Friday, February 4, 2011

i belong

Growing up, I was little bit awkward. Alright, so I was very awkward. Okay, okay, so I am still awkward, but aren't we all?

I lived and died on the approval of others. Frequently, I would skip events because I was worried I would have no one to talk to, or I wouldn't fit in. Maybe this is standard wiring for your early teenage years, but I felt like everyone else was a part of something that I wasn't quite sure I was cool enough to be a part of.

My family moved to the next county over the summer before my eighth grade year. I remember my anxiety kicking up a notch. Even though I had left a larger school that was easier to get lost in, I was now going to be in a school where most of the kids had known each other since finger-painting was on the lesson plans. This freaked me out. Realistically, I had just found some friends back home that I felt at ease with, and now I was going to be uprooted and planted into foreign soil. My faulty self-image was completely unprepared for this.

The family mini-van pulled out of the home I had grown up in and wheeled its way into unfamiliar territory. We passed my friend Derrick's house, where I had spent many afternoons attempting to play soccer and lofting pinecones at each other's heads. Then, we passed the only two schools that I had ever known. When you are young, familiarity is the spice of life. It always felt like the worlds far away were far away for a reason. Maybe they held something dangerous and unwanted for your life, or you just chemically wouldn't match up with the species habitating there. I remember having a dream about moving. I dreamt that once we arrived at our new home, the new neighbors came over to meet us. The crazy thing was they were fish people, with gills on their necks, wearing odd bubble masks just so they could breathe. I'm fairly certain my anxiety, and fear my parents might have my head examined, kept me from warning anyone about our impending date with our fish neighbors. As the van wheeled us closer to our new home, I just hoped that they were friendly and that they had a fish son my age I could learn aquatic arts from.

The first few weeks at the new place were not bad. We actually lived in a neighborhood where I could ride my bike in the streets without becoming a hood ornament or windshield fodder. School was even tolerable. After a week or so, I did get tired of eating lunch by myself. I'm sure I only made it worse for myself by choosing to sit alone. Who wants to eat with the loner, new kid who speaks to no one but himself? Not me. So, in gym class one morning, I did something I had never done before, I struck up a conversation with a someone I had never spoken to in my life. Weird concept, huh?

Turns out this dude, Chris, who shared my homeroom class, amongst other classes, was in the same boat as me. He was new to the neighborhood and shared the same social anxiety I did. I think we shocked each other that we held a conversation. I remember feeling relieved for the first time in months. I had proven, in spite of my self-loathing, I could make new friends in a new place. In fact, we proved over the next few weeks to be somewhat inseparable. We could make fun of our sweaty gym teacher, who we were sure had come straight from a sitcom, and talk about our respective homelands as if they were mystical lands of lore.

A few weeks later, Chris didn't show up to school. Now, if you understand anything about social anxiety, you know that those suffering from it are like nocturnal creatures - we get comfortable being in our place and if you shine the light on our solitude, we scatter. So I coped the only way I knew how, become even more invisible. Missing a day or two of school is no big deal, but after a week and a half, I needed some answers. Mrs. Rohacek, my homeroom teacher, was one of the sweetest ladies on the planet. She seemed to understand my awkward nature and let her motherly instincts take over. She would laugh at my stupid side jokes and was there for support. So, I asked her where my buddy Chris had been. I still vividly remember the look that crossed her face. The jovial smile on her face slowly slipped back, and her eyes looked up as if she was trying to carefully navigate through a room of priceless crystals. She waited until the room emptied with her hand on my shoulder. I just stood there motionless, waiting for one of her silly science jokes to wipe away the uneasiness. The truth was that Chris had a rare disease, the name of which I can not remember, which was taking its toll on him. She had been sending him his homework for the last week, because he wasn't able to really be outside for long periods of time. Plus, his immune system was too weak to be around others. Needless to say, I was devastated. Granted, I had only been friends with him for a few short weeks, but we were far too young to be worrying about death walking into the room and ruining the party.

I went home in a daze and kind of hid in my room to avoid the questions that loving parents normally ask. 'How was your day?' was one of the last things I wanted to hear. The weeks passed slower and my loner status grew with the passing days. I even juggled the awful and misplaced thought that my friendship might be toxic.

Mrs. Rohacek asked me to stay after class a few weeks later. I chose to hinge my hopes on naivety and pretend I had no clue what she was going to say to me. Even my eighth grade mind had connected the dots before she could speak. Her kind eyes told more than could be said. With her hand on my shoulder, I learned that my friend had fought the good fight, but, in the end, he had to wave the white flag. She waited with me in silence until her next class started to file in. "He was lucky to have a good friend like you", she whispered as she slowly slipped from my side, and helped guide me out of the classroom. Just like that, I was transparent again. The world spinning rhythmically didn't seem to matter to me. The truth about good friendships is that they help us find our place. We need people in our lives to help quell our riot-inducing selves. Without friends and family to quiet the insecurities rolling around in our heads, we are apt to pummel ourselves with fists of self-loathing and self-pity. It is a fight that no one wins.

I remember my parents telling me a story about my uncle. He had just gotten divorced from a lady that he had loved. It hit him like a ton of bricks, so much so, that he got rid of everything else in his life and moved up to a farm in North Carolina and grew a beard. Not normally a big deal, in fact, I happen to approve of beards. But, in this case, all of these radical changes were evidence that he lost his self-worth in the divorce and had relegated himself to isolation for the remainder of his years. My dad was very concerned and went on several occasions to try and pry his brother out of his depressed state. It took a while, but my uncle recovered and moved back to civilization. I suppose he just needed time, and love, to realize his worth.

This was where I was now. After Chris' passing, I dealt with my sorrow through isolation and drawing. I would sit for hours drawing or just trying to distract myself from reality. I suppose it would have been a harder trance to break had we had the time to become closer friends, but, that young in life, it was still a hard pill to swallow.

I woke up one morning and realized that I had a lot of things in life to be thankful for. And even though Chris would not get to see this morning, I would make the best of it. I would talk to people and try to make friends. I would stop just existing and make the best of each and every breath. I'm confident the ones that we have lost don't hate us for living in the days we are gifted. I found through all of this that, I belong on this earth. Even with all of my insecurities and hang-ups, I have worth. I am blessed to have friends and family that reaffirm this with their presence.

Think about this, the sunrises and sunsets are not created just as a backdrop for the birds to sing against. The radiant rays of sunshine that breach the horizon are meant for our eyes to see, for our faces to feel the warmth. Know this: you belong here. You are beautifully and wonderfully made. Sometimes we just need a friendly reminder. Sometimes we just need to remember to live the sunrises and sunsets, and everywhere in between, to their fullest.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

the day I became king

This fine, brisk evening in Arizona, as the wisps of the Northwest whip through the air, I was thinking of one of the first times I actually set myself up to succeed. Don't get too excited, it involved breaking someone else's heart and my own in the process, but in the roller-coaster ride that we call life, it was a moment of definition.

In another life, I was in love with a girl. By all accounts, I was supposed to marry her, settle in a white house with a picket fence down the street from her parents, work a 9-to-5er, raise 2.3 kids, and, somewhere in that cliche, live happily ever after. Given my ultimate distaste for most of those things listed (I happen to like kids, and white houses, though cliche, can be tastefully done), that is not how "the cookie crumbled." I'm sure this might color me the bad guy, so judge as you see fit.

The first 4 years we were dating were pretty magical. Well, let's be honest, the first 2 years were great, the next 2 1/2 were robotic. We were sort of just like ghosts of ourselves. The crushing weight of expectations that come in a small town in the Bible Belt can destroy whatever semblance of love, or even like, you have for someone. It sometimes felt like you weren't supposed to question your feelings. It was more like you were just supposed to silently slip into costume and take the stage. The laughter changes at a certain point. It isn't real anymore. The smiles are just part of the facade. Honestly, who wants to be trapped in a machine like that?

The month before it all ended, we decided to take some time off. She was in school and only home certain weekends. I was working two jobs so that I could afford to follow the so-called dream. Realistically, we barely had time for each other. I would make the 2-hour drive to Athens, GA to see her (like I was supposed to) every other weekend. She would come home sporadically, somehow attempting to experience college life and be virtually 'engaged' the whole time. None of this was a winning combo. It was taking its toll on us both.

One night, we decided to meet halfway and discuss our waffling relationship. It was the end of November. I remember it well because I compared the chilly night air to the temperature of my heart under my breath on the whole drive over. We met and she had drawn a long note to say what she needed to say. Her hand quivered in anxious tension as she slid it my way. There were no words. Just the sound of her sniffling to hold back the tears and the crinkling of paper as I thumbed through three pages of bubbly letters. I had held the note up where she couldn't see my face as I read. I was afraid she would be able to sense the unrest that was brewing in my soul. Once I looked up from reading, she gave a quick smile and reached out for my hand. Despite the lack of love or any shape of its truth reveling in our disjointed union, she wanted to take a break and see what happened. She wanted to be free and experience college, but she didn't want me to leave. It was like sending the embodiment of us to the gallows, but making him wait a month, shackled, noosed and black-bagged, before we would drop the floor out and wring his decrepit neck.

The next month was one of the better months that I had had in over four years. I didn't worry about how many times to call or text her. I saw her only a few times in those days, every one of which was her either stopping by or asking me to come over. I felt as if I were being mocked by freedom.

As the year drew to a close, she called me over to her parent's house for dinner. We started to make plans for New Year's Eve. At my suggestion, we were making a list of all the friends we could invite to hang out. This was my way of escaping the inevitable ending of us. I consider myself a nice guy. I attempt to be mindful, sometimes too much for my own good, of people's feelings. Up to this point, I had always done what was expected of me. If it was going to hurt someone, then I would contort my life to take the hit so they wouldn't be affected.

If you have ever seen the show Scrubs, there is an episode at the end of season 3 where JD, the main character, has wooed his lady love, Elliot, away from her stable boyfriend. In doing so, he realizes that the chase was more fun than the capture, and begins to hate what he has done. There is a point where, instead of him telling her that he really doesn't love her, he decides that he will "do the right thing....stay with her for the rest of his life." This was how I had felt for over 2 years at this point. No escape. The bed was made, and to keep from hurting someone and, in this case, lots of people with lofty expectations, I was going to fall on the sword of a life sacrificed for someone else's good.

This was when it got real. The plans that we had fashioned shortly after Christmas, slowly crumbled into the sea. Literally, every single friend we had invited to hang out on New Year's Eve cancelled on us. My nerves still flinch at the last phone call that I received from one of my closest friends, who could not get away from prior engagements. I dropped the phone and pulled off the side of the road. The anger made its presence known on my pale face. I quietly exited the vehicle just off a busy highway, stepped towards the wooded side of the street and proceeded to let forth a resounding, guttural scream, the likes of which I probably can not recreate today.

There was no escape now from what must be done. A quiet unrest arose in my chest as I slumped back into my illegally parked car, put it into drive and lugged it back into traffic. That was easily the slowest I ever drove home in my life. And, to make it worse, she called. Just like clockwork. I could hear the excitement in her voice. She was back to her old self. Not the old self I might have loved once. No, she was back to the old pay-no-attention-to-the-man-behind-the-curtain self. The veil was drawn and the song and dance routine was back in action.

When I pulled up to her house, she met me at the door with an emphatic kiss. She was dressed for the town. 'I am the scum of the universe,' I thought. Her happiness, false or not, was about to dine with the devil.

We had dwindled our elaborate plans of heading into Atlanta to party, down to just us eating dinner and possibly heading to a movie. It was your standard old-person date. Hell, if we had been married, we would have been passed out in bed watching the festivities fade from the television into our dreams.

Longhorn Steakhouse was the nice place in town to eat, so I had called ahead to get a good table. Regardless of what you believe, things have a way of aligning in the universe just the way they should. Call it God. Call it fate. Whatever it may be, the events of this night were completely set where I had no way out. I had uncomfortably listened to her talk about all the great things we were going to do now that we were 'back on track'. She was planning trips and weekend excursions; I was trying to harness the ferocious lion of destruction raging in my chest. Every syllable that was lovingly uttered my way felt like a barbed club against my head. I was taking on water and, like it or not, my ship of restraint was not going to last the night.

Once we were seated it began — the yelling, the cussing, the blaring silence. Oh, there wasn't a disrespectful word said at our table. The train wreck was occurring at the table immediately behind me (possibly a reason I try to always sit with my back to the wall in restaurants these days). There was a married couple that had just received their food. Evidently, somewhere during the evening they had discussed what was wrong with their marriage. Why it wasn't working. What was missing. We just happened to walk innocently into the gunfight. The husband sat with his head bowed in defeat, both of their hot meals slowly cooling under the barrage of loathing that was coming from her mouth. Then, as soon as he raised his head to speak, it ended. Not because of something he said, because she was done. Viciously, she tossed her napkin into her plate, grabbed her purse, snarled a last cursory remark telling him she would be in the car, and stormed out. He softly told the waiter, who had stepped in behind the chaos, to box up everything and bring the bill. Then, he lowered his head back into the empty void of his thoughts.

That was exactly when our first shots were fired.

Softly, as if it came from the back of my mind, she chokingly whispered, "What about us?" Now, someone tell me exactly how you answer this question. When all is well, this probing query is not even thought about, but when the relationship is in the tank, it is toxic. Her pink lips immediately pursed at the end of the question, as if she almost wished she hadn't asked it. I'm sure that the guilt and horror of what was to come was all over my face by then. I didn't say a word. I could only mimic the defense of the old gentleman behind me and look listlessly into the void. Those knowing blue eyes welled with tears. She choked back a sob and attempted to corral her billowing emotions. She collected herself. With a look of pained regality, she excused herself. The same bloodbath that had occurred over my shoulder was about to be reprised somewhere in my car or at her house. No escaping the truth. I paid the bill, collected our piping-hot dinners and headed for the door. I caught myself patting the older gentleman on the shoulder as I exited. For this New Year's, we were living versions of the same heartbreaking story.

I reached for the door handle with a heavy sigh and prepared myself for the lashings that were to come. Love and its cousin, hate, don't live too far from each other. My heart knew this. The puffiness of her eyes and repeated sniffles told me that she had been attempting to deal with the crushing blow my lack of words had begun to unleash on her. Once again, as she had been raised so well to do, she had collected herself. We rode in silence back to her house. Once I put the car into park in her driveway, the awaited conversation began.

At first, it was slow and paced. She tried to let us both attempt to eat the meals we were prospectively wasting. The torrid pace began with that offer though. We sat. We stood. We were all over that empty house; discussing what went wrong, why it wasn't right, who was at fault. The hardest thing for either of us to come to terms with was that no one was to blame. We just didn't work. We had shared awesome times together. We had memories and friends by the truckload, but those can not be the foundation on which you build something real. Really enjoying spending time together is great, but it is not enough. At the end of every day and every dark night, you have to have an unquenchable love. Now, maybe I am buying into some variant of Hollywood's idealistic stories or I'm falling prey to something unattainable, but I believe that the one you should be with is the one that you can not be without. They are the notes that make the song of your life into a symphony. I realize that is hopeless and romantic and cliche and somewhat hokey, but search yourself, you will find that settling is the one thing the heart is completely uncomfortable with.

After an hour and a half of deliberations, I had a wave of relief come over me. We weren't done, or better told, she wasn't done. Somewhere in her was this thought that, if we talked long enough, it would all go back to the start in the morning. Unfortunately for that plan, my sense of relief lifted me off of her parent's couch and sent me towards the laundry room door. It was my escape. I stopped as I headed into the garage and out into the night air to counter something she said. Instead of meeting her fire with fire, I caught myself saying, 'We don't have to do this anymore. We are free.' This silenced her for the first time since we parked the car outside. She slowly turned to go back inside, defeated and left to put it all together from the shards of our conversation still lying on her living room floor. I whipped around to the chilly night air and let the winds of freedom wrap me in their embrace. I could still feel the smoldering embers of the forced dream we had just set ablaze on my back. But, this time, there was the breeze of the future luring me onward.

It might sound cold to talk about me feeling free and her going back to wallow in the aftermath. Perhaps it is. Perhaps I was wrong. But, I know in my heart that what was done was right. If not for that moment, I wouldn't be where I am today. I would never have fashioned the resolve to seek my own happiness. I would have been a slave to the expectations of others. Is that really any way to live your life?

This is the day I became king.