Farewell Norman Rockwell

Though they had been separated since January, Johnny and Alice were still living together by spring. They decided to wait until the school year was over to do what they had been dreading most since this whole nightmare began: telling the kids. Savannah was finishing up first grade. Thomas was finishing kindergarten. And they were about to get the hardest lesson of their young lives.

Months of therapy prepared Johnny and Alice for this moment – at least to the point where they could both tackle the situation without having a major meltdown in front of their kids (behind closed doors was another story). They certainly experienced no shortage of those over the past several months. And it would probably continue on for months to come.

The last thing either one of them wanted to do was fall apart in front of Savannah and Thomas. And though therapy helped prepare for them for this moment, it was impossible to shake the thought that no matter how the therapist spun it, the kids would only see this as bad news – that their lives were about to change forever. And by extension, they would turn out damaged as result. This was by far, the most difficult part about this process – at least, up until this point. No amount of therapy could really prepare one for this?

They both had their own way of expressing their emotions in front of one another. For him, it was tears. Her outlet was anger. It wasn’t surprising. He wore his emotions more outwardly on his sleeve than she did. She tended to keep her emotions bottled up. However, since their separation, her wrath toward him skyrocketed exponentially.

Crying only pissed her off more.

“You asked for this,” was her stock response.

And yes. He did ask for this. But what he did not ask for was a marriage lacking in every possible category of the Five Love Languages – a book his therapist suggested he read. In fact, that book was the true tipping point. A wake-up call to what should have been obvious all along. As it turned out, she freely admitted to not being fluent in any of the love languages. When he brought this up with her, her defense was that he had no idea how hard it was to be a mother. True. He did not. His therapist called bullshit. And for months, he was torn between what his wife was telling him…and what his therapist was telling him. A tug-of-war that he had become more and more convinced would end in a stalemate.

Was he being gaslit? If so, by whom? Or, was he gaslighting himself into thinking he was being gaslit? It was thoughts such as this that kept him up at night in what he referred to as the “pit of despair” – usually between the hours of 3 am and his 5:30 alarm.

So, he dredged on through therapy trying to work it out. Meanwhile, she quit her therapy before the winter began its long thaw toward spring. He didn’t dare ask why she quit. The last person she wanted questioning her or even offering advice was him. That is how it had always been. If he were to guess, it was that she must have heard something she didn’t want to hear. She was fine, of course. He was the one with the problem. Though in her defense, she was the one who initially fought for couples counseling. But his mind was already made up. And nothing, nothing would ever make him reverse course.

Coinciding with the end of the school year was his need to find a place of his own. They were both teachers and the idea being home together all summer long would be a horrible idea.

He eventually found an affordable condo for rent in a neighboring town.

Now, for the hard part: telling the kids. There was no getting around it. Only then, would it all feel real. And that was what scared them the most. He would no longer be able to hide from the truth, where everything was still wonderfully “normal”.  Even though they had both told their families and a handful of close friends, until the kids knew and one of them moved out, their separation wouldn’t feel real. It would only exist in the abstract. It didn’t help that at times, she seemed to be in denial.

The school year crawled its way to its inevitable end –which was typically a cause to celebrate. This year, summer would mean mourning. A week passed and they still hadn’t told the kids. They finally picked a date, a few days before she would taking the kids up north for a couple of weeks to visit her parents. They hoped the trip would provide a safe buffer before they had to get used to the idea of ping-ponging between parents.

The day of reckoning arrived and they decided to tell them after dinner. As the day dragged on, dread and doubt spread like an accelerating cancer in his mind. It was the longest day of his life. But all things must come to pass.

They jointly prepared their kids’ favorite meal: he made burgers on the grill. She made mac & cheese. As he stood at the grill, he realized that someday, it would no longer be his. He also couldn’t help but feel that feeding the kids their favorite meal moments before delivering news that would negatively change their lives forever was a bit cruel. In fact, it made him feel sick to his stomach. As much as he thought he wanted a divorce, he hated being the one responsible for having control over this decision. In fact, there were times that he would have much preferred to be the victim. Of course, he knew the grass is always greener on the other side.

Dinner was served. As they ate, he couldn’t help but realize that if a passerby were to peer into their living room window, they would have seen a perfectly happy family of four seated at the dining room table. But that is the problem when we look into windows from afar. Nothing is always what it seems.

The kids ate oblivious to the fact that their parents hardly touch their own food (a simple salad for her; hot dog and mac and cheese for him). They waited toward the end of the meal to tell them. As they agreed upon, he took the lead. As she once again reminded him beforehand, this was all his idea to begin with. He stuck to the script he had rehearsed in his mind – as suggested by his therapist. Somehow, he managed to hold himself together. She did too. Both kids initially appeared stoic, but probably because they couldn’t fully process what was happening. But then Savannah began to weep. Thomas, meanwhile, responded by asking for another hot dog.

As Johnny went to retrieve more food, Savannah jumped into her mommy’s lap to be consoled, as Thomas took comfort in his second hot dog. Moments later, everything returned to normal again and Johnny was overcome with a sudden sense of relief and realization that maybe everything was going to be okay after all. Just as his therapist said, it is usually harder for the parents, than it is for the kids. At least short-term. Long-term was to be determined.

He wasn’t naïve to think it wasn’t all temporal. But in this moment – and the long and arduous days and months to follow – he quickly learned that small victories were the best he could hope for.

After discussing how daddy would sometimes be living somewhere else, Savannah immediately asked:

“Will daddy have popcorn and bourbon at his condo?” (or, as his Thomas would come to call it, his “combo”).

“I promise you that daddy will have all the bourbon and popcorn he could ever want,” he said, stopping just short of admitting that there would be more, in fact.

“Who wants to go out for ice cream?” Alice suggested.

And the kids rejoiced.

Never underestimate the therapeutic powers of ice cream.

As they ate their ice cream at their neighborhood ice cream stand, nothing seemed out of ordinary.

And ordinary was exactly what they all needed more than anything that night.

The next night, Johnny spent the first night at his other place. And yes, he had bourbon and popcorn. Then cried himself to sleep.

A new sense of normalcy was still a long way off.

But it was a start.

 

First Crush

Violet had only recently become obsessed with the idea of smooching. One more step on the journey into loss of innocence that parents helplessly watch their children traverse.

She was eight.

Totally normal Brian reminded himself.

He didn’t consider himself an overly protective dad. At least, not yet. But he wasn’t naïve, either

There was certainly a charming innocence to her recent fascination, which he assumed – hoped – was limited to what she saw on TV and in movies.

Perhaps he was naïve.

Maybe it was already happening on playground. If not now, then someday.

He tried not to think about it.

One place she certainly wasn’t seeing it was in own home. Of course, she received no shortage of affection from her parents. But she certainly never witnessed any type of affection between her parents.

Did she even notice? Perhaps not. But if she did, what did she think?  Did she find it odd? Maybe she just assumed it only happened in the land of make believe. Then again, she had surely seen other family members and friends showing affection. So why not her parents?

He considered it no coincidence that her with love and smooching was piqued shortly around the time her parents started living separately.

Shortly after that, came her first official “crush”. Or, at least the first crush she admitted to. He suspected she had earlier crushes. She just didn’t know what that meant at the time

“Sounds like somebody has a crush,” he teased.

Much to his surprise, she admitted it. Then blushed. He didn’t push it any further.

His name was Alex. He was in the other 2nd grade class.

For the days and even weeks that followed, she shared a daily Alex report:

“Alex told a funny joke.”

“Alex burped the alphabet at lunch.”

“Alex farted.”

And then one day, she sprinted out of school with the biggest smile he had seen since the separation. In fact, he couldn’t remember when she looked that happy.

“Alex smiled at me today!” she exclaimed, as as giddy as – well, a schoolgirl.

“From across the lunch table!”

From what he gathered, Alex still hadn’t spoken directly to her. But never underestimate the power of a smile. Especially through the point-of-view of a second grader.

It filled his heart with so much joy to see her walking out with a smile on her face, rather than tears. How many times did that happen that school year? Too many.

There would always be tears, of course. But in this moment, he was relieved to finally see less of them.

Between the separation and her struggles to make friends, real, or perceived, it broke his heart every time, triggering the sting of being a former victim of bullying himself.

It never goes away.

Weeks passed, but her crush didn’t. He quickly learned not to bring up Alex to spare her the embarrassment. However, she freely talked about him so much, he had no reason to bring it up on his own.

Not lost in all of this was how open she was about sharing all of this with him. As much as he hoped it would always be like this, he knew better. Someday, sooner than he even realized, she would be a teenager. And before long, an adult. And no matter how close they were, she would never fully disclose everything. Someday, her biggest secrets would be trusted with someone else. And someday, he would be least likely to be privy to them. Some of these men would up hurting her. And yet, her secrets would remain with them. Some might even use them against her. It sickened him to even think about it.

Someday, she would probably find out his biggest secrets He would own up to it, but he knew the potential damage it could do to the bond they shared. For now, he would continue to savor their mutual love for The Beatles, the annual Daddy-Daughter Dance she said she wanted to do forever, and bike rides through the neighborhood – a neighborhood that was still is as long as he continued the “nesting” arrangement with her mother. As far as Violet knew, mommy threw daddy out of the house. In reality, she didn’t want any of this at all. And once she understood the truth, how could he possibly explain to his daughter that he left in the best interest of the kids?

Someday, he would face the music. But for now, there was daddy. And Alex. Alex was momentarily winning. There would always be Alexes to contend with.

He was all she could think about. He began to wonder how much of it was in her head. If so, she took after him more than he even realized.

A few weeks into her crush, she sprung out of the building with a new level of unbridled joy:

“Guess what?! Alex gave me a note!”

There was another note the next day. And the day after that.

But then, in typical fashion, reality came and reared its ugly head.

It began with a call from his ex. He naturally assumed it would probably have something to do with finances, or, some nitpicky thing he did wrong last time he was at the house.

“You know those notes that Violet keeps bringing home from school?” Jennifer began.

“Yeah?”

“I don’t think they’re from Alex.”

“What do you mean?”

“I looked at the handwriting. And then I looked at her best friend Chloe’s handwriting. It’s identical.”

“Are you sure?”
“Positive. I’ll send you pics.”

“Should we tell her?” he asked.

“I think so.”

“She’s going to be heartbroken.”

“Won’t be the last time,” she said in her typical glass half-empty fashion.

“True,” he agreed. “But is there any harm in delaying the inevitable?”

She thought on it.

“I will call her Chloe’s mom first. Just to be sure. And then I’ll talk to her.”

As much as he wished it didn’t have to be so, it was for the best.

“Okay.”

When they got off the phone, she sent the pics. There was no question it was the same handwriting.

It certainly wouldn’t be the first hard lesson she learned. And he had no doubt she could handle it. After all, this is the same girl who at the age of five, taught a little boy on the playground a lesson in sexual harassment after he a got a little too handsy:

“That’s my ‘gina’,” she shouted. “It’s very dangerous and could get you fired.”

As confident that he was that his daughter could handle it, but watching your child emerge from the cocoon of innocence they’re born into was almost too much to bear at times.

As it turned out, Chloe confessed to forging the letters. She used the defense that she didn’t want Violet to feel left out since she was the only one in their friend group who didn’t have a “boyfriend” and knew that Violet had a crush on Alex. She would later write Violet an apology. And though Violet she was disappointed in her best friend, she knew she meant well.

“What do they need boyfriends for?” Brian asked. “They’re eight!”

“Don’t be naïve,” Jennifer said.

A familiar refrain.

“But you’re right, why do we need boys at all?”

He knew well enough to back down.

They agreed that Jennifer should be the one to tell their daughter after school the next day. Though he felt a protective instinct to talk to her, he knew it was for the best to let her mother handle it. The last thing she needed to hear in this instance was advice from a man. At least he would be at the house when the conversation happened for their weekly family dinner night. This was part of their agreement when they separated, so that their daughter could continue to have family memories throughout childhood. Neither one knew how long it would last, but for now, it worked for them.

When Brian picked Violet up from school that day, he could tell she wasn’t her usual giddy self. She wasn’t sad, but not nearly as happy as she had been every day after school. She didn’t mention anything about Alex. Nor, did he want to ask. He assumed there was no note today. She remained pretty during after dinner, too. He dreaded how she would take the news.

After dinner, Jennifer talked with their daughter in her bedroom, with the door closed. As tempted as he was, Brian did the respectful thing by not spying.

A few minutes later, mother and daughter emerged from the bedroom. There were no tears. Violet simply carried the notes “from Alex” that she had been saving in her jewelry box that she got when she was four. Without saying a word, she simply tore them up over the recycling bin, then grabbed her Harry Potter book and curled up on the couch to read.

Business as usual.

The next day, she took down all of her Disney princess stuff off her walls.

That night, as he tucked her into bed, he asked:

“Are you okay?”

“Yes, daddy.”

“I’m sorry Chloe did that to you.”
“It’s okay. She meant well.”

“I just want you to know, you are so pretty and smart and boys will always have crushes on you, but you will always be able to pick among the very best. Life will be full of crushes and broken hearts, but you have the strongest heart of all.”

“Thank you, daddy.”

“I want you to know that I’m always going to be your umbrella beneath the rain. I might not be able to stop the storm, but I can shield you from it.”

She nodded with the assurance she probably didn’t even need. But as long as she was his little girl, he was never going to stop trying.

“And no matter what, you will always be daddy’s little princess.”

“Not a princess. A queen.”

Brian laughed, fighting back tears.

He knew right in that moment that even though he wouldn’t always be able protect her, this experience proved she wouldn’t always need protecting.

“And with a daddy like you, I don’t really care about any other boys.”

She then kissed him on the cheek, rolled over, and closed her eyes.

There was nothing else to be said.

She already knew the moral of the story.

 

 

 

 

Tick

They were on a runaway train heading toward an abyss. And neither one of them knew how to stop it. They just didn’t know how much track was left. One thing was certain –to him, at least: every argument moved them one step closer to the cliff.

With the arrival of spring, Brian found unexpected refuge in nature. He was never much of an outdoorsman, nor, was he one to take walks. But for the sake of his own sanity, he had grown accustomed to leaving for a walk after – or even during – an argument. It was only a matter of time before he would walk out the door for good. He was hopeful his wooded sojourns would provide the clarity he needed to move on with his life.

Of course, taking walks was so uncharacteristic of him, it wasn’t long before Christine became suspicious of his increasingly long walks. He went so far as to take pictures as proof if it ever got to the point where he needed to provide it. In fact, one time it did.

“But how do I know you weren’t there with someone?” she continued to ask.

He had no way to prove otherwise.

And though he realized that turning his back on an argument was rooted in selfishness, he justified it when he realized it was just as much for his kid’s sake as his. Perhaps, even more so. In fact, the potential damage their arguments were having on the kids was a primary reason he wanted out. He had a litany of other, more selfish reasons, of course. But once he realized just how much his kids were impacted, he decided to get serious about formulating his exit strategy. Or, at least thinking about formulating one. He just had to get out his own damn way. And ultimately learn to live without guilt.

Then again, was that even possible?

Though he had his go-to trails, he decided to take advantage of living in a town that had no shortage of parks and trails to seek out different paths.

As he drove toward his favorite trail, he found himself once again mired in regret about for not hugging his kids goodbye. The again, what choice did he have in the midst of an argument? He tried to assuage his guilt by reminding himself that he wouldn’t be gone for long. The guilt was deafening. It was finally put on pause when what appeared to be an unmarked trailhead caught his attention just off the side of the road. He found it odd that he had never noticed it before. Then again, it was pretty well-hidden.

Under ordinary circumstances, he wasn’t one to take the road less traveled, but if there were ever a time to break the mold, it was now.

In typical fashion, he initially passed on the opportunity and kept on driving, but then slowed down and parked on the side of the road. No other car was in sight. In fact, no other cars even passed by, which was unusual for such a perfect, sunny spring day. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. And the temperature was approaching 70. Though he typically enjoyed the solitude, he didn’t mind the occasional passerby. It reminded him that he wasn’t completely alone. It gave him hope for a future he was trying to get to. As much as he wanted out of his situation, he sometimes feared being alone even more.

But taking the road less traveled, meant facing it alone.

He entered the narrow trail head. Though there was a path, it was partially obscured by

undergrowth. His inability to identity poison ivy lack certainly demonstrated his lack of nature expertise. So, he treaded carefully. He was also mindful of the possibility of ticks. He regretted wearing shots.

The deeper he got into the woods, the narrower and less worn the path became. And the more alone he felt. Before long, there was no path at all. He was forging his own path until he happened upon an intersecting trail. And every intersecting trail begat a fork in the road. It wasn’t before he realized he was lost. And he had no idea if he was getting further away from the point of entry, or if he was just going around in circles. Sometimes, things looked familiar. Other times, it did not.

He had no internal compass, so this was nothing new. He reached into his pocket to grab his phone to use as a compass would help. But then he realized he left his phone in the car. J

Just his luck.

He tried not to panic, figuring he would eventually figure out his way back. Or, at least come out on some road – if not the one he parked on.

He continued to wander aimlessly. He had lost all sense of time. If only he had his phone. Every time he thought he had it figured out, he reached another fork in the road. Before long, everything looked familiar no matter which path he chose.

In fact, the only thing that changed was the sky. It had gone from cloudless blue to a dark grey. At first, he thought he was just in a densely-shaded part of the woods. After all, there were no clouds in the forecast.  But then he looked up.

Two wrong turns later, he felt the first drop. Then a steady drizzle. Then a downpour. At least, there was no lightning.

But then there was.

Panic set in. Of being lost. And of the eventual hell to pay when he returned home. Then again, maybe she would be worried enough not to be mad. And his poor kids. The last thing he wanted to do was make them more stressed and worried then they probably already were.

He realized he had no idea how much time had passed. He would have been no less surprised if it were 45 min or two hours.

He took shelter until the storm stopped, leaving behind just a steady drizzle. By that point, he was already soaked.

Sheltering in place wasn’t going to get him anywhere, so he set out, determined to find his way out of the unexpected labyrinth he found himself lost in.

He thought he finally found his exit, only to lead to a dead end. So, he turned around and kept on his journey, remembering with every step of the way that every journey must come to an end.

He considered cutting through woods, but was worried that might get him even more lost. He would stick to the trail – for now, at least.  There were a couple of times he thought he happened upon the way out, only to reach another dead end.

Just when he thought he traversed through every possible inch of the forest, he came across a new sight: train tracks! Though they were clearly abandoned, he decided to follow them. Surely, the would lead him out of the woods. They didn’t. They, too, came to a dead end.

He had just about abandoned all hope when he noticed a patch of sunlight at the end of the trail, despite the rain that was still falling overhead. He walked toward the light and lo and behold, he made it out of the woods.

Not only was the sun back out, but there was no sign of rain at all. The ground was bone dry. And there was not a single cloud in the sky.

He headed back to his car and quickly checked his phone. He had no missed calls or texts from home, which was surprising considering that she would ordinally begin to bombard him if he was gone a minute longer than expected. He looked at the time. 2:45. He could have sworn that was the time he had arrived. He must have been wrong.

He sent a text to say he was on his way. But it bounced back as “undeliverable.” He tried again. Sane result. The natural assumption to make would have been that there was no signal. But his phone indicated otherwise.

Just before he drove off he noticed a black dot on his leg. He examined it more closely.

A tick!

It hadn’t had a chance to burrow deep at all, so he was able to pluck it off with ease, relying on his childhood memories of the occasional tick during family vacations up north.

As he headed home, he continued to see no sign of rain, except for the fact that he was completely drenched.

He tried calling home. But his wife’s number was “no longer in service.”

He pulled into the driveway. The garage was open and something seemed off, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it. Did she clean out the garage while he was gone?

He entered. Christine stood at the counter, chopping vegetables like any other day.  She stopped mid-chop and looked at him with an expression he never quite noticed before. A look that could only be described as confused fear. She appeared “off” in other ways, too. She looked… younger. Like when he first met her.

“You won’t believe what happened—” Brian began.

Then a man’s voice he didn’t recognize:

“May I help you?”

Brian turned to look in the direction of the voice.

“What is going on?” Brian asked. “Where are the kids?”

“Get out,” the man demanded. “Or, I’ll call the police.”

“Christine…”

“Do you know him?” the stranger asked.

“I never saw this man before in my life,” Christine said to the man who clearly wasn’t a stranger to her.

He walked backwards out the door and quickly headed to his car once he got outside. As he drove off, he realized he recognized the man from somewhere. And old FB post. Her ex – years before their first born.

He kept driving, with no idea where he was heading.

Really no different than any other day.

 

 

Meet Cute

It couldn’t have been more cliché: a writer walks into a bookstore and falls head over heels for an avid reader. Like something out of a quirky little hipster, indie rom-com.

Charlie Tibbets was seated at a table at the front of a bookstore for a sit-and-sign and event, which consists of sitting pretty with a stack of books, hoping that customers might stop to get a book signed by a relatively unknown author like himself. This usually meant a long day of making awkward eye contact with customers who are trying desperately not to make eye contact. Every now and then, he got an occasional nibble and when it was all said and done, a “good” day would be maybe a sale, or two. Yet another humbling reminder of the author life.

It’s good exposure.

The real currency authors like himself relied on.

At the very least, it was a chance to get some reading and/or writing done. And there was always coffee. Sometimes, even free!

Though this was less stressful than a traditional reading (especially when only one or two people showed up – often store employees), it was usually all just a major waste of everybody’s time. This had been one of those days.

Lately, he had begun to wonder if this whole writing thing was worth the heartache. Writing was indeed good for his soul…but the business side was just so…damn disheartening. Maybe he should just focus on his teaching career. And perhaps finding someone to settle down with. At least then, his mother would be happy for once. This certainly wasn’t the first time he felt the urge to quit. But since he prided himself on not being a quitter, he knew he would most likely be back on his horse the next day as he always did. But lately, it seemed to be getting harder.

What might help was perhaps to stop doing bookstore events such as this. It was just too damn disheartening. It wasn’t like the store was lacking a steady stream of customers. They just didn’t notice him. Or, if they did notice him, they assumed he worked at the bookstore and approached him looking for a book that wasn’t the one he was selling.

His three-hour gig was almost up and he hadn’t sold a single book. At least his sales were consistent. Today, he didn’t come closer to even selling one. Three people glanced at the book with feigned interest. One customer seemed genuinely interested, but said she would seek it out at the public library because “I don’t like paying for books.” He didn’t take it personally. He was a frequent library patron himself (though, he also bought a lot of books). As long as people read his books, he didn’t care if they got it at a bookstore, library, borrowed from a friend, who even stole it. He just wanted to people to read his work. But damn, would it be asking too much to sell at least a couple of copies? To at least pay for his gas?

He wanted to think he could get used to do. But it always left him feeling so…empty. Especially with all the optimism and promotion leading up to the event. Though, it was getting harder and harder to get excited anymore. He certainly didn’t even artists who did weekend art shows, which was a much larger time commitment – not to mention cost. Perhaps he could have poured more into the marketing materials for his events – like the author who once sat next to him that featured a giant cardboard cut-out of a sea-lamprey (that quite honestly looked like a giant penis). It must have worked: Sea lamprey man sold over 20 copies that day. Charlie sold…two.

Today was looking more and more like a shut-out. He considered packing up early, but didn’t want to be rude. After all, the bookstore was gracious enough to invite him in. Besides, maybe he would be rewarded for his patience with a last second sale that would at least take some of the sting off.

And then the clouds lifted. Not with a sale. But with the arrival of the girl of his dreams – a cute and quirky book nerd that bookstores were made for. Though he didn’t know a single thing about her, there was no doubt in his mind that she was what he was looking for.

He watched as she thumbed through bargain bin located just inside the door. She appeared to be in full command of exactly what she was looking for. Unable to find a diamond in the rough, she headed into the store, making instant eye contact with him. She smiled in a way that exuded familiarity.

“Hello!”

“Hi!” she said, eyeing his book (which in all honesty, was even better than eyeing him).

“You wrote this?”

“So, I’ve been told.”

She laughs.

She continues looking it over with what at least what he perceives as genuine interest.

“Looks like something I would really like. I’ll buy it!”

“Seriously?!” Charlie asked.

“You seem so surprised!”

“First sale of the day!”

“Oh, my! How long have you been here?”

“Almost four hours.”

“Ouch! Really?”

“The glamorous life of a writer.”

“You must really do it for the love!”

“I do. But I also really love to eat.”

“Well, I’m honored to be your first customer. And hopefully because of me, you can eat again.”

He laughed.

“Thanks. And I’m honored that you’re honored.”

“I never met a real author before.”

“I wouldn’t go that far.”

“Well, you have a book with your name on it. And you’re selling it at my favorite bookstore. Real enough for me!”

“Well, I’m flattered. Will you sign it?”

“Of course. But you have to buy it first at the register. Store policy. Not mine.”

“Sorry. I have not a dime to my name.”

“Oh, um, I can loan you—”

“Kidding!”

“Certainly wouldn’t have been the first time that happened!”

As she headed toward the checkout, she dropped the book along the way. He could tell she was embarrassed. By the time she dropped it a second time, he was pretty sure he was in love. As he continued spying on her during the transaction, she took notice and smiled at him. He looked away embarrassed.

After she made her purchase, she returned to him. And though it was probably just his imagination, she appeared to be skipping back. She handed him his book, beaming with joy.

“Who should I make it out to?”

“Chip.”

“Chip?”

He realized she was joking.

“Alice.”

“That’s you?”

“Yes,” she said, laughing.

“And you must be Charlie?”

“Actually, it’s Chip.”

“Real funny, mister!”

He begins to write inside her book.

“DEAR ALICE, THANK YOU FOR YOUR SUPPORT. ALWAYS FOLLOW YOUR DREAMS.”

“He hands it back to her.”

“Thank you.”

“Sorry for the chicken scratch. For a writer, I was cursed with the worst handwriting.”

“That’s a good thing.”

“How so?”

“You can write in code, so nobody steals your work.”

“Exactly! “

She opened it up to read what he wrote.

“Sorry if it’s cliché…”

He wished he had taken the time to write something other than his standard message. Even though he didn’t know her, he couldn’t help but feel like he had a connection with her that transcended beyond the typical customer. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but he certainly felt it. But it was too late to make any changes now, without it seeming incredibly awkward.

To his surprise, she seemed genuinely touched by his words.

“Thank you,” she said.

“My pleasure. Enjoy!”

Were her eyes tearing up?

He chalked it up to his imagination.

“Well, I will let you get back to it,” she said. “Don’t want to keep all of your fans waiting.”

He laughed.

“I’m sorry. That sounded mean. Was that mean?”

“Not at all. It’s funny. Besides, without humor, where would we be?”

“Still here. Just less funny. It was nice to meet you, Charlie.”

“You, too, Alice.”

He watches as she leaves. She turns around just before disappearing and waves. He looks at his watch. Time to start packing.

The manager approached.

“All set?”

“I think so. Thank you so much for having me.”

“Anytime!” the manager said with hollow optimism. “Sorry we couldn’t help sell you more copies!”

“It’s okay. The nature of the beast.”

“That’s for damn sure. Truth be told, the fact that you sold one copy is above the average.”

“Seriously?”

“I wish it were a joke.”

“Not sure if that makes me feel better, or worse.”

They both laughed. But it really wasn’t funny at all. Thoughts of Alice lifted his spirits, and on that note, Charlie grabbed his box of books and headed out, keeping an eye out for the what was quite likely “the one who got away.”

Why didn’t I put my number in there? Or, at least my e-mail?

Because you aren’t a sleazebag.

Even though he couldn’t contact her, she could always find him through his website or social media if she really wanted to reach out to him.

As though he could be so lucky.

Even if she were interested, she would probably be too shy to do anything about it. As small potatoes as he was, he was always surprised at how enamored peopled seemed to be with his “celebrity status”, which he found completely ridiculous. Not to mention incredibly awkward.

Perhaps, he would run into her at the bookstore again. But based on his past luck, not likely. A Craigslist missed connection, perhaps? Do people even do that anymore? Perhaps he would run into her again her. Probably his most likely shot.

As he was passing a café less than a block away, his heart came to a complete standstill. There she was. Sipping on coffee, while reading his book, with a giant piece of cake in front of her.

Like something out of a goddamn movie.

He considered catching her attention, but chickened out and kept on walking. He stopped himself short, then circled back. She didn’t even seem to notice, as she was so distracted with his book. He awkwardly waved, before she finally looked up.

“Oh, hey!”

“I promise I’m not stalking you!”

“It’s okay if you were! Care to join me?”

“Are you sure? I don’t want to intrude…”

“Of course. Don’t be silly!”

He sat down across from her. She notices he’s looking at her plate.

“Want some?”

“Naw, I can’t do that.”

“There’s no way I can finish this myself.”

“You could take it home.”

She handed him the fork from the extra place setting at her table.

“Are you sure?

“Trust me. It’s a lot less depressing this way.”

They alternated bites of cake and conversation.

“So how long have you been writing?”

“Since high school. But published my first book last year.”

“Do you do it full time?”

“I wish. I teach by day. Write by night.”

“When do you sleep?”

“Sundays.”

She laughs.
“So, what do you teach? Wait. Let me guess. Physics?”

“Math.”

“Plot twist!”

“That was my second guess.”

“Just kidding. English.”

“And I was kidding, too. But English was my third guess.”

“So, what about you? What do you do when you are…not in bookstores and eating cake in cafes?”

“Reading and eating cake at home. But mostly sleep. And study.”

“Oh! What do you study?”

“Marketing student by day. Failed musician by night.”

“Accordion?”

“Bassoon.”

“My second guess.”

“Guitar. Singer songwriter.”

They both laughed at their continued interplay.

“When you say failed…” Charlie asked.

“My naive childhood dream is all but dead. And with a career looming, probably even more so.”

“That can’t be true. I still made my naive pipe dream – as my dad called it – work for me.”

“Yeah, well…good for you, I guess?”

“I’m sorry if that sounded harsh.”

“And I’m sorry if I sounded condescending.”

“You didn’t. In the meantime, I hope to go into entertainment marketing, so I can at least help promote other people’s dreams. And maybe make the right connections to help mine.”

“Just keep doing your art. No matter what.”

“You make it sound so easy.”

“Well, I didn’t say that. But if you need proof you can have a rewarding day job and still carve a spot for your art, I am it. Still haven’t made a dime on my books. But I’m still writing. And publishing. And doing signings in bookstores for an audience of one.”

“Really?”

“Which part?”

“That you haven’t made a dime on your books. Even the one I just bought?”

“Okay, well maybe I have made a dime. But by the time the bookstore, the distributor, and the publisher get their cut, I get the crumbs.”

“Tough break.”

“It’s the pits. Writing’s the easy part. The hard part is writing for a living. But that doesn’t mean you have to stop trying.”

“Thank you.”

“You don’t need to thank me.”

“I needed to hear this,” she said, tearing up. This time, there was no doubt.

She looked at her watch.

“Oh, shoot. I am supposed to meet a friend in 10 minutes. I wish I could stay.”

“Totally fine. Besides, I have a stack of essays waiting for me to grade.”

“Oh, that sounds fun!”

“Loads.”

Alice waved down the waiter.

“Check, please?”

The waiter nods.

There is one bite of cake left. He motioned toward the plate.

“Go for it.”

“No, I’m full. You can have it.”

“No, seriously. It’s all yours.”

After several seconds of stalemate, they both moved in on the last bite at the time, getting their fork twines twisted. They laughed. To put an end to it once and for all, she finally picked it up with her finger and swallowed it whole.

The waiter brought over the bill. Jimmy reached for it.

“Don’t you dare,” she demanded.

“You bought my book. It’s the least I can do.”

“Just because you shared my food doesn’t mean you have to pay for it.”

“If you insist,” he surrendered.

As she handed the waiter her credit card, he wished he had insisted more.

“So next Friday, I have a reading at Book Suey. It would be so great if you could come.”

“Oh, really? That would be great. Love that place. And I would love to hear you read!”

“And there’s an open mic component after.”

“I only write songs…”

“You can perform! Open mic is for writers, singers, stand-ups, Yellow Pages, anything, really.”

“I’ll think about it.”

“Promise?”

“I promise. At the very least, I will come see you read.”

“Fair enough.”

The waiter brought back her card.

“Shall we?”

They leave”

“It was so nice to meet you.”

“Same here.”

Charlie offered to shake his hand. She hugged him instead.

“See you Friday.”

“Yeah. Can’t wait.”

“Bye, Charlie.”

They walked away in opposite directions.

Sure, Charlie had sold only one book that day. But he also gained a new friend and a possible future date. And even if neither of those worked out, he would at least have something to write about.

 

Fundraising in a Polar Vortex

Nicole finished giving the babysitter instructions as Brian started the car. It was the coldest night of a polar vortex. In fact, they wondered if the fundraiser would be canceled, as schools were closed two days in a row. But since this was an adults-only event – and lots of money was at stake – it was decided that the show must go on. An annual fundraiser was for their son Cody’s school. But their first.

When Cody started kindergarten, they vowed to be as involved as possible, despite both having full-time jobs. Though this was something they both truly wanted to do, there was definitely a sense of “keeping up with the Joneses”. Whether the pressure was real or imagined didn’t matter. However, it was much more difficult when the competition consisted of so many stay-at-home mothers who made their privileged circumstance a full-time job. As much as they tried, it was impossible to keep up. They both had an agreement that if either one of them wanted to become a stay at home parent, they would support one another. But circumstances changed.

Nicole certainly couldn’t help but feel jealous at times. The mom cult didn’t exactly go out of their way not to rub it in. As involved as she was, there were too many events she simply couldn’t attend – especially during the school day itself.

Nicole and Brian were both teachers, so they were both fortunate to be done with work before their son got out. And of course, summers off. It could have been way worse. They knew so many working parents who worked long hours, often coming home after the nanny put the kids to bed. Many traveled for work. Sometimes on a weekly basis.

Brian came back inside, shaking the cold from his gloved hands.

“Ready when you are,” he said.

And with that, they said goodbye to Cody. They didn’t get a sitter very often. In fact, the last time they had one, Cody was two. He was glad to be super exited to have a babysitter. And it was clear he had a bit of a crush on her.

“Daddy, you’re cold!” Cody said as Brian hugged him.

“I think I turned into an icicle!”

“Have fun!” the sitter said – one of Nicole’s prized pupils. Brian wasn’t so lucky to get students like that. He wouldn’t trust any of his students with one of his pencil, let alone his child.

They headed out into the vortex, listening to their favorite true-crime podcast. The car still felt just as cold as it was when Brian first started it. They finally felt some warmth just as they pulled into the parking lot.

The night turned out to be a full blast, filled with ample drinks, games, dancing, and mostly entertaining conversation. For once, they both felt like they fit in. They couldn’t remember the last time where they had gone to a party and had this much fun.  To top it all off, they even won a raffle – a weekend getaway to an indoor waterpark. They couldn’t wait to tell Cody.

They stayed until the event came to an end. They had signed up for the clean-up crew. Which was a good thing. They both needed time to sober up a bit.

“Are you okay to drive?” she asked as they headed outside.

“I’m fine,” he said.

They drove home, continuing the podcast. When they pulled into the driveway, there were two minutes left. They waited for it to finish, then entered the house.

Nicole took her coat off right away. Brian did not. According to the sitter, everything went well. Cody gave her no problems, other than not eating much at dinner, but that was the status quo. Nicole paid the sitter and they both saw her out the door.

Nicole followed her upstairs, still wearing his coat. They both headed into Cody’s bedroom. He was sound asleep. They kissed him goodnight, then retreated to the hallway, where he acknowledged her with a nod.

“You can stay here if you want…”

“No, it’s okay.”

They both looked at one another with a long pause.

“Goodnight,” he finally said.

“Goodnight,” she said.

And with that, she headed down the hall to her bedroom and closed the door behind her, while he headed downstairs, out the door, and back into his car.

He headed to the single bedroom he was renting three blocks away. He was hoping to find a more stable place to live in the spring.

The Legal Courtesan

The last place Tom Smith ever thought he’d be sent as a public school teacher was Las Vegas Yet, here he was, packing his bags for an educator’s conference there.

Not that he was complaining.

Especially since he’d be spending his birthday there as a newly single man. Well, not single in the legal sense, but certainly single by Las Vegas standards. The timing for an all-expenses paid trip couldn’t be more perfect. He needed a getaway, but was too broke to afford one. Though he would have to attend the conference during the day, the evenings were his to do as he wished.

“Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” his principal warned.

“What happens in Vegas…” Eddie joked.

“Can get you disciplinary action,” he said.

Though his principal was sort of joking…he also sort of wasn’t.

Then again, as long as he attended the conference, what he did on his down time was his business. And yes, he was representing his school district, but it wasn’t like students would be there. Everything was fair game, within legal limits, of course, short of showing up to the conference drunk and dropping his pants.

Who was he kidding, anyway? He would most likely end up crashing early and falling asleep with his dick in his hand. He had no real interest in gambling, so his plan was to simply wander around the playground that was Sin City. But as predicted, jet lag caught up to him on his first night and he was back at his hotel room shortly by ten, flipping through the channels, munching on pizza, and sipping cheap whiskey. Just as he began to doze off, he got a text from his ex.

“The mediator wants to meet with us on Monday at noon. What time do you get home?”

“My flight doesn’t get in until 3:45. You knew this.”

“On your terms as usual.”

“What?! I had nothing to do with my itinerary.”

He waits for a response, but doesn’t get one. The last thing he wanted was to have an argument, especially since she was probably within earshot of the kids.

“Can I Facetime with the kids?”

No response.

He called. No answer.

He grabbed another slice of pizza, turned the TV off, and watched some porn on his phone, only to be interrupted by his daughter’s face popping up on Facetime.

“Oh, hey, sweetheart!”

“Hi, Daddy!”

“What are you doing?”

“Um, just watching some TV. And eating pizza. You?”

“Talking to you!”

“Are you being good for mommy?”

“Yep!”

“Are you being good, Daddy?”

“Of course!”

“Are you at your hotel?”

“Yes. And I miss you so much.”

He began to lose the signal.

“Hello?”

The call is disconnected. He called back to no avail.

“Love you,” he said to himself.

He stared blankly ahead and noticed a pop-up ad for an escort service called Name Your Desire, Inc. He debated for a while, then finally took the leap.

“Name Your Desire, Inc. How may I help you?” asked the receptionist.

Tom hung up, then dialed again.

“Name Your Desire, Inc. How may I help you?”

“Sorry for hanging up.”

“Happens all the time. How may I help you?”

“I would like to place an order.”

“For what in particular?”

“For one night.”

“Okay. But I mean, what are you looking for? Female? Male? Male to female? Female to male? White? Black? Asian? Latino?”

“Thinking something vintage.”

“Vintage?”

“Like someone Frank or Dean would be parading around town with. A young model with a throwback look.”

“Hmmm….I may have someone in mind that will do the trick. We’ll throw a fur coat on her and Sinatra will be getting a boner in his grave.”

Tom headed into the bathroom to brush his teeth, then washed up in the tub, giving extra attention to his “special” parts.

He then got dressed again, put on some Rat Pack tunes, then sat on the edge of the bed, waiting for his vintage call girl to show up.

What in the hell are you doing?

He considered canceling, but someone was already knocking at his door.

“Fuck.”

He opened it and was shocked beyond belief at the unexpected, familiar sight of the fur coat-adorned escort standing at his door.

“Violet Summers?!”

“Mr. Smith?!”

Both are too shocked to speak another word.
“How did you find me?”

“Luck of the draw?”

“Mr. Smith…God. I can’t even. “

“What are you doing here?”

“Work conference.”

She laughed.

“What are you doing here?” he asked.

“My job.

“I can’t believe this.”

“My teacher hired a hooker…” she said with shocked disbelief.

Former teacher. And yeah, um, I can…”

“Explain?”

“Do you have any idea how much you’re missed back home?!”

“Do you have any idea how much I don’t care?”

“Do you want to come in?”.

“I should probably go…”

“Please. Don’t go.”

“This is just too weird.”

“For you and me both.”

“Then let’s just pretend…”

“What happens in—”

“Don’t go there.”

“Look, I am not going to have sex with you, if that is what you’re worried about.”

“Honestly, that is the least I am worried about. Please, don’t tell anybody.”

“Trust me, do you think I want people to know how I found you?

This calmed her down. They were obviously both in this together.

Yes, she was his former student.

Yes, she was a hooker.

Yes, he had agreed to meet with her.

But putting it all in perspective, he didn’t ask for any of this. He never once tried hooking up with a former student – nor, ever really fantasized it. And he certainly had no interest in doing so now. All he was looking for was anonymous sex. This couldn’t be any further from that.

Of all the hookers in Vegas…

Violet finally entered and took a seat in a corner chair, filling the room with the aroma of her sweet perfume.

“Do you want to take your coat off?” he asked.

She did so, albeit reluctantly, revealing skimpy, vintage lingerie underneath. Clearly, she was just as uncomfortable as he was. Which was actually a relief.  She put the coat over her shoulders for modesty sake.

Violet Summers wasn’t just any student – or, runaway for that matter. She was girl next door who ran away from home at the age of 16, never to be heard from again. In case she didn’t know, he informed her that she the subject of multiple candlelit vigils, social media campaigns, the subject of at least one song, three poetry chapbooks, and plenty of articles locally, as well as nationally. Everybody refused to believe she was dead, remaining forever hopeful that she would be back.

“Where is Violet?”

A question as much as a hash tag.

“Can I get you a drink?” Tom asked.

“I don’t drink. I’ll take some water, though.”

He fetched her a bottle of water, then sat on the edge of his bed, taking a sip of his drink.

“I’m trying to quit myself.”

Violet raised an eyebrow.

“You’ve been gone almost two years. And they are still doing candlelight vigils. Everybody misses you.”

“Again, ask me if I give a fuck.”

“I think it’s clear. But just know that nobody has given up hope. That has to mean something to you.”

She doesn’t respond, but he senses he has reached her to some small degree. They both sit in silence, accompanied by Ol’ Blue Eyes until she finally said:

“Did you?”

“Did I what?”

“Miss me.”

“Of course. You’re like my favorite student of all time.”

“Please…”

“You are!”

“And you never gave up hope?”

“Honestly, I figured there was a higher chance you would be dead, or maybe kidnapped, rather than being a runaway. It just made more sense in my mind.”

“Damn.”

“Sorry if that sounded morbid.”

“Well, it makes sense. Honestly, I was kind of hoping everyone just assumed I was dead. Like suicide with benefits.”

Tom laughs.

“Glad you find it so funny.”

“I really don’t. But I’m glad you still have your sense of humor. That was always my favorite thing about you.”

“How do I know you’re not a spy?”

“Oh, come on! A spy?!”

“Sent on a mission to bring me back home.”

“I can’t really prove that I’m not, can I?”

“No. You can’t. I guess I just have to trust you. But it is too big of a coincidence for me to not be at least a little suspicious!”

“That’s an understatement. I still can’t believe any of this.”

“Please don’t tell anybody.”

“Do you have any idea how much you are missed back home?”

She tears up.

“You can’t tell anyone. Please.”

He can tell she’s beginning to panic. Tears well up in her eyes.

“I promise.”

She still isn’t convinced.

“I will give you a freebie if it helps.”

“I don’t want a freebie…or, anything like that. I could never…”

“Fuck a former student.”

“Well, yes. Especially you.”

“Please…as though teachers don’t fuck their former students all the time.”

“God, I hope not.”

“I’ve heard stories.”

“About me?!”

“No, not you.”

“Well, I certainly don’t.”

“Not innocent Mr. Smith.”

“Sorry to disappoint you.”

“Trust me, I am not disappointed. But I would do whatever it takes to keep my secret safe.”

“Your secret is safe with me. I promise. Look, if I told everyone back home, it would, it would essentially mean admitting I hired a hooker. Do you realize how damaging it would be to my career – not to mention my pending divorce?”

“Yeah, it probably wouldn’t go over very well, would it?”

“And even if I didn’t explain specifically how I found you, I know damn well – and you would have every right – that would tell everyone I was your client to exact revenge.”

“That’s assuming I would want people to know what I was up to.”

“I guess we’re just gonna have to trust one another. I trust you. Can you trust me?”

She nodded.

He offered his hand. She shook it. It was now his secret to keep. To protect her. To project himself.  He truly wanted to believe that he wouldn’t tell anyone. But could he really hold himself to that promise? How did he know she wasn’t in any sort of trouble? A slave to an abusive pimp? If he could somehow get assurance that wasn’t the case, he could perhaps keep it a secret. But didn’t he have a moral obligation to report this. She was his student after all. Was. Almost two years ago. He didn’t have a legal obligation. Moral, maybe? But she was an adult now. She has every right to do what she wants. And speaking of moral obligation, one thing was clear: he could ever have sex with her. He would pay her for time, of course. But it would not include sex, no matter how legal it was. In fact, having sex with a former student would probably be seen as worse than having sex with a prostitute. And here he was with both.

“Has it really been almost two years since you left?” he asked.

She nodded. “Seems like both a lifetime ago…and nothing at all.”

“How have you managed to stay in hiding for long?”

“It’s easier than you think. Are you sure you’re not going to tell anyone?”

“We shook on it, remember? But under one condition…”

“I thought you didn’t want a freebie?”
“I don’t! I just want to know what happened!”

She hesitated.

“Life.”

“That is all you’re going to give me?”

“I ran away to Vegas. And here I am.”

“Okay, that much is obvious. But what happened in the middle of all that?”

“You don’t really want to know.”

“Actually, I do. And I promise I won’t judge you.”

“Why do you want to know so bad?”

“Can you blame me?”

She looked away.

“Because I care about you.”

“Yeah. Sure.”

“You don’t believe me?”

“Look, I don’t owe you any explanation. And if you think you’re going to be a knight riding in on his high horse to rescue me…”

“I don’t think that at all. We’re just two old acquaintances who just happened to run into one another.”

“Then let’s just leave it at that and go back to our separate ways. It’s what we do in Vegas.”

“Okay, okay. But I just want you to know you have a friend in me. Sure, the circumstances that brought us together tonight are unorthodox, but now that I’m here—”

“Do you know how hard I tried to hide myself from my past? And then you show up.”

“Well, technically you showed up.”

“You know what I mean.”

“I understand why you would be paranoid. But do you really think I would want it know that I hired a hooker on a work trip to Vegas. Sorry, legal courtesan.”

“Escort.”

“Sorry. Escort.”

“This isn’t Moulin Rouge.”

They laughed. She finally seemed to be more at ease now.

“Are you hungry? I got a few pieces of pizza left. And some Animal Crackers.”

She laughed. “Animal Crackers?”

“Let’s not get into the judgement zone here.”

“I’ll take a couple of Animal Crackers.”

Tom retrieves her some Animal Crackers.

“You can have more than a couple.”

“I know, I know. Word choice.”

“Oh, you remember?”

“How could I forget? Your classic line: ‘Can I go the bathroom? I don’t know, can you?’”

“You don’t have to sound pissed off about it, smart ass.”

“At least I was listening.”

She eats an animal cracker.

“God, I can’t remember the last time I had these. They’re good!”

“Aren’t they? When you have a kid, you get to try all of your favorite childhood foods again and it’s like discovering it for the first time. Like grilled cheese! And Goldfish crackers, which complements red wine like nobody’s business!”

She laughs at his goofy sincerity.

“So, are you ready to tell me?”

“Why do you care so much.? You’re so nosey!”

“You don’t understand. Everybody cares.”

“Bullshit.”

“It’s not bullshit.”

“Then why haven’t they found me?”

“How could they have? And I thought you didn’t want to be found?”

Her look suggests otherwise, taking him by surprise.

“You weren’t just my favorite student, you know. You were everybody’s. You weren’t a typical student. Not by any means. You were in the elite. I have had thousands of students over the years, and the ones who make the Hall of Fame are such a small handful. Anyone who knew you knew you were destined for greatness. This was not what any of us had in mind.”

“I thought you promised not to judge.”

“I’m not judging. I’m just trying to figure things out.”

“But that’s just it. You are. I’ve been judged my whole life. And expected to be something that I didn’t want to be. I was tired of being seen as something I’m not.”

“Which was?”

“Perfect.”

“Nobody’s perfect.”

“True. But some of us are expected to be more perfect that others. In fact, as far as my mother was concerned, not even perfection was good enough. I was just so tired of being something everyone wanted me to be.  Do you know what it’s like when everybody claims to know your future? When you have no wiggle room for surprise?”

“Maybe not in the same way as you, but yes, actually. I do.”

“It isn’t the same.”

“Now who’s judging who?”

“Sorry…”

“But on second thought, you’re right. Nobody ever really had any serious expectations. For me. But I’d imagine it’s a lot of pressure.”

 

 

 

“I’m not saying I wanted to end up as a hooker in Vegas. It is what it is. Because at least it wasn’t what they expected. I finally proved that I’m not the perfect little girl they thought I was.”

“I think you are confusing potential and expectations with perfection.”

“Is there really any difference?”

“Definitely. But I also see where you’re coming from.”

“You were always different than other teachers,” she said, catching him by surprise.

“How so?”

“I always got the sense that I could just be me. Like right now. And back then, with my writing. I didn’t feel I had to conform to succeed in your class. I liked that.”

“You should have come talk to me. Before you left.”

“I didn’t want to let you down.”

“You wouldn’t have…”

“I doubt that. Tell me you weren’t disappointed with me tonight.”

“Surprised, yes. But not disappointed.”

“I don’t believe that. And the fact you were surprised proves my point.”

“How could I not be surprised?” he said, catching her off guard. “Something would be wrong with me if you weren’t. The only thing that would disappoint me would be if you told me you don’t write anymore.’

She bows her head in shame.

“God, were such a great writer.”

“Please.”

“You were. And you knew it.”

She laughs.

“Why’s that funny?”

“I can’t remember the last time I wrote anything.”

“Maybe someday you can turn all of this into a book.”

“I’m trying to hide from the world, remember?”

“Write under a pseudonym. Disguise it as fiction.”

She seemed consider it for a moment.

“I was actually jealous of you, to be honest,” he added.

“What? No way. You were jealous of a student?”

“Of your talent. And like I said, you weren’t just any student.”

She rolled her eyes.

“I was also a bit disturbed. There were times I thought about reporting it to your counselor.”

“Why would you do that?”

“You wrote some pretty disturbing shit! But then I remembered some of the crazy shit I have written – especially at that age – and reminded myself that fiction is fiction.”

“And real life is real life.”

“You remember?”

“Of course. You were my favorite teacher, after all.”

“It was all fiction, right?”

“A magician never reveals her tricks. Besides, aren’t the lines sometimes blurred? I believe you once taught me that, too.”

“Deep down, I had my doubts.”

“Yet, you never reported it?”

He shook his head.

The truth is, he secretly enjoyed the power of knowing this dark secret. But after she disappeared, he thought about shedding light to this side of her. It was quite possible he was the only adult who knew. Would it have made difference? The town was so devoted to making her a saint, he didn’t want to mar her reputation. Besides, what good would it have done? No matter what, she was missing.

“You could have saved me from myself, Mr. Smith.”

“Now you’re patronizing me.”

“Aren’t you the patron in this case?”

“I see what you did there.”

They both laughed, taking in the full absurdity of the situation.

“So why Vegas?”

“Why not?”

“There are many reasons why not.”

“It all started with online stuff. Mostly innocent. Light flirtation at first. Then pictures. I felt empowered and got off on the thrill of it because it was the exact opposite of what I was expected to be. I felt empowered. And then I realized I could turn it into cash. And that’s when I met someone who promised me the world.”

“And did he?”

“For awhile at least. He got me set up. Paid for my apartment. And got me work. And so here I am.”

“Well, at least it makes more sense now. Thank you.”

“For what?”

“For sharing your story. I know it wasn’t easy.”

“And in case you’re wondering: I’m not ashamed. I don’t regret any of it.”

“I’m happy to hear that. And I know how hard it was to open up. But can you assure me of one thing?”

“What’s that?”

“That you’re safe.”

“Define safe.”

“You’re not being held against your will, or with an abusive pimp or anything like that.”

She laughed.

“It’s not funny. I’m serious!”

“I’ll admit, I’m so flattered that my former teacher cares about me so much.”

“I promise you that I’m safe. In fact, the guy who brought me is out of the picture. I am my own free agent.”

Tom was satisfied with her answer. Now that he was convinced she wasn’t kidnapped, or held against her will, he could focus on the fact that she’s not only an adult, but that he should respect her wishes and privacy, no matter how overwhelming the urge was to save her.

“And you don’t think you will ever reach out to your parents? They must really miss you. Why deprive your family of someone they love and miss so much? Especially your sister. She was never the same after you left.”

“If I have one regret, it’s that.”

She began to cry.

“She was my best friend.”

“I’m sorry to bring it up.”

“It’s okay. It’s nothing I haven’t cried about before. All the time, actually. Maybe someday I will be ready to reach out to her. But not now. My family would never understand. And I couldn’t live with that. I would spiral back into the depression I fought so hard to climb out of. If I returned to that place, I don’t know if I could go on living.”

Tom realized how much she meant it. And though he still couldn’t fully understand it, it was beginning to make more sense in his mind.

And then an unexpected reveal:

“God, I had the biggest crush on you.”

He pretended to be more surprised than he was.

“You did?!”

“Oh, don’t act so surprised. And I’m willing to bet you had a crush on me. But you were too good to do anything about it.”

“Whoa, whoa, don’t go projecting your school girl fantasy on me.”

“Admit it.”

“I wouldn’t quite call it a crush,” he finally said. “More like deep admiration. The way a father beams with pride over a daughter. In fact, I often hoped that my daughter would turn out to be just like you. Well, maybe not exactly…”

He couldn’t tell from her expression how she felt about anything he was saying.

“Sorry if any of that seems weird or offensive.”

“It’s okay…daddy.”

She smiled devilishly. And then Dean Martin’s sultry “Sway” comes on.

Violet stood up and began to dance seductively, removing her fur coat. Tom doesn’t know if he should watch or look away.

“Dance with me,” she said with a seductive glint.

“I’m your teacher.”

“You were my teacher. And I didn’t ask you to fuck my ass.”

Tom was shocked. Was he really having this conversation with his former prized pupil?

“Trust me. You might think this is weird…but compared to some of the shit I’ve done…”

“I can only imagine – but I’m not. I don’t want you to think I am imagining any of that.”

“Shut up and dance with me. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen someone from home. Where I’m not putting on a show.”

She grabbed his hand, causing his drink to spill. He gives in and they dance to Deano’s sultry vocals.

As the song comes to an end, they hugged without saying a word for what felt like a full minute.

“I should probably go,” Violet finally said, pulling off him.

Tom reached for his wallet.

“You don’t have to pay me.”

“I insist.”

“I also insist.”

He surrendered.

“Here,” she said, writing something down on a piece of hotel stationary before handing it to him.

“I know you won’t share this with anyone,” she said. It was a plea as much as a threat.

“You have my word.”
She nodded, assured.

“Text me so I have your number,” she said. “I might want to send you some writing some time.”

“I certainly hope you do.”

“Goodbye, Mr. Smith.”

“Goodbye, Violet.”

And with that, his former prized pupil gone. Only the scent of her perfume lingered.

 

           

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lovable Loser

I am not an athlete. I never was and never will be. Don’t get me wrong: I love sports and it’s certainly not for a lack of trying that stunted my athletic prowess. “Natural” athletes are born with two balls between their legs and one ball in hand the moment they climb out of the womb. However, having a father with absolutely no interest in sports doesn’t bode well for one’s athletic development. My mother at least watched sports from time to time (despite not being an athlete herself), but she certainly didn’t teach me how to play sports. Then again, nobody taught my two younger sisters and that didn’t stop them. Being short for my age certainly didn’t help. Nor was being the last in my class to reach puberty.

I never stood a chance.

Like most kids, my sports “career” began in elementary school gym class. It didn’t take long for me – or anyone else for that matter – to realize that I wasn’t a natural born athlete … nor was I one in training. Aside from being a loser at sports, I quickly came to learn, losing doesn’t always have to do with keeping score. I also learned that losing is simply giving up. And nobody could ever accuse me of doing that.

In elementary school, however, one thing I certainly didn’t win at was being cool. There are several ways for a boy in elementary school to elude popularity. I somehow mastered all of them. Take for example, my decision to sport a Sea-Monkey necklace (a small, plastic globe hanging from a string filled with actual live Sea-Monkeys).

My low threshold for pain also didn’t help matters. I would respond to the smallest of scrapes with the intensity one would expect from a broken arm. One of my earliest memories was at the ripe age of two when I fell off of my tricycle, scraping both of my knees. I screamed and cried for hours. I could never cope with the sight of blood. Even till this day, I have a tendency to pass out during even routine blood tests. I fear needles even more so than blood itself.

However, I was also teased about many things beyond my control. Like the ears that were too big for my abnormally small head. Or my inability to properly pronounce the following sounds: ‘r’, ‘f’ ‘s’ and ‘th’. As much as I loved to read, reading aloud always meant enduring mocks and chuckles from my classmates.

As a result, the school speech therapist would pop into my classroom on a weekly basis and gleefully announce for all to hear: “I’m here to take Bobby for speech therapy.”  And away I would go, as my classmates snickered. Fortunately, the therapy paid off and I learned to speak properly. But the price I paid was constant teasing and embarrassment, which probably necessitated the need for a different type of therapy.

If there was one thing I was a champion of in my early childhood days, it was reading by my lonesome. So much so, I got to cash in numerous Book-It awards at Pizza Hut after accumulating the required stars over and over again. This counted for something, at least. Not with my peers, but with my teachers, parents…and Pizza Hut.

Perhaps the one thing that hurt my cause the most was constantly being picked last in gym class. Even a student with a missing limb got picked before I did. Of course, being small for my age had a lot to do with it, but one of the most athletic boys in my class was actually shorter than me. Since math might be the one thing I’m worse at than sports, I was unable to calculate that my Sea-Monkey necklace + getting picked last in class = my face shoved into dog shit in the 4th grade. But by then, it was already too late. Besides, when your gym teacher makes fun in unison with your classmates, you really don’t stand much of a chance. Unless, one doesn’t consider a jock-friendly gym teacher shaking his head in disbelief at your physical education deficiencies an act of teasing.

My lack of athletic ability certainly wasn’t for lack of trying – at least on my parents part. Bless their hearts, they tried, beginning with the blue and yellow Huffy I received for my 7th birthday. However, the gift I was most excited about that year was a Smurf record. In fact, I showed no interest in riding my bike for several weeks – mostly out of fear. Training wheels did little to ease my trepidation. Once I got the hang of the whole training wheel business, they stayed on for over two years. Of course, this prompted only further teasing by my schoolmates. And it came as no surprise. I always lagged behind my classmates – in terms of height, puberty, and refusing to believe that Santa was a myth until I was 12 (I stopped believing in the Easter Bunny a couple of years prior to that). Eventually, I battled my demons and the training wheels came off.  By then, my bike and I became inseparable – when I wasn’t falling off it by crashing into a giant rock and landing on my tailbone … or, flipping over the handlebars.

Naturally, gym class was ground zero for my bullies. At least during team sports like dodgeball, I could sort of slip between the cracks and hide out of view. However, solo acts like chin-ups and robe climbing were the worst. It were as though a spotlight was shining on me on a stage of failure of shame as my legs dangled helplessly beneath me.

As though gym class weren’t cruel enough to endure, my parents – in an attempt to “normalize” me – signed me up for recreational sports, beginning with seemingly benign swimming lessons. Of all my early childhood sporting endeavors, swimming lessons were the least traumatic because they didn’t directly involve competition. What I did have to worry about, however, was drowning. It wasn’t because I couldn’t swim, but rather the fear of being drowned by my classmates. From the beginning, I proved to be a at least a “decent” swimmer. Translation: I could stay afloat without drowning. Even to this day, I aesthetically resemble a drowning rat when I swim with way too much unnecessary flopping and splashing around. But I can at least get safely from point A to point B, assuming calm weather conditions. Fortunately, I have no traumatic memories from swim lessons. What was traumatic, on the other hand, were the constant deep-end dunkings I endured after the lesson was over during open swim time. If anything ever drowned, it was my dignity.

Next came soccer and T-ball. Both sports were intended to supplement my athletic development. Both experiments failed miserably. There are two things I remember most from my short-lived soccer career: the taste of my plastic water bottle and the freshly cut orange slices brought in by somebody’s mom that always awaited us when we got off the field. The true highlight of my illustrious soccer career was being known as the weird little boy who stood in the middle of the field during the game, staring incessantly at his digital, water-proof Casio wristwatch, counting down until the game was over so he could be put out of his misery. Obsessive watch-staring was one of the countless reasons I am pretty convinced that I had undiagnosed OCD as a child. This watch-staring habit got so out of hand at school that my teacher actually had to call my parents about it, who then took my watch away. Now, instead of being the weirdo who stood in the middle of the soccer field constantly staring at my watch, I was the weirdo who stood in the middle of the field starting at the skin on my wrist where the watch used to be. I lasted one season. (As a side note, my daughter also lasted one season following a very similar experience. The apple doesn’t…).

I certainly didn’t fare much better in T-ball, either. The problem (well one of many) with t-ball was that I tended to make more contact with the tee, than the ball itself. And I was deathly afraid of the ball when I was in the field – even when it wasn’t hit anywhere close to me. I also had a tendency to run to the wrong base. Or I would run when I wasn’t supposed to, or run when I shouldn’t have been. I lasted three seasons, but showed no signs of progress, aside from an ego no longer just bruised … but turned to mush.

The next fiasco in my sporting career was a brief foray into gymnastics, which lasted even less time than my soccer career. Gymnastics – which requires great coordination, skill, and strength in order to dangle and balance up above – made perfect sense for a clumsy and uncoordinated kid afraid of heights. I lasted only a few sessions. Fortunately, I was smart enough to stay tight-lipped about this particular athletic endeavor to avoid further teasing.

Outside of gym class, gymnastics was my last attempt at athletics until middle school – unless bouncing around on a pogo stick, or rolling on a kick scooter counts. Neither one of these endeavors did anything to improve my popularity. So I naturally progressed to trying my hand at skateboarding, which was almost impossible to avoid as a child of the 80’s. Sensing an opportunity to improve my social standing, I begged my parents for a skateboard of my own. Granted, I should have had the foresight to realize that my lack of coordination was probably not a good fit for skateboarding, but I was willing to look beyond that if it meant any chance to be seen as “cool.” Of course, it was important to get a legitimate, authentic wooden skateboard like all the cool kids and pros used. But my parents bought me a cheapo, blue plastic skateboard that was about ½ the width of the bulky, “cool” skateboards. Not only was I teased for it, but I never quite got the hang of the whole balancing component required to navigate a skateboard, wiping out endlessly to the tune of several minor, but irritating scrapes and bruises. My skateboard suffered the biggest injury – having a large chunk of plastic broken off the tip, which I attempted to duct tape back together. After a few weeks, I used my skateboard for the sole purpose of rolling down the driveway in the sitting position.

When I was in first grade, I became a Cub Scout – the hopeful first step of turning into a man (or, at least, a Boy Scout). Aside from the fact that most of my fellow Scouts were also my bullies, my mother became a den leader, which added even more fodder for my pack to tease me about. It also gave my mother the opportunity to protect me like a, well, little cub.

One of the highlights of being a Cub Scout was the annual Pine Wood Derby race, which blessed me with the opportunity to race against other human beings in races where there were clear last place finishers. Prior to the Pine Wood Derby, the only racing experience I had involved my Sea-Monkey racetrack. Preparation for the Pine Wood Derby entailed conceptualizing, then carving out a wooden car made of pine that would then be raced on a downhill track. Unlike Sea-Monkeys, each car was unique and a clear winner was crowned. My dad helped me throughout the process, which meant he did just about all the work himself, since a.) I had no idea what I was doing and b.) he had no patience to teach me useful skills as carpentry, or anything else involving tools for that matter. My main contribution to the task at hand was adding the head of Stratos from my He-Man action figure collection. Sure enough, my car came in dead last. I would never get a chance to redeem myself. After that year, in the face of constant teasing, my mother and I both quit.  I was simply not destined to become a Boy Scout. Me and my dad had one other, lightning bottle foray into miniature transportation This time, it involved a model helicopter that my dad spent weeks building form a kit. Instead of Stratos, he selected a Bo Duke action figure from the Dukes of Hazzard to be its pilot. On its inaugural flight, my dad managed to crash the helicopter directly into the curb in the parking lot of my middle school (which, in hindsight, seems par for the course for the Dukes of Hazzard). It shattered into a million little pieces. And poor Bo was found face down amidst the scattered debris, about 20 feet away from impact. Just like that, the helicopter experiment was over as quickly as it had begun.

My next phase of losing was also my worst: middle school, where the bullying and teasing reached an all-time high. It was also during this period that I gave recreational sports another chance and joined a basketball league – the highlight of which was scoring a whopping two points in a game – the only points I scored all season. My sports activities were supplemented with band and a brief foray into musical theater as a leading man, in a musical entitled Miracle on Angel St. After two hellish years, it was time to start high school, whether I was ready or not.

The combination of my short and scrawny stature and being in the marching band was not exactly a winning combination for an incoming high school freshman. My athletic ability and overall whiteness was so awful, I could barely march in step. On the first day of marching band camp, I overheard an upper classman proclaim: “Look how little he is!” It is a bit discouraging when you aren’t even safe from getting picked on in marching band. Fortunately, it wasn’t long before I found a “home” amongst my band mates and suddenly, I didn’t feel like such an outcast anymore. Or, at least not the only outcast. I was now surrounded by my own kind. Sure, we were still outnumbered. But we had each other. During my sophomore year, I branched out into the parallel world of vocal music, joining an all male glee club – the highlight of which was singing a solo in Billy Joel’s “For the Longest Time”. The group was called Movement. It didn’t take much creativity for others to quickly add ‘Bowel’ in front of it, which is what we quickly became known as. With one foot in the world of both instrumental and vocal music, I flirted again with musical theater, where I was cast as a chorus member of Oklahoma. However, I quit when I was unable to keep up with the requisite choreography that musicals demand.

Aside from this musical misstep, music – like writing – made me feel at home. It made me feel wanted. This isn’t to suggest that high school was smooth sailing – especially outside the band room doors. The losing continued – in both sports and Solo & Ensemble competitions. Among the ways I lost: my favorite Casio watch was stolen out of my gym locker. Later, in that same locker room, somebody decided it would be funny to take my underwear and then put it in the urinal before proceeding to piss on it. The cream of the crop was when someone heaved a basketball over the gymnasium balcony, resulting in a direct hit to my skull. It not only knocked me off my feet, but I saw stars for the first time in my life … or were they birds? At least, I knew I could always retreat to the safe confines of the band room, with my tail between my legs.

Things began to look up in the summer of 10th grade when I magically grew several inches and finally hit puberty. At least I could no longer be considered short. I was still a dork, but a proud band dork. At that point, I began feeling comfortable in my own dork skin. However, despite being taller, my athletic skill did not grow along with me. In gym class, I consistently finished second to last in the 2-mile run. The kid who finished last weighed 300 pounds and had a bum ankle.

During my sophomore year of high school, I decided to do something about it by asking for a weight set for Christmas. Technically, they were very strong rubber bands, but still a major “upgrade” from the five-pound dumbbells I had previously worked out with. The time had come to finally put some meat on my bones. Incidentally, that same Christmas, I also received Michael Jackson’s Dangerous CD, which I worked out to vigorously. I can’t say I got any stronger – or more “dangerous” – but I certainly felt so mentally. After a few months, most of the rubber bands had either snapped, or were on the verge of snapping. Putting safety first, I quit.

Ten years later, I would give weightlifting another shot in the months leading up to my wedding (which also eventually ended with a loss). Only this time, instead of rubber bands, I lifted actual, iron weights. My athletic, Asian friend Tzu volunteered to be my personal trainer and (much-needed) spotter. Buoyed by Tzu’s intense Karate Kid-style mentoring, I got into the best shape of my life. My bodybuilding regimen was also aided with whey protein shakes, which gave me the worst, most foul-smelling gas of my life.

Back to high school: on the heels of my weightlifting experiment, combined with puberty, I was brimming with false confidence and decided to try out for sports. My first attempt was at basketball – both literally and figuratively, I actually thought I had a shot, but I was cut in the first round – and quite likely, the first to be cut, too. Next up, was baseball, but I completely whiffed once again, not making it past the first round of cuts. The only consolation prize was when the baseball coach gave me a firm pat on the back and said with a straight face: “At least you tried, son. At least you tried.”

Realizing I could never compete with my peers, I started playing pick-up basketball at my church, where I learned that I sucked just as much against overweight 40-year-olds as I did against people my own age.

When I started college, I stumbled upon a job in athletics at the university field house. My primary duty was ID checker. Yet again, I was on the outside, looking in. Although not in my job description, I was also required to clean out the men’s locker room the morning after hockey tournaments. Aside from having to deal with some of the nastiest odors known to man, I was forced to clean up various trash, tobacco spit wads, shit smears, and unidentifiable solids and fluids off both the floors and walls. The only saving grace this job afforded was the school volleyball team. From my vantage point behind the ID desk, I could sit back and watched 20 spandexed, long-legged athletic chicks working out. One even became “just a friend”. This almost made up for everything else.

My next job was more directly related to athletics:  I became a little league coach. I had come full circle, back to my roots and quickly realized that I was as inept at coaching little league as I was in playing it, guiding my team to an 0-10 record. Those poor little kids never stood a chance.

The following summer, I formed my own co-ed softball team, which I guided to three straight, pitiful losing seasons before ultimately disbanding it. I would take three years off before joining a new team – a co-ed work team. The losing continued for several years, before ultimately leading to my singular moment of athletic greatness. Until then, there was still a lot of losing left to accomplish.

Fortunately, there is one athletic skill I can vaguely lay claim to: relatively the blinding speed of a chipmunk. I learned early on that I could usually run faster than most of my bullies – until I got tired and they caught up to me, or, at least until I tripped on a small pebble or twig, or was consumed by panic. When they did catch up to me, I would simply drop to the ground and curl into a ball – like an animal playing dead.

Unfortunately, my speed has not served me nearly as well in my athletic endeavors as I would have hoped. Take softball, for instance. When playing the outfield, I completely lack the ability to judge fly balls. I either overrun a ball, or stop short of it, watching it drop right in front of me (or, more often than not, far away from me). My blazing speed is rendered completely useless as a result. Another hindrance to my speed is my fear of the ball … even after all of these years. I’m even afraid of the ball when I’m running to first base. More often than not, I duck and/or throw my arms over my head as I approach first base, thus slowing down and thereby resulting in outs that should have been hits.  I firmly believe that softball leagues should require batters to wear helmets. I’ve considered wearing one to alleviate this phobia, but then I would look like an idiot. Or, more accurately, more of one.

As is clearly evident by now, I suck at team sports. And as far as one-on-one sports are concerned, I have an under .200 winning percentage. Only a small handful of those losses were pretty damn close. Sometimes, my losing was so frustrating and unbearable, I would purposely lose (not that it took much effort or fakery … it just expedited things). Throwing in the towel allowed me to get out of my misery sooner. Sometimes, I would even go as far as to fake an injury just to get out of losing.

It’s bad enough I lose at sports on a regular basis when I’m actually playing them. But it’s another thing to directly contribute to your favorite professional teams’ losing – even in the midst of championship runs.  A certified professional loser. Yet, despite the losses, I continue to keep rooting for my teams, as much as I do myself. Win or lose. Rain or shine.

I decided to become a faithful Pistons fan following their second of back-to-back championship runs (1989-1990), just in time for a decade of losing and mediocrity. This period also coincided with the infamous “teal” era, when the Pistons switched their uniforms from their classic red, white and blue to a puke-ish teal, begging the question: what-came-first-the-chicken-or-the-egg?

Shortly after switching back to their classic red, white, and blue uniforms, the Pistons returned to glory with a championship in 2004. In 2005, they were making another run at it. After falling behind the Spurs 0-2 on the road in the Finals, the Pistons won two straight home games and had a chance to take the series lead with game 5 at home. The day of the game, a friend called to inform me that he had an extra ticket. I didn’t hesitate. After a tense, back and forth game, the Pistons found themselves up by three with just a few seconds left. With time running out, all the Pistons had to do was guard the three-point line at all costs. Instead, Rasheed Wallace decided to leave his man open by doubling up another player. Well, his “man” was the best three-point threat on the floor: Robert Horry, who promptly received the ball before throwing up a game-tying three-pointer. Overtime. Loss.

I won’t even mention the Lions (ahem 0-16).

Then there’s my number one team – the Detroit Tigers. Unfortunately (and even more so … understandably) for me, the year I decided to jump on the Tigers’ bandwagon was 1990. They would go on to become the losingest team of the 90’s. Despite the losses, I continued cheering them on, watching just about every game with the hope that things were finally going to turn around and that my allegiance would make things all the more sweeter when (if) they finally did win. I knew it was only a matter of time. And I turned out to be right. But only after enduring the 2003 season, in which they fell one game short of the worst record of all time (53-119).

In 2006, the Tigers had a magical, World-Series bound season and a sparkling home record. I went to over a dozen games that season. They won two of them. In fact, it got to the point that my friends and family pleaded with me not to go to any more games. I even became a semi-regular on a sports talk radio, where the hosts begged me to stay away. Incidentally, the Tigers’ best stretch took place during the six weeks I was out of the country. Mercifully, my bad karma must have been out of their range.

Incidentally, despite my losing record, the Tigers were also one of the best home teams in all of baseball. Earlier in the season, I turned down a chance to go to a game because of a cold. The Tigers ended up winning 7-6 in come-from-behind fashion in what was definitely one of the highlights and turning points of the season.

But that was nothing compared to what happened at the end of the season. Going into the final weekend of the season against the last-place Royals, the Tigers led the division over the late-surging Twins by a couple of games. No matter what the Twins did, all the Tigers had to do was win one of those three games to clinch the division. Otherwise, they would have to settle for the postseason Wild Card spot. One win would end in a tie. They lost the first two games. It all came down to the final game of the season. When my friend Mike asked me months before if I wanted to go to the last game. I almost turned it down thinking it would be meaningless. Now it meant everything.

The Tigers had two ways in which to clinch it. The first way placed them directly in control of their own destiny: all they had to do was win. If they were to lose, the Twins simply had to lose, too. And I would be there to witness the first division championship at Comerica Park. The Tigers scored early and built up a seemingly safe 6-0 lead. They were well on their way … and then they weren’t. The Royals tied it late in the game and it went into extra innings. The out-of-town scoreboard indicated that the Twins already won, so now it was do or die. We lost. Instead of a champagne-soaked celebration, we were drenched in tears and heartbreak. It wasn’t so much the loss that hurt. It was the way we lost. Like the Pistons’ finals loss, this one still stings. And always will.

Fortunately, the Tigers still made the playoffs that year as the American League Wild Card team, propelling themselves all the way to the World Series, which they proceeded to lose in five games to the Cardinals. I was miraculously at the one game they won … for what it’s worth. Somehow, this only added salt to the wound.

The following season, I missed Justin Verlander’s first non-hitter by one day – the day before my birthday. I went to the game the day after. A loss.

Even my one legitimate shot at catching a home run ball was a loss. It was a Tigers spring training game down in Lakeland, Florida. I was sitting out on the grassy berm in left field in prime home run territory. Tigers’ third baseman Brandon Inge lifted a fly ball that headed right toward me. At first, I couldn’t believe it – not so much because of the odds, but because of my inability to judge fly balls. Next thing I knew, the ball landed directly in front of me on the blanket I was sitting on. If it had been any closer, it would have landed in my lap. The problem was, I had just returned from the concession stand. In one hand was a hot dog; in the other, a beer. I froze. Meanwhile, a fan behind me dove directly onto my blanket, simultaneously snatching the ball and spilling my beer. Since catching a home run ball is equivalent to lightning striking twice, that was probably my one and only shot – not to mention the one thing I had control over, unlike the outcome of the game. And I blew it.

Then there was my visit to my dream stadium: Fenway Park. The pitching match-up pitted two aces: Roger Clemens vs. Scott Erickson. There was just one problem: the game never happened. Despite their pleas, I forced my family to sit in the pouring rain for three hours and would have waited all night if I had to. I was certain the game would be played, but the weather gods had other plans. The game was called. And I haven’t been back since.

Now back to my “real” world of sports – where I have at least some control over the outcome. And despite various degrees of failure, I continue to try my hand at other athletic endeavors. And every now and then, I’m prone to brief flashes of athletic competence, but it never takes me long to come back to earth. Despite my failings, nothing has stopped me from attempting: curling, ice-skating, bowling, bocce ball, putt-putt, bean-bag toss, lawn darts, horse shoes, badminton, Frisbee, volleyball and, last, but not least, Wallyball (which aesthetically resembles the white-padded cell of an insane asylum). However, in Wallyball, the walls don’t have pads. They are made of concrete. And they hurt. As for the game itself, Wallyball is volleyball inside a racquetball court – the bumper bowling of volleyball.

Considering the Whitman Sampler world of sports that I traveled through with negligible results, I consider myself extremely fortunate that I’ve been able to avoid any serious injuries, aside from mental anguish (knock on wood). However, speaking of knocking wood, the closest I ever came to a broken bone was a deep bone bruise on my foot caused by a piece of wood, during an innocent game of kickball. It was field day at the high school where I was teaching at the time. A solid block of wood was used for home plate. The ball was rolled to me, but rather than kicking the ball, the top of my foot got all wood. The pain was so intense, I passed out. There’s nothing like getting a stupid, fluke injury in front of a bunch of high school students. They have a tendency to find more humor in situations like this than they do compassion or concern. When I woke up, the first thing I noticed were the number of smiling faces surrounding me, accompanied by various chuckles. I also felt the intense pain surging through the top of my foot. I thought for sure it was broken, but X-rays proved it was nothing more than a deep bone bruise.

Furthermore on the injury front, two of my three most “serious” injuries have involved balls hit in the air. The first one happened back in high school when my dad was tossing me pop-ups, encouraging me “stop being afraid of the ball!” His advice backfired when I attempted to catch it with my nose, rather than my glove. Blood everywhere. Fortunately, my nose wasn’t broken, but my confidence certainly was. And I’m pretty sure it led directly to nasal-septum surgery a few years later. As I indicated earlier, I’m still afraid of the ball. And I still can’t judge balls in the air very well.

My most recent injury happened on my work softball team. It was the last game of a long, losing season. There were two outs. I was playing first base – a position I’m actually halfway decent at on the account that it mercifully doesn’t involve many fly balls or grounders. It’s also a position that pretty much renders my speed (my only athletic asset) irrelevant. Well, with two outs, what should have been the final out hit a routine pop-up (for me, nothing is routine). I thought I was in position to catch it, which would have ended the game and our season with a win. Instead, the ball landed right in front of me, ricocheted off the hard dirt, before upper-cutting me directly on the chin. Like the earlier basketball shot to my head, I saw both stars and birds, accompanied by the ringing of discordant bells. I landed in the ER with a mild concussion. At times, I can still hear the ringing. Oh, and I should probably mention that we lost the game, finishing our season with a 1-19 record. I missed the one game we won.

This injury paralleled my unraveling personal life at the time, which reached rock bottom when my wife and I separated, leading to our eventual divorce. I was never more consumed by losing than I was during that summer.

Shortly after that summer, however, things began to turn around. By the time the next season came around, I was in a new, healthy and far more fulfilling relationship (with a former state champion of track and field!), compounded by the discovery that I was going to be a father. My daughter was due in late August, coinciding with the end of what had turned out to be a fantastic, turn-around season for the softball team.

We ended the season tied for first, which meant having to play a one-game play-off for the championship on a chilly, rain-soaked autumn night. The game was a doozy, going back and forth all game long. Of course, I was conditioned to accept that a loss was always lurking around the corner. I was especially thinking this as I headed up to the plate with the bases loaded in our final at bat, down by one with two outs. After years of folding under pressure, there was no greater choke opportunity than that very moment.

The fate of our entire season was now entirely up to me. Moments certainly don’t get more pressurized than that. To compound matters, I wasn’t having my best game at the plate to begin with. And I wasn’t expecting it to change now. I wouldn’t have expected things to be any different if I were swinging a hot bat. For starters, it was a brisk, autumn night. Any contact the bat made to the ball felt like a lightning bolt through my arm.

As I stood at the plate, I suddenly felt something change within me. Perhaps it was seeing a glimpse of the new life that awaited me as a father. Perhaps I had simply willed myself to refuse to lose anymore. Perhaps it was all the feel-good sports movies I watched over the years. Whatever it was, I suddenly had a clarity I never experienced before in sports. I knew exactly what I had to do. And nothing was going to stop me. I stepped into the pitch and swung, sending the ball sailing to right-center, splitting two fielders, who looked up to see the ball heading toward the fence. The ball continued sailing through the night sky, before arcing down and slamming down at the base of the fence. I had never come close to hitting a ball like this.  It is important to note that in this particular league, balls hit over the fence constitute as outs. It would have been my luck to knock one out of the park and lose. But fate was on my side for once. And just like that, it was game over. We were champions. My one moment of athletic glory! Even though it doesn’t really mean anything in the grand scheme of things, I will never forget that feeling.

That same night, just hours after our thrilling victory, my wife went into labor. The next day, I was a father … and I’ve been winning ever since. Professionally, the game-winning hit, combined with the birth of my daughter mirrored my arrival as a published writer (is it any surprise that one of her first phrases was “Daddy doesn’t give up?”)

Backing up a bit, if there is anything I have lost more consistently at than any sport or game, it’s my writing. As any writer knows, there are always more “losses” than “wins” (thinking plainly in terms of rejection vs. publications). Despite my losses in my attempts at writing, there have always been signs that I should keep pushing forward. However, one can take only so many semi-finalist awards to begin feeling like you were “always the bridesmaid.”

Over the years, I have come to view each and every rejection as both a loss and a victory. It’s a loss for obvious reasons. It’s a win because it’s proof that I have not given up – that I have not lost my passion, my desire, my lifeblood after years of putting everything I have into a dream that has eluded me for so long. Somehow, that championship-winning hit was the catalyst to a consistent stream of publishing, which ultimately lead to the publication of my first book. Now, every rejection and every publication are a both a testament and a monument to my lifelong commitment of never giving up no matter how many losses are racked up.

Even though I still have an overall losing record – and probably always will – the fact that I continue playing, makes me a champion – even if it’s in a league all to myself. But, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

Tips for Avoiding the Dork Side

  • Avoid bragging about your Magic Rocks, no matter how large or how colorful.

 

  • Never admit that you prefer playing with My Little Pony and Barbie dolls over He-Man and G.I. Joe.

 

  • Don’t wear your plastic Sea-Monkey necklace to school.

 

  • If you are perpetually teased and bullied by your classmates, avoid being friends with someone who tells people he lays eggs.

 

  • Avoid leaving a pair of dirty underpants in the pant leg of your jeans. Otherwise, it might work its way out throughout the course of the day, revealing itself to everyone as you come out of a bathroom with it trailing behind you in all of its white, poop-streaked glory, as one of your tormentors proclaims, “Look! His underwear is hanging out of his pants! And there’s streaks!” Moreover, don’t try to hide said underwear by picking it up and shoving it back down your pants.

 

  • Don’t stick your arm between two booths at Dairy Queen, unless you want to get it stuck, requiring someone to dismantle an entire booth in order to rescue your arm. Especially don’t do this if a girl you have a crush on is sitting nearby, eating ice cream with her family.

 

  • Spending summer days cooped up in your basement watching your Lionel train go around in circles while listening to Weird Al Yankovic won’t improve your social life.

 

  • When going down a waterslide, it’s always a good idea to make sure your bathing suit is fastened properly, lest it fall off and land twenty feet away from where you are left standing, fully nude.

 

  • Don’t wear a fanny pack. If you do, don’t refer to your fanny pack as your jet propulsion device. And even if you aren’t teased and bullied by your classmates, don’t wear a fanny pack.

 

  • Don’t boast about going to a New Kids on the Block concert. Bragging that you saw it in a suite will only make it worse.

 

  • Make sure your mother doesn’t glue fake eyebrows made out of cotton balls to your real eyebrows when you are supposed to dress up as an old man for a school assembly. Otherwise, upon removal of the fake eyebrows, one—and only one—of your real eyebrows might literally come off. You will then be called Bobby Eyebrow for the rest of the school year.

 

  • Don’t let your classmates see a picture of you dressed up as a cheerleader.

 

  • Don’t tell your classmates that your mom works for Lifeline (from the infamous “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” commercials), even if she works at a hospital and is responsible for answering Lifeline calls. They will never, ever let it go.

 

  • If you’re still using training wheels in fourth grade, it’s best not to let your friends see you on your bike. Ever.

 

  • It’s probably a good idea to end your belief in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny before you reach the sixth grade.

 

  • Don’t assume that becoming a Bugle Boy model is going to help you gain popularity. Having a wardrobe of one hundred percent Bugle Boy clothes will only lead to being called Bugle Dork.

 

  • If you have a crush on one of the most popular girls in the school, avoid writing her a note with the question, “Will you go out with me?” followed by two check boxes marked yes and no. She will share said note with all her friends before replying back with a resounding “No!” as she hands your note to you. And the no box will not only be checked off, but highlighted. Being a Bugle Boy model will not help you.

 

  • Don’t tell your crush that the reason you are sticking the rotating Slimer at the top of your Ghostbusters-themed pen up your nose is because it is a breathing device.

 

  • Attempting to style your hair like Vanilla Ice or Zack Morris will do nothing to boost your social standing.

 

  • Don’t let on to your middle school peers that you are scared that fireworks will put a hole in the sky or that Sesame Street characters live inside the air vents of your car.

 

  • Avoid, at all costs, the temptation to pee your pants while playing in the snow at recess. Especially early recess, when you have to spend the remainder of the day with your pants full of piss. Telling your classmates that you smell funny because of your mom’s new laundry detergent will not fool anyone.

 

  • If you attempt to fight back against one of your bullies, make sure you make it a direct hit, not a half-assed slap that just barely grazes his cheek. A tiny slap will only lead to more teasing from both your bully and all the witnesses.

 

  • Digging holes in the dirt beneath the swing set while the rest of your peers are playing sports won’t help you gain popularity. If other classmates join in, don’t refer to yourself as “First Boss” in an effort to establish your turf. You will never be first boss.

 

 

Welt

Getting picked last in gym class is a death sentence to the social life of a boy. But really, I was hopeless in gym class even when we weren’t picking teams. Chin-ups and rope climbing were one and the same to me, as they achieved the same effect—failure and shame.

When forced to attempt chin-ups, my skinny legs dangled helplessly beneath me as I strained to elevate my chin above the bar. One would think being a frail, skinny child would have made this feat easier. It did not. As I hung from the bar like a sheet hung out to dry on a calm day, I saw all my classmates watching down below.

Laughing.

Climbing a rope was a similar ordeal, but rather than my legs dangling in the air, they would straddle the rope like a dog humping a flopping fish. I always ended up exactly where I started, at the bottom of the rope, but with newly chafed hands.

I would suffer a similar humiliation in middle school when I attended an adventure camp that required me to climb an enormous, outdoor climbing wall. I got no farther than ten feet up before losing my grip and crashing back into the wall as I hung from my harness. Meanwhile, the rest of my classmates made it all the way up with seemingly little to no effort.

My fear of heights, combined with my lack of physical coordination was the driving force behind my decision to pass on an adventure ropes course suspended high above the treetops. I didn’t even deliberate on this one. Of course, my refusal to do it only lead to more humiliation from my peers than had I at least attempted it.

I fared no better at recess. Unlike most kids, I dreaded recess. I preferred the relatively safe, supervised confines of a classroom. More specifically, I dreaded the ample opportunity it brought for my bullies to find fresh and exciting ways to torment me. While the cool kids played sports during recess, I dug holes in the dirt beneath the swing set, far away from the athletic field where my classmates played and increased their ever-growing popularity.

As though gym and recess weren’t humiliating enough, my last name in itself brought a whole other degree of ridicule. And it was all due to the popular childhood game, “What Time is it, Mr. Fox?”

My experience with this game often went something like this:

“What time is it, Mr. Fox?”

“Time to kick your butt!”

Which, by the time I reached middle school, morphed into, “Time to kick your ass!”

However, none of these challenges measured up to my true elementary school nemesis, dodgeball—the bane of every elementary school dork, freak, and other form of social outcast. There’s something inherently flawed about a game where the object is to throw something at somebody. Not to them, so they can catch it, but at them, so you can hit them as hard as possible. In some ways, dodgeball is a tamer version of boxing. Of course, no school would ever dare force students to box, but dodgeball is just dandy.

Some might even argue that football is more brutal than dodgeball. That might be true, but when football is played in gym class, tackling is prohibited. Furthermore, the primary aim of football is not tackling, but rather to bring the ball over the goal line. In dodgeball, violence is the only goal. It’s the elementary school rendition of survival of the fittest.

The original Hunger Games.

The sinister origins of dodgeball can be traced back over six hundred years. Originally played in Africa, there are early variations on record in Korea, China, and Germany. In the game’s earliest incarnation, the game wasn’t played with rubber balls. It was played with rocks. In that context, I guess I should count my blessings.

In the early days, once an individual was struck, their opponents continued to pelt them until they were finished off for good. It was up to the struck man’s teammates to defend their fallen comrade by pelting the attackers with rocks of their own. This ritual was believed to encourage tribal teamwork in preparation for skirmishes against other tribes. It also helped weed out the weak.

With the exception of rocks, not much has really changed.

In the late 1800s, an English missionary named Dr. James H. Carlisle witnessed the ruthless game, and introduced a “tamer” version of the game back home. In place of rocks was a leather ball, which was still painful, only less lethal. In this more domesticated version, smacking somebody with a ball simply wasn’t enough. A player was only knocked out of the game if they were knocked to the ground. If they remained standing after a blow, they remained in the game.

A few years later, the game made its way over to the U.S. with the first official rules drawn up in 1905. Soon, colleges across the country were playing one another in competition, opening the floodgates for school-sanctioned, team sport bullying. Instead of having to throw objects at victims when authority figures weren’t looking—or, in some cases, were looking—bullies were now actually encouraged to take aim.

Anybody who has ever played the modern version of dodgeball understands there are a few types of participants. There are the cowerers and the champions. The gap between the eventual loser and eventual winner couldn’t be any wider. The champions manage to knock off most of their opponents, while simultaneously avoiding getting hit themselves. The cowerers? Not so much. The in-betweeners are the middle ground between the champions and the cowerers. At least they tried. And then there are the early birds. These are the participants who are smart enough to pretend to get hit amidst the chaos of the game’s opening shots, in an effort to avoid getting hit for real, sparing themselves the pain associated with actually getting nailed by a ball. Looking back, I should have settled for the early bird option. But I was always a cowerer.

Cowerers outlast almost everybody—not out of sheer athleticism, but for the sole reason that they spend the entire game glued to the back wall, cowering in fear, using everyone else as human shields. As the others are eliminated one by one, cowerers suddenly emerge as easy targets because there is nowhere else to hide. It is only a matter of time before cowerers meet their maker. Unlike the participants who got knocked out unnoticed amidst the early chaos of the game, the eyes of the entire class get to now witness your demise as you, the noble cowerer, run back and forth against the wall in this most dangerous game, until you find yourself curled defensively into a ball on the floor, awaiting your inescapable fate.

For me, games of dodgeball more often than not came down to myself and my nemesis, David Murphy.

Bully #1.

David, of course, was a natural at this game, licking his chops at any opportunity to play, even going so far as to beg the gym teacher to squeeze in a game at the end of class. For David, life was one huge, never-ending dodgeball game. Presumably, my gym teacher was no different than David Murphy when he was a kid. The only difference between the two was a teaching certificate.

If there was one silver lining, it was that the jocks were more concerned about knocking out other jocks in a demonstration of their uber-competitive jockiness. It wasn’t that David was especially athletic. He wasn’t. It came down to the fact that this game was a bully’s paradise, allowing him to pluck out the weak one by one, usually followed by the more athletically inclined in the class, who could easily beat David in every other sport on the planet, except dodgeball.

David always left me for last. This allowed him to maximize the humiliation he relished. Like a predatory cat with an injured mouse, David taunted and tortured me by intentionally missing me six or seven times to prolong my misery. To the amusement of the entire class, I cowered in the fetal position, where I remained until the gym teacher finally, reluctantly, told him to finish. Then David would plunk me and have a celebratory dance like a cocky receiver after a touchdown, as if he’d done something difficult.

David even organized playground versions of the game, independent from gym class. It was the only organizing he was capable of, but boy did he put his all into that. David always sought me out on the playground to join in. Unlike gym class, where the game was mandated, I could have opted out of the playground version, focusing instead on digging to China beneath the swing set. But I was driven by fear, with no choice but to take my lumps.

Fortunately, after generations of traumatized youth, dodgeball has been banned by many schools across the nation. Where it isn’t banned yet, rubber balls have been replaced with softer sponge balls, the kind that don’t leave welts. I was not so lucky.

Twenty years later, an unexpected opportunity for redemption arrived in the form of a dodgeball tournament aboard a Royal Caribbean cruise. I was naturally hesitant at first. An entire childhood plagued with dodgeball and now I was expected to volunteer for it? For fun?

But what did I have left to lose? Even if I totally sucked, I could prove I was no longer afraid. And maybe, just maybe, I had a shot at success. Maybe, just maybe, I could purge my childhood demons once and for all.

Perhaps it had to do with the abundance of fruity cocktails I’d consumed. Or perhaps it was the strong Caribbean breeze aboard our vessel, making it difficult for the lightweight ball to soar more than five feet, which somehow made everything seem less intimidating.

Suddenly, my first taste of athletic confidence took over my body.

The tournament began. My team was comprised of all age groups, spanning all walks of life. I sat on the sidelines, eagerly awaiting our chance to take the court.

When my team finally took the court, I took several shots, all of which missed their intended target. Eclipsing my confidence was a simmer of frustration. I wanted to do better. But as the game progressed, my teammates went down one by one. By some divine miracle, not only was I still standing, but I was no longer using my teammates as body shields. I’d suddenly become aggressive.

Driven, like an animal.

No longer a cowerer, I charged toward every ball, rather than dodging them.

I was silently disqualified in the middle of the pack, not by a bean, but by an opponent’s legal catch. It was a worthy throw, caught by an even more worthy opponent—a college-aged fratboy. This was as close to redemption as I was going to get. And I could live with that. I could finally hang ’em with fearless grace. This was no Rocky moment, but I didn’t need one. All I needed to know was that I could stand tall. I could throw the ball. I didn’t have to be afraid.

I was no longer a cowerer.

 

 

Tree Hugger

Some kids spend warm afternoons in the safe confines of a tree house. For one afternoon, at the tender age of nine, I had the luxury of spending mine tied to a tree.

Following a half-day of school, I was walking home, eagerly anticipating my mom’s yummy egg salad when I approached Teddy Thompson’s house. Teddy Thompson was one of the few jocks who—on most days—was actually nice to me. Every now and then, he would invite me over to play. However, the moment someone else spotted us together, he conveniently turned against me. So our friendship was, for lack of a better description, closeted.

When I passed by his house, he stepped out onto the porch and eagerly invited me in. This presented an instant dilemma. Should I delay egg salad sandwich gratification in exchange for a rare opportunity for social interaction? Or stick to my game plan? I decided egg salad could wait. Who knew when I would next be invited to someone’s house to play?

Especially a cool person.

When I arrived at Teddy’s house, three other classmates were already there. And two of those three classmates were among my biggest tormenters: Matt Belcher and David Murphy. And with no sign of parental supervision, the odds were not on my side. But there was no turning back. If I walked out the door, I would probably be subject to more ridicule than if I stayed. Then again, most of it would be behind my back, so maybe that wouldn’t have been such a bad thing. I ultimately decided to stay put and prove I could hang with the in-crowd. Besides, they had pizza.

But first things first. I had to call home and ask for permission.

“May I use your phone?” I asked Teddy.

“Sure.”

“Why, so you can call your mommy?” taunted Belcher.

“Yes. I need to call my mom.”

Teddy showed me to the kitchen phone. As I dialed, I overheard their conversation.

“Why did you invite him over?” said Murphy.

“He’s not that bad,” said Teddy.

“He’s a dork. And the biggest mama’s boy,” said Murphy, really fixated on this whole mommy thing. Who did he think I was, Norman Bates?

“Don’t worry. I got a plan…” I heard Teddy say, before my mom finally picked up.

“Hi. Can I play at Teddy Thompson’s?”

“Teddy Thompson? Sure!” my mom said, probably trying to hide her excitement about the fact that her son was actually invited to someone’s house.

“Okay, thanks. Love you.”

“I love you, too.”

Laughter poured out of the other room as I hung up. When I entered the room, I was greeted with a taunting echo of my own voice. “I love you, Mommy.”

“Guys, stop,” Teddy pleaded.

“Is there any pizza left?” I asked.

“Nope!” boasted Belcher, shoving the last piece into his mouth, proceeding to live up to his name by letting out a loud belch.

I pretended not to let it bother me, despite being so darn hungry. There would always be egg salad.

We headed out into the backyard to play Wiffle ball, or so I was lead to believe. I knew something was amiss when I noticed the rope. My next clue was when my tormentors began to push me toward the giant oak tree looming in the center of the yard.

I did not resist. I knew better.

Teddy stood by, doing nothing to stop it. Clearly, this was the “plan” he was referring to.

Did he lure me to his house with this plan in mind all along? Or was he simply caving into peer pressure? I would have plenty of time to ask myself these questions later. Belcher and Murphy held me in place with my back against the trunk as Teddy grabbed the rope and proceeded to wrap it around my body.

“If you scream, we will kill you,” Belcher threatened.

Meanwhile, Teddy tightened the rope around my ankles. When they were done, Murphy reiterated Belcher’s earlier claim. “If you tell anyone,” Murphy stared me in the eye, “we will hunt you down. And kill you.”

I never told anyone until years later when it was too late to file charges.

Teddy and his merry band of tormentors began to dance around the tree, patting their hands on their mouths in a grotesque imitation of Native Americans.

As I struggled to free myself, the rope began to loosen, but Murphy noticed and this time, tied the rope so tight it dug into my stomach.

But then salvation came in the form of an elderly neighborhood grouch.

“Stop hitting your damn balls into my yard!”

The neighbor proceeded to toss a wiffle ball back over the fence. She either didn’t notice that a boy was tied to a tree, or assumed that boys were just being boys. Or, simply didn’t give a shit. All that mattered was that I’d lost a perfect shot at liberation.

My captors proceeded to play ball as I helplessly watched from my vantage point in centerfield. A steady barrage of wiffle balls were aimed in my general direction. And my limbs were helpless to deflect them.

Fortunately, only two or three actually hit me. One was a welt-producing shot to the center of my forehead. It took every ounce of strength not to scream for mercy, fearful of retribution.

When they had their fill of playing ball, Murphy approached me and put a bunch of dry leaves under my feet. Belcher removed a pack of matches from his pocket and attempted to set the leaves on fire, which I managed to stomp out. In retaliation, Murphy attempted to set the rope on fire, but I blew out the match.

Twice.

The third time, Belcher put his hand over my mouth to allow Murphy to complete his task. Fortunately, the rope wouldn’t ignite and even more fortunately, lighter fluid never crossed his mind. After several attempts, he gave up, with a half-hearted plea from Teddy to “cut it out.” Belcher and Murphy listened, which prompted Teddy to suggest that they head off to a park “to hit some real baseballs.” I wasn’t included in this plan. The plan for me was to stay tied to the tree, which was certainly better than being set on fire.

A silver lining, as it were.

Left behind, all I could think about was freedom. And egg salad sandwiches. But would I ever see home again? Would I be left here for dead? Would crows peck out my eyeballs? Is this how Jesus felt? What would Jesus do?

To this day, I’m claustrophobic and hate being confined. There is no doubt in my mind that this is where it started.

All I needed was for somebody to pass by and freedom would be mine.

But the only thing that passed by was time.

The bells of a neighborhood church let me keep track of time in 15 minute increments. After an hour, the afternoon sun began to beat down on my face, which caused me to sweat, attracting mosquitoes to my face like moths to light.

And unbeknownst to me, my greatest humiliation was literally just around the corner.

It started out promising enough. Approaching voices. I could taste freedom on my lips. And freedom tasted like egg salad sandwiches.

But freedom has a price. And that price was in the form of the three most popular girls from my class, including Nicki Smith, my biggest crush. Why couldn’t it have been an adult neighbor walking a dog?

As much as I yearned for freedom, I prayed Nicki wouldn’t see me. I would rather spend the night tied to that tree than be seen there by the girl of my dreams. I knew full well that any chance I had with her would be obliterated if she saw me like this. Then again, perhaps she would have felt so bad for me, she would have fell for me on sympathy alone.

Who was I kidding? I wanted to disappear.

If there was one thing I had learned by the tender age of nine, it was that fate could be cruel. And that this was just one of many embarrassments I would endure throughout my lifetime regarding the opposite sex.

As the girls drew nearer, I held my breath. At first, nobody seemed to notice, but as soon as one of the girls pointed a finger, I knew it was over.

“Look!” one of Nicki’s friends said, laughing hysterically.

I bowed my head—the only thing I could do to conceal my identity, even though it was probably already too late. Maybe if I played it cool, they would just assume I wanted to be affixed to the tree.

They continued to laugh and they continued walking, leaving me hanging, even though for one fleeting moment, I am almost certain I saw pity on Nicki’s face. In all likelihood, it was probably a hallucination caused by the sweltering heat and vision obscured by mosquitoes, which were now nesting in my eyebrows.

Despite a missed opportunity for rescue, I tried not to panic. After all, it could have been worse, like that scene in Titanic when they see a ship out in the distance, which doesn’t see them in return. Eventually, either my mother would come looking for me, or Teddy’s parents would come home. Right? My captors would probably set me free before it got to that point to avoid getting in trouble.

The church bells chimed two. Then three. Sometime between three and four, my captors returned. Teddy approached me with a knife. His friends trailed behind. My initial thought was that I was about to be gutted like a fish. But instead, Teddy took the knife and cut the rope, despite pleas from his friends to leave me there even longer.

I was a free man.

“If you tell anybody about this, next time, we will kill you,” Belcher warned one last time. I took heed. Part of me still fears that writing this will somehow lead to retaliation.

I ran home as fast as I could, just in case my tormentors changed their mind. My mother greeted me at the door and suddenly, all was right with the world. I promptly fed my pet Sea-Monkeys, comforted by the thought that—unlike my classmates—they would never let me down.

“Did you have fun?” my mother asked.

I considered telling her the truth, but chose life instead.

“Yeah. Lots,” I said, making every effort to sound convincing.

“So what did you do?” my mother asked, probably relieved that her son was actually invited over to someone’s house to play.

“Played wiffle ball.”

“Did you eat?”

“There was pizza.”

“Are you hungry?”

“Yeah, a little.”

I was starving.

She promptly removed the egg salad out of the fridge, which almost made everything I had endured worth it.

Even now, I wonder if Teddy Thompson ever regretted his role in what transpired that day. Maybe someday, I’ll ask him. But deep down, I already know the answer. Bullies don’t regret what they do. Most of the time, they don’t even remember.

But I’ll never forget.