’t suffer from epilepsy.

I have a buddy, a correctional officer, meaning a prison guard, who tells me about the kids in his unit. He keeps joking with my boys, telling them he’ll see them at work one day. I don’t think it’s really funny. I want to punch him a lot of the time. Since he doesn’t have kids, I wonder if maybe he really doesn’t get it. If he’s that dumb. He could be.

Part of my midlife crisis is realizing how little patience I have for people. I don’t read anymore. I look at headlines on my cellphone. And I roll my eyes and I know that everything is still screwed up and that the color of everyone’s crap is pretty much the same.

Come to think of it, I wonder whether doctors have started comparing the color of stool samples from contemporary and past patients? They just found some preserved popcorn from Ancient Egypt a while ago. What about some preserved feces? I bet the color changes over time. I bet we’re way grosser today than we were. Although with all the vegans and healthy eaters out there, maybe on average we’re better than we once were.

I think it’s my boys’ fault that I think about this stuff. They’re in that stage where they find everything about the toilet hilarious.

I remember when I was a teenager, I had the consolation that I would be cool one day. I knew it, in my core. In my bones. I was right, too. But now… I’m not sure if I’ll be a good old person. I think I may just be crotchety. Gruff. I’m already saying things like “back when I was a kid.” I’d rather stay in this midlife crisis if it means I don’t turn into that kind of person, who tells kids off for talking too loudly on public transportation. But I’m pretty sure that I have no way of stopping time and going backwards.