I remember I used to live in this place with a flimsy gate that led to my front door. Each apartment was side by side sharing the walls, the greenery and the path.
I had a Florida room I shared with my brother Michael that was made up of a queen sized bed facing the closet which had an ancient 32 inch TV sitting on a wood entertainment system that was falling apart.
Everything we had, was at some point been given to us, or we had procured on our own, including a computer my father managed to get years back from an old friend who was getting rid of it. A real piece of shit by any standards but I was blown away, and considered myself the luckiest man alive. AOL, online chatting, web surfing, and of course the all important pornography… it didn’t take long for the computer to get a virus.
At 19, I was unapologetic about my habitual meanderings, and still used the same old computer that was on its last breaths. I wasn’t worried about it. I wasn’t worried about anything. I was running on empty, and only lived in my books. School had become a miserable affair for me. In the mornings I nearly had to be kicked awake. At the bus stop I slept, on the bus I slept, walking to class I slept. Can I just sleep? Not in the night. Not tonight. Can’t the day be over? I wanted to sleep and wake up years later. I wanted to be old. I wanted to sleep the day away. At night, I read and talked and talked and talked and read some more. I was learning strange things, fantastic things. I was fascinated by the night.
At 19, I was fearless and reckless to drugs and ideas. I loved to chew on philosophy, especially stoned. How long has my family been here? At least four years with two different managers. I tried to do what was expected and always went on the hunt for tail, but at bottom, I just didn’t care anymore. I embraced my sense of entitlement that everyone told me to get rid of as I went with my mother to help her clean apartments. She too had embraced the life of the cleaning maid, when once she was a Hollywood starlet. I hated those trips so much. I felt shame because I knew she needed me and I knew she had less than five years before turning to ashes, but I couldn’t help complaining. I hated to see her get weaker and weaker. She folded some sheets, then went to sit down, taking deep breaths, then slowly got up and did something else before again sitting and again breathing hard.
I confess that I was so angry. The apartment was beautiful and had signed movie posters and one had the Beatles signed by all four of them. Why was it so bittersweet? How much she got out of her life killing dredge? 50 bucks a week for two days? 100, maybe 200 during the holidays? What kind of bullshit was that? The apartment was owned by a nice older couple, and mom told me the father was the guy who discovered Hitler had Parkinson’s disease and they had a relative in the White House. She also told me they were doctors. How could they not see how sick she was? Couldn’t they spare some more? How did they not see how bad she needed it? I knew that it was unfair of me, but all the years? All the years I came to see my mom die a little more and not even a little more? Mom liked them, and said nice things about them which angered me. They didn’t owe us anything, I knew that. They had a right, I knew that too. And why should we be on their minds, busy people they were? It was just as well. We weren’t on anyone’s mind for quite some time.
There was something else: writing. I finally got it down, at least something down. Little stories and vignettes poured out of me like a fountain. Every story was a possibility, a branch, something that could become a book or stay a two page story. I wanted to piece it all together somehow. In the sidelines, age 20 was around the corner, and I didn’t think I could survive being a senior. Graduating would have been the important thing, the responsible thing, but I had enough. I had enough of the effort and the pretensions and the style of wear and the torture of thinking about what to say next. What’s she thinking? What does she wanna hear? What would friends think? What would people think of me? Put up your hair Daniel, style it just right. Forget about your books. It was the same song and dance. I hated high school, but the years before were way better than being an old senior. The older kids were much cooler, and now I was the last one left. I can’t say that I missed them too badly, but it was better than being a senior. If I missed them, it was because I had had so much more fun before. The older kids kept it wacky and interesting. I just didn’t feel that as a senior. Kids were cold and distant to each other at different grades. People I knew changed too. Even more lines were drawn. My classes held no interest either, not even my guitar class. I skip all the time, just to go and get some sleep. I had loved school once. What happened? Was it the drugs? No, it was the figures. The college life was not meant for me. Night classes, little courses, that’s all people said, but they didn’t know. Of course being an immigrant didn’t help.
The marines gave me a call, and I spoke with a lovely woman Sergeant. Apparently I was an important choice, based on my curriculum over the last five years. The very idea of becoming a dog of the military was outrageous to me. I was way too cowardly. But holding the phone and talking to my parents made me realize how sick I was of my immigration status. We came so close but the law changed, and until it changed again, we were stuck with expired visas. That was five years ago. My parents asked me if I would do the military to fix my visa, and I was astounded to realize that I was. I told the lady that I was flattered but that I wasn’t really made for guns and physical activity and she told me they had all kinds of programs that I could do and not to worry about that. Six months of light boot camp and I was in. I thought about the hell of boot camp and if I could survive it. That would be quite an experience for me, learning that kind of stuff. It wasn’t my cup of tea but I thought about it hard, and made up my mind. I will discipline myself. I will wake up every goddamned morning and do all that running and exercise, and endure it. Maybe they ate well in the army too. I couldn’t believe it myself, but I decided to do it and she was very excited. That’s when I told her about the expired Visa and asked if they had any naturalization programs to help that. The phone went silent and she said one moment, and after a moment she came back and apologized, saying they couldn’t it, but that they’ll get back to me. I let go of the phone when I heard the click, dropping it on my bed, knowing that they never will get back to me. I couldn’t fucking believe it. All this time, the Army was the last straw. I had one of those clichéd crystallizing moments. The last straw was an illusion. It was never there. I fucking believed and it was never real. I wanted to yell fuck as loud as I could, but didn’t. I just inhaled a deep breath and took the march of shame to my parent’s room. I’ll never forget their hopeful faces when I opened the door…
Man, that shit is such a buzz kill isn’t it? Hanging with my friends was like pretending it was all alright. I would get high, talk about stupid shit, watch a movie, play a game, it was all the same. I confess that I didn’t honestly know what I wanted. Talking about my problems put people off and the rare times it didn’t, I was thrown one massive pity party, which I hated just as much. People got frustrated with me a lot, and didn’t know what I was asking for. I was just trying to communicate, to express what I bottled up throughout my life, to understand it, to touch it and taste it and balance it. Normally this would just end up being about the person who heard it, and not my own problems. I was the psychologist machine, without pain or emotions or weakness. Maybe somehow I was seen that way by the frustrated masses. Friends consistently asked for my advice, only to regret it later. No matter what choice they needed to make, their inquiries lead to personal problems of character. They simply just wanted to sing the blues or forget the blues. I realized that the only way to know the right choice so to speak was to understand the problems of character we all have. Unfortunately, along with that discovery was the one about ego and pride and hurt feelings.
My teenage years were devoted to picking the brains of my generation. I went at it with everything I had. I wanted to talk about my life and my problems too, but no one cared. No one wanted to pick my brain. They were too afraid to really get to know me. Even my brother and sister don’t understand me at 19. If people picked my brain it was only to trick me, fool me, take me for granted. I angered so many who thought they were good at it. I admit I was a hard teenager to fool and I have my family to thank for that. I learned so much about life and survival and I learned to have radar for cons. A con in part ruined my family, so I made sure very young to never be taken for a fool like that again.
I also learned to pick my battles, which my siblings rarely did. I tried to teach them about emotions and the passions and getting to know our weaknesses but they just used it to trick others and themselves. I still hadn’t given up on them, but I knew something was coming soon, something that we couldn’t prepare for no matter how hard we tried. Maybe in the future I’ll finally get the message and leave them alone…
Michael and Claudia were bonding for the last few years. Sometimes we all had drinks with our neighbors. There was a guy with long thin black hair from Costa Rica named Ricardo who loved to get shit drunk and sing current songs, with his arm across my brother’s shoulders. His looks belied his age but I think he was in his early 30’s. I used to have great times drinking with them. They used to sing stunning renditions that made you choke on your beer laughing. He had an accent, which became more comical with every drink and what I liked most about him was his good forceful cheer.
Another one who would join us sometimes was Don Gomez, an overweight tall gay man in his 40’s from Haiti who was known in the neighborhood to do Santeria, and all kinds of things. He was gentle and kind and extremely flamboyant, which made people like him. He had a nice but strange ‘wife’ and ‘baby’ that she carried around with her. She was normally reclusive but eventually started to come out more often. Rumors were that she wasn’t married to him and that their relationship was bogus to cover his taste for boys. The word on the street was that he pays teenagers to suck him off, but never forces them and that the boys came on their own. It surprised me how many kids I used to know in elementary and middle school that went there; fierce kids, tough kids, kids in gangs with brass knuckles and color coded doo rags. Some were the toughest and manliest out there, yet they went to suck dick for money. I wasn’t surprised. What can surprise you in the modern world anymore?
Regardless of his taboo habit, Don Gomez was a nice enough man whose flamboyance always caused a riot of laughter. Sometimes he and his ‘wife’ had cookouts right outside their apartment and we would be there with foldout chairs and plastic plates with charred ribs and potatoes, and a big bottle of Popov vodka, a feast for the poor! His wife was tiny and worn with short dark hair and matching beady eyes.
Gomez took a great deal of liking to me for some reason which made things a tad unsettling and awkward from time to time. Michael and Claudia thought those moments of his ‘compliments’ were hilarious. The setting was complete with a crappy radio that played whatever anyone was in the mood for. Sometimes a salsa song Claudia liked came on and she would get up to dance. I remember us cheering her and Gomez on as she showed us how well he danced to all our amusement and surprise. Our street was full of surprises like that.
Sometimes we were also joined by an older Cuban guy who looked 20 years younger named Antonio, who did Santeria with his mother no less, who also lived with him. She was a very friendly old lady, who liked my mother and it was comical to see her with her son. It was like watching a sitcom. He was still her little boy I guess. Antonio on the other hand was serious, deadpan, and his humor was unsettling and not funny in my opinion. To be honest, I hated the guy’s guts, and I got the feeling it was mutual. He was brusque and forceful with his gestures and often seemed pissed about something. Michael and Claudia took to him and I didn’t see why. The guy was a jerk and constantly had to prove his male age authority. On good days he wasn’t so bad, but I still never found him so amusing. He told us outrageous stories about growing up in Cuba and meeting Batista, Fidel and Che Guevarra. They were just crazy enough to be true.
When I came home from school like clockwork, he sat on his porch and would order me to come over. I waved and pretended not to hear him, as I opened the gate to go home. He never stopped trying though, and he never brought it up. But like clockwork, I would get home, he would yell, and I would wave pretending not to hear. Maybe he was trying to take me under his wing. Well, he had to get in line with the rest of the good old boys. I don’t know what his obsession was with me or the rest of the male species for that matter. His voice was annoyingly cockish, and he almost sounded like a wise guy, like a Mafioso without a Hispanic accent. Often he addressed imaginary people probably to drive his point or something, and I hated it when he talked about people in the third person. ‘This kid don’t know nothing…’ I sensed something bad in him, maybe not evil, but destructive. I avoided him as much as possible.
In the last few months, we were beginning to be joined by an Argentine kid, not much older than Michael from Mendoza. He was another one of those males like Antonio, trying to be the big cock of the walk. Michael loved this guy, and looked up to him and it made me sick. I hated seeing my brother fawn over a scumbag like him. His name was Gonzalo and he had stories to tell, stories about Mendoza, stories about the hard life and the crime and what you had to do. Normally I loved these kinds of stories, but it was clear he just used them to look badass and didn’t give a flying fuck about struggling people or anything like that. Just two things: he was manlier than you, and you should follow him. The irony was that his girlfriend Amanda had his balls in a mason jar. She was a stunning beauty I never got to know, but apparently, amid the fights and the loud arguments and the constant makeup sex, she was in charge and he was unable to resist. I thought maybe that was why he was the way he was. He was clearly overcompensating, but I dared not tell my brother. Why did he look up to that loser and not me? What did he see in that guy? His attitude was humiliating and condescending, and he always had snazzy comebacks and biting remarks. When he was on a roll it was hard to stop him. Hanging with that guy meant that you were the constant butt of the joke, that you were the punch-line, that you were something to be laughed at and mocked. He also had a serious air about him and knew he was an attractive guy, almost too well. His brand of condescension he delivered with a dry attitude, always dry, dry like burnt toast. I wanted to punch that guy in the face at the things he said but apparently it was all fun and games to my brother and sister and everyone else but not to me. I can tell that the son of a bitch meant every word he said. His aim wasn’t roasting in good humor, but a way to be on top. I rarely saw anyone make fun of him. When they did, he doubled his efforts in defense. Everyone saw a tough guy from the streets that had seen it all. I saw nothing more than a bitter son owned by his wife and his murky past. I saw an insecure boy pretending to be a man. So why did everyone like him? Is it because he was easy on the eyes? I wouldn’t be surprised. He clearly grew up in hard times. Why couldn’t I relate to him then? Why couldn’t I relate to anyone…?
The story goes on. I missed childhood ignorance. I missed a lot of things. I drank to dull the emotions, but it rarely worked. The future… a year from now… what will be? The same hell…? Or a whole other kind of hell? I drank to keep my mind from going. I read to figure out how to hold on. In between the lines of the literature and the science fiction and the philosophy and the theology and all the other genres, lied a code just for me to decipher. Somehow, if I could read everything I could get my hands on that stirred in me a passion, then I could find a way to break the curse. What curse was there when I read, and imagined? What cursed was there when I held a book in my hands? I was beginning to discover a power inside of me, a power I had previously underestimated. I had been labeled ‘a smart kid’ many times in the past, but these secret messages and archaic teachings were something else altogether. Senior year was over. School had closed its doors, and so had the military. So why did I feel so strong? Why did I feel the way I do? Why did it offend people so much? Fuck it… let it all die in flames. Let it feed their thirst let it do its worst, because I won’t change for them, or for anyone. I was beginning to finally let go of the social web. In the haze and glitz, I knew the future was uncertain, unpredictable, and friends would not hold. That much I got from the passages in the night, sitting on my doorstop. I wasn’t out to impress the world or to find a girl, I was just trying to break the curse, and hopefully get a nice lay or two. Where was the harm? Where was history class? The teacher was nice and all, and he was a good teacher, I could tell, but when the bell rang and it was time to go, I froze and stood by the exit sign, thinking of my next cigarette and blunt. Carlos pulled at my sleeve telling me fuck it, not knowing I decided that months before. I didn’t regret anything. The days I showed up, the teacher eventually expressed disapproval.
“You’re a smart kid. You should show up more often.” He said, handing out homework as we all left.
“Thanks Mr. James. I’m sorry about that. I will.”
I confess I didn’t regret that either. What was I supposed to do? What fucking future was there for me? The world of school had become a joke, a mockery. I was lonelier than ever. So why put up with it for nothing? Fuck all of that, and fuck looking for some damn sympathy. I didn’t expect people to understand. No one really did. Hell, I’m not so sure I did. The only thing I knew was that I couldn’t work, but I could go to school, and college. Where to get the money and how when my family couldn’t work legally was another issue that wasn’t the federal government’s concern. Why would it be right? There were bills to pay and panic attacks to have over the rent. There were nice apartments to clean and everywhere to remind of you of what you didn’t have. Claudia had a job at Burger King on the other side of town and she and my mom keep things barely running as my dad did seasonal jobs. Same old, same old…
One day I decided to skip Mr. James’s class for good, and eventually high school and senior year. Skip the whole establishment and never go back. I started to get more sleep and the sleep was heavenly. The school year came to an end, everyone graduated but me, and I slept through it in bed, with a smile of gratitude. While they threw their caps, I threw in the towel. Strangely, my parents didn’t protest as much as I expected. My mom demanded to know why the school called to tell me I had been dropped for my absences. I told her that was impossible that you needed 55 to be expelled, and she said that they changed that last week and now it was 40 and that my cap was at a neat 45. I told her how much bullshit I thought that was, and she agreed, but tried to make a deal with the lady. She scheduled a meeting between us, which I also ended up skipping. That’s when I explained to her why I did it. She just wept softly at the dinner table and begged me to forgive her over and over.
Graduation day passed. Mom’s dream was to see me throw the damn cap in the air, but she didn’t know the price. She thought that maybe if her son was smart and was in gifted all his life and got good grades then maybe… but the best scholarships were just nickels and dimes and where was the time? Look for more jobs you won’t get, more girls who won’t lay, more pressures and oddball adventures. More slang and Tang and tropical nights, more alcohol, more vision, more writing, more reading. School might be pointless to me, but learning never was. Why do I chase the intellectual dragon? Why do I read the messages and the codes and look for the right road when there was no road, no school? The woman on the phone expelled me at the moment I went over the new limit of absences. Was it the curse or the story of my life? I knew it was both, and I wasn’t the least bit surprised. How fucking convenient ah? Better not ask any questions Daniel. I pretended anger and disbelief that day. I pretended but I secretly was relieved. At least the curse took away something that had become a burden. At least I knew what to expect.
I ran across Mr. James the day school got out for the summer. I watched him come out of the building and felt the sudden urge to explain myself to him. So I put the cigarette out and went over to unburden myself.
“Mr. James! Glad to catch you on the last day of school.” I greeted him, running up with a cheery disposition and nonchalance, as if nothing happened. “It’s pretty late and most of the kids left. I’m chilling with some back there.” I pointed behind me at the chain-linked fence at the entrance to the school.
“Daniel.” He said, giving me a searching look. He was fair skinned and had thin blonde hair with an earnest and stern face. “I’m sorry I didn’t get to see you more. I must have missed you the last half of the year.”
“Yeah about that… you see… that’s why I came over.” I told him, fidgeting with my greased up hair.
“You know that it took me weeks to realize when you weren’t coming back? You know I really thought you were going to? I even left your name on the roster as long as I could.”
“Mr. James…” I started, taking a breath.
“I really hoped that you’d come back to us Daniel.” He said sincerely, looking away at the parking lot.
“Look teach, I just wanted to apologize.” I began. “You don’t understand why I did what I did. School was everything to me. School meant the world to me. School was a reason why I’m still breathing to this day. Now I’m not gonna give you a sob story here, but do you know what it’s like to lose something you love? Do you know how it feels every day? But you keep going. It’s all you can do in this world, right? And that was school for me. I realized I couldn’t balance the world at home and the world of studies anymore. I had to make a break. I had to do it on my own, which I realize now is the best way, because it’s the only way. I don’t expect anything anymore. I don’t expect hand outs. I don’t expect generosity. I don’t expect a miracle or an act of God even. I expect nothing. School closed its doors to me a long time ago teach, along with the system. Maybe one day, when I’m free of the weight of my family, I might accomplish something with my life. I might write a novel, maybe two or three, and get published. Third time’s a charm right? And that day will be the day I don’t have to stand around helpless, and cower in the corner of a sinking ship. That day I can rise up and help my family. I placed everything I had, all my hopes into my studies; to one day make it to college and get degrees. And what happened? By sophomore year, I started to realize something, sitting in those tiny rooms with guidance counselors who don’t get you at all. How will I afford it? How will I make time if a job under the table comes along? The hours, the bus rides, the commutes, the personal life, the family life, the friend life, the artist life, the pothead life, the book life… how will I make it? The only extreme alternative was the military, and a call a few months ago told me I wasn’t good enough. How am I supposed to feel? What am I supposed to do? School was gone, and I’m still mourning her loss, Mr. James. I just wanted to let you know all of this, not because I feel guilty or because I need something, or because I want you to understand. I don’t care one way or another. I said it because I want you to know that it had nothing to do with your teaching. I was angry at first because the school kept messing up my schedule and I got to your class pretty late in the year. I don’t know what happened, but all kinds of weird mistakes were happening with my records. Some classes kept marking me present even though I stopped coming. So maybe I would have thought about it more had they done it right, but all my classes were cold, indifferent, and unmemorable my senior year. And junior year was only slightly better. Maybe all the screw ups and changes that happened were for a reason. I read between the lines Mr. James. It told me school was not meant to be. I’m sorry if I gave you doubts as a teacher. I know you were trying to reach me. It’s not your fault. I felt like a stranger in a strange land in your classroom even though I knew all the kids there. I saw how excited they were with you and how engaged they were to learn. It’s clear that you love what you do. You’re a good teacher Mr. James, and I know you didn’t need me to tell you that, but again, I’m sorry.”
Mr. James looked at me stunned.
“Daniel… I… I appreciate you telling me that. It’s such a shame because you’re a smart kid, I always thought so. School wasn’t meant for you Daniel, and maybe that’s not such a bad thing. You walk a different path than the rest of us. Maybe you were meant for something else, something even better for you than school. People go through life choosing what they are dealt, but you made a conscious choice. You want to be a writer.” Mr. James smiled. “You fit the profile that’s for sure. It seems like writing chose you on this one. Writing is your path, and that’s not an easy path to follow. I can also see that you want to write the hard hitting novels, the serious stuff, and that path is even harder. I sincerely hope Daniel, that you are a good student of your art. Don’t give up on it. Writing will never give up on you, so don’t skip on it, will ya?”
“Alright teach.” I laughed and we shook hands. His grip was firm and honest. “Read you loud and clear.”
I watched him go to his car and thought of what he said. Writing will never give up on you. Was he right? Was he right about what I felt? Will writing break the curse? Will it help me survive what’s to come?