Week six brings us to the middle of October. Pressure was put on schools to offer in-person-learning and this is the first week we are back in the building. Today is a Professional Development day for teachers, which means the students have the day off. I am sitting with Lily in her office at lunchtime waiting for our afternoon meetings to begin:
“Jose, has anyone ever told you that the pursuit of love is often stronger than possessing love?”
“No,” I reply, uncertain of why Lily is saying this to me right now.
“Listen…” she says, “I know you still care for her, but it is sure sounds to me like Sirena trapped you back then.”
Once I get to know a person, I’m an open book. I’ll tell you almost anything. More simply: I talk too much. I’ve gotten better at editing what I say, but I am definitely not an expert at it by any means. Something that is now evident as I’ve just finished saying things to Lily I immediately regret: details pertaining to my relationship with Sirena.
I am not in a good mood today. Sirena is selling the house. The one we built after the fire. There is no guy or anything; Bart the landscaper is long out of the picture. Sirena explained everything to me yesterday over the phone. “I just can’t afford living in such a big house by myself anymore Jose,” she said. All of this has me feeling a bit off as I have long held onto the idea of moving back into that house with her and becoming a normal family again—well, kind of normal.
Realizing I had painted some poisonous images on Lily by what she just said to me, I try my best to backtrack. “You are only hearing my side of the story Lily. Sirena has her side too.”
“We have time,” Lily says in response to this. “Why don’t you tell me her side of the story then?”
I see Lily lean back in her chair; an inaudible way of telling me she is all ears. She does this a lot; doctoring our conversations, I call it.
Knowing what she’s doing, I do as I’m told. “Well, first of all, Sirena and I grew up practically neighbors, so we were best friends for much of our childhood.” Pausing a moment, I try to think of the humblest way to say this next part. “She might have been a little in love with me our entire lives.”
“Oh—get over yourself Jose!” Lily says, annoyed. “Explain. Did she love you or not?”
“Yes. She did,” I admit. “As kids it never turned into anything more than friends though. Sirena will tell that’s because she was an ugly girl growing up. I’d tell you it’s because I was smarter as a kid than I am as an adult.”
Lily smirks at my comment, but then tilts her head and scrunches up her face. “Sirena is beautiful. How ugly could she really have been?”
“It was her awkward faze,” I reply. “She wasn’t ugly, but you’d understand why she calls it her ugly phase if you saw pictures.”
“Please; there’s no way,” Lily says in disbelief.
“As a twelve-year-old girl she was heavier back then Lily. And she had dry, rashy skin, with bright pink cheeks…and a set of full lips she hadn’t grown into yet.” —An image of Sirena is brought to life in my imagination— “Every day she would ride her bike past my house to see if I was home wearing this pink helmet with frizzy hair bursting out the sides. And she’d always be wearing cutoff jean shorts…”
Lost in thought, I begin to feel something in my chest. Not wanting to think about what that means I look at the wall above Lily’s head. “I can still see her in those shorts. She’d wear them no matter how cold it was—Actually—” My eyes snap down from the wall. “She looked just like the girl in the movie My Girl—Have you ever seen it?”
“Um…” Lily replies, “Maybe?”
It takes me only a few seconds to pull up a picture on my phone. Leaning in close, I show Lily the picture of the girl from this movie I just referenced. “Sirena was always wearing those shorts, like…literally, always.”
Lily sits back. “Honestly, that sounds adorable to me Jose,” she says.
Earlier in our conversation I was upset about Sirena selling the house and it now dawns on me again that I said a lot of stuff about Sirena I wish I hadn’t. I made it sound like she was some sort of super powerful enchantress that had swooped in and ruined my life. I do sometimes feel this way, but I shouldn’t have let Lily know that. I need to remind myself that I can’t always trust the way I remember events from my past…and that loving someone like me isn’t easy.
Trying to erase the image I had painted of her, I speak again of Sirena. “For the majority of her life she wanted to be more than friends with me. How we got together wasn’t a strategy she masterminded, and she definitely didn’t trap me. She actually helped me break out of a reality I was unhappy with back then and I was grateful at the time.”
I feel exposed at this confession and a caving silence grips the office as Lily does her councilor thing; deciding in her mind how bad of a person I really am.
While I feel uneasy at the moment, there is something about Lily that makes me feel comfortable in a way I have not felt around a girl in a long time. She definitely has a strange effect on me. And I have to say I kinda like it—which scares the crap out of me.
Finally, Lily talks. “Jose, you are very sincere person. You can’t fake that. I know I’m younger than you, and we haven’t known each other that long, but I have studied people a lot and there is something about you I don’t see often. You’re an outlier…A real-life Jon Snow—”
At this, Lily smiles at me. She had begun watching the show Game of Thrones a week or so ago. We were just talking about it a few minutes earlier, so I understand what she’s inferring by using this name. But unlike her, I’ve finished the show myself and don’t take it as the compliment she intends it to be. I see this character she is referring to as easily manipulated…and I know the fate of guys like that in the real world.
The room goes quiet again and I smile back. I then watch Lily open her lips to finish this thought of hers. “I’m serious Jose. You’re special. Something inside me thinks you need to hear that.”
I turn to stone and wonder to myself why she thinks I need to hear this; it’s my natural instinct to feel defensive. But looking at her I can see she is being kind.
Not knowing what to say, a moment passes, and I realize that I probably shouldn’t say anything. I look at the powerful set of eyes across from me and can’t help but think… I love you.
In June of 2013—two years after my first divorce—I am teaching sixth grade math at a middle school in the town I grew up in.
“Jose, we are not going to re-hire you for next year.”
The woman that says this to me has not aged since I knew her as a child; she sits across from me to the left of my principal. I feel like a little boy again as I look at her speak. The room is hot as the summer heat has arrived. I feel myself begin to sweat.
The administrator from downtown that sits beside the principal was a teacher of mine when I was in middle school. In her class I recited a Martin Luther King speech for some project of hers and she told my parents, He’s a really great speaker. She is also my good friend’s mom. I went on a trip to Washington D.C. with their family on a summer vacation when I was young. Sitting in this office—with her across from me—I am more ashamed and embarrassed than I have been my entire life. The room gets hotter.
This is my third-year teaching after I left my job in finance. If I made it through this year, I would be tenured; meaning it becomes very difficult to lose your job afterwards; the first three years is pretty much a probationary period. I am brought into this office and told I have not been ‘re-hired’ on literally the last day they can tell me. Regardless of the words they use, the truth is they are firing me. The room now boils.
—Anvil Number One.
Though they do not need to give a reason for their decision, sitting here I feel they know exactly what is going on with me—they must know.
Seeing how upset I am, they let me go home for the remainder of the day as making me teach the rest of my classes unable to see must seem like excessive punishment to them. At this point in my life I’m an emotional wreck. Every day, not just this one, is a struggle.
In my car, driving down the hill away from the school, I have a choice to make: Where am I going to go?
Ultimately, it isn’t really a choice at all.
I go straight to my dealer’s house.
Sirena—my second wife—is teaching at the same school as me. The school that has just fired me. She is four months pregnant with my youngest son.
Normally, I’d be in and out at my dealer’s house quickly. Rushing to get somewhere and pretending to be normal. But today, I have nowhere to be and no more pretending to do at the moment.
This dealer is not just my supplier, but my friend. When you’re in the game that’s usually how things work. After getting the medicine in me I feel better. A shower of calmness cascades from the top of my head all the way to my toes, with it, I realize that my life is not yet over— “I can fix this!”
With nowhere to be I offer to bring my dealer to get groceries for his family as his car is not currently working. This will be a drive that sticks with me long after.
We drive with the windows open and let the summer air keep us cool. While driving I tell my friend/dealer everything that happened and all the challenges I have ahead of me. “I’m a talented guy… I can do anything… Maybe teaching isn’t for me,” I say to him; before outlining the number of different things I can do…trying to plan an escape route.
This reprieve from worry would soon come to an end of course. While I may feel optimistic in this moment it is only a matter of time before I need more medicine to simply breathe without the million pounds of anxiety restricting my airways. The fear of needing more medicine is a constant threat to feeling at peace when you’re a drug addict.
Of all the things I say to him, there is one thing I’ll always remember saying on this drive of ours. Something that I now see forecasted a future breakdown: “I think its destiny that I lost this job. Maybe I had to lose it? I just feel like I’m meant for something more.” (Insert Crying-Laughing Emoji Here)
***End of Breaking Knews***
Leaving her office, Lily and I head to the afternoon assembly. The Director is coming in to give us some big pep-talk about having kids back in the building for in-person-learning. Very exciting stuff.
“How’s the article coming by the way?” Lily says as we walk side by side down the hall.
There is a creative writing contest I have been encouraged to enter. Lily knows about this and I have also told my students about it. The short story I enter in the contest will double as this week’s article. I have titled it DIVERGE.
“I’m almost done,” I reply, “I’m just trying to figure out the right words to use at the end.”
I had gotten the idea for the short story I’m writing when Lauryn did her report on the television show 13 Reasons Why last week. Writing it has been emotionally challenging for me, but I think I’ve done a good job creating something unique; both for the contest and for my students.
Taking our seats in the cafeteria, the meeting has just begun. I have my phone out doing my regular mindless scroll when Lily stands up and gently taps me on my thigh; “Put it away,” she whispers.
The chairs for this assembly are all placed six feet apart and everyone is wearing their mask. Doing anything other than listening at this meeting is going to be impossible. This will be hard for me as I make a living being inappropriate during these types of important gatherings.
For the first fifteen minutes we listen to steps the district is making to “Keep kids and staff safe.” My mind struggles to stay present as the meeting is handed off to someone I do not recognize. This person is going to talk to us about administering MAP testing to our students next week.
MAP testing is just another standardized test created and administered to track student progress. A complete waste of time—and money—in my opinion.
Silently frustrated, I let my mind leave the meeting. None of what is being talked about is relevant to my class anyway.
Paying little attention to the voice in front of me talking about “The importance of data driven analyses,” I instead use this time to debate which words I’ll use to end my story….
Week 6: Friday, October 16th, 2020
What if I could have caught a break? … What if I didn’t give up? … What if they believed me? …
As I sleepwalk the quiet streets in darkness, the WHAT IF’S come and go like the streetlights passing by, one after another. This has become my life now. Even though today will be the day, it is truly no different than any other. There is no room in this world for me.
The date today is Friday, April 15th, 2050
… When did this life diverge on me?
I know the answer to this question. It was the day of that fire. The day I learned of the two different kinds of pain in life: the kind that hurts and the kind that alters. That day changed me. And I was never the same afterwards.
My feet are heavy, and they hurt with every step; from my ankles all the way up to my lower back. On my way to the All-Powerful Oz I can’t help but wonder if this was my destiny all along. I feel like the rusty-tinman, scared-scarecrow, and cowardly-lion all at the same time.
I did try to get better back then. For my kids, my family, and my friends; for all those people that believed I could. But I failed everyone when I could not defeat the demons that tormented me.
I remember it all so vividly. The dark clouds that blocked all light from entering my world and the all-consuming sadness that people told me was just in my head. They wanted “happy me” again, so—what else could I do? … I was just doing what they wanted … Wasn’t I? …
Questions continue to float around my head as I continue towards my final destination.
I decided that alcohol was never my real downfall, so I let myself have a few drinks to feel more comfortable around people back then. It was never my drug of choice, yet it still helped me to escape.
But of course, it would never last. I know that now.
Eventually I lost control. And everyone got fed up with that me as well. Even then, I did not give up. I did what I had to in order to get back on that bull. To be the person they all wanted me to be. That I wanted to be. But it was too little too late.
My kids were kept from me “until I got better.” My parents had to walk away from me completely because watching what I was doing to myself destroyed them. Everyone did what they had to for their own personal salvation. I never blamed them. And I do not blame them today.
For a while I stayed in sober living and was grateful to have a roof over my head. I say that now that I know what it’s like to live on the streets. Maybe I wasn’t truly grateful back then. Who knows? …
I remember everything today.
I remember that for a while, that minimum wage job gave me some purpose. I remember that for a while, I felt proud sending what little money I could to my kids. I remember that for a while, I did my best to do the next right thing.
Unfortunately, I could never accept where life had taken me. I remember.
Today I am sick. I know I should not have left the hospital, but really there was no point in staying. I am now beyond repair. Broken. Just another loser in this game called life.
My liver is failing, and I don’t have much time left. My body is shaking because it needs its medicine, but it is late, and no one is on the streets. During the day I could scrape together a few dollars for a cheap bottle and a bag of chips; my diet for so long now.
Approaching the entrance to the tunnel, I reflect on the first time I begged for money.
It was at this intersection right here. I was ashamed—obviously—as I remembered how I looked at beggars earlier on in my life. Quickly, however, I realized that no one here knew me. Even if they had known me in the past, no one recognized the person that the pain had turned me into.
Life on the streets became normal. Never easy, but normal.
Over the years I have been laughed at and ridiculed more times than I can count. I remember the man that stopped in front of me once and had a heart to heart with his son….
“See this man right here son, he could go get a job and work but instead he sits here wanting us to feel sorry for him and give him money that we work hard for. We do him no good by giving him our money. Most of them are faking and have more money than us anyway. Don’t be a sucker, son.”
I remember the boys’ eyes. At first, they looked at me with empathy; perhaps a bit of fear danced in them, but in just a few seconds I saw that look turn into disgust.
I said nothing that day. How many times had I been told to get a job? If I could hold a job of course I’d want one…it would make supporting this miserable existence much easier.
In reality, the money people gave me on the side of the street kept me alive. I know I wasn’t living the life they wanted me to live, but that’s why I was here, and they were there.
Little did that boy’s father know I once dreamt of being the person to change the future for that son of his. How delusional I once was…
The guy that was gonna change the world…hiding in plane site—HA!
I descend the stairs and see my friends in their usual places as the last train will be making its final stop for the night. We need to find a place to sleep down here before they close the gates or we will be left out on the streets for what remains of the night. Sometimes we are kicked out, but not tonight. Thank you for that, a grateful voice from inside my head says.
I can smell the moldy air and moist concrete as I glance at the digital clock on the wall: 1:19 AM.
It is time.
Focusing on the ground I walk with faked purpose. Arriving at my planned destination I quietly lower myself onto the tracks—in the shadows so that no one can see. It is the least I can do. If I time it right no one will even know—that is how I want it to be.
Lying on my stomach I let the heavy track split my body in two. As I rest my head on the metal, it immediately dawns on me how tired I am.
Looking across the track, I find myself thinking about my three boys…
I once had dreams of making you so proud… but I failed you…you that mattered to me the most… and everyone that ever needed me… I failed you…
I think of their faces. The smiles I was never able to bring them. The laughs we should have shared if I could have simply been better. The hearts that will stay frozen long after I’m gone.
All of these thoughts splinter in my mind and I find myself repeating “I failed you” over and over in my head as my cheekbones begin to feel the train approaching.
A tear drips down the side of my face. Not wanting to listen to my thoughts any longer, I quietly speak into the stale air around me.
“If there is anyone listening, I am sorry…. If you want to grant me one wish, let it be that they all forget me.”
I sense the bright light approaching as the noise becomes louder and louder. I close my eyes as my heart begins to beat uncontrollably. I am scared.
Maybe a different life wouldn’t have been any better? …
Maybe this world was going to destroy me no matter what?
——— I failed you….
QUESTION FOR REFLECTION:
In your opinion, will things in this world get better or worse over the next 30 years? Why?
The Teacher’s Playlist:
“Who do you call when you need some help?”
—Let Go by Beau Young Prince