Zombies

Zombies

I didn’t know that people could be empty. Every vampire movie – every soul-sucking, weirdo zombie flick – I finally felt like I was on the same level as those creatures. Empty of blood, of soul, of life. How could I be alive if my entire being felt cold and dead like my mother?

Patricia was on the opposite side of that spectrum, actually. She requested to be cremated. She requested a closed casket, too. No one got to see her in the state she was in; partly because we didn’t want people to remember her bloated, yellow and diseased, and mostly because her bangs were flat and she would have never stood to be in public with her hair in such disarray. Naturally there were comments on how a closed casket must have meant she looked awful. But really, what dead person looks Instagram worthy? On the morning of the funeral we stuffed her shirt with childhood photos to be burned with her and headed to the church. From there, she was carted off to a crematorium, incinerated, and placed in a jar on the mantle of the house she almost died in to serve as a reminder that we were alone and addiction was real.

“Mm, the casket is closed. It must have been awful,” whispered one strange man to another strange woman. I sat in a high-back chair against a wall in the middle of the funeral home and observed them. I observed everyone. Each passing face, each person who I didn’t recognize but said to me, “Oh you have her smile! You look just like her!” But I didn’t look just like her. If they could have only seen what she looked like under that rented casket they’d have different opinions. 

“How did you know my mother?” I glared up at them from my throne. I was the one mourning. I had the power.

“Oh, well, uh, we didn’t. We’re friends with her sister.” 

“Well my aunt isn’t here. So you can either stay or go home.” 

They left.

I felt like a wild animal, protecting a dead pack leader from the hoards of scavengers, all sniffing around for a part of her name to shred off. It was kill or be killed. I couldn’t believe that even in death there were comments about how she probably looked – how she probably died. What did it matter? She was dead. Period. We just had to ride it out, collect the flowers that would also die, and go home. 

The house plants were certainly neglected back at my grandfather’s. Fall took an express lane to the backyard and everything that was once flourishing now hung skeletal and ominous. The dahlias I got her for Mother’s Day, Nan’s geraniums, and the hydrangeas were all limp; Grandma’s peace lily from her funeral in 2008 was also down to one, measly leaf. I didn’t have the heart to toss it so I just kept watering the same shitty greenery inside and hoped for the best. It drowned a little more each day but I didn’t know where to put my need to care for the dying. I had spent the first 20 years of my life trying to prevent Patricia from killing herself and, in my mind at the time, failed miserably at that. I felt selfish for going back to school, like I didn’t deserve to grow away from her. I was alive, and that wasn’t fair. 

I wandered campus, juxtaposed between the pressing social lives of my friends and the isolated void that my mind became. My priorities included meeting with professors – all of whom were wonderfully understanding that my situation was tragic, unplanned, and unfair. In particular, kudos to my social work professor who didn’t require me to shadow a hospital for six weeks following my residence at my mother’s bedside (although, I might add, she gave me a C for the semester for not shadowing a hospital, and it was “favoring” me by giving any more lenience). Post traumatic stress disorder was something I believed to be limited to soldiers and victims of national tragedies; I didn’t know it applied to my own personal disaster until the project announcement sent me into a panic attack in the middle of class.

My friends greeted me in varying levels of sympathy and awkward comments of reassurance, because none of them experienced consoling a friend who lost a parent to addiction. Anthony, in his usual silent manner, brought me in for a long albeit soft eyeball-to-nipple embrace. Most friends were silent, and simply hugged me, which I appreciated more than the words. One friend in particular, though, unsure of where to grasp condolences told me, “Wow, I can’t believe you’re back already; If my mom died I would have killed myself by now.” He meant well, and I found it pretty laughable after the exchange because I didn’t know how to react to a statement like that as much as he couldn’t control the backhanded sympathy dribbling from his mouth. 

I turned heavily into baking for some reason. Almost weekly, I ventured into town and bought dollar boxes of brownie mix, or dollar cake mix – whatever was on sale. I’d concoct delicious, although dangerously sweet, experimental desserts that my five other roommates loved and I loved eating. I thought to myself, if I wasn’t the only one eating a Kit-Kat filled brownie with melted peanut butter swirl then it was fine, right? Baking seemed almost cathartic at the time too. There is a preciseness to baking that doesn’t come with cooking meals. Baking is measuring cups and scales, whereas cooking is based off of feelings like, is this enough garlic or do I want it more garlicky? The answer is always more garlic. But, for me at the time, my feelings were so fucking catastrophic that I needed some regimented direction. Baking was a win-all – I had to follow steps and had control, and I could eat my feelings surrounded by friends who wouldn’t dare tell me I was spiraling out of control. For me there was no spiral; I was long gone. 

The isolation began to extend from within my head to my circles, especially my social work class. 

“Who here has lost a grandparent?” My professor raised her hand by example to the 28 of us, all of who raised a hand – almost proudly – in response to the question. “Alright, all of you. Makes sense. Everyone in here is over 18. Now, who of you has lost a parent?” She kept her hand down.

All of the kids kept their hands down. I felt hot and cold at the same time, like a fever. I also felt like for some reason she was challenging me because I had an ace in the hole to get out of the final project. Everything about my being was sensitive and vulnerable and I resented her in that moment. I raised my hand from the back of the classroom and her eyes met mine. Like magnets, all of the students’ eyes turned to see who she was staring at. I was the only person who raised my hand. I picked up my notebooks and walked out of the classroom.

That was the first time I really wanted to die. 

I thought, if I just surrendered to the pain I felt then maybe it would overrun my body and my heart would just stop, and that would be the end of it. I barely made it a month and I wasn’t ready to face the world without Patricia. She was the strongest person I knew and all of that shattered when she died – when she proved to everyone around her that she didn’t want to live anymore. I was so angry when she died I blurted out a couple of times that she killed herself, because I couldn’t understand the hold alcohol had on her. And I was angry with myself for saying it because I remembered how fucking terrified she was looking at me the night before she went into a coma. She knew she fucked up. She knew there was no going back. The end of her life came at 51 years old and I saw her trying to undo years of abuse in her mind for a second chance that she would never receive. 

I thought back to that summer, a month before I left for Oxford. I came home on a lunch break to find her in bed, blinds drawn, dog beside her. I lay down next to her and I asked her if she was sad. 

Three words. Are you sad? She immediately began to cry – the first time I saw her show any emotion other than anger in a year. I didn’t ask her to explain herself; she didn’t owe it to anyone to feel sad. I was just relieved that she finally opened up to me. Eventually I coaxed her out of her room and we stood in the kitchen. She lit a cigarette and took a long, personal drag.

“Maybe I’ll just kill myself,” she said passively through a cloud of smoke.

I took that statement so seriously. I offered to call out of work, take her somewhere – just the two of us. I didn’t want her to be alone.

“We don’t have to tell anyone,” I said.

“No,” she said, “I won’t kill myself.” 

No, I thought, I won’t kill myself.

Break the Wall

I’ve become so accustomed to rejection over the years that now when I see an email reply from a literary agency, I brush it off and dismiss it for lack of getting my hopes up in regards to my writing career. I have been submitting (and getting rejected) to agents for the better part of seven years with my memoirs and essays when all I have been focused on other than making a living is becoming a published author. I want a book deal, I want a book out, I want something published. Since 2012, I’ve been published in magazines and e-books from literary contests and other outlets, but nothing substantial like seeing my name on a shelf at a Barnes and Noble and hearing that someone read about my life story – my life – and felt moved by it in some positive way.

Fast forward to this week. Then rewind to January when my grandfather passed away. He was the oldest surviving prisoner of war in New York and served in Germany in World War 2. He was the most bad-ass, sweetest, understanding human I’ve ever come into contact with and his death has been something I’ve had difficulty coping with since the beginning of this year. Not to mention a particularly nasty break-up in February that derailed me from a proper grief, I’ve felt as if I was shot out of a sling shot this year and lost my footing for a bit.

After Pop died, I revisited a box of old letters exchanged between him and my grandmother during the war – most of them from 1943. There are also miscellaneous letters from my grandfather’s twin brother who died tragically in Japan in November of 1942. That always kills me to know that Pop had to live 75 years without his literal other half; When Arthur died, people said he was lucky for being blown up instead of captured and placed into Japanese prison camps. Pop was already a POW at the time of his brother’s death, and wasn’t informed of it until after he returned from the war in the Fall of 1945 to try and keep his stress levels to a minimum.

Anyway, I digress. With the death, the break-up, an earlier death of my dog of 15 years, and work stress I had what I’d like to call a creative snap where I sat down and pumped out 15,000 words in less than three days based off the letters and stories from Pop. It was a necessary catharsis; it was therapeutic, and in many ways helped more than the therapist I began speaking to in February. I continued on with this story – with his story – and after a couple of months, a trip to Savannah for war research at the Mighty 8th Air Force Museum, some exchanges with the descendants of the 388th Airborne in England, and a lot of tears (and a lot of editing), I produced a book just shy of 300 pages that encapsulated my grandfather’s experiences in life, love, and loss during the war.

Like I said earlier, I’m so adjusted to rejection that I sometimes find myself blindly submitting my work to agent after agent after agent in an attempt to see what sticks like spaghetti on the cabinet that is the saturated literary market. Just this past week I received three (or four?) rejections with reasons ranging from, “Thank you for your query, but I can’t market you,” to, “Thank you for your query, but I’m actually not taking on any projects right now,” to, “Thank you for your query. Your writing is really good but I can’t take on the project.” The last one was kind of a punch to the gut honestly. That one lingered a little, mostly because I so desperately wanted someone to take a chance on my own story for so long and I wholeheartedly believe that my grandfather’s story takes precedence over everything in my immediate world. Especially with the 75th anniversary of D-Day, Pop and his letters belong to a group of forgotten heroes; good men who went through unspeakable horrors and came back home and still got shit done. I was present for his nightmares – I was there for his recounts of terror. His story deserves to be told and now that he isn’t here anymore, I want nothing more than to be a voice to the voiceless.

Yesterday afternoon started with me waking up from an overnight shift to another rejection letter that was emailed to me earlier that morning. “…it’s a subjective market, keep sending out your work.” I respect that. I get it. The literary market it a spiderweb of just finding the right match. Never in the 100 or so agents who rejected me over the years did I take one personally. I just kept thinking to myself that I had to keep writing. Then, a few hours later in the midst of loading my dishwasher I received another email that started like the rest. “Thank you for your query…” My hopes deflated until I see, “The project sounds very interesting, and we’d be pleased to have a look at 50 pages. Please feel free to send it along at your convenience as either a PDF or Word document. We look forward to hearing from you.”

OH MY GOD. OH MY GOD.

I read the same lines over about 46 times. Cue ugly crying. Cue calling my dad in an incoherent, Ron Burgundy in a glass case of emotion sob. Cue my dog not knowing how to deal so he just kept sitting on my foot every time I moved. Cue crying in my kitchen like a Desperate Housewife minus the glass of Pinot. Not even to put all my eggs in one basket because NOTHING is set in stone, but just the mere opportunity to share my work with an agency (who I am yet to name because nothing is set in stone) made my insides melt. After seven years – seven years of no’s, of “thank you, but,” someone is maybe taking a chance on me. All I’ve been doing for seven years is try. And if this opportunity takes off, if I’m able to share the story about my grandfather that he deserves – if I can give justice to men like him – I could seriously die happy.

Liberation

The men lined up and Harold stood among a crowd of cold and frightened souls as he prepared to walk forward out of the open gates of Stalag XVII-B. It all felt like a trap. He spent so many months dreaming of the day where he’d never return to that horrendous place and as it was happening before him, he couldn’t help but feel it was still a dream. He held close whatever he could carry and kept craning his neck to make sure there were other men following in the same direction. They all looked unsure, but they knew they had no other choice. The cold lingered while the fog began to lift over XVII-B, and the prisoners breathed through in heavy huffs as the hell they endured grew smaller; the faces of the sick hung in between the barbed wire fencing like old portraits until Harold could no longer discern them.
There were whispers that the prisoners were destined for Braunau, to get as far away from Russian forces as possible. They followed the Danube River, unable to stop unless it was to sleep for an hour or two. 4,000 or so men split off into groups of up to 300 men, and within those groups they delegated themselves to parties of three or four – one to gather wood, one to gather food, one to guard the food, and so on. As they passed through fields and private farm lands, food gatherers such as Harold would pull root vegetables straight from the ground, wipe the dirt off, and eat them raw. Turnips, potatoes, carrots – whatever they could find was more of a delicacy than the slop that was served by the Jerry’s back in Stalag XVII-B. Harold bit hard into a carrot, his teeth aching from two years of no toothbrush, and thought how grateful he was to never have just hot water for breakfast – or boiled cabbage for dinner, or muddied black coffee – again. He continued onward, marching through mud and fields; he imagined he was marching home to Loretta. He envisioned the cottage on the water, the smell of salt carried on a warm breeze. The thoughts took him back to his early days at Keesler Air Force Base and the muddy Mississippi. It seemed like forever ago to him. He wouldn’t have to write her letters telling her everything was fine before going to bed with hunger pains. He wouldn’t have to tell her that he was in good spirits after seeing innocent men shot dead before him. He’d never have to kill – or watch someone be killed – again. Even with the freezing nights in German territory beating down on his head and face each night, Harold continued to think of her. He would pull into Jamaica Station and this time she’d be there, waiting for him. Her hair would be curled and her lipstick would be a bright shade of pink. She’d have her tea length dress on that he liked, and she’d be so excited to see him that she would consider running onto the train herself, because she just couldn’t wait any longer. Then, that night, he’d lay next to her in bed, and he would do that every night for the rest of his life. He never wanted to be away from her again.

Rule of Threes

Another one of the superstitions that floats around my family to this day is the saying, “Everything happens in threes.” Death, engagements, babies, luck of the good or bad kind, doesn’t matter. I’ve had times of my life where I was set to go on vacation, won a vacation, and took a side vacation within a vacation. Conversely, I’ve had rules of three that make me want to die and forget the number ever existed.

The significance of threes comes from the Creator, Redeemer, and the Sustainer. It’s supposed to represent some sort of omniscience, some kind of karmic circle where a situation will come around to provide a lesson that wasn’t learned with the first action. Mix the rule of threes with Murphy’s Law – what can go bad, will – and you have a spicy concoction of misery.

After convincing my parents that I was, in fact, straight, I began to reflect on my track record of zero boyfriends, zero romantic encounters, infinite times of unrequited love. Sure, I liked plenty of guys in school, but they never liked me. When I was in ROTC, I asked a boy to the military ball and when he told me he wasn’t going, I thought nothing of it. He later said hello to me at the military ball with his date. And that’s pretty much how my entire high school career went, pining for boys who never wanted me, but still trying. I received my first kiss at 17 on a beach at a pre-college part with kids from my graduating class. Then, two weeks into my freshman year of college I got drunk at a dorm party and made out with an Irish exchange student who – at the time – I thought was very cute. When I was sober that following afternoon I discovered I was wrong, and that he was nine years older than me.

Aside from the boy I loved for ten years who later came out as gay, I had an unrelenting crush on my brother’s best friend. A typical teenage movie scenario, he spent an awful lot of time at our childhood home, and I grew more and more fond of him as the years went on. I knew I could never – would never – have him, though. He was tall, athletic, very handsome, uproariously funny, and I was frumpy, fat, and his best friend’s sister.

He went on to join the military and I forgot about him until the December of my freshman year of college when my brother’s girlfriend threw a welcome home party for him. He had just finished a tour and was visiting for two weeks before getting deployed again. As a group, my brother’s friends and I were bad news. We smoked a lot of weed, drank a lot of liquor, and did a lot of dumb things. This night in particular I was drunker than usual, and high, mostly because I was nervous of seeing my brother’s friend. I eventually became too bored and drunk to stand around and found solace in a bed in my brother’s girlfriend’s house. I crawled under the covers and prepared to fall into a rum-induced sleep.

My brother’s friend seemed to have the same idea and came into the bedroom shortly after me, first not noticing my presence and then acknowledging me and getting in bed but on top of the covers. We sat there laughing at the fact that we both had the same idea of finding a bed. Suddenly, the lights turned on and it was another friend, who exclaimed in shock that we were both in a room, alone together and he heckled us until leaving and shutting the lights off again.

Years of bottling my feelings were loosened by alcohol and I rolled over to face my brother’s friend and tell him that I had a crush on him for years. He said, “Really?” and laughed. I was embarrassed. He was laughing at me.

Then he kissed me.

We were both drunk and kissed horribly and touched awkwardly and eventually sexed haphazardly; sometime in the middle of the night, I drunkenly lost my virginity to my brother’s best friend in my brother’s girlfriend’s parents’ bed, only to find out he too was a virgin who had never been kissed. I was shocked by that.

Was this supposed to be love? We had a not special, special moment together in a forbidden situation that could have been improved from literally every angle, figuratively and literally speaking. We didn’t use protection, so I had to buy Plan B the next morning which he reimbursed, and suddenly I felt like a sex worker. This wasn’t how I wanted to have my first sexual experience with someone I knew for almost half my life. After he paid me for the Plan B, we never spoke about that night again. It wasn’t until 2014 that he reached out and apologized for how it all went down, but at that point, what was the point?

I went back to school and sunk into a deep depression. I didn’t feel fulfilled in the slightest in regards to how I thought sex was supposed to feel. I was mad at him for being able to forget me as easily as he did – but it was easier for him anyway, considering he left for Bahrain shortly after I returned to Massachusetts. Even though the Plan B worked, some deranged paranoia within me was convinced I was pregnant, because I had this looming sense of dread that – of course – something else bad was bound to happen. Murphy’s Law, I thought.

A girl from my English 102 class invited me to a party at her house in the middle of February, and I decided to go because a couple of my rugby teammates would be there and I figured it would be healthy to socialize. She said it was a pajama theme, and my naive self assumed actual pajamas. I showed up to her house in flannel pants, a tank top, sweatshirt, and slippers only to be greeted by girls in brightly colored, sexy negligees and onesies and matching top and bottom sets. I immediately went to the fridge for a beer and realized, once again, I was out of my element.

The night grew more awkward for me when I reached for my second beer and was questioned for taking them.

“Caity told me I could help myself to the Natty in the fridge, because I don’t have a connect.” They shot that down quickly and I was resolved to stay sober for the night. Within an hour or so of being there, though, I felt incredibly light-headed and weird and decided to not finish my second beer. Instead, I went out back where the smokers were and lit up a black and mild that I had in my pocket; I was in my experimental phase with inhalants, and liked black and milds because they tasted like vanilla.

The group smoking cigarettes left, leaving me with an unassuming guy. He asked me for a light and I just gave him my black and mild, re-lit it for him, and as I put the lighter back in my pocket he stopped me and asked my name.

“Kaitlin.”

“I’m Jake,” he exhaled up and away from me and leaned in to kiss me.

I was surprised at first, but willing. This was my first real house party and a guy was kissing me even though I was dressed like a sack of potatoes – maybe he was repaying me for giving him my black and mild? I didn’t know. I didn’t care. I pulled back from kissing him to get a good look at his face and, while still a little woozy, I could tell he was attractive. Without saying a word, he pulled me back in – hard – and began to aggressively grope me. I pushed away and told him to slow down, to take it easy – but I was so inexperienced with sexual encounters that I didn’t really know what was supposed to feel right and what wasn’t – and I was still a little woozy.

Instead of slowing down, he pushed me up against a green, metal dumpster which in February felt twice as hard and twice as cold. He forced his hands down my pants and with equal force of the dumpster push, fingered me.

Instantly I felt danger, but I didn’t know how to approach it. I didn’t know what he was capable of, but I knew I didn’t want to be in the dark with him.

I pulled his hand away from me and he resisted me doing so, and I told him I didn’t want to do whatever he was trying to do. He apologized, at first, and as I made my way towards the driveway, towards the flood light, he followed me and shoved his tongue down my throat again, this time up against the house.

“Let’s go in that car,” he had a hand on my arm and was pulling it towards the end of the driveway. I resisted, “No that isn’t a good idea.” I pulled back up towards the light and hoped someone would come outside; to this day I don’t know why I didn’t yell.

He grabbed me hard again and I felt immobilized and utterly powerless. Everything was going hazy and I had tunnel vision and I could feel my heart racing but it was so cold outside I couldn’t feel my fingertips. Again, he grabbed me, but this time it was the back of my head and at some point in these moments he pulled his dick out of his pants and forced my mouth onto it. I choked and pushed myself off him and tried to go towards the front of the house. At that moment, someone walked up the driveway to which he pulled me into him to conceal himself and said, “What’s up man?” The guy nodded and looked me in the eyes and I was so upset that he couldn’t see me screaming inside my head. Once the guy went into the house, I turned to follow towards him and was again pulled back, “Let me fuck you in this car.”

“No,” I felt the adrenaline rushing to my head. I had tunnel vision even worse.
“Well let me fuck you on top of it then.” He shoved me backwards onto the hood of the car under the floodlight, the back of my head touching the cold metal. I thought to the people inside laughing and drinking, and why I could barely function off two beers, and who was this guy? Suddenly he ripped my shirt and sweatshirt up at once to try and put it over my head. For some reason – the cold on my stomach, adrenaline, repressed rage, I wasn’t sure – I snapped. Whatever made me feel woozy wasn’t enough anymore, and I absolutely snapped.

I screamed, “No!” and threw my arms forward, catching him in both his shoulders. Backwards, backwards, I kept pushing – open hand, fists, just back until he fell into a bush. I saw him, then, for who he was. I saw a weak, scared boy. He put both of his hands up as if I was holding a gun to his chest.

“Woah! Woah! Woah! Okay, sorry, sorry.” He kept walking backwards, the bush now the only thing separating whatever was coming out of me from ripping him apart. I fixed my sweatshirt, eyes fixed on him, and ran into the house. When I found my friend, I asked her to drive me home. She asked me what happened as soon as she saw my face and I burst out sobbing. I told her everything and she rubbed my back while I sat with my head between my knees, wondering what the fuck just happened.

She took me to my friends. I went into the bathroom and noticed I was bleeding from how hard he fingered me; I still felt him in the back of my throat. Nothing came of it – when confronted, his friends defended him. He belonged to a fraternity, and apparently I was dressed like a whore.

I felt absolutely wretched. My GPA was at the point of just above academic probation. I could barely eat, I slept all day, and I hated myself. When I looked in my mirror I was completely disgusted with what I saw. I told my roommate what happened; I wouldn’t dare tell my parents. They already wanted me to go to Stony Brook and if I brought up being sexually assaulted there was no doubt in my mind they’d pull me from the roster. I didn’t believe what happened actually happened after a week, either. With no one who was at the party believing me, I felt once again like I was just providing some service. A man used me and got away with it, so what did I matter?

My roommate tried so hard to lift my spirits for a few days. She and I were very opposite in terms of lifestyle – me, a rugby player and she, a natural party girl. Eventually in the end of February, she convinced me to go out with her and a couple of her girlfriends.

“Come on, it’ll just be the girls. No boys, and we’ll all be together. It’ll be fun, please?” I said yes, let them make me over, and followed them to a party in one of the varsity sports houses directly off campus.

Immediately I was put off. The living room was packed out with undergrad girls grinding on each other for a camera. I found the bar and we stashed our drinks, but I held onto my lemonade and vodka to avoid what happened two weeks prior. The point guard for the basketball team offered me a hit of his weed and I accepted it, because he smoked it first and he had a reputation to uphold on campus. I let myself sink into drunkenness and wandered the house, looking for faces I might have recognized. I found one of my teammates who wasn’t at the party earlier that month and when she asked me to walk back to our dorm together, I jumped on the opportunity. I wasn’t having fun and I was with a friend.

We were both drunkenly stumbling back to campus, only stopping once to pee behind trees next to the science building. The thin, cold, Massachusetts air made me feel worse off than I was, and I wandered into the freshman dorm carrying my lemonade and vodka, obviously diluted and donning a black Kahlua cap. The security officer stopped us and asked me what was in the bottle. I told her the truth, because I knew if I lied she’d make me open the bottle anyway and I was clearly drunk as it was.

“You girls bringing alcohol into these dorms?”

“No, all me. Not her.”

She let my friend go back up to her room and I asked her to meet me at the police station, because I was about to get arrested.

I was read my rights, cuffed, taken out back and placed in a cruiser. The seats were hard plastic and incredibly uncomfortable, as if I deserved some sort of treatment for being a fucking idiot. We came to the station at the edge of campus, and I was put into holding, handcuffed to a bench, all my personal belongings taken from me.

That was when it sunk in.

I started to cry. “I’m an English major – I never even went to the principal’s office in high school. What the fuck is happening to my life?” My proclamations were to no one in particular, but my arresting officer looked over at me with sympathy. “Do you want to call your parents?” My eyes lowered, “You haven’t met my dad.” She cocked her head, “Hey, aren’t you on the rugby team? I love you girls, always helping with the rape defense classes.”

Exposure

I generally peruse Pinterest when I’m at work on my overnight shift in between talking to planes, even though it’s advised that I don’t use Pinterest at work because it may be considered “distracting” or an unhealthy use of social media. Pinterest to me is not social media, rather, a drug and the only drug I am currently hopelessly addicted to. I find inspiration for new drawings or paintings, compare myself to other artists, look at outfits I’ll never buy, and save dozens of paint swatch ideas for a house I don’t own, but when I do will have 37 different rooms of different colors; it’s an oversaturation playground for people such as myself to become hopelessly lost in the world of elevated expectations.

Recently – and more aggressively – I find advertisements from Pinterest directed to me for handmade coffins available through hyperlink on an Etsy page. Each time I log onto Pinterest – every five lines of clickbait or so – is an ominous albeit beautifully crafted coffin, advertised as reclaimed wood (and, of course, customizable). I’ve never clicked the advertisement for the fear of being redirected to the page, thus creating more coffin traffic to my paint swatches and floral designs, but I thought back long and hard to what other internet activity suggested me as a potential demographic for such a product in the first place. I honestly have found myself torn between being offended, or simply impressed to see a niche market for handmade, reclaimed wooden coffins available through a craft site.

 

It was almost refreshing to see mortality advertised to me in such a comfortable, soft manner. Alternatively speaking, however, the oversaturation of craft and talent and accomplishment has bled over into the afterlife: “We’re all gonna die anyway, but make sure you stay dead in this chic, custom coffin!” Our media platform has run rampant with options and blasts of what we each can do – a lot of which is amazing – but I would be lying if I said I didn’t find myself often comparing my own abilities as a writer and an artist to the constant flowing stream of relevant social media content.

Sometimes I forget that even as a part of this huge planet that somehow functions in its own way of synchronized entropy, I exist within my own microcosm that most of the known universe will never have the experience of viewing. And even if, for whatever reason, my entirety of life was exposed, no one can truly know the wholeness that is myself.

It makes me wonder then, as an artist, as a writer – creator in general – why I often find myself feeling so pressured to live up to a standard that ultimately proves nothing in the long run. Call me a cynic, but my exposure in this world since birth has either been censored without option, or exposed without filter. The only difference as an adult it he introduction of social media, which has mastered the art of over-exposing filtered content. It’s like playing God or controlling the weather each time I post to Instagram or Facebook, showing the world only what I want it to see and then captioning it as raw and true; we’re all guilty of it. What makes me laugh in a sad way – so sad that it’s humorous type of way – is that I’ve experienced things in my short lifetime that many would consider fake, and that I am so conditioned to be used to that I don’t bat an eye at the obscurity of it all. At the same time, I’m not sure what the point of any of it actually is.

I know what the endgame is of course – death. Dying, mortality, the only one true unifying thing we as humans all have in common. The idea that we’re all going to die one day should make us enjoy our lives more, but instead many of us spend our days trying to prove to outside eyes that we are truly enjoying our lives. In reality, though, a very large number of us are blowing away weekends to make up for our 9-5 or our shift work or our multiple jobs that we need in order to satiate our desired lifestyles and somewhere along that line we lose the true value of what our lives are meant for. We aren’t meant to just bide our time until we die; we aren’t meant to prove anything to anyone.

 

What I’ve always wanted to do is simply share. I want to give my weird, outlandish life stories to people and hope they’ll laugh, cry, gain insight, maybe even hate me; at least they’ll feel something.

Get out of the box

There isn’t much to be said about this bullpen. It’s plain, encased in brick, and unassuming. The ceilings are illuminated by OSHA regulated fluorescent lighting, and the only windows I open are on one of my three computer screens. There are constant echoes of doors opening and closing all about the building, like industrial breathing. Our standardized morale boosters come in the form of a free popcorn maker and complimentary bulk-bought coffee. The walls are a uniform blue-grey that seem to gain inspiration from Orwell’s 1984 (the two minutes of hate scene in particular) and I sit here until 7AM, observing a symphony of airplanes as they cross the Atlantic airspace.

My commute to work is laughable for someone who lives on the island. Before moving to my current residence in 2016, my drive averaged a very, very long-feeling 25 minutes, which is still modest compared to the rest of the populous; my father drove an hour or more each way for my entire childhood. I remember seeing him leave before sunrise and return well after dark donning a sullen, angry look on his face that showed his unwavering need to be a workhorse and keep food on the table. He had strained, sunken eyes with dark encapsulating circles – sometimes a frown, sometimes not. Every night he would retire to a La-Z-Boy recliner with the television remote and eventually slip away into sleep, HBO playing dully in the background; my brother and I learned young that it was important to invest in a decent recliner. After a couple of hours, he’d make his way to bed where my mother already lay in a drunken slumber, harboring an unbearable snore that made the bedroom smell of stale cigarettes and wine. As a result, my father would resort to spending most of my childhood on the couch. He would wake to the sound of his 5AM alarm and the smell of preset coffee, prepare his belongings, and trek once again into the darkness of morning.

As of 2016, the average car commute time for Long island was 33 minutes. For train, an hour. But 33 minutes, each way, five days a week undoubtedly beats down the human spirit. That’s 33 minutes of creeping traffic, skipping music, spilled coffee, and maybe a little road rage. For me, 11 minutes on average (six if I don’t hit any lights) gets me to my gate at work. That’s 22 minutes of less stress, fewer distractions, and generally zero coffee spilled.

The drive home is equally zen. Where I live, most commuters head west. I, however, miss all of the congestion and essentially reverse commute – facing the sunrise. Driving towards the sun each day as it rises has given me an appreciation for the varying colors, intensity, and energy is expresses, especially in contrast to the box I crawl out of each day. It shows me that my job may be the same, but every morning begins differently. I go to bed around 7:30, eventually tackle my afternoon, and make it in again well after night falls over the east coast to check in on my orchestrated airplanes.

Each night, tiny green triangles crescendo and decrescendo along calculated global routes, and suddenly the earth looks so insignificant. I monitor different sectors to ensure everyone is going where they need to go, while passengers sit oblivious to my existence. Sometimes, I’m technical when asked to describe my current profession; other times I refer to it as glorified babysitting. Either way, I watch thousands of lives cross the water, like a modern Charon. They are hopelessly unaware of my job, and I am continuously reminded of how important and how equally miniscule I am in this world. Each person is visiting, returning, working, or escaping. They all carry their own personal agendas and reasons for travel – they all have their own mini missions of life.

Since the Spring of 2015, I have been an overnight shift worker. I don’t mind shift work – it’s actually the only real type of work I know, minus a year-long stint as a Monday through Friday secretary in an insurance agency. My uniform is street clothes, except for pants with holes in them or flip flops (for whatever reason). I report at 11 each night and make it to my front door a little after seven each morning. My days off rotate; my social life has kind of taken a toll in regards to making plans and going out. If anything, working overnights has given me an appreciation for naps and breakfast at three in the afternoon. Living my life like a vampire – while detrimental if I don’t take care of myself properly – frees me up to write in a more relaxed, almost library-esque setting during the twilight hours. I also have a greater appreciation of my personal health, knowing that if I don’t listen to my body, take my vitamins, and eat relatively healthy I will suffer more over than someone who works during the day. And while the job can be boring or monotonous, it gives me times to reflect.

Generally when the traffic dies down, and 3AM rounds the room to tell us that it’s time to kick the chairs back a little further, crack open a book, and unwind, I begin to reflect and record the events of my life. For years, I tried to run away from everything. I recall attempting an ass-backward approach of making it out of my own life – well – alive. This lasted about six years before I realized everything I had endured up until this point was a test of strength and mental stability, and I somehow managed to survive while maintaining a crippling fear of ending up like certain members of my immediate family.

My childhood revolved around a sense of urgency and busy-body activities that kept me either out of my often turbulent household, obligated to my computer in my bedroom, or absorbed in a book. I had goals, and academic mile markers to not only prove to myself that I was worthy of great things, but also to give my mother and father one less thing to fight about.

At the age of seven, my school deemed me developmentally disabled, because I had a tendency to play pranks and wrote with my notebook on an extreme angle. After taping my books down to my desk proved ineffective, I was pulled from class and placed in a remedial room with coloring books and children on the spectrum. My mother was not notified of this, however, and when she discovered that I was doing “just wonderful” in my new environment, she cursed and screamed and had me pulled back out and put into the “regular” class. I was explicitly warned to stop playing pranks, and I feared making my mother that angry in academia ever again.

The ultimate drive became college, and when I was accepted to several universities in 2008 I thought things would eventually calm and settle at home. Being one of the only people in my extended family to receive a bachelor’s degree gave me a great sense of pride and a pedestal with which I could be better seen by my parents. This only improved in the summer of 2011, when I prepared to go to the University of Oxford and leave New York for a little to study English Literature. I remember it being something I wanted since my junior year of high school after hearing a story by my English teacher, Mr. Stahl, regarding him being accidentally locked inside the walls of one of the colleges while visiting a friend. He went on to describe ancient stonework, the smells, the stars at night hanging over old chapels and perfectly manicured grass. I fantasized for years, and when I finally got in, I told my mother to the response of a sigh and, “That’s going to be a great bill to get in the mail. Don’t tell your father yet.” I was determined to make her proud that summer; she died two months after I returned home due to liver poisoning from extreme binge drinking.

2012 onward was an era of attempting to find myself by essentially giving up and losing who I was entirely. Like people who gain wisdom by admitting they know nothing, I learned who I was by reflecting on the idea that I spent the first 20 years or so of my life not really having any sense of identity. I don’t mean “identity” as in what I wanted to do with my future; I always knew I wanted to be a writer. I stuck with my major all throughout my college career, and knew in my heart of hearts that I was a storyteller. Rather, I had no identity in the sense that I lived my life in a mode of survival for so long that I never looked at anything (with the exception of writing) and reflected upon it from an internal standpoint.

I spent so many years in chaos and alertness that when I moved to my current residence in 2016 – realizing no one at the time knew my address – I broke down crying. For the first time in a long time, I was completely alone. Not lonely, just alone. I was given the chance to be selectively introverted, and to answer to only myself since the day I watched my mother die in 2011 and, quite frankly, I didn’t know what to do. I imagined it’s what retirees felt when they finally didn’t have to wake up to an alarm clock after 40 some-odd years of answering to another; it was equally freeing as it was crippling.

It can be quite baffling to spend so long living a life of chaos – of constant emotional turmoil – and then to come up from the bunker one July morning and see all is calm, not knowing if you’re in the eye of the storm or if the storm itself has finally passed on. I like to think of my childhood as being raised in a life of coins, where every situation and family member had two completely opposite sides. My family grew up in the suburbs, yet under the roof lay an active volcano. My father was a man I idolized and feared. My brother and I shared the same sense of humor but ultimately grew up to be fundamentally different people. And then there was my mother – the woman who became my first friend, and my first bully.  
I only recently came to the admittance that my mother put me down in a very memorable way. For me, there existed a line I didn’t want to cross for the fear of insulting or demonizing someone who was unavailable to defend herself. Saying something like, “My mother was responsible for my compulsive overeating,” places an air of blame but – ultimately – the truth, and when the truth is put out that way, the power is taken from the things once feared. I however, was afraid to take away power from someone I idolized so much when all I had to go on were memories. I had to know in my soul that admitting to my mother’s harshness on me was a projection of where she thought she failed. She only wanted me to be a better version of myself but never conveyed it properly due to her horrible self image. The projections were magnified, of course, by her decades-long battle with alcoholism. Her ups and downs of affection peppered with vocalized disappointment of how I looked moulded a self image that became the two sides of my own coin: Mentally excelling in almost any subject, while never mastering myself. To learn who I was – to chase me down and finally meet myself – I decided to record the happenings. I began to write my life down. Writing, for me, became cathartic in the way that I was able to see everything I’ve done, gone through, or felt, and grow from it. After sharing some of my writings, I learned I wasn’t alone, and chose to be a storyteller, rather than hold my words to my chest.