By Ace L.
Avid writers usually have the talent and the skill to tell their audience a story using words vivid enough to help visualize said story, but there are times when words simply are not enough to describe the emotions you feel.
How exactly do you describe the feeling of your entire world crumbling around you? How do you use words to describe the sound of your heart shattering into billions of pieces when you hear that the person you grew up with for three years had shot himself the night before? Imagine a scenario in which you’re the strong one that everyone relies on to provide that energy and spark that everyone so desperately needs during somber times as these. What would happen if the roles were reversed and you needed that energy and spark from someone else? How are you supposed to describe that? How do you even try?
How do you use your words, the ones that people had been commending you over for the longest time, to tell everyone that the spark that everyone had depended on for years had suddenly gone out? How do you use the words that you have been using for years to describe your grief? Is that even possible?
How do you tell people that it was all over for you the moment you got the news? The power that you once had within you dissipated in a single moment. The electric box is broken, leaving everyone in the dark to scramble their way through. You know it’s your fault. You know that if you had stayed strong for everyone else, that energy would help them go a long way.
But you just can’t provide that spark anymore. It’s no longer there. Your once bright eyes now dulled over with despair and hopelessness. You get nightmares about how he stood in the bathroom, sobbing, staring at himself in the mirror, wondering if he should do it or not. You try to run to him to save him but you’re unable to. You’re frozen in time, screaming until your voice is hoarse. It haunts you, but no one understands that. You simply cannot understand why everyone else refused to give you a break. You’re grieving as well. You knew him throughout your middle school years and befriended him. Why couldn’t they just see that the stamina inside of you was gone now? They wanted it back ever so badly, but you just couldn’t give it to them. You couldn’t make them happy anymore because you found no reason to be. The person that you found hope in and reason for life was gone. How could you be happy again?
Imagine that people always described you as a wild and spirited person who never seemed to falter in spreading their energy and never ceased to put a smile on at least one person’s face every single day. That was how my life was before November 2017, which was when everything started to go into a downward spiral pulled by gravity with not enough force to pull it back up.
You just truly started to understand the effects of grief on a person and why people talked about the torment of knowing that their loved one was gone. You finally understood that he was never coming back, no matter what you did, and you didn’t even bother to check up on him after he moved away. You would never forgive yourself for focusing on your own life for the first time since it led to someone’s death. Imagine asking yourself, “Why did I never ask him how he was doing?”
You continued to blame yourself, torturing yourself to find the answer to your question. You continued to wonder why you forgot to check on people that left your life due to distance. You blamed yourself until you physically showed the signs of grief in tired looks and pulled down sleeves.
Imagine losing the gleam in your eyes that you were known for. Losing that flicker of excitement when someone spewed out a witty joke. Losing that characteristic puff of the chest of pride when you successfully get hard work done. Imagine losing all of that.
Imagine that the only thing left is this dark shell of your former self stuck with pangs of loneliness and anguish that never seems to truly leave because that was what I felt for years on end.
By Annelise R.
Election day. At least, that’s what it would have been, in my mind, if this March was just like any other March that came before. The first time I would be able to vote, cast my very own ballot and proudly take part in the American election system. For the very first time, I would be exercising, in physical form, my ability to choose - a true marking of the coming of adulthood. At 17, I stood as the youngest voter in the mid-sized ballot room; and, the only one with a scarf wrapped around my face to cover my nose and mouth.
I’ve always been a bit of a germaphobe, so the second I heard whispers of Covid-19 squeezing its way into America, I went straight to the comforts of my bathroom sink and lemon-scented soap. Needless to say, the situation has escalated to the point where us germaphobes are no longer the only ones taking part in obsessive hand washing. This pandemic has weasled its way into every aspect of our lives, and will likely change the way we think, in the long term.
It’s been difficult adjusting; I am certain I speak for the majority of Americans in saying this. We’re all making a journey to an unknown peak. For my family, it’s been more of a non-linear mountain hike, filled with jagged cliffs and contrastingly smooth mesas. For a family of two adults and two hormonal teenagers (my brother more than me), communal living has not been an easy feat - welcome to day 4 of quarantine.
The day started with an empty coffee pot - which, for me, equalled immediate disgruntlement. Though caffeine seems to take no effect on me, I find that, sans warm mug of black coffee, I am just plain nasty. Green juice for breakfast, since I have extra time to use my Nutribullet, and then four hours of online schooling. This, in itself, is an adjustment. As someone who likes interacting with the people around me, thrives off of working with my peers during class, it is needless to say that I was frustrated. After an hour of working through the same 10 math problems without much guidance besides a computer scanned document of homework answers, I called it quits for the day. Hey, they keep telling us to take care of ourselves, right?
So, I did just that, and felt significantly better when I went to my room and played Hozier on nearly full volume through my headphones. I believe we should try to spend 10 minutes each day dancing around our rooms, listening to our favorite songs, no matter how many times they’ve been played before. Save full volume for the best part of the song, so at the moment before it comes, you can push the volume to full capacity. Nothing feels better than the captivating crescendo of those magical lyrics echoing in your ears as you shut your eyes and throw up your arms.
In the afternoon, we voted. Surprisingly, the room was generally empty, and the scent of hand sanitizer overwhelming. I felt almost silly with the lower half of my face wrapped in a scarf, but then I remembered the current global conditions and continued marking my ballot. I felt bad when I had to choose a random name for one of the local positions, because I’d forgotten to complete the prior research that I’d promised myself I’d do. But, again, oh well. There’s bigger things to worry about right now.
To keep our spirits up, my dad and I made a bet; for every time he saw the word “unprecedented” in work emails, he would receive a point, and every time he saw “uncertain,” I would get a point. At the end of the week, whichever word has the most tallies will win the bet; and one of us will owe the other five dollars cash. Which, I am now realizing, is inherently ironic, since all the restaurants, shopping malls, and other places I normally spend money are closed in Illinois anyways. But, at least it’s something to do.
As the day comes to a close, I am left wondering what tomorrow will look like. Will I fall back into the comforts of a semi-structured routine, like I am used to? Or will I truly never know what the next day may bring?
And what type of life do I truly want?
Your Life’s Commentary, by the Mirrors
By Karina S.
You used to play Einaudi’s Nuvole Bianche on the piano like grandpa taught you before he disappeared from those brick walls. I watched you struggle, pensive, wishing the notes vibrated against the darkened, browned strings, the right hand sang, and the left hand crooned in the same way it did when he played it. But now, every time your fingers even hover over the cold, ivory keys, the world is a dark, frosty winter. The roof caved in on you, and I felt it too. At least, I perceived it, from the back of you. My gold frame was withering away with your familiar touch.
Do you remember a time before the scant remnants of your worth were not measured by the quantity of time you felt compelled to stare at me? A time before you took accutane and stood atop a scale everyday so they would stop staring at you? I would find it hard to believe it if you did.
You used to share a room with your delicate twin brother before he was whisked off to boarding school for being different, ‘special’. You both would scream the theme songs of Phineas & Ferb and Spongebob and The Fairly Odd Parents, a whimsical abyss of sameness and similitude - everyday, after school, that was never challenged by monotony. I would watch you two perched in front of the slightly cracked, sweating windows, furiously staring at the white cars that drove by, in the sweltering Florida summer. You didn’t look at me as much as I looked at you, back then. Maybe it is because I am forced to meet everyone’s gaze, no matter the time of day. My eyes are always open, glassy and nondescript. Imagine that, a quiet observer. You don’t know him.
Do you remember the times that you would sit in the back of dad’s flaming red pick-up truck, listening, absorbing, breathing in the rhythmic jazz, autotune-less ‘60s music and sleeping to the sounds of ‘Blue Moon’? I do, even though I couldn’t hear it. I was a cracked rear-view where objects are closer than they appear. You were an innocent twelve.
Just a note: I see you crying, sometimes. Your face turns puffy and it’s on fire and your medication rubs off on your clothes. It’s red and blue and all the colors in between. When you look at me, it makes you cry more. When your eyes aren’t brown they are red. That’s not normal, is it?
You used to take ballet with the fragile boy next door. He was fragile because your mom used to say that ballet wasn’t for boys, that boys don’t wear pink, that boys were trouble until you turned ripe, mature. The ballet studio was my family: squared with me, and me only. He was fragile, but still your partner for the Giselle. With your pas de deux, the earth shattered, but I stayed intact, of course. My brothers and I, watching you.
You would still look at me, of course, but you never met my gaze in that room. You would stare at your feet, your thighs, your hips, and then at the other girls, to compare. Your eyes were desert wanderers, vagabonds in the clutter that was your life. Vagabond. Oh, that 20th-century classic, A minor. Too bad I don’t have ears to listen to pianos. I can only see the fleeting emotion of the pianist.
Do you remember your first dimly-lit piano lesson? The room was dark and warm and yellow because Mrs. D had outdated light fixtures. She looked like an overgrown vineyard waiting for winter to rip her apart. From where I watched, the only times she ever smiled was when you waltzed in with a check between your fingers, or when your mother forced you to give her gifts. Gift cards, usually, because nothing could match the gift of music she already owned.
Otherwise, she wore a grimace that was two-parts tragedy and one part disdain from being forgotten. You didn’t forget her, though. I still see you clutching that glossy polaroid photograph you took when you were fourteen and she was six times that. When she died, you knew the winter came.
4. Piano, Again
You still sit on the dirty stool of your Fazioli, today. Today, of course, you are happy. At least, I think you are, because you don’t cry into my glass anymore. Your head tosses back in laughter and I can see you smiling even when your back is facing me because of your better posture. Your eyes are permanently brown and you only meet my stare to apply mascara, not to criticize your freckles or dark spots or scars or your body. As for the people you’ve lost, you’ve pasted pictures of them. Pasted pictures onto me, the me in your room to cover a bit of my vantage point. When times are tough, you still look at me, sometimes. Only to give yourself a pep talk or to hum good old Nuvolve Bianche in F minor as you get ready in the morning. It doesn’t need to sound like grandpa, clearly.
How things have changed. I will always be your quiet observer. The mirrors behind, or in front of you.
By Renna B.
I have long abandoned my run in favor of this trail of memories. I would like to say it was a completely spontaneous venture, but I stored a stick of incense and a lighter safely inside the zipped pocket of my sweatpants strictly for this purpose before I left. The path along the water looks dry enough; maybe I’ll have to jump over a few wet spots, but that’s better than it usually is. Most of the time it isn’t even an option. It’s a skinny stretch of dirt that usually becomes the floor of the pond in the fall, but it’s been a particularly dry spring.
The crunch of colored leaves not blown away since last autumn is barely audible over my headphones, which don’t go anywhere below blasting. The birds, however, are not shy in their calls. The combination of them, the rabbits and other forest creatures running for cover, my music, and my own footsteps down memory lane are what fill my ears.
I lit the stick a while back, but the wind has blown it out three times since. Whenever I attempt to relight it, the fire and fury of butane nearly licks the peach fuzz on my chin. In the space between those moments, the air is clean save for the smoke. I received five strands as a gift last Christmas from a friend who had only seen this hideout once or twice in her life. The scent is indistinguishable to my nose; I can only tell it is not my usual choice of Dragon Blood.
I am not surprised when I see the shape the “treehouse” is in. It looks like what’s left behind after a hurricane, the skeleton of what once was. In a way, that isn’t too far off. The boys that had gotten to this treehouse were a hurricane. They used to tear up everything they could get their hands on, simply because they could.
And we thought it was attractive.
To be fair, the treehouse had always been a hodgepodge of scraps of wood and metal. It was built that way. The chief carpenter was a boy not many years older than we were, though several more years wiser. He’d sewn this place together with leftovers of other projects. It was never meant to be pretty.
As I approach the structure, I am surrounded by a gallery of modern art: reclining chairs bursting with stuffing, wooden skateboard ramps, graffiti of phallic images spray-painted on trees that never asked for it. Metal barrels that looked like they had once been filled with toxic waste and a piece of wood with a swastika painted on it. Sure, it could be an artifact from World War II, but it’s more likely that one of the boys thought painting one would be funny. This wooden playground was built so long ago that wooden planks that had been hammered haphazardly across oaks and pines that the trees had grown around them, swallowing them up and forever bonding the two.
The supposed “treehouse” is only a platform about five feet off the ground, with a makeshift ladder of wooden planks nailed to the trunks of one of the four trees that support it. Dozens of names are scrawled across the entire structure. Some I recognize. Some belong to those I used to love. Others are people I’ve never met.
When I found this place, I showed to every person I could think of that would want to see it. Every one of my friends that came to my house, the neighborhood kids, even my younger sister who had not yet turned ten. I had claimed it as my own; we all did. We didn’t care that we didn’t spend our effort and time building this. It was ours, just as much as it was anyone else's. We found it, anyway.
Looking back, that boy hated us. Well, maybe not us, per se. Not the girls, anyway. We treated it as we were taught to treat anything - with care and respect. We gawked at it, never tore it apart. The boys, however, thought it was funny just to mess with the carpenter. This place once had a roof and walls. Now it was reduced to a hunting platform because of them.
Either way, he definitely did not like us. At best, he regarded us as we regard the middle school kids now. I remember when he would hide the ladder underneath his porch so we’d have to trespass on his private property in order to get up, not that it mattered to me. I was proud to be the only girl able to pull myself on top of the scrap structure without the assistance of the rungs. It was a badge of honor: the strongest girl.
Now, I stuck the incense stick between my teeth and climbed the makeshift ladder. It isn’t a long path to the top of the world, though it took a great deal of strength. I am only five and a half feet taller, but it is a world apart than my spot on the ground. To be fair, I can see about the same as I could at the bottom, but it is the concept that matters. It is the principle.
It feels eerily like that scene in Mockingjay: Part 1. As a girl who was nine when the first film came out, I am no stranger to comparing myself to Katniss. That was before I knew about this place. It’s why I got such a thrill from finding it. This is the setting of a dystopian novel. These are the remnants of a previous civilization that destroyed themselves in war.
In truth, if I were in a film right now, I’d probably be wearing shorts, or at the very least something more flattering than sweatpants from last Christmas and a shirt I got for volunteering for a summer camp. I’d be wearing more makeup as well, or any for that matter, and my hair wouldn’t be a thirty-second afterthought of a ponytail. The soundtrack would be more appealing to wider audiences than whatever indie-rock was on my playlist now.
I don’t think I speak to anyone that called this place home as I used to. They are all growing and maturing less than miles apart from me, but worlds away. I wonder now, if we had not had this graveyard of abandoned projects, would we even have lasted as long as we did?
My knees buckle when I hop down, but I ignore the familiar pain. Further on, there’s a creek that once held the definition of river for us all. I am over it in one leap, an action that would’ve taken me minutes to build up the courage for had I been younger and with shorter legs. On the other side, I find a tall oak with boards trailing up to a tiny platform at the actual top of the world. I am tempted to climb, but I am much heavier and much less nimble than I used to be. Mosty, I am not as willing to gamble with my body as I was. Now, I am worth something. These legs and arms can be sold to the highest-bidding college with a track and field program.
Instead, I settle on the swing crafted from thick rope and boards right below the oak terrace. I spin myself sick on it as I used to. Maybe these days, my stomach was much more sensitive, or perhaps I was just not used to the sensation of the word passing over my eyes again and again in the matter of split seconds.
Above, I can see the platform looming, and I laugh to myself, remembering everything that had ever happened there. One of the softer boys, one less inclined to destroy others’ property, had found his way up there one day. We had found him clutching the trunk, too in shock to come down. Once the humor had worn off, we retrieved the builder of all this. He was the only one we could trust to get the cat out of the tree and not tell anyone's parents about it. It took hours to coax him to the bottom, as well as several more rungs added to the ladder for “safety”. My friends and I were so bored we started swinging around the high schooler’s axe just to hit something, but he got to the bottom with all of his limbs intact.
Once the swing stops spinning, I stick my incense in one of the slashes we made across the wood that day. It has as much say as I do about this adventure, so I decide to let it dictate when we go home. Slowly, the scent burns away.
Songs come and go. At one point, a song from that time in my life comes up. It’s full of punk rock and hating the world, so it seems almost fitting. Then Fleetwood Mac comes on, and it ruins the mood. I skip it and all the others that come after it; none are good enough. I resort to the comfortable silence, to the ambience. It is a better soundtrack than I could have ever wished for.
Minutes come and go. The incense burns down to a stub, but I remain for a few seconds longer before stomping it into the ground and leaving the wood remaining to sleep with its distant cousins.
Then I say goodbye. To the incense. To all this. To the person I used to be.
By Jake S.
Swimming. Fish stretch the corners of my room in a coral reef on the deep, blue walls. Schools of vibrant color are frozen in motion. There’s no space untouched, unused in my room. It’s packed with knick-knacks from a budding life. It’s got old books and boardgames, an old violin, a stretched-on yoga mat. My whole life is in the ocean-blue walls of my room. I’m not there right now. I’m homesick and alone at a summer camp in The-Middle-Of-Nowhere, Wisconsin. Everywhere I look I see home. I’m surrounded by constant reminders of the place I chose to leave. I’m only 10, and I’ve never left home before. I want to be in my room. I want to go home.
Prison. The yellow and orange bars across the walls leave no space to breathe. He’s stuck. He’s got nowhere to run, nowhere to go, but he wants to leave. A mask hangs on the wall. Staring. It’s staring at him. Rounded cheeks protrude from its long face. Teeth that are too white stretch across its long chin. His dad carved it. His dad won’t take it down no matter how much he begs. He shares a room with his brother. He sits. He thinks. He sits. He thinks. He can’t leave the house on the warm, sunny day. He leaves regardless. The window creaks as he lifts it. Swimming. He wants go to swimming with his friends because his friends don’t ground him or tell on him for sneaking out to go swim like his little brother.
His brother (Kerry) tells on him for sneaking out (again). Kerry saw him from the pool. He’s grounded (again. He was already grounded). He comes home from the pool, sneaking through the window before family dinner starts. His dad served in the military during the Korean War. He was in Germany, but the punishments were the same. Go pick up rocks. Go find a stick for his dad to hit him with. Make sure its wide enough to impress his dad but not too wide to hurt too much. Sit. Think. Sit. Think. He has no home. He wants to go home.
Quacky is a stuffed duck with a blanket on the end. He’s older than I am. I’m not sure when or where he was made, but my parents tell me that he’s my guardian angel. I ask him questions a lot, as if he’d ever answer. Maybe one day, he will . I hope not. I’m using the washing machine for the first time all on my own. I’m washing Quacky, his tail is covered in gunk. I’m crying. I spilled five-dollar Walmart slime on him just moments earlier. Quacky doesn’t stain. He can’t. He’s my guardian angel. I don’t know what to do when I pull him out of the dryer, and a dark blue, sticky stain on the bottom left corner of his tail remains. He can’t stain. I cry more. My mom comes down the thirteen steep stairs into the laundry room. I’m still crying. She holds me in her arms and tells me that it’s okay. She tells me that things change, but Quacky is still Quacky. I don’t want things to change.
I ask Quacky if he’s okay. I don’t get an answer. Maybe Quacky is still Quacky, but now he’s stained. Guardian angels don’t stain. He’s just Quacky.
His father doesn’t want to hurt him. His father tells him to never come to come home again, as if he had a home in the first place. The stairs in the stadium are made of cold metal, but he ties a piece of old tarp to them to create a rough tent. He sleeps on the damp pavement with a sleeping bag his (other) brother brought him from home. Home. Gum and empty cans litter the underside of the stadium, but the yellow and orange prison bars are gone. There’s no mask to stare down at him. There’s no one to tell him he can’t go swimming, but there’s no guardian angel watching his step. He’s alone. No one knows that he sleeps under the steps. He’s alone.
My parents are people. They are not gods or angels sent from above or below to raise us. They’re people with human emotions that cry. I am lying in my tiny, single bed with the fish swimming around in quiet protection of my thoughts. Bedtime was hours ago. My mom runs by. I think I hear a soft cry. I creep out of my room and walk carefully down the creaky, wooden hallway. The smiling faces of my family and I look down from their photos as I stumble toward the dim light seeping under my parents’ door. I hear her crying from outside, but the door is closed in front of me. I lift my ear to the wooden frame. I hear two people in the room, whispering.
“My babies aren’t babies anymore.” I hear. “My babies are all grown up.” I’m not listening anymore. I sneak back across the hallway of the smiling faces. The smiling family looks younger than when I first passed, but maybe I feel older. Before, I looked like me. I feel different now. I’m not those pictures. I’m not who I was before. I crawl under my covers and try to sleep. I lie with my eyes open. The fish seem to swim faster around me. I’m not a baby anymore. The nightlight glows next to my bed, as it always does. I’m not a baby anymore. I reach over, stretching to the outlet and unplug it. It clatters to the floor.
I’m not a baby anymore, but the darkness is closing in on me like a pressing force, squeezing the air from my lungs and choking me with fear of the unknown. The creaking of our century-old house sounds louder in my ears, and the fish can’t protect me from it anymore. I reach down and plug it back in again. I’m not a baby anymore, but a little light never hurt anyone.
There’s a whole, new city far away from the ever-watching mask for him to live in. His father gets reported for childhood abandonment, and the cold metal steps become wooden and dark. He’s deathly afraid of them, and he’s so far away from where he used to be. He misses it in the most bitter, frustrating way. He wants to go up the second floor of the townhouse he in peace without the dark steps trying to trip him and pull him down. He’s afraid.
The group home has eight boys and each has their own set of problems, but Kenny is an entirely different set of circumstances. Both assigned the same therapist, Kenny spends a lot of time with him. Every day, they sit together in the therapist’s office. He’s scared of Kenny because when he loses his temper he loses it with every fiber of his being. There is no self restriction when Kenny gets angry. Kenny will throw himself into his feelings, no holds barred. The little boy swears to himself he will never be Kenny because Kenny breaks things and people.
Kenny talks about his own death. He thinks Kenny is, in fact, obsessed with his own death. As they sit in the room and talk about their actions, he avoids Kenny at every moment he can. Even the stairs look better than spending an afternoon with Kenny in the therapist's office. It is then that he realizes he doesn’t want to die. He wants to live far and wide and smile broadly. There are four bunk beds in his room, but that’s all. The room is barren, empty, void. The stairs have character. The room doesn’t. It’s a blank slate that will never be filled by the knick-knacks of a life well-lived. Blank. Void. Alone.
Words are more than their dictionary definition, but even the dictionary knows that homophobia is more than fear. Still, my dada sees the Latin root in our argument, and he insists that there must be some element of fear in both homophobia and transphobia. The gas fireplace heats our feet as Ben Shapiro plays on the TV. I hate Ben Shapiro. I was once asked if he’s the face of the Jewish nation. He’s not. He doesn’t understand that I have experienced homophobia, and it’s not fear. It’s anger and bitterness and frustration twisted into an amalgamation of hate. Ben Shapiro is talking about transgender people, and he’s not scared of them, he says. He just doesn’t believe they’re valid. I’m just trying to get him to understand that what I’ve experienced isn’t fear. It’s far more than fear, and he can’t understand me. Please. I beg him to listen to what I’m saying because I’m only fourteen, but I’m fourteen with experiences far beyond that. My mom stretches across the fireplace, just as my cat does next to her. She doesn’t say anything. Her silence hurts. I leave the room.
My door is plain and white and has absolutely no working lock. If I shut it, I’m telling the house I’m either having a meltdown or my cat won’t leave me alone. I do the former. My parents don’t understand, and how do I make them because it’s so hard to just be gay. It’s so hard to doubt myself and the place I belong in the world as I’m spiraling downward and downward because why did I have to be gay. How do I help them because I know they’re just trying to learn and be learned about their own son. They try so hard, and they still remain painfully ignorant. How can I be their teacher and their child? Still, I can hear their footsteps lumber into the hallway, and they know I’m upset. One thing my parents can do is help me feel safe. The plain white shield to the outside world is broken when my dad opens the door. He doesn’t say anything as he holds me tight. I squeeze him like he’s never going to leave as he tells me I’m fine just the way I am.
As I lie in that room, held by my dad, I never want to leave. I want time to freeze around me, and the fish to stop swimming through the passage of time. Maybe I want them to swim forever, never leaving, never travelling far away from home like I have to do one day. Somewhere deep inside, I know I have to let go. I’m not frozen in time because time doesn’t freeze. The fish keep swimming, and I have to leave one day.
“I’m trying to understand,” he says. “I’ll always try.”
He holds me until I fall asleep, tear-stained and wet. Still, he holds me, his little boy growing up.
He petitions the state to live on his own. The wooden steps are too scary, and he wants a home, a real one. In the blink of an eye, he’s living in his own apartment. It’s another blank slate hours from the eight-person group-home, but slowly, he fills it with life. He’s finally home on his own. He’s happy.
I’m adamant people call me Jake, not Jacob. Jacob makes me sound like I’m old. I’m notold. It sounds like I’m being banal, but it’s important to me. When someone calls me Jacob, it makes my bones ache, and suddenly, I’m sixty-five and have a cat named Tina with a favorite lounge chair. I was two and believed the same thing, that Jacob was an old person’s name. My mom tells me how I asked people to spell their name. “Hi, I’m Jake. J-A-K-E. How do you spell your name.” She tells me I was on the playground and that’s how I made friends. The booth’s pleather cover squeaks as I settle in for an interview. Why do meatball restaurants have such nice booths? I think they’re nothing like the seats of a high school stadium. The manager sits in front of me and looks at my application. He asks me if I like to be called Jacob. I shrug. I’m not sure who I am anymore. Do I ask people how they spell their names while swinging on the monkey bars? Do I lie back in my favorite recliner with Tina sitting in my lap? I’m neither man nor child. I’m straddling the middle. I tell him he can call me whichever.
I’m neither man nor child. I still ask my friends to spell their names for me, so I’ll never forget. I walk the line. My cat’s name is Bacon. I’m too tall to swing on the monkey bars, but I was always more of a tire swing person, anyway.
He bartends a Latin nightclub to pay the rent. Every night, the most beautiful woman comes to dance with the Latin men, and she wears one of two dresses, a purple and a brown one. He notices this. She loves the Latin men, but he is… not Latin. He’s white, so very white. Neither is she, to be fair, but he thinks she’s the most beautiful woman in the room. When she walks in, he thinks everyone turns to look. She orders a $1.00 Coke because she doesn’t drink and leaves a dollar on the bill. He draws smiley faces on her napkins, but he does that for all the ladies.
He asks her out on a date. She declines, saying she doesn’t date bartenders.
He quits and asks again. She declines. He leaves his number anyway.
Her step-mother tells her to give him a call. She’s never dated anyone, right? She was married to a Latin man when she was only 18. It didn’t work out; she was young, and he was too. She calls.
It seems like only a minute goes by and they’re sitting in a restaurant on their second date for hours; the first was unremarkable but successful. The people next to them in the uncomfortable booth have three boys. They call the poor boys toe-heads. The toe-headed family doesn’t notice as the couple beside them talk about family and children. He’s Jewish. She’s Christian. How will that work? He says he wants his kids to be Jewish if he ever has them. She says she can’t have children. He’s okay with that. He’s happy. He finds home.
My parents huddle at my desk to watch baby videos. It’s Valentine’s Day. My dad says it’s the best present he’s over gotten: baby videos. My mom had taken all of the hours and hours and hours of baby videos on a handheld camera and turned them from VHS into CDs. Twenty disks laid in a tiny basket that could barely hold them beneath my desk. I’m not thrilled to see my tiny, chubby face staring back at me on my computer. My dad asks me if I want to stay and watch. I tell him that he knows how I feel about baby videos. Doesn’t he remember? Doesn’t he remember the many meltdowns?
Baby videos remind me of time hurtling on without a care in the world, that one day my parents will no longer be here. They will no longer be sitting at my desk with a pile of CDs. I close my door. I can hear my mom asking me to stay and listen to me call myself “J-A-K-E” or tell them that I’m two. Two. I was only 730-some days old. Everyone was only 730-some days old at some point. I’m not that young anymore.
I hear laughter as I escape to the empty, giant dining room table. I slump into a chair and try to tune out the thought that I’m graduating soon. A year and a half. I will swim out into the deep, blue ocean of possibility and college. I’ll leave home. I think I’m never ready.
He starts his own company, but it bankrupts. She doesn’t mind paying most of the bills as an import/export worker until he’s on his feet. They’re lying on the couch after a long party when he asks if she would marry him. It wasn’t a proposal. It was a hypothetical question to which she said, “If you asked me.” He asks her. She says yes.
Her father already paid for her first wedding, but he agrees to a second one. She has pictures in her mind of 150 people watching her walk down the aisle of a beautiful vineyard in May. There’s a koi pond, probably, and they’ll swim in joy during her wedding. She receives the check from her father to pay for the wedding. They both squint at the $5,000 check. That won’t cover a wedding.
They elope to Florida. Five people come to their wedding on the beach. That includes the bride and groom. The sand shifts beneath their bare feet, and there’s no koi pond, but they’re in love. That’s what matters. They find a palm tree next to a cheap bar called the Junkanoo. The Junkanoo is on the beach, and it’s all they could ask for. They five of them: the justice of the peace, the bride, the groom, and two witnesses, stand under the palm tree. It’s leaves bend down to cover them. Mother Nature blesses their holy matrimony. After the wedding, she sits on a scrappy lawn chair, and her dress tears, splits right down the back. She’s pregnant. She thought she couldn’t get pregnant. She was wrong.
My room is covered in plush, dirty grey carpet. It’s been that way since the house was made. It’s soft and used to be white, and I love it. I walk home and take my shoes off and drag my feet along it, but one day I come home to my mom and dad in my room.
I ask them what they’re doing, and they say I need to get rid of the carpet. No. No. They can’t do that. They say they know how I feel, but it’s too dirty. Too used. I try to explain how much the carpeted floors mean to me. The carpet held my feet up when I was two and said “J-A-K-E” took my first steps, when I left elementary school. It’s been there. It holds things in its fabric, its soul. I want to tell my parents that they can’t just take it from me, but they tell me I have to. I know I do. I know I can’t stay the same forever, so I ask to keep a bit. They say okay. I think they understand what I mean.
I tell them I need to say goodbye. They look a little confused, but they aren’t opposed. I sit next to my bed and run my fingers through the carpet. I create heat and warmth through the friction of my fingers, and I don’t want the carpet to go. It’s who I am, in a weird way. I cry, again. The amount of love and care this carpet has seen. The carpet held the couple who lived here before us afloat, too. It held them as they raised their family in the very space I sit. Now, it must go. I can’t look anymore. I sleep in my room with the carpet one last time, but nothing lasts forever.
I come home from school and there’s hardwood floors in my room. Hardwood. The boards glare at me, reflecting light into my eyes. I squint and spot a familiar strip of carpet on the floor. They did it. They saved me a piece of what was once my home, and I know I have to use it again. I lay it across the front of my room, against the fish. It’s still home, but a little different now. I’m thinking about what home is. I don’t know, but I know I have one.
She’s in labor, and he’s holding her hand, helping her in every way he can. It’s been hours, but they’re prepared. Every Wednesday for weeks, they took classes on parenting and delivering a baby. He’s ready, and so is she. The hospital lights shine down on the miracle of life, the creation of a person. It’s time for a new life. His home will need child locks, baby food, toys, diapers. It’s going to be a journey. They’re ready together.
When the kid (a baby boy) is finally born, they test the baby’s reflexes. The doctors ask him if he’s willing to lift him to check his grabbing abilities. He agrees, and when he lifts his child, one tiny hand on one sausage finger, the baby pees on him. Well, that’s just the beginning, he thinks. It’s just the beginning.
He’s driving home with his newborn baby in the car. He’s in the HOV lane. Thinking. Sitting. Thinking. Sitting. The roles are reversed, and he knows things will be different. He won’t let his child suffer under the stairs of the high school stadium; he will have a bed with funny sheets and a grey, fuzzy blanket. He won’t have to live in a group home; he’ll have his own room with swimming fish across the walls.
No one will be a better father than he will. His child will be safe. His child will have fish swimming across the walls to guard his thoughts. His child will have a guardian angel named Quacky, taking the form of a stuffed duck. His child will be loved. His child will love.
Our family takes a vacation just about every year, normally somewhere that speaks Spanish. This year, my dad was invited to a compliance conference in Disney, so we all went. We packed our bags and boarded the flight, taking the exit rows for extra leg room, and landed across the country. Mom and dad tell my brother and I that there’s a surprise waiting for us in Orlando, so we pile into the car and take a drive.
When they park in the Junkanoo, I’m confused. Why are we stopped at some rundown bar in the middle of an empty, dirty beach? I lean against a nearby palm tree and ask why we came. They hold hands and tell us they were married here, many years ago. My mom says she split her dress as she sat on the sands of this very beach because she was pregnant with me. Does this make me a bastard? Yes. Does this make me loved? Yes.
Hurricane Irma strikes the Florida coast only months after we leave the Junkanoo behind, ripping up the palm tree and destroying the Junkanoo. The owner, a friend of the family, sends my mom a picture of the destroyed beach. Planks of shattered wood and shards of glass litter the sad, desolate beach. Any hope of a palm tree floats miles in the ocean. Dirtied, dead fish lie facedown in the sands. Still, it has a cruel, violent beauty of upturned lives and roots ripped from the Earth.
His son plays in the park. His wife sits next to him on a bench, nursing their six-month old baby. As his son swings across the monkey bars, he says, “I’m J-A-K-E. How do you spell your name?”