Searching for Higher Ground

Terry Barr

 

I

The empty, Sunday afternoon mall parking lot where I learned to drive in the summer of 1972 offered no challenges really. So after I completed a series of uncomplicated turns around mammoth poles of artificial light, Mom suggested that I drive us home. Taking “the back way” through poor and segregated neighborhoods to our house on the other side of town, we passed our maid Dissie’s house. I tooted the horn and waved to her as she sat on her front porch. In that split second, I saw her full-face smile and her gold-encased upper-front tooth twinkling in the sunlight.

After the first few months of licensed, accident-free driving in my own neighborhood, my mother began allowing me to run errands for her. One of these was to drive Dissie home on Saturday afternoons when I wasn’t in school.

Grabbing Mom’s keys and making sure my wallet was tucked safely in my back jeans pocket, I raced to the front door:

“Dissie! You ready to go?”

“I’m comin’, Bob”—her nickname for me—“I’m comin’. Just let me get my bag.”

I escorted her out the door, down the front walkway to our ‘67 Tempest, a two-door model. Reaching the passenger side door, I opened it and then waited for Dissie to settle in so that I could close it securely behind her.

Dissie is a heavy though not especially fat woman. She’s big-thighed, big-hipped, and round on top. She’s getting older, though I refuse to allow her age to sink in fully. I think she’s as young and energetic as she’s ever been, though I clearly see the evidence that our windows and floors are not quite as shiny as they were when I was just a kid. She still sings in low, soft tones as she works, and her laugh is still as contagious as ever when she recounts the escapades of Lucy and Ethel on the morning reruns.

I love Dissie. I’d do anything for her.

I’m excited for us to drive through the streets of Bessemer now. We can talk and listen to the hits on WVOK. What a feeling — Dissie beside me — me driving her home!

As my vision crystallized, though, Dissie did the one thing I never expected.

I guess I never thought about it, though surely I had noticed it somewhere in the countless times my Mom or Dad drove her home. But that was then, another time, and I am me.

“Dissie, you don’t…”

But she did.

We drove on to her house in silence, WVOK playing songs that I no longer can remember.

 

II

I was a kid who never pretended, never hid my true feelings. When my family supported JFK in the 1960 national election, one of my closest friends scoffed that Kennedy was nothing but a “nigger-lover.” My silent mouth gaped as low and open as a gutted deer. Embarrassed, slightly ashamed, I didn’t know what to say, what this meant.

In the summer of 1962, when some other neighborhood kids sported folding hats made of two stapled Wallace bumper stickers, I begged for one, too.

“We don’t support George Wallace,” my parents cried in unison.

Still, they asked one of the kids for a single sticker, curved it into a circle, and placed it on my six-year old head—a new crown that I wore for the rest of the evening. Later that evening, my parents explained to me what I didn’t understand about my new “hat.”

“The same people who hate Kennedy love George Wallace,” Daddy said.

“Why do they love him?”

“Because he hates Black people. Because he stood in the schoolhouse door and shouted ‘Segregation Now, Segregation Tomorrow, and Segregation Forever.’”

I didn’t understand the word “segregation.” But I did know “hate.”

And I began understanding then that the world I knew was changing.

When my parents told me two years later to “Act Naturally” around the first Black children to integrate our elementary school, and to speak to them only if they spoke to me first, I felt even more confused. I already talked naturally to Black people: Our maid and baby-sitters, Dissie, Georgia, and Mona Lee; the woman who helped manage my grandmother’s antique shop, Mary; the custodians of our church, Buford, Linnis, and Eugenia. When Dissie brought her nieces, nephews, and granddaughter to our house, I not only spoke to them naturally, like the friends they were, but I also played all my games with them: Parcheesi, Old Maid; whiffle-ball; and touch football.

So when my parents made a point of telling me to “Act Naturally” around Black children, my first thought was that they meant “be polite,” which I normally was. But I knew something else was occurring. Their faces looked worried sometimes, even afraid. These looks reminded me of their other warnings like: “Don’t ever get in the car with someone you don’t know,” or “Don’t you ever take candy from any stranger!”

And in my fifth grade year, on my first day of school integration, this scene: My mother’s image—robed, make-up-less, squatting at my eye-level—and my grandmother’s—stooped, bottle of Coke in hand—looming over both of us:

“You just mind your own business, and they’ll mind theirs. Then there won’t be any trouble. And if one of them does start trouble, you march right to the principal’s office and tell him what happened.”

Start trouble? What sort of trouble, I wondered? Yet, I never asked.

In those strange and anxious times, I believe I did the best I could. Since I didn’t know any of these new Black students at all, I treated them during school hours as I did any unknown kid: I said nothing to them but kept an eye out for them.

I guess I was acting naturally then.

Since I spoke up only rarely in class, afraid to call attention to myself for fear of being wrong, or, if right, being branded a “pet,” I believed that I was just a face in the class. Just another name called out in the roll each morning. So why would my fifth grade Black classmates start trouble with me or notice me at all?

But during that first year of integration in Bessemer, as I was tossing myself spiral passes one afternoon in my front yard, a Black boy named Brown Chapman came riding down our street on his banana-seated, high-handled bike. As he rode closer, I watched him steadily. Then, he lifted his left hand:

“Hi Terry.”

Though stunned at the recognition, I waved back:

“Hi Brown.”

“See you tomorrow.”

“Yeah, see ya.”

So talking to a relatively unknown Black kid was OK. Nothing “troubling” happened to either of us. I wish I had told my family of this friendly encounter. But I didn’t.

So I “acted naturally” with Brown Chapman, but then I failed to act as I should have with my friends.

When my White friends used the word “Nigger,” I said nothing.

I knew I had a proper upbringing. I was taught to show respect to any and all; to never curse or take God’s name in vain; to never use words like “nigger” or even its milder variations. My parents even forbid me to use the word “hate,” as in “I just hate my little brother!” In those years my parents modeled this behavior for me every day.

But as 1966 bled into 1967 and 8, I noticed that the tenor of our rather tolerant home grew increasingly shrill at the names being used all over TV and in the papers: King, Abernathy, Carmichael. In the 1968 summer Olympics I remember my father’s shrill voice when Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised a Black Power fist and bowed their heads on the medal dais as “The Star Spangled Banner” played to honor them.

“That’s a disgrace to the flag, to America!”

My father was livid. His voice scared me then because I didn’t quite see what was so wrong. I wondered even then if this act was more disrespectful than what we had all been living through in our segregated world.

 

I knew my world was shifting. I also knew that the one constant was Dissie. She arrived on these sunny mornings of my childhood with a smile that warmed me more than the heat rising from the floor register I’d hover over on winter days. As she held me, I could hear my parents welcoming Dissie, their own warmth, I thought, matching mine.

This was love, truly, and I thought then that I understood the feeling well, and that it would never alter or die, just like a porch light on a crisp autumn Friday night.

 

III

“We’ll park at Dissie’s house,” Daddy says as we drive toward the stadium. I am six years old, in the first grade, and this will be my first Bessemer High School football game.

Her porch light is on for us as we pull into the dried-ruts of her front-yard driveway. She’s usually in bed by seven, she says, but on these autumn Friday nights of my childhood, she waits by her door, for us.

“Hey Mistah Alvin! Hey Bob!”

“Dissie!” And I dash up the unpainted porch steps into her shining brown arms. She’s changed her soft gray uniform for a blue flowered house-dress, but her laughing eyes are my constant.

“Is ya’ll ready for the game? It ought to be a good one. Billy and Nelly Ann’s going. They say those folk from Phillips is mighty rough.”

“Hey Dissie,” my Dad says. “Yeah, but I think Bessemer’s ready for ‘em. You oughta come watch too.”

“No sir. I’se getting’ in the bed, but I be listnin’ to Mistah Porter on the radio.”

She lets go of me then after an extra squeeze.

“Now you be good and mind yo Daddy, hear?”

“Sure I will Dissie. And I’ll root ‘em in for you! You’re comin’ tomorrow morning aren’t you?”

“Shore am, ifn the Good Lawd willin’! Nita’ll be comin’ too!”

“Oh boy, I can show her my new football!”

“She’ll love that…Now you give me a hug an’ go on with Mistah Alvin.”

“OK, see you in the morning!”

Dissie lived only a block from the showplace high school stadium that had been constructed out of brick and mortar in the 1930s and planted in the middle of the black section of Bessemer: Eight square blocks of unpainted, rundown houses, many of which did not offer indoor plumbing on the west side of town. In the ensuing decades, Bessemer High School rewarded the town’s investment by winning six or eight state championships, all before the early 1960s. And during these decades the attending faithful parked everywhere, including in the yards of the ramshackle houses dotting 4th Avenue, just across the street from the heralded stadium entrance.

I was used to seeing Black people walk through our neighborhood as it was bordered on either side by two Black neighborhoods in the hills of south Bessemer. But if 500 or even twenty cars filled with Black people pulled into my neighborhood after dark and parked there for several hours, I think I’d have been scared. I accepted that Black people couldn’t live in our neighborhood–that they shouldn’t be there after dark at all.

But I never wondered whether Black people were scared of if they wondered about “our” descending on them like we did on these Friday nights.

I never imagined then how it felt for the Black home-owners living near the stadium to be invaded by white-owned coupes and sedans most Friday nights, as if it were our natural-born right.

But Dissie had offered us the driveway to her house. And when we arrived, though she had just left our house maybe three hours earlier, I fled to her arms as if we had been parted for months, leaving my Daddy standing alone in the lower yard, impatient but smiling. Her house, as Dad described it, was the archetypal southern “shotgun shack,” an untreated clapboard, but I didn’t care. The inside of Dissie’s house comforted me.

Dissie’s house was as neat and clean as those of many of the White families I more regularly frequented. Her bed was always made, the furniture was aligned with the room, and all chairs were politely pushed under their respective tables. The several shaded lamps on these tables softened, diffused, the harsh overhead light. Maybe it was that quality of muted light, along with the comforting scent of Dissie, that warmed my soul whenever I set foot inside her door and that made me ask to spend the night there: A request that I made earlier that afternoon:

“Dissie, can I please come spend the night with you?”

“Honey, you know Miss Jo Ann need you here to help with yo little brother!”

“But she has Daddy and Nanny—can’t I go with you?”

Dissie’s laughing eyes roll a bit then over at my mother who always referred to me as “Buddy.”

“Now Buddy, don’t bother Dissie. She’s worked hard all week tending to you and Mikie. She’s tired and needs her rest. You’ll see her tomorrow morning, so don’t bother her anymore.”

I heard her tone more than her words. The pitch was high, and if I didn’t mind her then, another, higher pitch would lead to yelling, maybe even to a “switching.” But because I didn’t push things then did not mean I didn’t try again the next Friday, or the next. Finally I did get the message: Spending the night with Dissie was about as likely as our taking our summer vacation to DisneyLand. Impossible, but why? Dissie loved us, and I loved her. She took care of me in our home, so why wouldn’t she in hers?

No one ever explained, and so of course, I never got that chance.

The best I could do was to step inside Dissie’s house for a minute or two—one more moment with the woman who was like a mother to me. She might even take me inside for a piece of her homemade lemon pound cake.

But the game finally had a stronger pull. I took my Daddy’s hand–his sure, strong hand–both to ease my sadness at leaving Dissie and to ensure that in the ensuing crowds, I would never lose my connection to him. As we walked away, Dissie stood on her porch watching us. Several times I’d turn back to wave to her. Dissie never waved just her hand, however; her entire arm flagged me in a way similar to highway utility men giving the “All Clear” signal. As we peaked the slight incline that would take us down to the stadium entrance, I stole one last look at her. One last wave, and then she disappeared.

 

As hard as it was leaving Dissie, the minute Daddy and I took our seats I was his boy, relishing each play under his protective care. He explained the strategy of the game, how the linemen were they key to success on both sides of the ball. We cheered together for Bessemer, and I hoped that one day he might be watching me take my place on this field; he might see me catch the winning touchdown pass.

During time-outs, I’d take in all the fans cheering with us.

“Daddy, where do you think Billy and Nelly Ann are sitting?”

“Oh, over there in the end zone, see?”

And he pointed to our right, to the rickety, unpainted bleachers of the West end zone. There among the darker hues somewhere were Billy and Nelly Ann.

“Can I go over and say Hi later?”

“No, you better stay up here with me. You might get lost.”

The fear of getting lost was primal for me, so I didn’t question him. It was good enough to know they were there, enjoying the game as I was. Of course, it hadn’t hit me yet that though they yelled for Bessemer High, they were forbidden from attending it.

But sitting with my daddy high in the home stands, I didn’t think about who could or couldn’t go to certain schools. I didn’t wonder what Billy or Nelly Ann or their friends thought about their seats in the stadium. I didn’t know to wonder then about their perspective on the sights in front of them. It all seemed so natural to me.

Now, I wonder: Did they know that as they were watching the game, we were watching them?

Did they know that at some point during this football game of my faltering voice that I forgot about Dissie, her house, and her shining brown arms? Did they see me looking over in their direction and remember that when Dissie brought them over to baby sit or play with me, I followed them from room to room begging to hold their hands, to be “big” like them? And did Billy and Nelly Ann see me look right at them when the man sitting next to me–a friend of my father’s who would one day be my Sunday School teacher—tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to those west end zone bleachers:

“Look! There are our other fans!”

Did they see him laugh, knowingly? Did they see me laugh with him? For what else could I do?

But I did know enough to feel my shame—the shame of knowing that in her clean and tidy home just two blocks away listening on the radio to the cheers of Bessemer High’s mainly white fans, Dissie heard my puny and insignificant laugh and knew its source?

I think the final score of my first high school football game was a tie: 13-13. It figures. Dad and I left the stadium a few minutes before the final gun to get a head start on the post-game traffic. When we reached Dissie’s again, everything looked the same: the car, Dissie’s house, except that the inside lights were off. On the way home, I tried to believe that everything was the same, that nothing really had changed for me that night. That nothing would ever change my world.

And maybe it hadn’t then. For as usual, Dissie had left her porch light on for us: A light that in my imagination kept on burning through that night, long after we had driven away and I was safely tucked into my own bed, on the other side of town, in the room I shared with my little brother. I’d fall asleep then, dreaming of the tomorrow when I would be back in her arms again.

 

For over ten years Bessemer dodged the reality of 1954’s Brown vs. Board of Education integration decision. The city fathers claimed during this time that they were studying and drawing up desegregation plans with “all deliberate speed,” which was within the design of the Brown decision. “Deliberate speed” meant stalling and hoping a miracle would occur and that schools could remain as segregated as Wallace had promised. But then in 1964 or 65—when I was nine—Daddy said that Judge Pointer had decided all plans must be finalized that year. So most white citizens had choices to make: Attend integrated schools; fake addresses in parts of town where zoning ordinances had no practical effect on the racial makeup of the school; or, pull out of the city system altogether and start their own private academies.

During these “Separate but Equal” days of stalling tactics as Bessemer transitioned from separate-but-equal to whatever integration meant, I did see separate lunch counters in downtown stores, separate water fountains and restrooms. Once, when I was downtown with my friend Jamie and his family, I tried drinking for a store fountain—one labeled Colored. Jamie’s mother set me straight:

“That’s not your water. Yours is over there on the other side of that elevator, the one that says White.”

Water clearly wasn’t equal.

But Dissie used our bathroom.

The separate but equal reality was clearly hard for me to grasp.

What did register, though, was the reality of the end of this segregated era—a reality that for me began with the word boycott.

 

By 1965 it was no longer safe to go to our public amusement park or community pool. The community pool I never worried about because I was such a fearful swimmer.

Our amusement park, however, otherwise known as “KiddieLand,” was a true loss. Though I rode the Ferris wheel and the very tame roller coaster at will, I wasn’t old enough to experience “Laughter in the Dark,” the enclosed joyride through a house of horrors that beckoned you in through its twin painted clown faces: Happy, Sad. That these faces could also represent Comedy and Tragedy, of course, never occurred to me then.

When I described my previous day’s thrills at KiddieLand to Dissie—she’d listen to all my stories and say, “I wish Billy an’ Nelly Ann an’ them could see it.” I never asked her why they couldn’t.

My parents took me to KiddieLand several times each summer, and in the fall, the State Fair joined the regular attractions. KiddieLand became the only place I wanted to go if I had my choice of afternoon thrills. And then one day in the summer of 1965 when I asked to go, my mother told me we couldn’t:

“It’s being boycotted, and it’s too dangerous to go to now.”

That’s all she’d say, despite the fact that I didn’t know what a boycott was. Whenever I heard the word, I saw little boys picking cotton when they shouldn’t. It turns out that I wasn’t so far off the mark.

 

IV

On that transformative first day of integration during my sixth grade year, I came to school ready to act naturally. My teacher, Miss Horton—a young woman with lustrous red hair and a blue mole on her left cheek—lectured us about proper behavior under these special circumstances:

“Class, we must all be respectful of each other. I’m depending on the rest of you to set the proper example. Welcome your two new classmates like you would anyone else.”

She left the room for a minute, shutting the door firmly behind her. We waited, expecting what?

“Are they boys or girls,” my friend Robert asked.

“Where will they sit,” a little girl named Sandra wondered.

Before anyone could answer, Miss Horton entered again, accompanied by two girls, dressed primly, neatly. They followed Miss Horton to her desk, and when she stopped, they stared only at each other.

“Class, this is Cynthia Williams and Zepora Delk. They’ve come from Dunbar elementary. Now girls, your desk is right over there by the window. Go take your seats and get out your social studies books.”

Cynthia and Zepora trudged to their desks, looking only at the floor in front of them and never making a sound.

Over the next few days, I tried not to stare at them or do anything to call attention to myself. But one day, passing their table on the way to sharpen my pencil, I looked down at Zepora’s place and noticed that she had drawn on the back of her blue Nifty binder a Black Power insignia with those very words imbedded in the mighty black fist. My daddy had pointed such signs out to me before as he watched the TV news reports of Birmingham, Memphis, and it seemed to me, every other American city.

“That’s just going too far,” he shouted.

But I wasn’t certain exactly what was going on anywhere, or where anything was heading. Naturally, I didn’t ask, either.

“WOW!” I remarked as I passed Zepora’s desk.

She caught my eye just long enough.

“My cousin drew that,” was all she said.

“OK,” I replied as I found my seat and stared at my own binder which was itself emblazoned with various legends of “Alabama football,” “Paul Revere and the Raiders,” and boy-girl initials embraced in hearts like GTB + MJT. I envisioned at that moment Zepora’s cousin appearing in our class, looking something like H. Rap Brown–who terrified my father on the evening news each night—and causing a “race-riot,” something my parents feared more, it seemed, than they did my various bouts with strep throat.

What strange and misguided advice my elders gave me. If I had acted “naturally,” I might have ribbed Zepora a bit for her sixth grade pretensions. If she were white, our teasing might have lasted more than a moment. It might have carried over into other days, maybe even into the sort of playful flirtation I had with my white girl friends like Mary Jane and Laurie.

If I had truly acted naturally–not as my parent ordered me to during the new days of integration, but rather like the way I had been naturally raised–I might have made a new friend. Or enemy. And then, what would any of us have done?

I can’t remember now how long Cynthia lasted in the “New and Improved” Bessemer school system, but I do remember graduating with Zepora. She sat right behind me at our commencement.

I wish I could be sure that Cynthia and Zepora benefited from being the first group of Black children to enter the hallowed halls of White school nirvana–halls that Billy and Nelly Ann were prevented by law and custom from ever seeing.

 

It was a strange web to be caught in. During high school, Black kids would glare sullenly at me. I could feel the simmering rage of boys with tall Afros, Black-power combs sticking out of their back pockets. I could hear the semi-veiled threats in the hallways and cafeteria. Sometimes, I’d ask the few Black students I felt I could talk to why I, who had never done anything directly to another Black student, should bear the brunt of such hostility:

“Do you understand what it’s like to get up at 5:30 every morning,” a fellow

Humanities student named Veronica Taylor, asked simply. “To get on the bus by 6:15 and get to school by 6:45? And then to have to sit in the gym without any heat until 8? Every morning! While you all get escorted by your daddies right up to the front entrance, exactly at 7:50?”

“Would you rather go to Abrams (the still predominantly Black high school), then?”

“Would you?”

She didn’t need an answer. What answer was there anyway for the shifting grounds of our reality? For our reality was that “our” school—now named Jess Lanier High for Bessemer’s long-time Mayor and city boss—had been built originally to accommodate only 800 students, attested to by the 800 lockers adorning the hallways. 800 white kids, that is, for this new school was built outside of the original designated zoning boundary. Within this boundary, families were supposed to choose between old Bessemer High and Abrams High—with buses used to transport both races across the town to “achieve racial balance.” At least that was the theory. The white city fathers who built Jess Lanier in the most affluent section of town, however, had other theories. They saw the new school as a preserve.

As a refuge from the city’s teeming “wild life.”

But Judge Pointer saw through that scheme. Now, only Jess Lanier and Abrams High remained. And no white kid I ever knew went to Abrams.

At Sunday school each week during that same period, I mingled with friends whose parents had pulled them out of city schools altogether. One of them, Jane Robinson who was a trusted confidante, explained how she felt:

“I’m learning Spanish in a chicken coop. That’s Bessemer Academy, my school!

We use old chicken coops on some old farm for classes. And I have no choice.

Do you know how that feels? My parents are forcing me to go. I want to be with you guys. You just wouldn’t understand.”

Maybe I didn’t understand; maybe none of us did.

 

V

When I turned sixteen and got my license, my Daddy decided to let me drive to the games that year by myself. As I drove toward Bessemer Stadium, however, the charge I felt being behind the wheel of my Dad’s ’67 Buick Special almost lost its surge when I glanced at the vacant seat beside me where, in past days, I had sat quite happily.

Other changes, too, were in store. Since my high school days meant leaving home by 7:30—the school being on the complete opposite side of town from our house, some five miles away—and since it was after 3:30 at least before I arrived home, I didn’t see Dissie at all except on Saturdays. On those mornings—after I decided to get out of bed, around 10:30 or so—we might discuss the previous night’s game, which of course she still listened to faithfully.

Win or lose, though, the most troubling question was the one we never mentioned:

“Why don’t you park at my house any more, Bob?”

“Well, you see, I found this other place…it’s closer to the stadium, and easier to beat the traffic when I leave.”

For following Dad’s lead, I continued parking at the armory. I knew it wasn’t right. And now I was willing to leave aside the practical reason and hear my own voice telling me this uncomfortable truth: I was avoiding the embarrassment of having any of my friends know that I parked at my maid’s house. I was avoiding any potential conflict if a girl I liked or a boy I was jealous of saw me making nice to an elderly Black woman—a woman who loved me but could also embarrass me.

Did she understand this truth? Was she protecting me still? Or was it that through these decades she simply knew when to remain silent…and where to stand in the relative position of our lives?

 

In my last years of high school, football and everything else centered on my friends. We’d meet just inside the gate, and then proceed to our rightful place in the student section, amidst the now fully integrated “Jess Lanier High” crowd. Of course, white students and black students did not actually intermingle then, but our sections were adjoining. As far as progress went, this was the best we would do, though it didn’t stop certain white students, the so-called “bleacher-bums,” from bringing in an enormous rebel flag and singing “Dixie” a song officially banned by the school.

This was 1973. What were we all now? Separate? Equal? Integrated? At the very least we were all Jess Lanier High Purple Tigers, whether we chose to admit that fact to each other or not.

And among we Purple Tigers was Dissie’s granddaughter, Nita, the apple of Dissie’s eye. I can’t begin to grasp fully, much less describe what Dissie felt knowing the two of us were attending the same school, Nita a freshman, and I, a junior.

“Bob, you see Nita at school, don’t you?”

“Sure Dissie. We pass each other in the halls. Just the other day I saw her and asked her how she was doing. She seemed fine.”

“That’s good. I know it’s hard when you first get there.”

In summers past—long before high school or even junior high–Dissie brought Nita to our house to spend the day with my brother Mike and me.

On those summer days, we’d play Home Run Derby in our backyard, and Nita, without fail, would whomp the tar out of our pitching with arms so skinny you’d think she couldn’t even lift the bat. We had such fun on those mornings, and the fact that Nita could run faster and hit harder than we could just didn’t matter.

Of course I “knew” Nita was black, and certainly she “knew” I was white. We knew intuitively that in the Alabama of our youth, our relationship was sanctioned only under the roof of my house, including the back, but never the front yard.

We never opted out of playing together. Ever.

And this isn’t a color-crossed love story either. We didn’t think in terms of boyfriend/girlfriend as we moved into our teen years. That is, until one June day when Randy, my best friend, and Mary Jane surprised us with an impromptu visit one afternoon while Nita, Mike, and I were competing for home runs in the backyard. When my white friends arrived, their surprise—their shock—registered from their full-moon eyes to their gaping mouths. Upon seeing them, Nita, her own eyes to the ground and altogether silently, laid the bat on the board we used for home plate, and retreated inside to the kitchen, where her grandmother was rolling out the biscuit dough for our lunch. For weeks after, my two friends teased me mercilessly:

“Where’s your new girlfriend? Is she coming over again on Saturday? She sure likes you!”

“Naw, my Momma made me play with her; it’s not like I ever wanted to. I never asked her to come over!”

That was behavior fully sanctioned by proper Bessemer society—denying quickly any improper relationship with a Black person. Denying the possibility of innocent friendship.

And so after that day I knew. Despite the years of our summer place together, Nita and I had never been on equal ground.

When Nita first appeared in the Jess Lanier High school hallways and we passed each other amidst our various crowds, we did speak to each other. Naturally, and by name. I know that’s not much, and truly, I’m not boasting about it. But it was more than anyone else had, or did, at least in my school.

We didn’t always speak, but I don’t think Nita and I ever failed to catch each other’s eye in the two years we spent together in high school. To me, she seemed like just another normal freshman–and then sophomore–girl, walking with her friends, holding her books, eating that horrible cafeteria food: Just another black girl in those corridors who was ultimately off-limits to me. But then, I have no idea what she thought as we passed—how she really saw me.

 

Occasionally I saw Nita at football games. Just as I’m sure that her scholastic goals were like mine, I believe that her social goals were similar, too–goals befitting a girl who couldn’t care less about the game on the field, as was true of all the white girls I knew and had crushes on. Nita wanted to catch the eye of some boy—someone I’d never know.

I remember the night it dawned on me that she looked different from the girl I knew before. She was standing with her crowd at the bottom of the stands, and someone had a transistor radio from which a Stevie Wonder song was pulsating:

“Teachers keep on teachin’

Preachers keep on preachin’

World keep on turnin’

Cause it won’t be too long

Oh no

I’m so glad that he let me try it again

Cause my last time on earth I lived a whole world of sin

I’m so glad that I know more than I knew then

Gonna keep on tryin…”

We smiled at each other before I moved on, back up the stands to some girl who was destined to desert me later that night. But I kept thinking about Nita and what was so different about her. When it finally registered in my feeble brain, I wasn’t surprised, though I was a bit shocked. Beneath her pretty white top, Nita was sporting “falsies.”

Not that it really mattered, I suppose, to me or any of my friends who, I’m sure, never noticed a thing despite the fact that white and black kids couldn’t help but touch each other during those tentative days of early integration: The days when the stadium aisles and school corridors were simply too crowded and narrow for anyone to avoid human contact.

 

VI

The next spring, on one of the last Saturdays that Dissie and I had left before I graduated and moved off to college and she, in her seventies by then, retired, I said to her:

“I saw Nita at Class Day this week. She was laughing with her group of friends. I think it’s been a good year for her.”

To which Dissie smiled with her entire body—a smile that comes from a love and trust that are complete; a smile equal to and better than any I‘ve experienced since these terribly beautiful years of my youth:

“She should be happy. She made A’s on her report card this time. Yep, she just loves bein’ in high school.”

Maybe I loved it too, then. It’s what I’d like to believe now.

And it’s only today, in my own house and as I write these very words, that I realize I have no idea what happened to the girl with those skinny brown arms, my summer “girlfriend.” But, I do believe, choose to believe (for what other choice do I have), that wherever Nita is, she is happy and fulfilled in that place. Just the same as I am, and maybe even one row higher.

 

I never heard exactly when Dissie died. I saw her only once more, many years later, after I had left home for good. My wife and I were on the way home from Bessemer’s mall, where I had learned to drive a lifetime earlier. I spotted Dissie sitting on the porch of her daughter’s house, just around the corner from her former home. I slowed down, stopped, and then we walked up the steps to Dissie who was now nearly blind. I introduced these two women: the one still very dark and now so wrinkled; the other olive-skinned with deep ebony hair. Dissie hugged both of us that day, and we made our own variety of small talk. As we were leaving, though, she gave me one last smile:

“I’m glad to see you so happy, Bob!”

Then she waved to me like I was going to a game, as if in another few hours she’d be seeing me again, at our house in the morning.

 

Alice’s Evidence

William Henderson

 

My wife, Holly, who has just entered the third trimester of her pregnancy with our daughter, Aurora, needs help climbing the steep stairs leading from the sidewalk to the courthouse in this small Massachusetts town where you live. Three men stand on the steps of the courthouse, smoking. One man isn’t wearing shoes. Holly reaches for my hand, albeit mostly out of habit I think. I hold the door open for her. A guard waves us through the metal detector. He seems bored.

You don’t live far from here. Each time I drove to and from your apartment, I would pass this courthouse. I haven’t seen or talked to you in five weeks, the longest we’ve gone without talking since we met nine months ago.

Holly and I have not lived together in a month, and her mother asks everyday if Holly will move to California with our son, Avery, and unborn daughter. Let Will enjoy his homosexual life in Boston, she says. Even if Holly has come to accept that I not only had an affair with you but also fell in love with you, her family has not, and probably never will. Can you blame them? Holly will not take my children away. Even if she wanted to, an attorney told her that in Massachusetts, a judge would call taking my children away without my permission kidnapping.

Holly squeezes my hand. Are you OK? she asks. She is holding my left hand; you can still see a strip of white skin marking where my wedding band had been.

Am I bad person? I ask Holly.

You’ve done some bad things, Will, she says, but you’re not a bad person.

Have I ruined my future by losing him? I ask.

He wasn’t the one for you, she says. He isn’t the one for you.

What if he gets in trouble? I ask her.

He didn’t think about the fallout from taking a restraining order out against you, she says. You cannot think about what being here will do to him. You have to think about yourself and your family. We need you.

Holly takes my hand and puts it on her stomach where our daughter is elongating and stretching.

He. No one in my life says your name. My close friends, the ones who helped put me back together when I felt torn into ribbons, call you RODA, an acronym for restraining order drug addict. A woman I work with calls you the psycho who works up the street. How unfair, the proximity of where you and I work and live, now that we are on the outside of each other’s lives. The Mystic River separates where you work from where I work. The times I drove to you during lunch, or after work, the times you met me at the train station, we traversed the river. We crossed over. There was a crossing.

And maybe I crossed a line when I staged on my one-man intervention. I don’t feel guilty, not about what I did to you—for you?—and not about what I did to Holly. I cheated on her, and even though my marriage to her had ended years ago, she deserved more than my cheating on her, especially my cheating on her with someone like you.

How nice, thinking about you as someone like you, as opposed to the you with whom I woke up some mornings, and the you to whom I would say: Waking up like this certainly doesn’t suck.

No, rabbit, you would tell me, waking up next to you certainly doesn’t suck.

I think I should continue talking to Holly, if only to ease the tension in my stomach, but Holly and I have run out of things to talk about. We are still drawing the boundaries of our new relationship. I am no longer afraid of living as an openly gay man. And she will not want to hear that my second date with you included a brief interlude outside this courthouse, even if I am thinking about that second date and how much possibility it had held.

You and I had stood near a corner of this courthouse. Christmas lights still hung on storefronts, even though Christmas had been nearly a month earlier, and from the stairs of the courthouse, we could see lights on houses in the distance.

I have something to say, you had said.

The way you had said I have something to say drained the night of its magic.

I used to be a crystal meth addict, you had said.

Here’s the other shoe, I’d thought. I’ve been waiting for its fall. Never mind my marriage. That was not the other shoe. I could get out of it. I wanted to get out of it. I had been afraid to get out of it.

I haven’t used in a while, but when I use, nothing else matters. And the last time I used, I destroyed my life, hurt people I loved, and almost died. Crystal left me with nothing, and I know if I use again, I will not come back. I will use until I die.

But you don’t use now, I had said. The way I had said but you don’t use now seemed like I was asking, not telling.

No, but I like to occasionally get high. I only recently started smoking. I never buy it. My roommate gives it to me. Will, I don’t know what we’re becoming, you had said, but if we’re becoming anything, if you ever think I’m going down that path again, if you think that I may even possibly use crystal, or if you think my drug use is growing out of control, then you have to promise that you will do whatever stopping me takes.

You had wanted me to know who you were up front. You had wanted me to know this large fact about you because you believe this large fact defines you. And maybe it does. In time, I defined you by this large fact. You are an addict, and I felt responsible for keeping you safe. From the beginning, you had asked me to.

OK, D, I had said, even though I hadn’t known what we were becoming either.

You had been able to tell I was cold. You had unwrapped your scarf from around your neck and tied it around my neck. You had said, there, that should keep you warmer. You were standing close enough that I could smell you. You had kissed me.

I see you walk into the courthouse. Holly and I are sitting on a bench near a staircase. You put an envelope on the conveyer belt. I nod in your direction. There he is, I say. She had told me she would never recognize you.

I am surprised that you are alone. I expected you to bring your best friend, who must be happy that I am no longer in your life, or that you would bring your roommate, who is your dealer and who doesn’t like me, even though in the beginning he seemed to. My attorney arrives. He walks in front of you and blocks my view of you.

We’re on the third floor, he says.

He’s here, I say.

Where? my attorney asks.

I nod in your direction.

Holly and I walk up the stairs in front of my attorney who is walking in front of you. How surreal, I think. We’re walking up these stairs to see whether or not a judge will vacate a restraining order you took out against me because, without your knowledge, I had recorded you and your best friends getting high and snorting pills. Whatever it took. You had made me promise. I loved you. I thought I was fulfilling my promise.

Only after you had ended our relationship, made sure I knew you never wanted to see me again, and took out the restraining order, did I make sure you found out that I had been married the entire time. I didn’t want you to know to hurt you; I wanted you to know so you would understand how much I had been willing to give up for you, and how disappointed I had been that you had not been willing to make the same accommodations. I had told you Holly would never let a drug addict raise her children. You had promised to quit once we lived together. But you had asked me not to make you pick between me and the drugs.

I know you wouldn’t have picked me.

My attorney introduces himself to you. Can we talk? he asks you.

I cannot hear what you are saying. I do not want to hear what you are saying. If I look at you, I will cry, and if I cry, then you will know that my heart continues to break. Our coupling and uncoupling has no middle ground. I am not ready for the questions the judge will ask.

Who stole the tarts?

No, not that question.

Where is my heart?

The heart you gave back to me is not the same heart I gave to you. I want that heart back. I want to not have given you my heart. I want to not have met you.

Lies. All lies.

No lying on the stand. Swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Did you love him?

Yes.

Do you miss him?

Yes.

Are you sorry?

Am I sorry?

You know the story — our story — and you are mad at me for the part I played in our story — your story — and sometimes I’m mad at me for the part I played in my story, because my story was supposed to be your story was supposed to be our story. All I needed to do was divorce my wife, get you to stop using drugs, and then I could enjoy our ever after happy ending.

Have you noticed I’m wearing the engagement ring I bought you, the ring I hired a metalworker to make for me, for you? Had I not incorrectly guessed at your ring size, you’d have this ring, which you would have worn for one month, and then you would have taken off this ring, and never worn this ring again.

Even after the metalworker re-sized the ring, it does not fit my ring finger, not exactly, not quite.

We are here, in this courthouse, outside of which I started falling in love with you more than nine months ago, and I do not want to be here inside this courthouse, outside of which I started falling in love with you more than nine months ago. But we are here because we have to be here, because if we are not here, then the restraining order you took out will remain in place, and I will have to look for you in crowds and subways and at concerts and restaurants, never knowing if somewhere I am is where you will be, or are, and whether I will have to cut short my time in this somewhere, because you will be, or are, there.

I am at a concert, and even though you never expressed any interest in this specific band, I can’t help but look for you and your friends. I look for you because if you are here, you will call building security, show them a copy of the restraining order, and have me removed.

I can’t live like this, I think after the show. I ask Holly what she thinks about my filing a motion to reconsider the restraining order, and asking a judge to decide if the restraining order was validly granted, since I was not there to present my side. I do not feel you deserve to have that power over me. I will not make decisions about where I go based on where I think you may go. You were never afraid of me. She says she’s wanted me to do that all along.

The clerk of the civil court where you got your restraining order listens to my story and explains how I can file a Motion for Reconsideration. Holly holds my hand. Avery will not stand still. He runs around, and finally Holly sits with him outside. The clerk hands me some paperwork and says I can take the paperwork out into the main area and write out there. I tell her thank you. She seems kind. I’d like to think that she believes me and feels the restraining order was issued without merit. Maybe she has to make everyone believe that that’s how she feels because she never knows which person’s story is the more correct version of the story.

I write:

On the date of the hearing, I was at St. Elizabeth’s completing a partial hospital program. I never received notice of the extension. D was in regular contact with my wife, Holly Henderson, during this time. On August 5, D sent me an email and I thought the restraining order had expired. At this time, he still had belongings of mine, and my son. On August 16, I called the local police department to ask about the restraining order and they said they had no record of it. Later that day, he gave my wife my stuff, sent me messages through her, and then had a four-hour text message conversation with me. We continued to talk the next day and the day after we met for coffee. He told me at that meeting that the restraining order had been extended. The next day, we texted most of the day and that night, he, my son, and I met for ice cream. That night he told me he loved me. The next night he told me he wanted to marry me, raise children with me, and get to know my wife, who I have since separated from. The next day, August 21, he told me he loved me, but when I said something he didn’t like, he sent me a picture of the restraining order and said he’d have no problem having me arrested and taken from my child if I contacted him again. Two days later, he told my wife that if she ever contacted him again, or went into his place of employment, he would take a restraining order out against her and have me arrested. He told me he took out the restraining order because he loved me and he knew if I had contact we’d get back together, not because he was afraid I’d hurt him.

We broke up because I had recorded his roommate selling him an ounce of marijuana; D turning around and selling half an ounce to a friend; he and two friends smoking half an ounce of marijuana; and then snorting prescription pills. While I didn’t have his permission to record him, he had given me keys to his apartment and given me an open invitation to come over when I wanted. Also, D is a former crystal meth user and early in our relationship he made me promise that if I ever thought he and his marijuana use was getting out of hand to do whatever I needed to do to help him because if he started down that path he’d never come back. After receiving a copy of the extended restraining order from him, I verified it with the clerk of the civil court and have not had any contact with him. I am not the first ex-boyfriend he has taken out a restraining order against, and I do not feel it was issued under the right circumstances. We never had a violent relationship, and I would never harm him. In the e-mail he sent threatening my wife, he ended it by saying he would do whatever it took to protect his roommate and his friends.

Holly reads my statement, and I ask her if I’m doing the right thing. I don’t have to do this, I say. She says I have to do it, and if I won’t do it for myself, then I have to do it for Avery. She says that I have to protect my family. He’s crazy, she says. You don’t know what he’s capable of.

I thought he was capable of loving me, I say.

Restraining orders and love do not usually go together, she says.

I turn in the paperwork and ask the clerk for copies. She gives me the copies. She says she will send you notice of the hearing.

A friend recommends an attorney. I set up an appointment. Holly meets me at the appointment. She can only stay 45 minutes; she has a doctor’s appointment after. Another sonogram I will miss.

I tell Attorney the story. He listens. A second-year associate takes notes. I have brought e-mails and text messages and phone records, anything that may help him prove you did not take out the restraining order because you felt I was a threat. Attorney looks at Holly. You’ll write an affidavit supporting this? he asks.

Yes, Holly says.

You can attest that Will is not a violent man and has never threatened you? That you have never felt afraid of him?

Yes, Holly says.

Attorney looks at me. You know you have that one in a million wife.

I know, I say. I reach for Holly’s hand and hold it.

Not many women would sit next to a husband who is defending himself against a restraining order filed against him by his ex-boyfriend.

I know, I say.

I have to tell him about St. Elizabeth’s and what led me there. He doesn’t react, just says he hopes I’m doing better and that I’ve realized I had, have, other options. You will get through this, he says.

Second-year Associate reads the text messages we exchanged that week in August, what Judi still calls my relapse week.

What’s the deal with the rabbit references? she asks.

He called me rabbit, I say. I know you will think about me when you hear the word rabbit. I do not tell her that I called you horse, and that when I’m feeling most bitter, I think that I did not call you horse as in hung like a, because you are not, hung like a horse that is.

After Second-year Associate finishes reading through our text message history, I ask her if I made a mistake. Did I royally fuck up or did I dodge a bullet?

He was intense, Will, she says.

I also ask Holly. She is tired of answering this question. She may not use the same words, but her answer is essentially the same.

You didn’t fuck up, she says. D did what he did to protect himself. She uses the words maladaptive behavior. She says you have been taught to react like this when you are hurt. You did the only thing you knew to do.

He loved me. I loved him. I didn’t mean to take over his life. I was just trying to help.

I know, Will, she says, and I think he felt that way at the time, but it’s easy to twist stories so that facts mean one thing one day and something different another day.

I won’t do that, I say. The story is the story. I don’t need to change what happened in order to look or feel better.

You don’t look very good in the story, she says.

I know, I say, but I’m starting to look better.

She snorts. I’m almost as tired of hearing about how thin you’re getting as I am hearing about how broken you feel, she says.

I hug her and kiss her hair. This is as close as we get to physical intimacy. I love you.

I love you, too, she says.

A week later, Attorney sends me and Holly our affidavits to sign. I read through my affidavit twice. Here are the facts of our relationship, how it was never violent; how you were in touch with me and Holly after you took out the restraining order; how we had gotten back together; and this, the last fact to which I am attesting: On August 21, 2010, D texted me: I know you’re it. My it. Us. You, me, Holly, Ave and Aurora. Then: We can and we will get there. Then: I’m yours. And: You’re mine. Rabbit.

Yours. Mine. Ours. Invisible cords, once taut; now not.

I can’t believe the fact that he called me rabbit is going to be part of the public record, I say to Holly. How did this become my life? How did a term of endearment become a reason why the restraining order should never have issued? How did this happen?

And she says it is kind of funny that rabbit is part of the public record. You have to go through with it, she says. He didn’t care about what the restraining order would do to you and your life. You have to do this to protect yourself and get your life back.

I say, I know. But really what I want to say is, You’ve read what he said to me. You’ve read how convinced he was that I was his family. He meant it then. At least I think he meant it then. And five weeks later we’re about to meet in court so I have the chance to convince a judge that I’m not a physical threat to him. How did this happen? How did I let this happen?

Attorney talks to you, is talking to you. In your hands are the materials you thought relevant to why the restraining order is just and should remain in place. I cannot look at you. Holly reaches for my hand and squeezes it.

Five weeks ago, you and I were getting back together. And now we’re here. I know nothing about your life. You know nothing about mine. I assume you’ve slept with someone, and are probably dating someone. I am now a footnote in your dating history, if I warrant a story.

Aurora is moving, Holly says. She pulls my hand to her stomach and presses in. I feel nothing at first, and then there it is, a kick, and another kick, and a third kick. I think that already she loves me and is waiting to meet me. I breathe. Regardless of today’s outcome, everything will be OK.

A bailiff asks you and Attorney to talk elsewhere. No conferences outside of the courtroom, the bailiff says. Attorney takes you out into the hallway. My stomach hurts. My heart hurts more. Holly and I do not talk. There is nothing she can say, and because there is nothing she can say, there is nothing I feel I can say.

Attorney comes back. I don’t want to hear you respond, but he says you followed him into a parking lot once. And you, he says, looking at Holly, sent him a bunch of papers.

I am stuck on you followed him into a parking lot. Really? I think. You blamed yourself for that happening. You thanked me for not giving up on you. You told me that you never said I wouldn’t have to chase after you. You said that you’ve learned that sometimes shutting up and getting into the car is in everyone’s best interest. Today, that same moment is why you need a restraining order?

However, Attorney says, I think he will agree to vacate the restraining order. I told him that if it remains in place, you will not be able to go on field trips with Avery, and that it will harm your ability to play an active role in Avery’s education. He said that that was never his intention.

OK, I say.

He wants both of you to sign an order of non-trespass banning you from his home and where he works. I don’t think he’s really authorized to ban you from the store, though.

I don’t care, I say. If that’s what he needs, we’ll sign it.

I’ll have to write up the order, Attorney says. I think that permanently ending our relationship — our affair — and undoing the time we spent together is costing me a lot of money.

Attorney goes back to you to iron out remaining details.

At least he thinks I sent the journal, Holly says.

There is that, I say.

She is still holding my hand. My heart continues to break, even though I had thought that there was nothing left to break.

He wants you to write the statement, Attorney says. He wants you to have no question what he is asking for and what you are agreeing to.

Fine, I say.

Attorney dictates what I need to write. He suggests adding a clause that if I see you in a public space, that I will leave.

No, I say. I do not want that. I will write that I will avoid and ignore him, but I will not leave. That’s part of why I’m here. I do not want to base any plans I make on whether or not I think he will be there. No.

That should be fine, Attorney says.

I add that I will stay at least 50 feet away from you. I think that I should say I will stay at least 57 feet away from you, but only because I think you will see the inherent irony in my using that number.

I think I could smell his lotion on the paper, I say.

You could not smell his lotion, Holly says.

I think you will not stay in the area much longer. You routinely pick up and go once you have exploded your life in one city. Moving away is how you heal heartbreak. I think about the ex-boyfriends you told me about. These men are my brothers. They survived you; I will, too. Line us up as we were at the end of our separate relationships with you, and I think we would each have the same haunted look in our eyes.

I think you will move home to be with your mother, who lives next door to your grandparents, so you can help them too. And with her cancer spreading, and your apathy about your job, along with losing me and Avery, I think you will consider your life more exploded than it has ever been.

Or if you don’t move home, I can picture you and your best friend moving to New York. Or, as you and I learned while I was inviting people to your birthday party, the woman who moved to Boston with you is now in college in Los Angeles. I can see you moving there too.

Attorney returns. You have agreed to the wording. Now you want the paper notarized by someone other than him. You have to write a motion vacating the restraining order, which Attorney says you’re doing. While the clerk finds someone who will notarize my statement, Attorney says that you told him that you feel very betrayed by me, and you need no contact in order to heal. I think you telling Attorney this is odd.

There’s nothing left for you with him, Attorney says, just in case you weren’t sure.

I know, I say. I am still holding Holly’s hand. She squeezes. She knows, perhaps better than anyone, how badly I hurt. I’ve known there is nothing left for nearly two months.

I think I have known there is nothing left since the morning at the Charles River when I listened to you tell your friends your plan for inviting the man from your doctor’s office home to get high. Six-and-a-half months, a very long relationship in your world.

Focus on your family, Attorney says.

I will, I say.

Attorney brings the statement, once notarized, to you. Then Attorney comes back and asks me and Holly to come upstairs. We go into the courtroom and take seats near the back on the left-hand side of the room. Attorney comes in and sits next to us.

Do you have the key to his door?

The key?

The key to his front door.

Yes, I say. It’s in a box. But I have it.

You need to mail it to me.

OK, I say. I’ll put it in the mail tomorrow.

Attorney leaves again. You walk in. I realize only now that you are wearing a pair of shoes that we each bought and a belt that we each bought. I think you chose to wear these items purposefully. You are wearing the white plugs in your ears that you wore on our first date. You sit down in a seat diagonal from us on the right-hand side of the room. I see you wipe your eyes. You are crying.

He’s crying, I whisper to Holly. I have someone to whisper to. You have brought no one.

I want to get up, sit next to you, wrap my arms around you, and tell you that everything will be OK. I want to say, I’m here, horse. Why are we doing this?

Are you OK? Holly asks.

I will be, I say. We will be. But fair warning, I’m going to break down in the car.

OK, she says. You can.

The judge calls two cases before ours. A woman wants her boyfriend to stay away from her and stop bothering her family. The judge rules in her favor. A woman wants a restraining order against a man who could be her boyfriend, or her fiancé, and since he has not shown up, the judge rules in her favor. I think that this was you two months ago.

He calls our case. From you and me to you vs. me. You stand on one side, and I stand on the other. Attorney stands between us. We have reached an agreement, Attorney says.

The judge asks for our names. You give yours. I give mine. Attorney says his. The clerk asks us to raise our right hands and solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. You say yes. I say I do. I realize that this is as close to saying I do as I will get with you. The judge asks if you have agreed to vacate the restraining order on your own accord, and if you knew you could come back, even if the order is vacated. You say, I do.

The judge vacates the restraining order and bangs his gavel and the case, and we, are done. You leave quickly. You do not look at me and Holly. I cannot tell if you don’t look at us because you hate us or because looking at us is too painful for you. You are crying again. Attorney tells me and Holly to wait. He follows you outside. I think he is making sure you leave the building before Holly and I leave the courtroom. He comes back in and says we can leave.

Attorney talks to us about our divorce and custody issues. He thinks we’re handling our “situation” very adult-like.

I don’t know how else to handle it, I say. Being here is nothing like me.

I know, Attorney says.

Thank you for giving me back my life, I say.

Don’t overdramatize it, he says. Make better choices next time.

Attorney gets a copy of the vacated restraining order and suggests I carry it with me. If I do, I think, I will carry it in the wallet you gave me, which is the wallet I use.

Holly and I walk to my car. If I wanted, I could point out the spot where you and I had stood on our second date when you had asked me to promise to do whatever I thought necessary to keep you safe. But there’s no fixing something that doesn’t want to be fixed. I should never have tried.

I haven’t driven more than three blocks before I start to cry. Holly starts crying too, but mostly because I am crying about you. The new Sara Bareilles album is playing. The album goes from track 11 (“Not Alone”) to track 12 (“Breathe Again”). I consider this album our break-up album, even though I don’t know if you’ve even heard it.

Do you think I will ever love again? I ask.

Yes, she says.

Will I ever find a man as beautiful as he is?

You shouldn’t be thinking about finding your next boyfriend. Focus on yourself. And when you find him, focus instead on his inner beauty. Outer beauty fades. But really, have you ever dated someone who wasn’t beautiful?

No. I guess I haven’t. He was beautiful inside and out, I say. He loved me. He loved Avery. He was ready to love you and Aurora too. What if he was the one and I totally fucked it up?

Will, if he was the one, he wouldn’t have taken out the restraining order, and you wouldn’t have been here in the first place. He wasn’t your one. He wasn’t the right match for you. But I know you will find him.

I hope so.

Don’t hope, she says. Know.

 

Remembering Who We Are

Sam Guthrie

 

“So I’ve started following a guru,” I said to my oldest friend Herb, trying to make my voice sound casual and breezy. We sat in our favorite Thai restaurant, and he had been amiably teasing me about my healthy eating habits, grinning his wide, cartoonish grin, suggesting I ask the bartender if they had broccoli juice on tap. I’d loved that goofy smile since high school and I’d never seen it fade so quickly.

He put his beer down on the table. “What do you mean? What kind of guru?”

“I mean a guru. A guru guru. A spiritual master.”

Herb’s face hardened, making him look old and senatorial. I had always made the less conventional choices: I played in garage bands while he went to college; taught exotic martial arts while he made a grown-up income in suits and ties. My wife, Carolyn and I spoiled a parade of cats while Herb and his wife had two brilliant boys. I was the artsy, bohemian, quasi-monk; he was the affable, solid, business executive and family man.

But, however different we were, we’d grown to respect each other through thirty years of friendship. We’d gone through the baffling shame of an adolescence without girlfriends, the tacky iniquities of pot smoking in high school, the discovery of then-new music like Devo and Elvis Costello. In our twenties, we’d spent long hours talking excitedly about philosophy — in those days, my man was the Indian iconoclast J. Krishnamurti and Herb was into Trappist monk Thomas Merton. We’d each been the other’s best man at our weddings (his, resplendent, something out of Jane Austen; mine, a dozen people in a park, more like something out of The Beverly Hillbillies). And as we stumbled into our late-thirties, we tussled with the usual existential crises of middleclass, middle-aged men. Now all of that history seemed to be evaporating.

“Wow. Well, I just hope you’re careful.” Herb’s voice was leaden and he frowned into his Pad Thai. I knew Americans disliked gurus, but having read Eastern spirituality books since I was thirteen, gurus had always seemed a natural part of spirituality to me. Consequently, I had never grasped the intensity of that dislike, and I was not at all prepared to see it show up on my best friend’s face. I didn’t know how to respond.

“Careful of what?” I asked.

Herb was almost a foot taller than me, but he hunched down over his food and looked up through his thick brows, “Well, how can you be sure this guy isn’t a con man?”

“I don’t know,” I said, stupidly, “I just am. It’s hard to explain.” My face felt hot and my mind began to race. What if my guru was a con man and I was deluding myself, like one of those pitiful losers on daytime talk shows?

“I mean,” he continued, “aren’t you supposed to give up your will to a guru?”

“No, it’s not like that. I mean, you’re a Catholic, and aren’t you supposed to give up your life to Jesus? Christianity is basically just guru devotion,” I said desperately.

“Your guru compares himself to Jesus?”

“No! Well yes, but not like that. He says all beings are the same as Jesus or the Buddha.” My words were coming faster and I’d completely forgotten about the special order of steamed vegetables in front of me.

“Then why worship him?” Herb said.

I took a slow breath, tried to shift into an authoritative, scholarly tone. “Because we don’t know it’s our state. We’ve forgotten. Gurus are how we remember. We remember by meditating on the guru’s enlightened state. That’s how we duplicate the state of enlightenment in ourselves.” Uggh. I sounded like something out of a bad Isaac Asimov novel.

Given how badly this was going, I was certainly not about to share any of the gory details of my actual spiritual practice—how I bowed before the photo of my guru and gently arranged flowers around his feet, or how sometimes when I meditated my whole body would soften and my eyes would become wet with tears.

I was onto some new, overheated metaphor now, using words like “morphogenic fields” and “entrainment,” no longer really trying to convince him of anything about gurus; I just needed him to stop thinking I was the kind of sap who could get taken in by some cheesy huckster. I felt like yelling, This is me! Sam! The guy who introduced you to Bob Marley, for Chrissake! I wanted so badly to see Herb’s old grin again, his brows raised comically high, eyes bearing down on me with mock-diabolical glee.

Just as I was about to launch into a disquisition on the guru in esoteric Christianity, Herb poked at his food, and asked, “So how’s Carolyn?” And with that, it seemed, my case was closed. We finished the dinner in stiff small talk, and he didn’t even tease me when I asked the waitress if, for dessert, I could simply get a plate of fresh fruit.

Over the next few months I learned, Pavlovian style, not to tell people I had a guru. The lesson came through a procession of stony faces, brittle smiles, and most of all, an eerie lack of questions. Before finding my guru I’d been an ordained Zen Buddhist for twelve years and my friends were boundlessly curious about that. But people wanted very badly not to hear about a guru.

It didn’t seem to matter that guru devotion has been revered for millennia among half the world’s population, the living heart of Hinduism, Sikhism, Tibetan Buddhism, Sufism, Taoism, and a few other assorted isms. Thanks to a handful of lunatic cults, gurus would always look suspect to Americans.

Finally I got so frustrated I decided to write up a manifesto defending guru devotion (I demurely called it an “intro booklet”). I sat for hours in coffee shops, furiously scribbling away, deconstructing every possible criticism with what I felt was irrefutable logic.

Of course, I couldn’t let Herb know how badly I wanted his approval, so, to get the booklet into his hands, I said I was just looking for feedback on it. Style, clarity, that kind of thing. My heart pounded with anticipation when I dropped the booklet by his house, and, in the week before we planned to meet, I sat more than once in our living room, rereading it, imagining him all aglow with new admiration for me now that he understood the greatness of true guru devotion.

Four months after that first talk, Herb and I sat again at that same Thai restaurant. He handed the booklet across the table, avoiding eye contact. “Yeah, it was really good,” he mumbled into his beer. “Good writing. I made some comments like you asked.”

And that he had.

In harsh red pen Herb had filled the booklet with comments that sent me reeling, suspicions I never would’ve thought of in a million years. The fact that my guru had books that cost actual money struck Herb as dubious. The way the guru had changed his name several times over the years seemed highly questionable. It was as if my painstaking explanations were not even there. I flipped through it trying to look indifferent, and I began mentally lining-up my weightiest counter-arguments. But then, for some reason, I stopped. And something inside me simply gave up. If all that writing couldn’t convince him, nothing would.

“Thanks for taking the time and trouble. I can see you put a lot of care into this,” I said as casually as I could manage, though I felt like crying.

But then, about an hour later, the strangest thing happened. We’d finished dinner, and I don’t know if it was the couple of beers we’d had, or that we’d begun laughing about our high school years—pot peanut butter crackers before The Rocky Horror Picture Show, going “raftin’” on Lake Harriet during a roaring, tree-toppling gale. But, at some point, I looked down at the seat where my red-penned intro booklet lay like a mortally wounded animal, and I saw the photo I had glued onto the front of it—the face of my guru, his expression softly luminous with compassion.

In that moment, the restaurant seemed homier, cozier. And I said, “Y’know all that stuff about how guru devotion works? I actually couldn’t give a damn whether it’s right or not.”

“You mean entrainment in the morphogenic field?” Herb said, in affectionate teasing.

I chuckled. “Yeah.” I was silent for a moment and then, suddenly, out of nowhere, I blurted out the worst thing I could possibly say. I don’t know what came over me. Certainly it was the one thing that would most freak out a cult-fearing person.

“The truth is I just love my guru. And when I meditate on him I get really happy. And kinder, I think.” It was such an absurd and forbidden thing to say that I laughed at myself and I could feel my face turn red.

But instead of running out of the restaurant screaming for the cult-deprogrammers, Herb smiled, put his forearms on the table and leaned in toward me. And, to my amazement, he began asking about my new spiritual practice. Before I knew it, we were lost in one of our long, conspiratorial discussions, me telling him about my strange new adventure, its mysterious joys and trials, him telling me about his secret devotional feelings for his own “guru,” feelings that surfaced not in church but while watching baseball games with his kids.

At some point, our conversation wound down and we picked up the dessert menus left on our table long ago by our waitress. As I stared at my menu, Herb’s voice came from behind his, “Maybe they’ll make you a special dessert out of kale and water.” And without even looking up I knew the wide goofy grin that was on his face and I knew the mock-diabolical eyes that were bearing down on me. I knew them well.

 

Toward a turbulent, if not shining, sea

Rachel Jendrzejewski

 

Ibrahim Abdallah, an Egyptian-born, New York-based marketing specialist who has spent time at both Tahrir Square and Zucotti Park, told PRI’s The World that he thinks Occupy Wall Street has “failed,” because protestors have lacked a “clear goal” and “clear slogan.” He elaborates, “When I talked to people there [at the protests in Zucotti Park], some of them actually were saying that they were happy not to have a clear goal, because they wanted to create a bigger discussion between people. They wanted people to get involved, and talk, and discuss the issues. But in my opinion, I don’t think that works. I don’t think that works because the average Joe cannot operate that way. You need to give him something really simple that he can follow.”[1]

I was listening to this report on Minnesota Public Radio while driving, and the last part of his statement made me laugh out loud. How hilariously awful, I thought, pausing at a stop sign, to imagine the “average Joe” as someone who literally cannot have a conversation and instead needs to be spoon-fed someone else’s instructions on how to think and act. The PRI reporter moved right on to the next question. I wondered for a minute if Mr. Abdallah might be one of the Yes Men[2], pulling a stunt to reveal the absurdity of marketing mentality at its lowest extreme. Yet very soon I realized he was absolutely serious—and that his sentiments actually echo those of many people in the wider public.

This sobering moment shifted my whole perspective on Occupy Wall Street, which I had been following closely since I first learned about it in September (through friends on Facebook, not the news). I realized that economic disparity is not the most dire issue that the protests are illuminating. Rather, the much more fundamental and pressing topic just might be our country’s disinterest, unwillingness, or—per Mr. Abdallah—utter incapacity to have intelligent conversation about complex issues. The bewildering behavior of too many Congress members has long supported this notion, particularly in their dealings with President Obama over the past few years. But are they representing the rest of us more accurately than I’d like to believe?

As a playwright and performance artist, I spend most of my waking hours creating theatrical work in collaboration with people who may or may not share my views. This work eventually brings all kinds of other diverse people together to experience that work and, should they wish, talk about it. In other words, my whole career is essentially rooted in the practice and facilitation of discussion, typically around pretty big central ideas — memory, grief, relationships, power, fear, mortality, love. Listening to Mr. Abdallah, however, I realized that I take for granted that such discussion is vital and desired. I take for granted that it helps us learn about the world and have compassion for each other. Perhaps most of all, I take for granted that people want, let alone are able, to learn about the world and have compassion for each other.

Yet, even as I take these values for granted, I’m toying with a riddle, because one of the biggest obstacles to making art in this country is our market-driven culture, and people supposedly drive the market. We all know that success is often gauged, deliberately or not, by financial profit (or in the arts, whether or not one gets paid anything at all—Arena Stage made national news recently for giving salaries and health benefits to playwrights). Artists working in all disciplines know that risk—and I’m not talking about the titillating suggestion of risk, which does interest many, but the actual risk of failure, banality, offense, etc. required to explore and advance new ideas—rarely sells seats. If one is driven to take risks in one’s work, one better have a good back-up skill that will pay the rent. People outside art communities often don’t even realize risky work is happening. They ask me when they’ll be able to see my work in Hollywood or on Broadway. Those avenues have certainly figured out some formulas that “work,” financially, but in my humble view, they largely specialize in entertainment over art. I don’t mean that in a pretentious or even mutually exclusive way; I wholly enjoy summer blockbusters and perform in cheesy musicals. I certainly believe that both can be art, that art can be entertaining (and is often better for it), etc. The distinction, to my mind, is simply one of intention. To borrow from Guy Zimmerman, Artistic Director of Padua Playwrights, “The artist wants to wake us up; the entertainer wants to help us fall back asleep.”[3] Mr. Abdullah would probably agree and thereby propose art is useless in society, because it’s far too demanding. It asks too many questions. “The average Joe cannot operate that way. You need to give him something really simple that he can follow.” Judging by box office records and the number of schools that have cut arts programming in recent years, he wouldn’t be alone.

Now, I have encountered intelligent, thoughtful, curious people all over this country—enough to know that plenty of “average Joes” not only believe themselves capable of discussion, but very much enjoy it. In fact, I should think most people might be offended and downright alarmed at the suggestion that anyone ought to “give” them “really simple” ideas to “follow,” in lieu of conversation about and autonomous participation in current events. Mr. Abdallah’s words nag at me because they undeniably echo the same critique of Occupy Wall Street that I’ve heard again and again from respected friends and colleagues, and certainly from the mainstream media: Those protestors need a simple, direct message. They need a clear set of demands. They need to market their points better. They need to put forward what they want. Otherwise, they are—or will be—ineffective.

I often wonder when our culture came to prioritize certainty over inquiry. We rush to know and say what we believe because that somehow makes us strong, smart people. We’re fearful of appearing uncertain or unprepared, especially if we’re in the public eye, and for good reason—we’re quickly and ruthlessly shamed if we falter in the slightest way, yet most wisdom traditions paradoxically encourage “not knowing.” I’m not talking about ignorance—quite the contrary, I think—it’s the idea of “beginner’s mind,” staying open, without preconceptions, and therefore always learning, ever seeing more clearly. The great theatre-maker, Richard Foreman, speaking of his own practice, explains:

We abide by cultural directives that urge us: clarify each thought, each experience, so you can cull from them their single, dominant meaning and in the process, become a responsible adult who knows what he or she thinks. But what I try to show is the opposite: how at every moment, the world presents us with a composition in which a multitude of meanings and realities are available, and you are able to swim, lucid and self-contained, in that turbulent sea of multiplicity.’[4]

Foreman’s process replaces product, embodying endless possibility. Occupy Wall Street’s emerging process as policy[5] offers a similarly open sea, one whose turbulent waves are waking us up and spurring our imaginations toward new, improved systems of balance and accountability.

Seized with fear over a need for certainty, however, we reduce possibility down to binary choice (Republican versus Democrat); and increasingly, we skip process altogether. Most people living in this country feel extremely disconnected from the government and the ways in which decisions are made[6]. And yet, with technology driving the pace of living faster and faster and attention spans growing shorter and shorter, we’re increasingly impatient with the concept of process anyway. We don’t even want it. We expect our President to solve the world’s problems in four years. We skip fact-checking to get breaking news out faster. We promote our work more than actually doing whatever we supposedly do. We send emails while barely tasting our lunch. At this rate, our relationship to process is in danger of being phased out altogether with people operating as little more than products, packaged and available for perusal on your favorite social networking site, self-marketed in 140 characters or less.

We do this to ourselves also, in part, because advertising is the language we know best. We are better educated in marketing than anything other subject, period, if only innately. According to Dr. Jean Kilbourn (known for her work on the image of women in advertising as well as critical studies of alcohol and tobacco advertising), each one of us is exposed to over 3000 advertisements per day.[7] Advertising so thoroughly surrounds us from the moment we open our eyes to the world that it becomes ingrained within us. We have internalized its structures, patterns, habits, and strategies. Of course, many of us dismiss ads and insist they don’t affect us. We scoff and say, “It’s not like I’m going to run out and buy that car,” and “It’s not like I think that mascara will make someone love me.” And, most likely, we really won’t and don’t. But advertising works on a much more subliminal level. Kilbourne explains, “Advertising is a pervasive medium of influence and persuasion. Its influence is cumulative, often subtle and primarily unconscious. A former editor-in-chief of Advertising Age, the leading advertising publication in North America, once claimed: ‘Only eight per cent of an ad’s message is received by the conscious mind. The rest is worked and re-worked deep within, in the recesses of the brain.’” [8] Marketing professionals study consumers closely, not just to cater to their lifestyles, but to manipulate their desires and steer trends. They’re not evil people, of course; they’re just doing their job. They’re selling products.

Over time, however, the heavy saturation is responsible for some serious cultural conditioning—conditioning which devalues relationships, attaches spiritual value to material possessions, and fuels addiction, according to Kilbourne. Advertising skillfully and intentionally breeds cynicism, dissatisfaction, and craving, because these feelings beautifully fuel consumer behavior. Kilbourne elaborates, “Advertising performs much the same function in industrial society as myth did in ancient societies. It is both a creator and perpetuator of the dominant values of the culture, the social norms by which most people govern their behaviour. At the very least, advertising helps to create a climate in which certain values flourish and others are not reflected at all.” In a climate where a homeless man is sentenced to 15 years in prison after remorsefully returning a stolen $100[9], while the CEO of one of the nation’s largest privately held mortgage lenders is given just three years for his role in a $3 billion scheme that is considered one of the biggest corporate frauds in U.S. history[10], I cannot help but question our country’s flourishing values.

Now, mind you, I’m not here to argue the merits or dangers of capitalism, and I’m not proposing that we stop buying things. I am intrigued, however, that so many people think marketing strategies—which are designed to control and sell, even at the expense of human life—might be the way forward for Occupy Wall Street, whose precise object of critique is a culture that repeatedly prioritizes financial gain for a few over the well-being of most.

I have found hope in Occupy Wall Street because, in the face of widespread corruption and powerful financial influence on politics, these protestors are asking—collectively, transparently, and loudly—how we might re-imagine our culture to actually value people equally. They have begun, not by pretending they know what’s best for the world, but by launching discussions in public. They have created literal, visible, physical spaces in which everyone (including homeless communities) can come together, look each other in the eye, talk, learn, and brainstorm. And people from a near infinite range of generations, ethnicities, and socioeconomic backgrounds have been showing up, by the thousands, to participate. All over this country and all over the world, diverse people have been spending the last few months gathering ideas, voicing concerns, exchanging perspectives, holding teach-ins, having debates, sharing meals, making music, and dancing out broken prayers of stubborn, determined hope. Dr. Cornel West of Princeton University observes that this phenomenon is doing the following:

[raising] political consciousness so it spills over all parts of the country, so people can begin to see what’s going on through a set of different lens, and then you begin to highlight what the more detailed demands would be. Because in the end we’re really talking about what Martin King would call a revolution: A transfer of power from oligarchs to everyday people of all colors. And that is a step-by-step process.[11]

To be sure, inclusion is confusing and exhausting, because it means people from all contexts, with different backgrounds, belief systems, opinions, and even methods of communication are equally welcome in the same space. Everyone will be concerned with different facets of the issues. Individual needs and opinions will clash. Collaboration is downright hard and can feel frustratingly inefficient because listening and tackling something creatively with others takes way more time than making decisions alone. It is quite literally counter-cultural; it expands rather than diminishes process. But I’m convinced it’s worth the sweat.

Comparing Occupy Wall Street’s push for inclusion with the Tea Party’s penchant for exclusion, clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst Todd Essig writes:

The ‘we’ of OWS is worldwide, a globalized, networked ‘we’ full of good and bad existing simultaneously and everywhere. The messier the better; better to let in those you don’t want then miss out on including those you do. Of course, inclusion can be a big problem because people say and do lots of really stupid things. And all that stupidity is then felt as ‘us,’ not ‘them.’ But that’s the trade-off of inclusion; you have to take the good along with bad. For Tea Party members, the world will always remain full of persecutory others (“Obama is the devil!”), while OWS holds out the promise of community, no, of communities of difference. The effort after inclusiveness can be so dramatically full of sympathy and concern for others that you may feel the movement respecting your subjective experience before they even know what their own point of view is. But if you knit together the union worker and ex-hippie, the college student sharing some shade with the cop, you find a belief that working together instead of against each other presents the very real possibility that people will end up not as triumphant winners but as people with enough—and in a radically inclusive networked world enough is, well, enough.[12]

This emerging model of inclusion and “communities of difference” swims hand-in-hand with the explosive, leveled openness of the internet, illuminating ways in which the rapid advancements of technology can help embody, rather than eliminate, process. Media theorist Douglas Rushkoff calls Occupy Wall Street “America’s first true Internet-era movement,” for, like the Internet, it is sprawling, interconnected, and nonlinear. He proffers that Occupy Wall Street is different from “civil rights protests, labor marches, or even the Obama campaign” in that it “does not take its cue from a charismatic leader, express itself in bumper-sticker-length goals and understand itself as having a particular endpoint.” It’s a new kind of protest for a new juncture in how we live, or could live. Rushkoff writes:

The members of Occupy Wall Street may be as unwieldy, paradoxical, and inconsistent as those of us living in the real world. But that is precisely why their new approach to protest is more applicable, sustainable and actionable than what passes for politics today. They are suggesting that the fiscal operating system on which we are attempting to run our economy is no longer appropriate to the task. They mean to show that there is an inappropriate and correctable disconnect between the abundance America produces and the scarcity its markets manufacture.[13]

Millions of people around the globe are cheering for Occupy Wall Street. The website www.occupytogether.org tracks hundreds of occupations in cities nationally and internationally that have launched their own conversations. People who cannot participate on-site have sent donations of food, warm clothing, tents, and other supplies, as well as financial support, videos of encouragement, letters of testimony, and other shows of solidarity. “Thank God there are people in the streets who understand that there is nothing inevitable about this misery,” wrote Mark Weisbrot for The Guardian, at the end of a dismal update on American unemployment and political paralysis [14]. “It is their strength and organisation that is currently our best hope for a better future.”

Yet, here on our home soil, plenty of people are still rolling their eyes and flipping the channel. As I write, city officials are sending police departments to forcefully break up and remove the discussions from sight—generally, by way of raids in the middle of the night with full riot gear, despite the movement’s insistence on nonviolence. Accounts fly, many documented on video, about peaceful protestors all around the country being injured, pepper sprayed, dragged by their hair, kicked, beaten, arrested and sent to jail, sometimes without urgently needed medical attention.[15] Many of these raids are conducted claiming a need to “clean” protest sites, citing “concerns” about sanitation, despite committees of volunteers rigorously dedicated to cleaning[16]. In the most recent New York events, police destroyed thousands of books, laptops, and other personal belongings[17], used flashing strobe lights to prevent people from being able to document their actions on film[18], and arrested journalists (or barred them from the scene altogether)[19]. It all sounds like a bad movie; my partner and fellow playwright, upon hearing a friend’s account from Zucotti Park, shook his head in disbelief and said, “Yeah, if one of my students had written that, I might have suggested that the laughing cop throwing books in the dumpster was a little over the top.” But this is all happening, right here and now, in the United States of America.

So what gives? Why such disdain and fear surrounding proactive discussion? Why are people being mocked and arrested for trying to have it? What is this climate we’ve cultivated and what values are flourishing? Perhaps Mr. Abdallah was spot on about “the average Joe” being unable to “operate that way”—not for lack of desire or intellectual inability, but because he sees very clearly that we’re not actually free to gather publicly with others long enough to have the discussions that need to be had in this country. But I also can’t fully get behind the “us versus them” language, because it’s all a bit more complicated than that. People are layered.

Slavoj Žižek, speaking to Occupy Wall Street in Zucotti Park this past October, observed, “What we are missing is . . . [t]he language to articulate our non-freedom. The way we are taught to speak about freedom, war and terrorism, and so on falsifies freedom.”[20] He’s right; language we grew up using (“all men are created equal”) does not reflect the values that our system upholds. Yet we are all inextricably part of that system, so what are we going to do? Over the past few months, Occupy Wall Street has started to build a new vocabulary from scratch, one that I believe is helping us reclaim our imaginations and envision what a culture prioritizing balance, transparency, sustainability and human life over big money might look like. In order to get there, though, we have to keep the discussion going.

[1] Werman, Marco. “An Egyptian View of Occupy Wall Street.” PRI’s The World. Rev 11/2011. http://www.theworld.org/2011/11/egypt-occupy-wall-street/ (11/2011)

[2] http://theyesmen.org

[3] Zimmerman, Guy. “The Lens of Gravity, Light and Time.” The Times Quotidien. Rev. 4/2011. http://www.timesquotidian.com/2011/04/22/the-lens-of-gravity-light-and-time-2/ (11/2011)

[4] Via Maggie Nelson, The Art of Cruelty (W. W. Norton & Company, 2011), 51.

[5] Essig, Todd. “The Contrasting Psychologies of ‘Occupy Wall Street’ and the ‘Tea Party.’” Forbes. Rev. 10/2011. http://www.forbes.com/sites/toddessig/2011/10/16/the-contrasting-psychologies-of-occupy-wall-street-and-the-tea-party/ (11/2011)

[6] Montopoli, Brian. “Alienated Nation: Americans complain of government disconnect.” CBS News. Rev. 6/2011. http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-503544_162-20074813-503544.html (11/2011)

[7] Kilbourne, Jean. “Lecture Series.” Official Website. Rev. 2011. http://jeankilbourne.com/?page_id=12 (11/2011)

[8] Kilbourne, Jean. “Jesus is a brand of jeans.” The New Internationalist Magazine. Rev. 9/2006. http://www.newint.org/features/2006/09/01/culture/ (11/2011)

[9] Thangham, Chris V. “Homeless man gets 15 years for stealing $100.” Digital Journal. Rev. 1/2009. http://digitaljournal.com/article/265402 (11/2011).

[10] Barakat, Matthew. “Paul Allen, Ex-Mortgage CEO, Sentenced To Prison For $3B Fraud.” Huffington Post. Rev. 6/2011. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/06/22/mortgage-fraud-ceo-prison-paul-allen_n_881946.html (11/2011)

[11]Goodman, Amy. “Cornel West on Occupy Wall Street: It’s the Makings of a U.S. Autumn Responding to the Arab Spring.” Democracy Now. Rev. 9/2011. http://www.democracynow.org/blog/2011/9/29/cornel_west_on_occupy_wall_street_its_the_makings_of_a_us_autumn_responding_to_the_arab_spring (11/2011)

[12] Essig, Todd. “The Contrasting Psychologies of ‘Occupy Wall Street’ and the ‘Tea Party.’” Forbes. Rev. 10/2011. http://www.forbes.com/sites/toddessig/2011/10/16/the-contrasting-psychologies-of-occupy-wall-street-and-the-tea-party/ (11/2011)

[13] Rushkoff, Douglas. “Think Occupy Wall St. is a phase? You don’t get it.” CNN. Rev. 10/2011. http://edition.cnn.com/2011/10/05/opinion/rushkoff-occupy-wall-street/index.html (11/2011)

[14] Weisbrot, Mark. “The U.S. today: economic stagnation, political paralysis.” The Guardian. Rev. 10/2011. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2011/oct/07/usemployment-useconomy (11/2011)

[15] “Beyond UC Davis, Worse Tactics than Pepper Spray.” http://www.businessweek.com/finance/occupy-wall-street/archives/2011/11/beyond_uc_david_worse_tactics_than_pepper_spray.html

[16] OccupyTVNY. “Occupy Wall Street Sanitation Committee Gets Down to Business!” Via YouTube. Rev. 10/2011. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q-Je9NXKcV0 (11/2011)

[17] Anderson, Brian & Carr, Erin Lee. “Who Smashed the Laptops from Occupy Wall Street? Inside the NYPD’s Lost and Found.” Rev. 11/2011. Motherboard. http://motherboard.tv/2011/11/18/who-smashed-the-laptops-from-occupy-wall-street-inside-the-nypd-s-lost-and-found (11/2011)

[18] Kafanov, Lucy. “Occupy Wall Street: Tough Policing Fails to Deter the 99%” RT News. Rev. 10/2011. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1YZnLnwxy1Y

[19] Mirkinson, Jack. “Occupy Wall Street ‘Media Blackout’: Journalists Arrested, Roughed Up, Blocked from Covering Clearing.” Huffington Post. Rev. 11/2011. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/15/occupy-wall-street-raid-journalists-arrested_n_1094564.html (11/2011)

[20] Watch or read his speech at http://occupywallst.org/article/today-liberty-plaza-had-visit-slavoj-zizek/

 

The Wise One

Moshe Schulman

 

When I was eight days old, I was carried into a synagogue on a fluffy white pillow while the congregation yelled, “Baruch Habah!” or, “Blessed Is the One Arriving,” and the mohel, a rabbi who performs the ritual circumcision, removed my diaper and cut off the foreskin of my penis. At least Isaac got Mount Moriah and nature. I got a stranger’s lap and a stuffy room full of people staring at me. Some of them clapped and sang. Some cried. Some fainted.

I was officially one of them. I had made the cut.

The fourth of eight children (four boys, four girls), I was raised in the Orthodox Jewish community of Monsey, New York. There was a saying in Monsey about large families: “Every time a Jewish baby is born, we stick it to Hitler.” My father had high hopes that at least one of his four sons would stick it to Hitler better than anybody; become “The Wise One,” the next great rabbi of his generation; and spend his days studying Torah.

In the early days of my parents’ marriage, my father, who dreamt of becoming a scholar himself, studied Torah in Kollel in Monsey, a school where adults learned the sacred texts and received a small paycheck. But the small paychecks weren’t paying the bills, especially once my mother got pregnant for the second time.

After ten interviews, my father found work at a computer software company in Manhattan. He shaved his Kollel beard and began taking the Monsey Trails Bus to the city every morning, his dream of becoming a great Jewish scholar destroyed by the births of his children.

He tried grooming my older brother, Yisroel Meir, named after the Chafetz Chaim (one of the revolutionaries in the writing of Jewish law), to become a scholar. When Yisroel Meir was just a few months old, my father taped pictures of rabbis to the bars of his crib. But my brother was born a rebel and tore the pictures down. I imagine he became nauseated by the bearded men who stared at him while he fell asleep and were still there when he woke up.

And so four years later when I was born, my father turned to me, his second son.

“Moshe, do you know who you’re named after?” he asked throughout my childhood, smiling at me across the Shabbos table.

“Rabbi Moshe Feinstein.”

“That’s right. Rabbi Feinstein, one of the Godol Hadors, Greats of Our Generation. At your bris, you were given a blessing to become greater than him.”

“I know,” I replied, focusing on my chicken and potato kugel.

“You see these seforim?” my father continued, pointing to the hundreds of books on the bookshelf behind him. “They’re my books from Kollel. Rabbi Feinstein was so great, he studied all of these books hundreds and hundreds of times. And so will you.”

 

Whenever I walked by the portrait of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein that hung on our dining room wall, I believed he was watching me. He was making sure I was studying and doing all the mitzvahs and not sinning. I don’t want to be you, I thought. I don’t want to have a gray beard one day. I don’t want to wear suits and ties. I don’t want to sit all day studying Torah. I don’t want to answer questions and bless people who believe that my special connection with God will grant them children, happiness, and good health.    

I wanted to play sports, read magazines like National Geographic, and chase the beautiful shiksas. But I rarely had access to TV, radio, or secular books, so there wasn’t much to do besides study and memorize.

The only books I was allowed to read were The Hardy Boys. My mother bought them in bulk from Costco on Friday afternoons before Shabbos. Unlike the hundreds of Hebrew books sitting on the bookshelves in the dining room, The Hardy Boys contained girls, mysteries, kissing, guns, and suspense. The Hardy Boys traveled to places I’d never heard of, like Boston and Washington, and they spent their time having adventures, not arguing over some ideology from the Talmud, like, if my ox gores your ox, what do we do?

I didn’t want an ox. I wanted to be like Frank and Joe Hardy.

 

At five years old, I was already trying to read through the Talmud, ancient Aramaic teachings that dissect Jewish law. I would sit at the dining room table in my blue legging pajamas and hunch over the open book like an actor studying lines for an audition—an audition for the greatest part, in the greatest show, for the greatest director ever. I didn’t understand anything I was reading, but I read the words over and over. Sometimes my father taught me pronunciations and definitions. Sometimes he didn’t. Sometimes I didn’t care at all about the words. I just knew that if I opened the Talmud and placed my finger on the text, following line to line, right to left, right to left, I would appease my father, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, and God. Make the directors proud.

“Tatty, I finished reading Bereishes,” I said, running to my father when he walked in from work one night.

“That’s great, son. Try reading through the next book.”

By the time I was in Pre-1A (the grade before first grade in yeshiva), I had read all five books of the Torah, cover to cover, at least twice. And for good measure, I did it again in first grade. Rabbi Braun and my parents were so proud that they made a party for me at school to celebrate my accomplishment. My mother made bags of candy for me to hand out to my classmates. I dressed up in a white shirt, black slacks, and black shoes, and went to school with my father that day. I felt special, dressed in nice clothes, walking into school with my father’s hand on my back.

“Mazel Tov, Moshe,” my father said that day. “This should be the first of many to come.”

How many? I wondered, imagining Rabbi Feinstein handing out bags of candy to his congregants.

When I was eight, I started memorizing Mishnayos, the first written recording of the oral Torah. It consisted of six volumes, each of which contained seven to twelve tractates called Mesechtot. I memorized three tractates. On the way to synagogue, on the way back from synagogue, or before the Shabbos meal started, my father and I tested each other on what we’d memorized that week.

Then there were the school contests that ran over holidays like Passover and Sukkoth. Whoever studied the most would be the winner. One Passover, I studied over 22 hours. And what did I get? Naturally, more candy and another book to study from.

When I entered sixth grade, my rabbi was determined to make everyone in the class a scholar. He created a club called The 11x Club. Whatever he assigned for homework, we had to do 11 times. These assignments were to study, and sometimes memorize, 15 to 20 pages of the Talmud, Chumash, or Mishnayos, the logic being that hundreds of years ago, Rabbi So-and-So studied the same thing 111 times a night, so the least we could do was study it 11 times.

And what did we get for studying the same text 11 times every night of the year? You guessed it: 11 pieces of fruit snacks candy inside a plastic bag inside a cup that someone had printed with the words, “The 11x Club.” And another book to study from 11 times.

I started to wonder if there was a manual that my parents and rabbis were following:

  1. Teach the children from a young age that if they study, they will receive treats. Lollipops, potato chips, or jellybeans will suffice in the early indoctrination stages.
  2. Remind the children every day that the more they study, the more treats they’ll get, and the higher the treat quality will be.
  3. During the second phase of indoctrination, elevate the treats: a donut with custard inside, a chocolate bar, or a piece of marble cake with a glass of chocolate milk, the latter being the most effective.
  4. If thoroughly manipulated, the children will have a better chance of meeting with me—God, of course; who else do you think would write such shit?—at the end of their lives, so they can sit at my large and lonely dining room table. On the menu: suckling pig. Up here, we understand the painful years of salivating over non-kosher food. And the parents and rabbis who teach the children to obey so respectfully will also be invited. Get it? You (rabbis, parents) promote and sell the product and receive a percentage of the profit.

 

Toward the end of sixth grade, I realized that if the return on my life investment of studying was just candy, more books to study from, and a picture of me hanging in people’s houses, I didn’t have much to look forward to. Judging by Rabbi Feinstein’s gloomy picture, studying hadn’t made him too happy, either. Plus, the scholarly life was exhausting. My leather prayer book cover was riddled with teeth marks, where I chewed when I got anxious. And all the candy was giving me cavities. I had eight by the time seventh grade came around. I looked at Rabbi Feinstein on the wall, told him I was sorry, gave him the finger, and walked away.

Then, when I was thirteen, I thought of a way out.

“What’s my English name?” I asked my father one night.

“You don’t have one.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“I was going to name you Michael, but you had a cousin, Michael, who was schizophrenic. I didn’t want to put a curse on you.”

I’m cursed anyway, I thought.

Maybe I would feel less pressured if Rabbi Feinstein wasn’t watching me, I thought. So I took his picture down from the dining room wall, shoved it onto the top shelf in the hallway closet, and replaced it with a portrait of the Chefetz Chaim.

 

Things got better in high school when I started playing baseball and basketball and dreaming of becoming the next great athlete. I discovered the Finkelstein Memorial Library in Spring Valley, and read Lolita and The Catcher in the Rye. I started dressing in jeans and T-Shirts. When I turned 16 and my parents embarked on a long, loud divorce, I switched from yeshiva high school to public high school, horrifying Orthodox Jews the world over. Then came Wendy’s, McDonald’s, Burger King, parties, R-rated movies, college, and non-kosher girls.

What can I say? I was a disappointment to God and my father. A disappointment to Moshe from the Bible, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, and Moshes all around the world. I remain a disappointment. But it’s okay. There are thousands of new, young Moshes training right now to become The Wise One of their generation.

And I know why: so that when they get to Heaven, God can hand them another bag of candy and another book to study from.

 

Assisted Living

Joy Gaines-Friedler

 

You are going through your mother’s desk. It’s piled high with crossword puzzle books half solved, three boxes of Kleenex half-used, Medicare and prescription summaries mixed in with old mother’s day cards. She is sitting in a wheelchair looking at the photo you hand her, a photo you’re surprised to find underneath a broken stack of paperbacks: her at 21 with her friend Ethel on Woodard Avenue in Detroit—still bustling with street cars and people fashioned in hats. Both of you accept this reordering—other as child—child as mother. But her face, when you glimpse it as you find a soiled pair of underwear in the stomach drawer, looks so expressionless, and the way she still holds the photo in her two hands long after her eyes have moved over and away from it, the way she says nothing, makes you think, she’s given over. You can hardly imagine now the way she once lit-up when she talked about those days. Her girlfriends. The war.

Now you feel dangerously important. Too important. How has it come to this? You throw another pile of old receipts and unopened mail, some postmarked a year ago, into the plastic bag on her bed and feel resentful and blessed to be doing this. And you resist your imagining this as your future and no one there to tell you stories while they rummage through the unfinished, unopened, soiled pieces of your life.

You think of home and your cats, especially the old one, Max, now sixteen. You think of the stiffness in his legs and how difficult it’s become for him to clean himself. You wonder though, at his contentment, his joy to simply sleep next to you. You imagine him at home curling himself into the empty spot on your bed.

It’s 4:00 p.m. It’s April. It’s Florida and you’re smiling over your mother’s lack of concern that she doesn’t know the day of the week or the month:

“What day is it ma?” You ask, to keep her busy.

“Friday.”

“Nope, it’s Monday. What month?”

“November.”

“It’s April ma. Spring. Passover is next week. What day is it?” You repeat.

“Friday,” she says. And laughs.

It’s not the embarrassed laugh you’ve heard the last couple of years, but a hardy laugh you’re surprised by and incredibly grateful for.

You’re going through her closet while she sleeps curled like a question mark on her unmade mattress. You’re putting outfits together, blue pants, blue checked shirt and you’re thinking, will she ever go out again? Ever sit in a fancy restaurant or in someone’s living room? And, as you’re thinking what nice clothes she has, you know she won’t. So you put her dressy raincoat, the turquoise one you bought her, into the bag to give to charity and another wave of exhaustion comes over you. She wakes up, sees what you are doing and becomes concerned about the hangers. You turn a smile from her when she accuses, “what are you doing with those hangers? I need those hangers?” You show them to her and tell her that you are not getting rid of any of them, that they are all here, even the broken ones, that you’ll put them on the closet floor so she can get one any time she needs to. You are amazed how quickly she turns, and falls back asleep.

At night, in your hotel bed alone, more tired than you ever imagined you could be—you think, how did it come to this? How did her life become so fully your responsibility? And you remember as you stood at the side of your father’s bed the night he died, how your gaze moved from your father to your mother, and you felt the shift, like a narrator’s point of view or the way a light announces itself, a light that shines too brightly, not for safety, but because it craves attention—the way the neighbors installed ornamental lighting that burns through the quiet of the night. You are falling asleep remembering that shift like the click of a pen and remind yourself of the bills, her bills that need to be paid, grateful the post-office makes it easy to have her mail transferred to you. And that’s the word, transfer, that’s been floating around you all day, transfer, as the clock clicks 8:00 p.m. and you fall, deadly, asleep.

 

Searching for Sam

Joe Bubar

 

The night Sammy almost killed himself a bunch of guys on the Vassar College baseball team and I were playing beer pong in a dorm room on campus. It’s a stupid game. You take ten plastic cups, fill them with beer and arrange them in a triangle at the each end of a table. Then you try to throw a Ping-Pong ball into the cups and if you make it, somebody on the other team has to drink the beer from the cup.

Anyway, at around midnight Flesh, a junior on the baseball team, received a text message from Sam. It was lyrics from a Metallica song. He texted Sam back, asking him where he was and what he was doing. He got no response. He played a game of beer pong, lost, drank a few more beers and then received another text from Sam: another lyric from Metallica. Flesh texted Sam back, telling him he was at a party.

“Nobody invited me,” Sam replied.

Flesh texted back Sam telling him to come over, but Sam didn’t respond. A half hour went by. Still no reply. Forty five minutes passed. Nothing.

Finally, an hour later, Flesh received a text from Sam.

It simply said, “Goodbye.”

Flesh grabbed his jacket and ran out of the room and into the hallway. He tried calling Sam three times but got no answer. Finally, on the fourth try, Sam picked up the phone.

“Sam,” he said. “What’s going on?”

Sam was sobbing. “Nobody told me people were playing pong,” he said between muffled cries. “Nobody invited me and you didn’t respond to my texts.”

“Sammy,” said Flesh, “we responded to your texts but your texts were Metallica lyrics. How are we supposed to respond? Your texts didn’t say anything.”

“It’s not okay,” Sam howled. Then he hung up.

Casty, another junior on the team, was outside in the hall, returning from the bathroom when he heard Flesh on the phone.

“I could tell something was wrong,” he later told me. “I kept hearing Flesh say, ‘What’s wrong? What’s wrong?’ over the phone.”

“What’s going on?” Casty asked Flesh.

“We have to go find Sammy,” replied Flesh.

Casty grabbed his coat and the two of them walked outside into the snow in search of Sam. The glow of the street lamps reflecting off the snow and shining against Casty’s long, dark hair was their only light. Flesh’s fang-like teeth clattered partly from the cold and partly from worry. As they walked to Sam’s dorm, he tried in vain to call Sam back. When they arrived, Sam’s door was locked. They banged on it, but nobody answered.

They walked back outside into the biting cold and headed toward a large tree in front of the campus library, all the while trying to call Sam. Finally, Flesh reached him over the phone.

“Where are you?” he asked. Sam didn’t answer. “Where are you?” he repeated.

“I’m everywhere,” Sam moaned. “And I’m nowhere.”

Casty could hear Sam’s voice through the phone.

“I’ve never heard anybody cry so much,” he told me. “It was as loud and emotional as you could imagine. It was enough to where I got scared.”

Noticing that Flesh was too nervous to get a coherent answer out of Sam, Casty took the phone. As they walked closer to the tree, Casty asked Sam where he was but Sam wouldn’t tell him.

“What’s going on?” Casty asked.

“I don’t wanna tell you,” Sam slurred.

“We care about you,” Casty said. “We’re worried about you. That’s why we’re out in the cold right now.”

“You don’t care about me,” cried Sam. “You didn’t invite me and didn’t respond to my texts.”

The conversation seemed to be headed nowhere. They wondered how they were ever going to find Sam, or if.

All this, Casty and Flesh told me in the days after the incident. A year later I still wondered about it though. I wondered what led Sammy to down a 1.75 liter bottle of vodka and walk out into the snow. I wondered what would lead anybody to do such a thing.

So, a year after the incident, I emailed Sam: “As you may know, I’m writing a creative thesis this year for Senior Composition and I wanted to ask your permission to write a story about–well you. Let me know if I’m totally in the wrong to ask you. Also, be completely honest with me if you don’t want me to write about you. I won’t be mad at all. I’m really just asking you if I can. If so, I want to interview you and I’ll buy you lots of beer or alcohol of your choice and we can get hammered together while we talk. And if you say no, we can and must still get hammered together anyway. Let me know.”

Sam agreed to do the interview. As I followed him into his dorm room, I had flashbacks to when a few guys on the team and I ate magic mushrooms out by the lake on campus and Sammy, who was high from smoking weed, guided us around the woods, looking like Gandalf from Lord of the Rings, which just so happen to be his favorite books. I remembered being on shrooms and seeing leaves wave in front of me and plants look like they were colored around with a highlighter and I wanted to express what I felt, but all I could say was, “I don’t know. I just don’t know.” But somehow, Sam knew exactly what I meant.

“I know what you mean,” he said. “When you experience an altered state, you start to question whether what you’re seeing now is actually the way things are and if you’ve been seeing things wrong the whole time. And then you wonder, is this how other people see things?”

The walls of Sam’s room were decorated with blue and orange posters of New York Mets pitchers. His closet consisted of everything New York Mets. Mets Polos, Mets pants, Mets jackets, even Mets underwear. On his bookshelf, surrounded by paintings of Japanese samurai were Chuang Tzu’s Basic Writings and Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. I opened the mini fridge and started stacking the 12-pack of beers that I had brought over. Immediately, Sam lay down on his bed like a patient in a psychiatrist’s office. Even his beard looked a little bit like New York Mets-orange. I turned on my digital voice recorder.

Sam’s a very physical person. He often talks to you just by poking you or punching your stomach in a loving way and you always want to play along. We have this way of saying “Hello” where we flip our middle and pointer fingers at each other like we’re flicking a baseball and, in a loud and high voice that comes from the throat, squeal, “Hegh!” But, now I just needed him to talk and I worried that he would tense up with the tape recorder on. I had written down a list of questions I wanted to ask Sam, but there was one in particular I wanted to ask the most. I wanted to ask him about the night he almost killed himself; but how do you ask someone about that? I thought I’d wait until we each had at least a few beers in our system. So instead, I started by asking him the easiest question.

“Let’s start,” I said, “with baseball. When did you start playing?”

“I hate to say this, but I was very good in little league,” he told me, “Because I was one of those kids that growing up, people told me I could do anything. You know how when you’re in school, and it’s a public school, and they pick out the people who are good at things and say you can do anything? I had people tell me that stuff my whole life. Teachers and coaches. That does awful things for your ego.”

He told me about how he was recruited to pitch at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York by Head Coach John Martin. Martin found out about him from another school’s coach who told him, “Sam can play, but he’s a weird kid.”

But even while he told me all this stuff, it was clear that we both knew I wanted to talk about more than just baseball. We both knew there was more to his story and for some reason he kept getting on these tangents about nature. He told me he remembers the first time he wandered into the woods. When he was seven, he was playing a game he had created with his two brothers that involved hitting a hockey puck with a tennis racket. They had broken too many windows that way, so this time they moved farther away from the house. His Connecticut backyard had two acres of open space that ran up against a wall of trees that stretched for miles. Sam and his brothers decided to play as far away from the house as possible so they wouldn’t shatter any more windows and they ended up playing right up against the woods.

Someone hit the puck and it sailed into the trees and Sam went to retrieve it. There, he remembers, he saw a fallen tree. Its roots were pulled out so that the grass and the dirt created a wall like a cave or an overhang. I listened as he told me this and marveled at how that image has stuck with him.

I asked him if there were any other times that he remembers walking through the woods and he told me about the time his mother thought he had run away from home one day after school when really he was following the stream behind his house. The stream kept breaking off into various tributaries and he found himself walking alongside the easiest ones to follow for three or four hours. It was cold out and there was some snow on the ground. The stream was partly frozen.  But he had found himself thinking too much at home and he decided he needed the fresh air to clear his head.

He followed the stream for three hours in the cold and the snow. When he returned home, clearheaded, his mom was frantic. She thought he had taken his wallet with him, jumped on a bus and run away just like her uncle who ran away from home when he was sixteen and fell in with a bad crowd.

“My mom worries about everything. She says that everyone in her family is either brilliant or retarded,” Sammy laughed.

I asked Sam why he went walking through the woods, but he said he doesn’t remember the exact reasons. I thought if I asked him what his social life was like in high school, maybe I could piece it together. Maybe I could understand. He said he didn’t hang out with anybody from school. He said some of the boys thought he was gay because he hadn’t talked to a girl, and wouldn’t talk to a girl until he was in college, until he met Cait. He said part of the reason he couldn’t make friends was that he couldn’t even begin to understand people. He couldn’t empathize. He could sympathize, sure. But despite having an IQ of 155, putting him in the top .1 percentile of people, Sam couldn’t put himself in other people’s shoes, couldn’t even begin to understand people’s motivations. Instead, he would ascribe orders to people’s social interactions so that he could understand them. That is, he tried to understand people as though he was observing a lab experiment.

I listened and thought about what it would feel like to always look at people as though you were looking through a cage at mice that you could just pick up with your fingers and move. How it would make you feel like the perpetual outsider. You couldn’t even begin to understand why people did things, so you didn’t even begin to try. You just observed, not wondering what was going through people’s heads, taking all thoughts out of the equation, only judging based on actions, based on cause and effect.

“But then again,” Sam said, “I don’t believe anybody actually has the ability to empathize.”

I asked Sam about a time he was in the car, driving home from baseball practice; a time when it seemed he was expressing empathy. The son of an oil entrepreneur and the son of the CEO of a major publishing company agreed that anybody, no matter what, if they wanted to badly enough, could be successful. I reminded Sam that he had chimed in, “But people are born with different circumstances. Not everyone is born with the same privileges.”

I asked him, “Wasn’t that empathy?”

“No,” he said. “That’s just not being blind.”

While he was growing up, Sam’s parents made him see three psychologists. They all tried to decipher why he would go wandering or why he couldn’t make friends, but nobody could explain it—at least nobody would explain it to Sam. They called it ADHD or OCD. Part of the problem was Sam felt unable to talk about personal issues to a person he didn’t know. He didn’t feel comfortable doing it.

It wasn’t until his sophomore year of high school that he realized his social awkwardness could be labeled with a scientific term. He randomly stumbled into his mother’s room one afternoon and on her dresser was a book about kids with Aspergers.

“I opened it up to a random page and started reading it,” said Sam. “And I was like, ‘Oh…ooh…oooh… That’s me!”

He doesn’t remember what the symptoms were that triggered this self-realization. Maybe it was the repetitive tendencies, the inability to empathize, the slight obsessions (his for the New York Mets), or the need to order objects (“My mom loves to tell this story,” Sam said. “I used to go around ordering little toy animals and everything, by various different colors, shapes or similarities.”). Or maybe it was his inability to adjust to new social circumstances (which would explain why he was unable to talk to girls— because he grew up with two brothers—or why he was unable to talk to psychologists). What he does remember though, was that his mother walked in on him reading the books and all he did was look at her out of those dark eyes of his above his patchy, red beard. He didn’t cry. He didn’t ask why.

“Aspergers doesn’t mean anything,” he said. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong. It just means I’m different. But I already knew that.”

When I asked Sam to explain what Aspergers was, he told me that was the single hardest question you can ask someone with that type of autism spectrum disorder.

“It’s really funny because one of the things that’s hard is it’s hard to articulate an idea of what you know,” he said.

“But you’re so good at explaining the Theory of Relativity so even I can understand it,” I told him.

“I guess,” he said. “I don’t know.”

“When you try to articulate something, what happens?” I pressed further.

“Um, I don’t know.”

“You’re doing a good job right now, talking to me, telling me everything about yourself,” I said, trying to boost his confidence.

“Sorta,” he said. “I don’t know, I,” he paused, unable to find the words. Then he laughed. “Well there you go. I believe that’s what you call irony.”

We were each about three beers deep by this point in the interview and I thought it was time to bring up the night Sam downed 1.75 liters of vodka alone. The night he wandered into the snow. The night he almost didn’t come back. I popped open two more beers, one for each of us, and then I popped the question.

“I blacked it out,” he said.

“You don’t remember anything?” I asked him, discouraged by the possibility that my whole story was now on its deathbed.

“I remember playing video games and drinking half of the bottle of vodka but I don’t remember anything else.”

“So you don’t remember why you did it?”

“Not really,” he said. “I’ve gotten better but I used to be way up and down with my feelings. That was one of those times I was depressed. It’s been a long time since I’ve had one of those. I used to think I was bipolar. There’re just little things that can set off big things I guess.”

I asked him what those little things were. But he said he didn’t remember. I asked him if it had to do with the fact that he wasn’t invited to the party. He said probably.

I thought about one time when Sam was doing his physics homework and playing beer pong at the same time. He’s a double major in physics and math and plans on getting a PHD after college.

“Physics is the way the world works,” he told me. “That’s all physicists are trying to do. Understand the way the world works.”

That night he played a game or two depending on whether he was winning or not, and then he sat by the table writing what looked like code, with all its algorithms, in his notebook. Casty was there too and at one point, Casty took Sam’s notebook, and jokingly started writing in it. “I’m gonna solve this problem for you,” he told Sam and started writing down random letters and numbers, brackets and matrices, and everyone in the room—at least everyone except Sam—knew that Casty was just kidding. When Casty was done, Sam looked at what Casty had written and started yelling.

“Casty!” Sam shouted. “Casty, you can’t just isolate the variable like that!”

The whole room started laughing.

I wondered what other little things built up inside his head, though. I asked Sam if his downing of the vodka and walking out into the snow alone had to do with Cait at all. He said probably. Cait was the first girl he ever really talked to. She had red hair that always looked burnt by a hairdryer. He met her through James, a fellow Vassar student he knew in high school. There wasn’t any attraction between Sam and Cait at the beginning. Like Sam, she was a math major, and they bonded over their schoolwork because Sam could sympathize with that, but only to a certain extent.

“Cait would always stress over grades and I couldn’t understand that,” Sammy said. “I’d just be like, ‘You got a bad grade. It fucking happens. You can’t change the fucking past.’ I guess that would annoy her.”

It didn’t happen suddenly. He can’t put a timeframe on it. It was a gradual movement, probably a result of, Sam admits now, “a confusion of feelings because I had never been friends with a girl before.” But there came a time during his freshman year when Sam’s attitude toward Cait shifted. He saw her less as a friend and more as a potential lover.

I remember talking to Sam about Cait during his sophomore year. I remember how sad he would get when she ignored him. We’d be sitting around, drinking and smoking, and talking about girls as we always had done and then Sam would chime in, “I haven’t even kissed a girl yet!”

We told him that if he wanted to lose his virginity, he should just go to “The Mug,” an underground dance-club located beneath the main building of Vassar College where drunk, horny students pack onto a small dance floor and lose themselves in the darkness of the room and sweat of another person’s body. But Sam didn’t want to go to the Mug. He didn’t want just any girl. He wanted Cait.

He didn’t tell her how he felt about her until the summer when he sent her a text message. Anybody who knows Sam knows that he expresses himself through text messages, through his quoting of a Wu Tang Clan or Metallica songs that will fill up your inbox for days and back up all other incoming text messages. But the text message he sent Cait wasn’t a quote. It simply said, “I think I like you as more than a friend.” He knew before she even sent a message back that it wasn’t going to go over well. And his first reaction after pressing the send button on his phone was, “Fuck.”

As I listened to Sam talk, I looked at the time on the tape recorder. Over an hour had passed, and I felt it was time to wrap up the interview. It was clear that he either didn’t remember what happened the night Flesh and Casty found him or he was choosing not to remember.

I didn’t want to end our conversation on such a depressing note though, so I brought up something else I had heard happened to him at the end of his sophomore year.

“I heard you had your first kiss,” I told him.

He tilted his head back and laughed. “It was like one of those kisses twelve year olds have,” he said.

He was in the very room that he so desperately had wanted to be in on the night of the incident and he was sitting on the bed next to two girls, a brunette named Tess and a blonde named Amanda, at a party.

“It’s hard for me to describe all that much of it because I was pretty drunk,” Sam told me, “but I guess I was just talking with Tess and Amanda and somehow Amanda’s just like, ‘Okay, do you want me to kiss you?’”

Then somebody turned off the light because everybody in the party knew what was going on and that this was going to be Sam’s first kiss and Amanda leaned over and pecked Sam on the lips.

After talking, Sam and I hugged. Before I left he gave me two books to take with me: Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time and Chuang Tzu’s Basic Writings.

“When I go on my walks,” he told me as he placed the books in my hand, “it’s just good to clear my head. When I go, there are things that distract me, like if I see something in the woods. It’s all about the quest for mind. The lack of distracting thoughts. There’s like interactions and the lack of self. Lots of Buddhists preach that there is no self because everything causes what you are and everything influences what you are so your just part of this great whole.”

A few days after my interview with Sammy, I skimmed through the book of Chuang Tzu’s Basic Writings. (The other book he gave me is still unopened on my bookshelf.) I read the Basic Writings, trying to figure out a way to piece together Sam’s life in those moments before Casty and Flesh found him.

I imagined him sitting alone at his desk, playing video games, drinking from a bottle of vodka, trying so hard not to think, trying so hard to clear his mind of all thoughts, to achieve the zone, or The Way.

In baseball, the zone is a state in which you can’t hear the crowd, can’t see the people in the stands, can’t even think—a state in which you’re so focused and so prepared to execute the pitch or the swing that you not only block out all your surroundings, you block out all thoughts. Your mind is empty. The rest is purely physical.

In the philosophy of Chuang Tzu, this is called The Way—when one’s skill has become so much a part of him that he merely acts instinctively and spontaneously and, without knowing why, achieves success. Tzu uses the metaphor of a totally free and purposeless journey in which the enlightened man wanders through all of creation, enjoying its delights without ever becoming attached to any one part of it.[1]

Reading Chuang Tzu’s philosophy, I imagined Sam’s head was too cluttered that night. There were too many distractions. For one, he hadn’t been pitching well. He could throw hard, but his pitches were all over the place. He couldn’t find the plate, and most of all he was inconsistent. For another, his friends on the baseball team had forgotten to invite him over that night to a party and weren’t responding to his text messages. And then, there was Cait. But it was never just one thing.

For Sam, it was always a collection of things, building up and ultimately making him feel as though there was nothing left to do but just wander. So that’s what he would do. He decided he would take a walk. He had wandered before many times, whenever he needed to clear his head. When he needed nature to take his mind off distracting thoughts. But this would be the first time he did so drunk.

I imagined him sitting at his desk, alone in his room, and opening Chuang Tzu’s book to take his mind off of Cait. I imagined that he read a passage from the section called Mastering Life that goes like this:

 

When a drunken man falls from a carriage, though the carriage may be going very fast, he won’t be killed. He has bones and joints the same as other men, and yet he is not injured as they would be, because his spirit is whole. He didn’t know he was riding, and he doesn’t know he has fallen out. Life and death, alarm and terror do not enter his breast, and so he can bang against things without fear of injury.[2]

 

Then, I imagined, he shut the book. He took one more swig from his bottle of vodka and put it inside a backpack. He wandered through the hall of his dorm, stumbled down the three flights of stairs, and made his way out the front door. There was a foot of snow on the ground but all he had on was a Mets t-shirt and Mets shorts. That was okay though. He couldn’t feel the cold and even if he could have, he might have welcomed it as some sort of punishment he felt he deserved. As he walked outside, his night became a blur. He remembers texting, but he doesn’t remember who or what.

The rest is black.

All that resides in the darkness of Sam’s memory, I imagine. The rest, I can fill in with facts by talking to Casty and Flesh. According to Casty, after looking for Sammy for nearly an hour, he stood with Flesh in front of the gargantuan, castle-like library, underneath a long branch that extended out from a London Plane tree. And all of a sudden, for a reason he can’t explain, he felt calm. Scared, sure—but calm like a negotiator having to reason with Sam, or like Chuang Tzu’s wanderer who, in the presence of nature has cleared his head. He talked slowly.

“Sam,” he said. “You have to tell me where you are because Flesh and I are going to be looking for you all night and I know you don’t want to ruin our nights. We’re going to look for you all night in the snow and the freezing cold so you might as well tell us where you are. Had I known you weren’t invited or had I known you didn’t know about it, I would have invited you over. I would have said, ‘Sammy come on, what are you doing? You should drink with us because we’re all alcoholics.’”

There was a long pause before Sam replied.

“I’m by the tree,” he said.

Casty and Flesh looked around. All they saw was the stone library and a foot of snow. They didn’t see Sam.

“Where is the tree?” Casty asked. “Where are you?”

“I’m by the tree,” Sam repeated.

“What tree?” Casty asked again. “There are a lot of trees on campus. You have to be more specific than that.”

“The tree on the hill,” said Sam.

Casty started running. Flesh followed, kicking up his knees so that his feet wouldn’t get caught in the snow.

“Where are we going?” he asked. “What tree is he talking about?”

“There’s a tree behind the physics building,” yelled Casty. “I’ve watched him go there before.”

They ran to the academic quad where a statue of Benjamin Franklin stood before a brick building. Behind the building, up a hill, overlooking a lake they could just barely make out a figure laying on the ground. They ran closer. It was Sam. He was on his back, fallen beneath a tree, hugging a handle of vodka that was now a quarter of the way empty in one hand and pressing a phone against his ear with his other hand. An empty, open backpack lay in the snow next to him. Right when Sam saw Casty and Flesh, he jumped up, leaving an imprint of his body in the snow. Sam wrapped his arms around them both and started crying on their shoulders. Flesh and Casty cried too.

Afterward, Flesh and Casty led Sam to the room where everyone was drinking and having a good time, and we all welcomed Sam and yelled, “Where have you been all night?” to him. Sam was belligerent and couldn’t sit still and he started knocking over chairs and tables and ultimately, Flesh had to take him across campus to his dorm room. Sam told Flesh he was fine and said he was going to sleep. So Flesh left, but a few minutes later when he came back to check on Sam, Sam was gone again. This time he had gone to the bathroom where he was on the floor, vomiting. Flesh called the emergency services and two students and a security guard checked his pulse and vitals and deemed he was okay because he could walk down the hall and back without falling over himself. Then they left, and Sam fell asleep in his bed.

 

 

Notes

Writing teaches us how to love. A week after I interviewed Sammy, I wrote my first draft of his story. Almost everything was the same, except for the order of events, and one large difference: I was nearly absent from the piece. For the most part, the same Sammy was present: The one who drank a bottle of vodka and nearly killed himself. But I would lay awake during the nights after I wrote the first draft, thinking to myself that it doesn’t encompass all of Sam; that nothing I ever wrote would truly encapsulate the whole of who he is. I let the piece sit for a while, thinking at times I might abandon it altogether. I saw Sam often during that time but I never told him I finished a rough draft of his story. I didn’t show him it either because I didn’t feel like it did him justice. And whenever someone would bring up my writing, I could always sense Sam wanting to ask me if I ever ended up writing a story about him. But he never did. I don’t think he was one to pry.

Months went by, and at parties I would try to study him from afar, to pick up on any details I had missed that might be of use to the story. But nothing I saw seemed to solve the problem of what was missing. So, one day I decided to just come right out and ask him. We were at my house, playing beer pong, and between games I went up to him.

“I’m trying to write your story,” I told him. “But I just can’t figure it out. How should I go about it?”

Sam shrugged and gave one of his “Ionno’s” that sounded like he was speaking and gurgling mouthwash at the same time.

“You’re the writer,” he said. “I don’t know how to write. That’s your job. You see me.”

I heard someone say something similar to me a few weeks later. I had recently broken up with my girlfriend but one night, we found ourselves talking and crying and yelling into the morning hours. It’s funny. The nights we stayed awake fighting were the only nights we cried. Our conversations were never deeper, are hearts never more open, and our thoughts never more candid then on a night when we could not bare to look at one another. She sat on the steps in the hallway, banging her head up against a wall, crying and telling me how much she loved me and asking me why I couldn’t love her back. I told her I didn’t know how to love.

“Love,” I said, “is the least descriptive word in the English dictionary. What does love even mean?”

“It doesn’t mean anything,” she said. “It’s something you feel.”

“What do you feel when you love me then?” I asked. “Can you describe it?”

“You’re the writer,” she sobbed. “You go figure it out.”

It was almost the same thing Sammy had told me a few weeks before. And I realized that what was missing was love—the love I feel for him when I talk to him or when I listen to him. I couldn’t sleep after that. One night, the first sentence of the story came to me like a dream. “The night Sammy almost killed himself a bunch of guys on the baseball team and I….”

And I, it said. Once I was a part of the story, the rest flowed from there. When Sam told me, “You see me,” he was telling me to write what I see. Maybe this isn’t who Sam is, but it’s the Sam I have come to know and the one I have come to love.

When I was finished with the final piece, I sent him a copy in an email. The email said: “This is the story I wrote about you. This is the second draft. Like I told you before, the first one didn’t go over well, and I think this one is much better, because in the end it is as much about my relationship to you as it is about you. And I may never fully get you (I don’t think anybody can ever get anybody else fully) but I think the story understands that. Anyway, I’m sending it to you because I think you might like to read what I wrote about you. Let me know what you think. And let me know if there’s anything in there that you feel uncomfortable about. I hope you pick up on the love and compassion with which this piece is written. Hit me up tomorrow and we’ll get lunch and talk. I hope you enjoy.”

I waited. An hour later, I got a response in the form of a text message from Sammy.

“I think you have a pretty dam good grasp on who I am,” it said. “But, you messed up on one thing. I drank much more that night.”

I didn’t know what to write back. So instead, I just read the message over a few times, smiled, and put my phone in my pocket.

You see, I’m no good with words. That’s why I write. Because I’m constantly searching for the words that I will never find to say to someone, I love you.

 

[1] Chuang Tzu, Basic Writings, trans. Burton Watson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1964), 6.

[2] Tzu, Basic Writings, 120.

 

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