I think people are interesting, which isn’t exactly like saying I like them. I guess because I’m so disengaged, people might think I find them boring. Not true. People always have a rich fantasy life inside my head. Not a kind of where-are-they-now internal syndicate--I have Facebook for that--but a few stuttered scenes. I see ex-classmates and coworkers and people at the bus stop in my dreams. I picture these people out of sorts: crying after break-ups or getting drunk and talking about their “problems.”
Inside my head, nobody shuts up.
I’m not a loner, although I feel like I could’ve been. I’m tenuously linked to a few anchors--who, if they ever cast off and sailed away--would leave me totally fucked. So I’m a homebody and only have a few friends, and there’s nothing wrong with that except the thorny way I have to insist on telling myself that there’s nothing wrong with that, like a scab that won’t quite heal over.
It would’ve been better if we’d stayed in a small town. I grew up in Drumheller, a tourist town that explodes in the summer when kids come to look at dinosaurs and old couples bear the badlands heat to see the Passion Play--one of the best, I’m told. I’ll have to take their word for it. I never saw it and I wasn’t interested. Far from taking my mother’s “What would Jesus do?”to heart, I thought of Jesus as an irksome busybody who’d pissed off a bunch of powerful people and got himself killed. Who cares what he would do?
It was different in the winter. There was no fall--the heat tapered off for only two weeks or so before the snow violently came home. The nights were long and my Dad was never home--or when the work was close to home, I think the few hours driving on top of a twelve hour shift made him miss the motels. I don’t blame him. He said his job was hard and I believed him, even though I had no idea what insulating pipe looked like. If people asked I just said my Dad worked in the oilfield, like most of the other dads out there.
Anyway, after stuffing his youth and his spine on the backburner for a couple decades, he got an even murkier job as a safety consultant when I was twelve. It meant we were packing up and moving to Edmonton, which thrilled everyone except my mother. My poor mother, who hadn’t worked since I’d been born, who was in every church committee and council meeting and bake sale and pledge drive imaginable, who knew everyone and everyone’s business for miles--well, it was like a death in the family.
Me, I couldn’t wait. My sixteen-year-old brother Tom was going through what Dad had generously called a “phase”, and didn’t share an opinion one way or the other. Devin--the oldest--was in Afghanistan and had bigger problems on his mind. Or so I’d thought, but he took the news harder than I’d expected.
“Ah, man,” he’d said on one of his rare phone calls home. “I mean that’s great for Dad, but--man. Kinda sad, eh? Our old house?”
Devin wasn’t the sentimental type. I thought he was joking.
“Sad?” I’d said. “This is like winning the fucking lottery!” He told me to watch my language in his best Big Brother voice, and then I got really annoyed.
“Look, you’ll understand when you’re older--”--man, that one was sure getting tired--“--there’s a lot of good people there, a good community. Don’t take that for granted. Dad around?” he added as a formality. No. Of course he wasn’t.
I remember getting off the phone and wondering what the hell had happened to Devin--the long-haired teen whose entire wardrobe was Slayer shirts, who got suspended at least once a month and permanently reeked of pot. They let him drive a tank, for Christ’s sake.
We moved that August, so I was spared being the “new kid.” I had only a few goodbyes. To my father’s disappointment, I’d never taken to hockey, but two years ago I’d discovered junior basketball and fell in love. Dad was so relieved and encouraged me so much it scared the shit out of me, and despite my meager talents he took a new shine to what our stone-faced Grandpa would’ve called “monkey-ball.” A few of my teammates and fellow bench scrubs--even at that age, I was getting weeded out--wished me well, but they were more like colleagues and we were already too cool to be emotive.
My mother, by contrast, was embarrassing. The tearful goodbyes were delivered by ham actors that were probably cutting each other down a week earlier. My mother was expendable, just like they all were. They were jigsaw pieces that could be morphed and switched at a moment’s notice, because the Good Wives’ Decency was immutable and hardened against pests like “facts.”
Tom did not give a shit and continued to say nothing.
And so we arrived in Edmonton, and the grit and hardness won my heart in an instant. Our new house was beautiful--lavish and twice the size of our old one--but I barely saw it that month. My father gruffly overruled my protective mother’s objections, and my new bus pass meant no less to me than a Golden Ticket or an invitation to Platform Nine and Three-Quarters. Edmonton wasn’t a metropolis, but after living in a town I could jog coast to coast in less than twenty minutes, it might as well have been. In a few weeks time, I’d be stunned to acquaint new classmates ruminating over the cold, bitching about the bums and the Natives and how they “couldn’t wait to get out of here,” something I was still too young to know was universal.
Really, it was amazing how quickly everything returned to normal. I was deliriously in my own world, immersed in fantasies and plans and schemes like a greedy goddamn miser. Mom’s crocodile tears dried up in a hurry as she discovered the Hope Mission and the Mustard Seed. She took to ladling soup and making chit-chat with such glee that I wondered how she’d go on existing, like she was a vampire feasting on their cracked out misery. I guess that’s unkind, but even today when I visit home I can’t help but think, Jesus Mom, get a hobby. And Tom lay permanently plugged into his headphones behind closed doors, just like he had for years. Devin was still halfway across the world and Dad worked like he might as well be. So it was all pretty ordinary.
For the rest of my life, I’d never grasp an optimism like those fatal few weeks in August. God, but it was blazing outside. It didn’t rain once. And I felt positively manic. I’d read books on the transit from the Stanley Milner Library to the downtown YMCA, reading novels and books about trains and even The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens--cracking the one smile I saw from Tom all year when he caught me at it. I didn’t care. It felt like I was becoming a superhero, and that I’d get stronger and smarter until the day I died.
I’d even made a friend, a gangly tough kid named Andre I’d played hoops with downtown. Not just the polite black kid who called my mother Ma’am and took his Bulls cap off when he sat at our dining table--the one time I’d seen him without it--but a real, bona fide nigga who could spit bars and spin layups that took my breath away. I adored him--no homo. He dubbed me Professor and slashed-and-kicked me so many open threes that we got a reputation. I was nowhere near him, of course, but I improved steadily. When I found out we’d be going to the same school, it was like the floodgates had opened, like I’d been plucked from obscurity and dropped into my breakout role. Andre and the Professor, back for the first time.
And then those fuckers in uniform showed up at our front door a day before Labour Day weekend: ruining our camping trip, ruining the year, ruining our goddamn lives.
* * *
Devin’s admonishment to not take our old community “for granted,” rang in my ears for the rest of my life.
I was numb and wondered when the tears would come, when people would start believing me when they asked how I was doing and I gave the most honest shrug I knew how. To say I felt nothing would’ve been heartless, so the truth could wait and the shrug would have to do.
The letters: IED, sounded vaguely medical, a catheter. My mother shed a fraction of the tears she’d cried for her old sewing circle a month ago, and that terrified me. In time, I would understand the blood that dripped from her bitten lower lip, her clenched fists and glances at my father. Back then, I just thought she was shellshocked.
For Tom, the floodgates had burst. My moody, withdrawn brother who’d fashioned himself a joyless Spock was now the poor simulacrum of grief the rest of us burdened upon him. When he actually hugged me I stiffened in alarm.
It’d never occurred to me Devin wouldn’t come home. Of course my mother stayed up late worrying, but she worried about fucking everything, just one woven strand in an endless web of paranoia. I remember looking at her the morning after, watching her clutch the rosary beads between her fingers so tightly her hand was turning white, and thinking what’s the point. What good had it done him?
And as for Dad? Well, his “aw, shucks” routine smacked of a comedian who thought his audience was beneath him. Our little talks were even more stilted than usual:
“You, uh--you should be real proud of your big brother,” he’d said to me, during a rare hour of silence. The phone calls and casseroles had barely stopped.
I looked at him and had nothing to say. I was already proud of Devin, but not for getting his dipshit ass blown up in the desert. I was proud that he’d taught me how to throw a punch, and snuck me out the house to a few concerts, for driving us out to the hoodoos, to hockey games in Calgary. For being, well--a Dad.
I was silent, but not with grief. When Dad put his hand on my shoulder, it was almost more than I could stand. If he tried to hug me like Tom, I might’ve screamed out loud.
Then he did hug me, and that was my first lesson in swallowing screams. It was like murder. Only the first one mattered, and after that it got easier.
To me, the funeral was fuzzy. I barely remember it. There’s a few still photographs: stiff-armed salutes, condolences I was now deaf to, the taste of the shitty pastrami at the caterer’s table, a few touching words by an idiot friend of his: he always had your back.
I saw relatives I hadn’t seen in years and didn’t really recognize. My Mom keeps better touch with her cousins, but they’re down in Florida and might as well be on another planet. One of the few clear details I remember is the shock I registered when I saw my Dad--the middle child--sandwiched between his own two brothers. The resemblance was--well, like they were clones. Three burly action figures from the same set, down to the beards and glasses. Why not them?
It was three more days before it came out. By then it was the weekend after, and I’d missed the first week of school. Andre, the one person I could stand the sight of, dropped by to tell me that tryouts weren’t until next week and that he wasn’t even to bother with catching me up.
“It’s all bullshit, man,” said Andre. “You know we had a lockdown drill already? Everyone huddle under the desks, like we’re about to get bl--” He trailed off and looked down.
“Anyway,” he said, after letting a beat pass, “you okay?”
I shrugged. Was I going to be mute the rest of my life?
“You look like shit, man.”
I managed a wan smile, then we clasped hands and bumped chests. It was the first touch in a week that hadn’t curdled my insides.
But later that night I saw what he meant. I was headed to the bathroom before bed, and when I flicked the light on I really caught my reflection for the first time. I couldn’t sleep. I’d been studying my blank ceiling like it was a tome. My eyes were sunk in, there were dark circles above my cheekbones. I looked gaunt, I looked like…
I had just enough time to hit the fan and turn the shower on before I fell on my knees. I had just enough restraint to keep from howling, so the grief came in sharp, ragged shudders, like an asthmatic. I clutched my hair and shivered. It had washed away. He had washed into the dirt as easily as the water running down the drain, and there was no undoing it.
When it started, it felt like it would go on forever. But really, it was only a few minutes. And it would be years before I cried again. That meant they never saw me sweat--or was it on parade all the time? But either way, when I stood up with that feathery feeling in my knees and stomach, it was a second death. I looked back in the mirror and even managed a smile.
Nowadays, I’m not shocked by much, and certainly not shocked by the way things slide back to “normal,” whatever that is. What felt like a quantum leap in our lives was crushingly ordinary: People die all the time. And by Thanksgiving I was eating and shitting and jerking off at the same frequency I was when he was alive.
It wasn’t like Devin and I were super close, I told myself. I wasn’t super close with anyone.
Okay, I lied. Something had changed. Maybe a few things. Tom and I had done this absurd dosie-do, for one. He’d cut off his bangs, had long talks with my mother, and was hardly ever home. He got into some “Social Justice” shit at school and started raising money to help refugees in a country I’d never heard of. I quit basketball and stayed in bed.
I treasured the silence. Not the pregnant silences at our family dinners, filled with tripwires and meaningful looks. I mean the silence that was all my own, alone with the door closed, a silence that felt like falling asleep in the back of Devin’s pickup, a silence that was like bedtime stories or fantastic dreams.
In time, it would not be enough. But it kept me warm the rest of that year.
I wondered when my parents would realize they couldn’t possibly stay together, how many more weeks or months I’d have to put up with them. When you’re a kid in your own house, you’re on home turf. It’s all you’ve ever known. You live and breathe it. How quickly we forget that a niggling detail like a mortgage means fuck-all when it comes to sniffing the air.
It was grim triumph when I was proven right. A joyless Christmas passed, and then spring thawed away and my Dad celebrated by packing his whole life into boxes. He was moving out.
And that’s what triggered the exile. That’s what made me a sheltered vagrant. That’s when the thoughts began.
It started subtly, like a slow-acting virus. I started thinking I was different. Different was a short jump to special. The worst decision I made was to feel flattered by my teachers talking about my potential, a polite way of saying I was a lazy shit. And from special, well--after that it got weird.
And now I totally regret it. I still think I’m special, the way a nuthouse babbling the New Testament is special. Watching Andre from afar the rest of high school was like seeing an alternate universe. My mistakes would’ve told a lot better. They would’ve been safe, predictable secrets: sneaking out at night, puffing a joint, fooling around in the backseat of a car. Kid stuff.
I think I’m pathetic, and so I expect that’s what everyone else will think, too. My brain was a maze: diseased, concentric circles around Atlantis, imaginary monsters guarding what I’m not even sure existed in the first place.
The thing is, I can appear normal for long stretches at a time, and sometimes things even make sense. And on the outside I could seem together. But I was on a house of sand and I crumbled easily. I worked out a bit and sometimes I liked to flex when I jerked off in front of the mirror. Virile. But I hadn’t seen a woman in years.
Except for prostitutes, who I enjoyed--polite, charming, subservient--my relationships were fleeting. I loved being adored, and that’s a poor substitute for anyone. I already knew I’d never amount to anything, so I’m at a loss to explain why I liked being idolized. None of them lasted long.
My fantasies aren’t glamorous, or extraordinary. It’s run-of-the-mill shit that’s been done for centuries, because the greatest deceit of cruelty is that it’s original. But whatever I thought and lusted over, it’d been done. That was hard to swallow.
I haven’t been drunk in two years. The last time I was drunk, I remember thinking: I need to hurt someone. Not kill them, just hurt them bad enough that I can be left alone for a while and read books. It scared me, the way I’d actually stood up and clutched a bottle and stared down a small Chinese at the end of the bar. It scared me away for good.
I’m twenty-one and I feel ancient.
Was wanting to go to jail the same thing as wanting to be dead? I guess it was kind of similar. Either way, I got a better version of my wish.
I’m looking out my basement window at the shoes passing by. I have a shoe fetish--shoes, socks, toes, soles, I love it all--but that’s not why I find all this interesting. This has been my hobby for the past two months. I wake up in the morning and light a joint and stare at shoes passing by, and I fantasize about their lives.
Steel-toed boots. Warehouse. Does coke when he can get it. Slapped his woman twice in his life, but is actually an okay guy.
Uggs. Cosmopolitan. Cosmo. Careening towards disappointment.
Skate shoes. Smells like fear and optimism. Is polite. Got his first handjob in a minivan.
Leather thigh-highs. Look at me. Friendly to a fault. Oscillates between a lone wolf and one of the boys. Rubs it to gay porn.
Cowboy boots. Rest stops and Coors Light. Lawnmowers and emotional kryptonite. Church at Christmas and Easter. Watches college football. Fuck this guy.
I could do this all day and God knows I sometimes do. If you’re wondering what I do, the way I imagine people ask one another at parties, it isn’t much of anything. The money from my Dad’s settlement got passed on to me in trust--get this, he was injured in a tanker explosion doing a fucking safety audit--and it’s doled out just often enough to keep me alive and just sparsely enough to keep me killing myself.
With that death, there was no “like” winning the lottery, the way I’d explained to Devin when our family had died in Drumheller. It was unambiguous--this was the fucking lottery. But when he died I hadn’t spoken to Dad in three years, so it wasn’t--I mean, oh man how far I so was from caring by then. About anything.
And then there were three. My mom started aging rapidly after Devin’s death, until she started resembling the lost souls she poured herself into. She raped herself. She tried and failed to do my late Dad’s purgatory. Tom was clean-cut and in an MBA program. I would’ve been honestly unable to recognize him on the street.
The cold makes me feel alive.
It would’ve been better I could’ve cried that day, or any other day.
It would’ve been better if it had been me.