I love self-help.

I love it as a concept, I love it as a physical, tangible reality of subliminal tapes and mail-order DVDs and weekend seminars, and I love the earnestness of the gargantuan industry that surrounds the idea your bootstraps are not only a handy way of tying your shoes, they’re also the very first rung on the ladder to happiness. I love books with relentlessly upbeat titles and smiling, tanned people on the front cover, packed with page after page of advice and instruction on how to turn a life around in the space of a few focused months of consistent, applied effort.

Just before and throughout my time in graduate school I worked at a bookstore. It wasn’t a local bookstore. It was a big chain, and one of the pleasures of working in a big chain bookstore (there are a few) is recognizing just how many different types of readers are out there. Sure, chains are, to a certain extent, a bit soul-sucking. Chains don’t try to promote the same sense of self-satisfaction that local bookstores tend to do. Go into a local bookstore and you are suddenly part of a self-congratulatory community of people who think they are better than everyone else because they are such avid readers they seek out specialty books.You have your elite bookstores where you find specially brewed eight dollar cappuccinos and second-hand chairs that look a whole lot more comfortable than they actually are, as well as books that cost a heck of a lot more money than if you went to a chain. In these places you pay for the experience of feeling like a smart member of a smug elite. Another type of local bookstore you may have experienced is a “second hand” bookstore. People who go to these types of bookstores are also part of a smug elite, but they are, unfortunately, poor members of that elite. People who habitually visit these kinds of bookstores claim they love books so much they don’t even care what it is they are reading. They go in and walk out with a pile of ten books, each which has looked as though it has survived some kind of fire-the pages are yellowed, the covers are torn. This seems to somehow cement the fact that the books are important, that they’ve survived so many hardships, even though half of the books people walk out with in these stores are pretty terrible-–hardware manuals, guides to pregnancy from the ‘40s, outdated medical supply guides. But people who visit these types of bookstores are less interested in content than aesthetics (even though no one will admit to that).

What She Said

By Tom Hansen

Memoir

I was in the offices of The Department of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR) here in Seattle, talking to a caseworker about getting DVR to fund the remaining two years of my MFA. This was 2006, I was 44 years old, seven years off heroin, six years into my education and halfway through an MFA at The University of British Columbia. In my former life as first a failed musician and then a functioning heroin addict and successful drug dealer I had been lucky and smart and devious enough to never have been caught selling or possessing heroin, or when I had been caught, weaseled or schemed my way out of it, and had been funding my new direction in life with Stafford Loans and the odd grant, all channels that would have been off limits to me if I’d ever been convicted of the bazillions of crimes I’d committed over the years. Everything had been running smoothly, through Community College, a BA and the first two years of grad school. I was four years into a memoir I’d been working on and I was beginning to have hope for the future. This was big for someone like me. Pulling oneself out of an addiction as self-destructive as mine is a long grueling process. It takes years to rebuild your self-confidence and to deal with feeling things again and I was well on my way. And then life threw me a curveball, which it’s known to do. George W. Bush, the “Decider,” decided to make some major cuts to education funding, one of which was to cut all student loans to US citizens attending colleges outside the US. That meant me.

 

The DVR caseworker sat across from me as I explained what was what. She looked at me apprehensively, and then explained that DVR didn’t fund art programs, only vocational stuff. “Anyone can write,” she said dismissively, when I told her what kind of program I was enrolled in. This kind of pissed me off, but I kept my cool. I told her about my disabilities that I’d acquired as a result of my End Game with heroin, the destroyed and degenerating hip that required me to walk with a cane, my mangled right elbow, my contracted hands from shooting up in my arms so much the wires controlling most of my fingers had been severed. She was unmoved. She insisted I change course, give up writing and accept some kind of training in the vocational realm. I told her I would think about it and left.

 

I’m a very quiet guy, usually.* I’m very good at staying out of trouble and avoiding conflict, which ironically is why I was such a good drug dealer for so many years. But it was less a thought out plan and more just the way I’ve always been, which I think I got from my adoptive parents, Norwegian immigrants, some of the most unobtrusive, hardworking and stoic people on the face of the Earth. When life threw curveballs at my parents they ducked. When it came too fast and the ball hit them, it knocked them down, and then they picked themselves up and carried on. They never complained, and going after the pitcher was never an option for them. They were firm believers that “the meek shall inherit the Earth.” And that rubbed off on me. When people messed with me in school, I never fought back. Never. I don’t know where the hell Mr. Miyagi was when I was growing up. Not in my neighborhood, apparently.

 

I stewed for a few days after the caseworker told that I shouldn’t be a writer. What she said played over and over in my head. “Anyone can write,” echoed in my mind and the more I thought about it the madder I got. I didn’t want to be a riveter. I didn’t want to work in some damned office. I didn’t want to work on spreadsheets or computer programs or bullet points. I’d always had artistic inclinations that I’d gotten from my biological parents who had been artists and with writing I had found the creative outlet I had always been looking for, the one I had come to conclude was what I should have been doing all along as music had turned out to be too laden with traps regarding my drug problem. It wasn’t that I had delusions of grandeur about writing, fantasies of fame and fortune, it was simply that I wanted to do something that I loved. I had grown to love writing, and I think writing loved me. It was what had kept me clean to that point. It had taught me discipline and perseverance and instilled in me a new kind of work ethic. I knew of course that I could be a writer without finishing the degree, but I was still in a somewhat fragile state regarding my self-confidence, my abilities as a writer and my psychological condition. I had never finished anything legitimate in my life and I wanted to finish this degree. It would be additional proof that my old life was over and a springboard to whatever came next.At least that was what I hoped. And prayed.

 

Normally I would have accepted my fate. I would have told myself my education was over and it wasn’t meant to be. This was what I’d done my entire life. I had responded to these situations the way my parents had. It was one of the things that led me to drugs. I hadn’t been able to make a career of music and suddenly found that I was good at drug dealing. Really good. Everyone wants to be good at something, and that was my thing, and now that my education was over it looked like it was going to be my thing again. I began to think about selling heroin again, and trying to keep my using under control. I knew that that was damned near impossible, but I still had too much pride, and would rather be successful at something even if it killed me than be unsuccessful at everything and live.

 

And then I decided to do something I’d never done before. I decided to fight. I really didn’t think anything would come of it. I had no faith in my government, and I didn’t think I would even get a response. I was sure that if anything I would get a letter back from some Bushbot saying “Sorry kid,” but I sat down that night and wrote an email to The US Department of Education, who informed me that when these sorts of cuts had happened in the past, students who had begun something were grandfathered in and allowed to finish what they’d started, but this time, that was not the case. Bush’s ‘decision’ was final. It was over. I was Shit-Out-Of-Luck (SOL) as they say. And then I got madder and decided to fight harder. I wrote letters to Rep. Jim McDermott, Gov. Christine Gregoire, and Sen. Maria Cantwell. I used every writing skill I’d learned to that point and crafted an argument (I should have been a lawyer) that given my physical disabilities I was not suited for a regular labor job, and that I could use a writing degree to become a teacher in the future. I was honest. I even told them that I was a former heroin addict (I left out the part about me being a dealer for almost twenty years) and that I was trying desperately to forge a new direction in my life. I told them about the not being grandfathered in. I made my case.

 

And then to my utter surprise two days later I received a call from Rep. Jim McDermott’s office. They told me they had received my letter, and asked how they could help. I asked if they could help me persuade DVR to help me fund the last two years of my degree. And that night I got a call from some bigwig at DVR, who said Jim McDermott had called him. He did not sound happy at all, but he went on to say said that DVR didn’t ordinarily fund art programs, but that they were going to make an exception in my case. Jim McDermott, who didn’t know me from Adam, had apparently done some arm-twisting for me. Little old me.

 

The moral of this story is that people can change. For most of my life I didn’t think that was possible, and for most of my life it kept me stuck in self-destruct mode. This was the first time something like this had happened. It didn’t even happen when I first got clean. That I put down to divine intervention. But this was different. I had changed. Just like the characters we write about have to undergo some kind of change or transformation or overcome an obstacle, I had changed from someone who just accepts things to someone willing to fight for what they want. It was an amazing lesson that informs my writing and it restored (somewhat) my faith in government. And that’s how I graduated from The University of British Columbia, became a writer, finished my memoir American Junkie, got it published and became a fan of Jim McDermott. The End

 

*Except when I’m shooting my fat mouth off on The Nervous Breakdown (I’m working on it people)

This is the second item in a sometimes chronological series called “Lovebirds.”  Each is intended to stand alone, but if you want to read the first part, go here:  “Lovebirds:  Hepatitis Hotel”



Shakubuku.  A Buddhist term meaning, literally, break-subdue.  Its idiomatic meaning is slightly different.

It can be found in Grosse Pointe Blank, in which Minnie Driver’s character describes it as “a swift spiritual kick to the head that alters your reality forever.”

For my purposes, either of these definitions work.  In either case, Shakubuku indicates a fundamental, sudden shift in habit and consciousness.  A violent change in awareness.

I don’t know what prompted me to leave Florida.

I know what I pretended prompted me to leave Florida.

Kerry read my journal while I was at work.  I came home to find him flushed, angry, and interrogative.  He confronted me about what I’d written as if I’d done something wrong.

It was established that my writing was my business, that I needed private head space.  He consented that if he ever wanted to know what was in that book, he would ask.

I don’t remember exactly what was in it.  At least not all of what was in it.  The entry in question had to do with my anxiety about leaving for Florida and the remorse I’d been feeling since I’d gotten there.  He was waving the book around, shaking it at me like someone was dead and he’d uncovered the murder weapon.

In my defense, I can only offer that Florida has no seasons.  There, I worked at at Gap Outlet and went to nickle beer night every week at a place with black-lighting and bartenders in day-glo bikinis.  Virtually everyone was a tourist or otherwise a part-timer, and I couldn’t stop feeling like one.  My presence there, according to the journal, was an “all expenses-paid lifetime vacation.”

“Is this what I am to you?!?!?!?!  A vacation????”

I don’t know if it was the artless attempt at a guilt trip, or really, genuinely, the act of betrayal itself.  Had it been one or the other, I probably would have kept my cool, but together, they were too much, and I went the other way completely.  My chest burned. I started shaking.

“I DON’T CARE WHAT YOU FUCKING FOUND! YOU DID IT TO YOURSELF!  FUCK YOU!!!!”

I was maybe crying, definitely screaming.  It went on for a while.  I was screaming so hard I made myself cough, then gag.  In snooping–in his attempt to understand why I was standing with one foot out the door–Kerry gave me the opportunity to step out completely. I told him to keep the journal.  Shove the journal up his ass.  I was leaving.


I tried like crazy to be happy there.  To be thrilled about a situation that was–or would be for anyone sane or even remotely practical–more or less idyllic.

I certainly had no reason to be exceptionally UNhappy.  My fiancee was good-looking and probably on his way to affluence.  He was considerate and funny and willing to do anything in the world to make me happy.  I was 21 and had my own house.  Or townhouse.  Or Kerry’s townhouse, but we were engaged, so it was as good as mine.

I lived three blocks from the ocean, and by dumb luck, a girl from my hometown, Nora, worked at a hotel down the road where I spent happy-hours with her on the beachfront bar patio, looking out at the gulf of Mexico.  Dolphin spotting was such a regular occurrence that it eventually ceased to be interesting, even to two girls from Minnesota.  We’d pack up roadies in front of her bartender boyfriend and sip our drinks as we drove down the Emerald Coast Highway and the 30A, flanked by white sand dunes, to Sunnyside, where we’d marvel at the rich people’s houses, many of which were painted in Caribbean pastels and stood up on stilts because they were just that close to the ocean.

Kerry and I even had a pet.  A charismatic lovebird named Paco.  Just the one.  “Aren’t you supposed to have two?” I’d asked him.

“Not necessarily.  If there’s only one, they’ll just fall in love with whatever they see.”



It’s worth explaining, probably, how I got to Florida.

Kerry and I had dated for about a year and a half beginning shortly before I graduated from high school.

Eventually things fell apart, and Kerry moved to Chicago.  I can’t remember why.  We remained friends, and every now and again, I’d drive down to visit him.  I did it for an excuse to go on a road trip, to see a friend, to do something exciting.  It was always strictly platonic.

Then he moved to Gainesville, Florida, and I went to visit him there.  Then Destin.

I was thinking about going back to school, about getting out of Minnesota.  I never had the itching need to escape or to get away permanently. I just wanted to do something else for a while.

There was a community college not far from Destin.  Faced with the choice of staying where I was and going to community college or or moving to Destin, being Kerry’s roommate, and going to community college, I chose the latter.

Kerry was in Minnesota for the turn of the millennium.  A large group of us went up to a friend’s parents’ cabin in northern Minnesota.  If the world was going to end, that was where we wanted to be.  Drunk and together, blowing noise makers across a frozen lake as close to the arctic circle as we could muster.

It made sense at the time.

Shortly after midnight (or maybe shortly before), Kerry brought me into the walk-out basement of the cabin, sat me down, and got down on one knee.

I had no idea it was coming.  None. We were not dating and had not been dating–not dating, not sleeping together, not even kissing, not so much as holding hands–for almost 3 years.  I was sitting there in snow pants, sniffing, my thawing snot trying to run out over my frozen lips.  I was not prepared.  In any sense of the word.

I remember being intensely confused and flattered.  And drunk.  I remember my brain saying “No!” immediately but my mouth saying something more tactful.  Like, “I need to think about this.”

In my memory, the remainder of the trip was an uncomfortable blur of trying-to-be-normal interactions with Kerry.  He’d told everyone there what he was going to do, so to their head-tipped, pursed-lipped, nodding sympathy faces, I had to relate the story of my answer and my rationale for not accepting that instant.

These explanations to the same people who had kept their foreknowledge of this violent turn of events from me, at least one of whom, I was fully aware, knew the full gravity of the situation and how poorly I was likely to react.  I was unprotected and set adrift by friends in the interest of a relative stranger and a “surprise” that was a surprise like a mail bomb is a surprise.  This was reality of adulthood, though.  I certainly couldn’t get mad at them.  Could I?  Surely not.  “Just be graceful.  Be a grown-up.  Stiffen your lip,” I told myself.  There would be no hiding behind John or Jake.  Their girlfriends were there.  Girlfriends frown upon boyfriends propping up other girls.

John and I ended up alone in the kitchen at some point.  “Big day!” he said, knowing full well what it meant and per his habit, refusing to speak it out loud.

“Did you know about this?”  I pointed in a general way towards the backyard, where everyone was still stumbling around the fire pit and hooting across the lake.  Where Kerry was, somewhere.

He nodded silently, pursing his lips, again pressing back words.  He extended the bottle of champagne he held in his hand and raised his eyebrows in a gesture that was equal parts defiance and resignation.

“Cheers.”

The next day, Kerry and I made the 4-hour drive home.

When we pulled into my hometown, we went directly to a bar to meet our respective best friends, who just happened to be married.  They, too, knew he was going to do this.  My indecision was exhausting us both.  Kerry moped.  I felt guilty.  I couldn’t bear to tell the story to any more sympathy faces.

Something came over me.  A panic, maybe, that this might be my ticket to adventure.  I’d never dated anyone as ambitious as Kerry.  Or (I thought) as normal.  Maybe I was doing a remarkably stupid thing by not saying yes.  Maybe no one told me because they thought it was a good idea.  Our best friends were inside.  We could be four married best friends.  How bad could it be to be married to a smart, good-looking, ambitious guy who lived three blocks from the ocean?  We got along well, apparently he adored me…not accepting his proposal was surely self-sabotage.  What or who was I waiting around for, anyway?

It was a thought progression that was familiar to me, but there in the car, outside the bar, was the first time I was ever consciously aware of it.

The crippling terror of limitless possibility lies in time’s march straight through, disregardful.  No rewind. While numerous potentialities can exist comfortably and simultaneously in one’s head, in reality, you’ve got to choose.

Do this or do that; you will regret both

So just before we went inside, I accepted.

And I moved to Florida.

And I was miserable.

In Destin, a week or so prior to the journal incident, I awoke to the ceiling fan buzzing and watched it.  It cast a pulse against the venetian blind shadows on the wall.  Shadows upon shadows.  Beating like a drum or a heart or whatever you prefer.  Kerry lay, snoring lightly, to my right.  It had been months and I still hadn’t totally unpacked.  There were boxes everywhere.  The house was a mess and I didn’t care.  Out on the patio, there was a decrepit lawn chair, some trash, a small family of geckos, and lots of weeds.  All had come with the house.

It was March, maybe 7 AM, and I could already smell the oppressive, sucking, steaming gulf air outside.  At that moment, something changed, and my mind was made up.  I slipped into the spare bedroom that would have been my bedroom had things gone according to the original plan. I slept there for the rest of my nights in Destin.

Nora was moving to Louisville in two weeks, and I was right behind her.  To Kentucky, to Derby week, to a place that had seasons–to a place that had another guy named Kerry.


I have a knack for spotting the semi-famous.  A talent for spying the marginally well-known.

Gloria Reuben, for instance.  She hasn’t been around much since her days as a one-time contract player on “ER” but I saw her at an outdoor cafe in the East Village.  Also: Kenley Collins, the runner-up from season 5 of “Project Runway.”  She was in line at the AMC Loews on 3rd avenue.  I felt a little thrill of recognition and then a trickle of shame at my own unseemly interest.

On Change

By Simon Smithson

Essay

A friend of mine doesn’t meet new people easily. With the diagnostic aid of the internet age, I supposed it’s possible he may be suffering from a touch of Asperger’s (if there is such a thing as a ‘touch’ of Asperger’s).

In familiar situations, among a known social circle, he is driven to attempt a small and ugly kind of domination – by putdowns, by attack, by withholding attention. But as soon as a random, unknown element – a new person, for example – is introduced, the strength and the bluster vanish from him. He goes strangely, noticeably quiet; he backs down like a yelping Chihuahua confronted with a pit bull. The more distinct and different a stranger, and their appearance and lifestyle, is from my friend and his, the more difficulty he has meeting their eyes; the more obvious the concerned workings of his mind become on his face. In the absence of common ground, my friend quickly becomes unsure, and intimidated. He has no way of bridging the gap, and suddenly his confidence in his own position starts to tremble until it collapses like a house of cards. Those of us who know him well can see the uncertainty and the fear creeping up in him, in his pauses and silences until, finally, when we are alone, he will confide in us: ‘I didn’t like that guy.’

Whether my friend has any depth of understanding regarding this behaviour, I don’t know. I don’t believe it will ever cause him any serious trouble. By now, his life is fairly delineated. Without some sudden future break from his life until this moment, he will always have the same friends and be surrounded by the same people – if not exactly the same people, then people who are similar enough as to make little difference. He will always live in and experience the same socio-economic streams; work in the same echelons of the same field. The odds are good he will marry the girl he is currently with and together, they will grow older, have children, work their way up the corporate ladder, retire, and die. My friend will, most likely, never have to confront the fact that he clams up around strangers; especially when they don’t work white-collar jobs and like the same things that he likes.

This is a part of himself that he, probably, will never have to change. And that’s going to be OK. As dysfunctional behaviour goes, it’s a pretty mild example. There’s no harm in it, except maybe to his chances of having a wider and more variegated circle of friends.

The question for me is, if he wanted to change, and he had the necessary capacity for self-awareness, would he be able to? Can people actually change who and how they are?

Once, years ago, I was having dinner with my parents and another friend of mine, and the conversation turned to our friend Dean. Dean was in the process of working himself out of an extended, months-long slump during which he’d stopped taking care of himself, lost his job, packed on weight, and stopped leaving the house except for an occasional coffee. There had been no great flash of light, no Road to Damascus for him, but Dean had, piece by piece, quit smoking, stopped drinking so much, found a new job, and was now seeing a new girl.

‘That guy’s really pulled himself together,’ I said. ‘He’s really changed.’

My father snorted dismissively.

‘No one ever changes,’ he said. ‘Not unless they’re faced with some total catastrophe.’

According to movies, that is the entire truth of the process. Even according to stories I’ve heard, this is how it goes. In 2002 there was a classroom shooting at Melbourne’s Monash University; a thankfully rare occurrence here. A girl I was seeing knew someone present when the gunman opened fire. He took a bullet in the hand, but, thanks to timely medical intervention, lost neither the hand nor any appreciable use of it – and the resulting change in his personality was, apparently, astonishing.

‘He was so introverted before. Kinda sad all the time,’ the girl said. ‘Now he’ll talk to anyone. He’s so happy, he’s so talkative.’

This was in line with everything that TV had taught me.

Speaking to another friend, earlier tonight, about the concept of change, she told me about how, some years ago, she’d battled cancer, and the experience changed her.

‘It changed the way I go through life,’ she said. ‘I used to hate people. OK, I still kinda do. But I value people so much more. I value the interactions and the conversations. And now I live life the way I want to. I have fun and I travel and yeah. I’ve changed.’

Compare and contrast this to the experience of my friend Juliet:

‘I was dating this guy,’ Juliet said. ‘Who was a complete asshole. We were together for a while, and everyone knew – I mean, knew he was an asshole. He’d always been an asshole. And one day I got a phone call to tell me that he’d fallen while he was rock-climbing. He was rushed to the hospital and they thought he was going to be paralysed.’

The asshole, fortunately, was not paralysed. He was fine after some minor surgery.

‘But I knew,’ Juliet said, ‘that it wasn’t going to change him. It wasn’t going to be some life-altering moment. Coming so close to death or quadriplegia… he was still going to be the same asshole.’

She was right, apparently. The guy didn’t change one jot.

This is what people tell me, for the most part, over and over again. One constantly-repeating refrain.

I left my ex because he was a son of a bitch, and he was never going to change.

We broke up because I kept giving her chances and finally, I realised that she just couldn’t change.

Some things don’t change. A leopard can’t change its spots. People don’t change.

According to the reading I’m doing at the moment (if you’ve got the time, I highly recommend Reinventing Your Life, by Young and Klosko, two cognitive-approach-based psychologists), people maintain the same patterns and habits, unconsciously, throughout their entire lives, and find their way, likewise unknowingly, towards situations that reinforce those patterns and habits, unless there’s some kind of course correction, because finding the comfort of familiarity is the psychological equivalent of water seeking its own level – even if those patterns and habits are painful or destructive.

There’s a line from an old detective story, The Long Goodbye, I think. Marlowe or Spade or the Continental Op or whoever it is talks about the case of a man who was nearly crushed by a beam falling from a construction yard as he was walking down a city sidewalk, who realised in that deadly instant that his life was suffocating him, and so he faked his own death and left town, only to set up a new life that was a carbon-copy of the old one.

‘He’d adjusted to beams falling,’ the detective said. ‘Then he’d adjusted himself to beams not falling.’

The very, very brief straw poll  I’ve taken seems to indicate that most of the people I know don’t have faith in the ability of other people to change. And, I admit, I’ve seen little evidence. The more I see of people from my past, the more I see that they’ve simply become more and more entrenched in themselves; for good or for bad. I see counter-attack and avoidance; I see people the same at thirty as they were at twenty, only more so. I see the same things in myself; attitudes and beliefs that have never shifted, repetitive cycles of various sizes and shapes. Whether they take hours, days, or years to cycle through to their reset points, the point remains that they do and then simply start to grind on once more.

But I have to believe that this isn’t the way it has to be, that, with the phenomenal gift of consciousness and the ability to be aware that we as humans have, change is entirely possible.

Preferably by conscious choice, and not through being shot in the hand.

Even if takes a while.

I grew up in a small village on the Connecticut River in northern New Hampshire. There were more trees and cows than there were people and up until I was a surly teenager, I loved it.

Then puberty hit and I despised my little hamlet. Outside of my family, there wasn’t a single reason to stay and every day brought me closer to college and escape.

Now I’m 10 years past that day and 4 years past the day I left New England completely behind and every fall my heart hurts. It’s like the ache you associate with an old injury, the kind of pain cold weather and rainy days bring.

Leaving New England was like breaking up with a childhood romance.

I often wonder if I’ll ever get over it completely.


* * *

I love the fall. I love the colors and the smells and the cold air that insinuates itself into the shadows, lengthening everything, changing the way the sun filters through windows. I’d love to live in a place that experiences fall weather year round.

Maryland is not that place. The summers are long and hot, lasting well into October. Winter is basically non-existent. Only spring obeys the rules and brings warming temperatures and bright green leaves with it. But fall in Maryland is a strange bird, arriving late in October and staying through early November. It doesn’t coordinate itself with my New England calendar. I find myself often angry with it for taking so long to arrive, but then forgive it for staying so late.

I’ve never craved a New England fall like I have this year. From late August right up until this very second all I’ve wanted is to walk through the White Mountains and listen to the leaves fall down around me. I want apple cider from Ellie’s in Northfield, Vermont and warm donuts from Cold Hollow in Stowe. I want to watch a Norwich football game, bundled up in sweaters and scarves and spend a day outside when it’s so cold I can see my breath well into the afternoon.

I want these things like I want to breathe and right now that terrifies me.

* * *

Jilly and I recently moved, packed up and ventured forth into the great unknown of southern Columbia to test the waters once again as dual roommates. We haven’t lived together, just the two of us, since we left Vermont 4 years ago and part of me worries that too much has changed for that dynamic to work again.

I’m needier. She’s busier. And let’s face it – we’re 4 years older. I don’t know why that matters, but it sounds important.

This is why my sudden need for New England scares me. Do I miss New England in fall because of the memories I have or do I miss it because of the person I used to be when I last experienced it?

Is it possible to miss a previous version of yourself?

There’s been a lot of change – personal and professional – for Jilly and me in the last month or so. She’s handling it like a champ, moving with it instead of against it and relishing the feel of a new current against her. It’s one of her strengths, that she adapts so well to new things.

Me?

Not so much.

I’ve become static, introspective, and hard to live with, I’m sure. She’d deny it, because she’s my best friend, but I know it’s true. I’m not myself…perhaps because I’ve changed so much in a month that I don’t know who I am anymore. My birthday seems like it was years ago instead of a month and a half and I’ve already broken all those promises I made to myself.

For shame.

* * *

I miss my streams, my fall in New England.

I miss early snows and mountains and steaming cups of coffee placed precariously on porch ledges while leaves are raked and preparations are made.

I miss my family.

Most of all, though, I miss myself…

Maybe it’s time to change that.

It certainly wasn’t THE mistake; there were probably a number of those, but the first thing I did wrong was have the cab driver drop me off three blocks from my apartment, instead of right at the front door, especially knowing that neighborhood’s reputation.  I must have felt like walking a bit.  It was five in the morning after a long Sunday night and I was drunk.  Most of the time drunk means you’re stumbling about, a bit stupider than when you began the night but, sometimes, when you’ve been drunk long enough, when you’ve started early in the night and kept it up, somehow teetering on the line between life-of-the-party and asshole-of-the-evening, you manage a kind of comfort with the drunk, a sort of calm-in-the-storm.  It’s hard to imagine but some part of your mind gets used to the world from inside the bottle, maybe the way veterans, having seen too much of the shit, can just nod their heads at the most atrocious things and whisper, ‘FUBAR,’ and just know they must go on.  I prefer to think of it like musical theater, all optimism, the way the drunk character in the play can magically stand up and exhibit textbook choreography, dancing down the pavement, toes tapping on benches, where even the stumbling has style.  So I was when I got out of the cab on the Avenue Gran Via, a notoriously seedy street in Madrid, clad in Tyler Durden’s three-quarter length, red-leather Jacket.  Some girl has kissed me that night, and I was grinning a silly grin.  I’m sure it wasn’t the grin the mugger saw.

  I had been this way many times before.  Most night’s I would walk down this alley, away from my apartment, heading to Gran Via to pick up a cab and start my night.  I usually stopped in a little place that made me ham and cheese sandwiches.  The waitress there was attractive, and would smile at my broken Spanish and pour me extra Sangria without charge.  At this hour there weren’t many people around, just a few homeless, and I whistled a bit, whistling the sort of too-chipper melody, I suppose, only a fancy foreigner might find appropriate in such a dark little alley. 

  A little man approached me, the kind of character who would be best played by a swarthier version of the big-eyed, creepy fellow in Casablanca, who gets shot within the first couple of scenes for trying to smuggle some important German papers.  At the time, he instantly reminded me of Dr. Frankenstein’s assistant, Igor, all bent over, face lined with craving.  He held his hands out, humbly asking for anything I could spare.  His Spanish was worse than mine, and he was probably one of the recent migrants from Northern Africa who filter into Europe through Spain.  Coupled with hand gestures for what I think was ‘sandwich’ or ‘bread,’ and something to do with his mouth, he kept pace with me, pleading a little, saying how hungry he was.

  Now a days, in San Francisco, where any walk through the streets means requests for change, I’m hardened, but at that hour, in that town, I felt a little sorry for him, and handed him some of what I had.  It was hardly anything, just some of the bigger coins I had left-over.  And it’s not as though I felt he needed to be particularly grateful or anything, but the way he seemed to sneer at the coins I gave him, it just didn’t seem to fit the natural order of beggar and giver.  It wasn’t much that I gave him, but it was enough to buy food.  “Sorry, Sorry, really, that’s all I have for giving,” was all I could say in Spanish, and he pleaded further, but slowed his pace, receding back into the scene as I carried on down the alleyway.

  I’ve always been a bit suspicious of people when I’m out in the big world, having grown up in a city whose idea of crime usually involves accountants, but I swear that little guy was keeping up with me.  I knew he was hoping to beg more, well, that’s an awful way to put it.  I knew he wanted more money.  Who knows if he was really hungry, but he was persistent.  He appeared again at my side.  Again, he was hungry.  It wasn’t enough.  He lowered his hand, marking a mark of height in the air, and said something that sounded like ‘daughter.‘  I apologized and apologized.  I knew I had a couple of the smaller coins left in my pockets, smaller ones that weren’t even worth the giving, but I just wanted to be home, and his weathered, sad face, his broken Spanish, the way he sort of hobbled after me, more in show than because of any real physical malady, I just didn’t want to be bothered by him anymore.  The truth is he just wasn’t at all that likeable, not even in a pitiable way.  Maybe pain and suffering are ugly, and maybe I was just uncaring to that, but something in his nature or presentation, it didn’t say ‘poor me,’ it was just sort of pathetic, almost slinking.  He was, I am sorry to say, the way some old furniture is beloved and worth the mending, and some is just that-crappy-old-chair.  Some stains, some dirt, carry memories, and others are just dirt, and you toss the chair, throw it out, with no sentiment, glad to be rid of it.  I apologized, shaking my head, and walked on with purpose.  He stopped, and sunk away, eyes burning a hole in the back of my leather jacket.

  Just a couple of blocks from my apartment, I heard footsteps.  Fucking footsteps.  Even then, without any time for reflection, even as the suspicion turned to fear, my mind jerked in revulsion at the cliché and monstrous irony of hearing menacing footsteps behind me.  The scared, nervous voice in my head, the sensible one muffled by the booze, it was yelling out.  This is the scene where the woman walks through the poorly lit parking garage, or the scene where the reporter in the thriller, having just learned of the CIA’s corruption, quickens his pace.  All of the shots are of feet, fast paced, in rhythm.   First it’s the victim’s, short and quick, then the dark, determined, clip-clopping of the pursuer’s.  I couldn’t believe I was hearing footsteps behind me.  I was terrified.

  I turned, just in time for him to grab me, the little man, his face now twisted in desperation.  His right hand was holding onto my left wrist, tight.  His left hand, his left was holding a knife.  He stuck the knife against my stomach, against the leather of my red jacket, holding the sharp point against the leather.  “Money!” he shouted in Spanish, “Give me! Give me the money!”

  “I don’t have any!  I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I lied, not even realizing it was a lie, pulling my arm back as he gripped tighter, as he poked a little harder into me with the short knife.  I dug around in my pocket with my free right hand, making a gesture, showing him the few meager coins I had left, his head shaking, jerking, disapproving.  In my head, we argued for minutes.  In my memory, my Spanish was fluid and clear, and I conjured sentences, and I struggled, unable to pull away, unable to even realize any specific danger, only to feel that everything was dangerous, the way some pain is everywhere at once.

  I was wearing a money belt.  It had everything in it.  Idiot tourists, on their first trips abroad, they buy these things to keep their money safe, out of sight, out of their backpacks and their wallets.  They tie them against their stomachs where no pickpocket will think to pick.  They feel safe, adapted, prepared.  The danger is handled, they think, their heads all caught up in some small brochure-scenario, never realizing the simple truth that things they don’t carry can’t be stolen.  I was that idiot.  I had everything in there, credit cards, traveler’s checks, passport, student ID and enough cash to feed any need.

  The little man was nervous, was panicking, and was starting to shift his attention from his hand gripping mine to the hand holding the knife.  His left hand came at me, and he pawed at me with it, frustrated, reaching in my jacket, clawing at my shirt pockets, still holding the knife loosely.  He must have known just where to look, because he suddenly took hold of my shirt and wrenched it up, out of my pants.  He was going for the money belt I was wearing.  It wasn’t there. 

  That general suspicion that I had, that naive, close-minded, picket-fence insecurity instilled in me by a safe, wary, conservative town, hadn’t trusted the belt entirely.  A week earlier, seeing all the other students I knew pulling up their shirts every time they went to buy something, I had decided the whole thing was too obvious.  I had started tucking the belt below my waist, fitting it just under the belt-line of my pants, where no-one could see it unless they really had a mind to dig.

  When he jerked up on my shirt, his eyes focused at my waist, surely expecting a prize, I froze, certain, certain of nothing, afraid of everything.  I still had the dozen or so small coins in my right hand.  Without thinking, I threw my left arm out hard, the arm he was still holding onto, throwing his balance off, and simultaneously threw all of the coins at him, half, I suppose, to distract him, half, maybe as a kind of meager, dim-witted assault.  All of the motions, being pulled to the side, the coins at his face, it was just enough, he was off of me, and I turned, running.  I ran, ran those couple of blocks to my apartment in the dark, my feet pounding into the pavement like hooves, my whole body a machine of speed and desperation, an animal in terror.  I never looked back.

 

  Upstairs, outside the little apartment where I was living for the semester, I made a commotion, voice trembling, shouting, and then trembling again.  My Spanish “father,” answered the door, and seemed not to recognize the obvious fear in my eyes.  He was a daft guy, the head of the “family,” which consisted of he, a middle-aged, unemployed man, his mother, sweet, parrot voiced, and senile, and four cats who had a tendency to stare.  He was a silly man, I thought, overweight and under-experienced.  We had had lots of pointless arguments, and were generally ill suited, but just then, I wanted him to save me.  I tried to explain, but could only muster a few, basic terms, my fluid Spanish now lost.  With a mix of incongruent words, as though painting a scene like a child with all the wrong colors, I tried to tell him I had been mugged.  “Man…knife,” I started out.  “Money.  He wants money.  The man with the knife wants money.”  It was enough.  He understood.

  We sat there for a moment, me still panting, shaking, him considering, I could see, the situation deeply.  “Lo siento, Tomas…lo siento,” he said, “I’m sorry.”  He paused, and looked up.  “Quieres leche?”

  I stopped, as though hearing a piece of glass shatter, my mind cracking from the absurdity.  “Milk?  Do I want milk?  NO!  No quiero leche!  Quiero fucking justice!  Quiero revenge and goddam, oh, goddamit, I don’t know.  Fuck!”  I screamed back at him, venting all the rage, all the simple, plain fright and vulnerability I felt.  A man, a knife, my God, and how I had ran!  Fucking milk!?

  “Lo siento, Tomas,” he said, apologizing again, not for the silly offer of milk, but for my fear.  He was genuinely sorry for me, and concerned, and I saw the sincerity in his face as he got up to go back to bed, leaving me be, and I knew I didn’t need to apologize for being so ungrateful. 

  I spent the rest of the night in my own head, no longer afraid, but helpless, my mind retracing every move, cursing my stupidity, cursing the little-man’s very being in the world.  I reenacted the scene, over and over, inserting new triumphs where I had been afraid, and vengeance where I had ran.  I pictured karate classes, and the weeks ahead where I would turn the tables, where I would repeat the dark-alley walk, again and again, this time perusing him like some vigilante whose thirst for revenge can never be satisfied.  I shuffled about in bed, limbs restless, eventually getting up and pacing about.  My safe, small world was breached.  The simple things were useless.

  Finally, giving up on sleep, I went back into the now quiet kitchen.  I leaned against the wall and watched a bit of the morning’s light creep in through the windows, watched in brighten up the alley below, filling in the dark spaces.  My eyes traced back along that alley, over the stains, over the dirt, my mind grappling at the meaning of Spanish signs in this and that shop window, trying to understand, to make sense of the place.  Exhausted, I settled in a chair, leaning against the window, looking out.  I reached over for a cup, and poured myself a glass of milk.