It was now the middle of October; week six of the school year. Pressure had been put on schools to offer ‘In-Person-Learning’ and this was the first week we were back in the building. It had taken some juggling to figure out how I would make this work for me personally with my son being home, but I made it happen. Today was a Wednesday, and ironically it was a ‘Professional Development’ day for teachers, so we actually had no students in the building with us. I was sitting with Lily in her office after lunch waiting for our afternoon meetings to begin:
Lily spoke once I had finished talking, “…I’m sorry Jose, I know you still care for her, but it sounds to me like she took advantage of that situation.”
Once I get to know you, I am an open book. I’ll literally tell you anything (well—almost anything). This is not always a good thing. In fact, I had just finished telling Lily things I probably should not have told her about how Sirena and I had first gotten together.
I was not in a great mood this day as Sirena had just told me she was selling the house. There was no guy or anything; Bart the landscaper was long out of the picture by this time. Sirena had told me, “I just can’t afford living in such a big house by myself anymore.” This had me feeling a bit off as I had long held onto the idea of moving back into that house with her and becoming a normal family again.
Realizing that I was painting some poisonous images on Lily by what she just said to me, I tried to backtrack a bit, “—You are only hearing my side of the story Lily. Sirena has her side too. And then of course…as you know, somewhere in between is the truth.”
Being a councilor, Lily understood this reference perfectly, “We have time: Why don’t you tell me it from her perspective?” She said.
Lily leaned back in her chair, an inaudible way of telling me that she was all ears. She did this a lot; “doctoring our conversations” I called it. Understanding what she was doing, I spoke, “We grew up practically neighbors. We were best friends for much of our childhood.” Pausing for a moment, I tried to think of the humblest way to say this last part, “She might have been a little in love with me our entire lives.”
“Don’t be so modest, explain yourself: Did she love you or not?” asked Lily; in her councilor’s no-nonsense tone.
“Yes.” I said. Then continued, “As kids it never turned into anything more than friends though. Sirena will tell you this is because she was an ugly girl growing up. I’d like to tell you it’s because I was smarter as a kid than I was as an adult.”
Lily smirked at this comment of mine, but tilted her head slightly in disbelief, “Sirena is beautiful: How ugly could she really have been?”
“It was her awkward faze. She was not ugly—but you’d understand why she calls it her ‘ugly phase’ if you saw pictures.”
“Try and explain it to me.”
“Picture a slightly heavier girl with frizzy hair and dry, pasty, skin, with bright pink cheeks—oh, and big lips that she had yet to grow into…” I went on, “Every day Sirena would ride her bike past my house to see if I was home. She’d be wearing this pink helmet of hers with her hair bursting out the sides, frizzy form the heat; and she would always be wearing cutoff jean shorts.” Imagining this in my head, I added, “It feels like it was yesterday… She would wear those shorts no matter the weather—Actually, you know what… She looked just like the girl in the movie ‘My Girl.’ Have you ever seen it?”
It took me only a few seconds to pull up a picture. Leaning in close to me so that she could see my phone, I showed Lily the picture of the girl in the movie, “Sirena was always wearing those shorts of hers…like, literally, always…”
As I was lost in my own reminiscent thoughts, Lily leaned away from me to say, “Honestly, that sounds adorable to me.”
Earlier in our conversation I had made it sound to Lily like Sirena was some sort of super powerful enchantress that had swooped in and ruined my life. Trying to erase this image I had painted of her to Lily, I spoke again of Sirena, “For the majority of her life she wanted to be more than friends with me. When the situation presented itself, it was like the Willy Wonka of the Universe taking a forbidden candy off the top shelf and putting it right in front of her face.”
Lily was trying to stop eating chocolate. This had been discussed earlier when I was eating the chocolate she had on her desk. She had left it there for students, but claimed she was also testing her own willpower.
I pushed the chocolate towards her jokingly and continued, “—How Sirena acted back then was human nature: I’m the one that should have known better. Sirena helped me break away from a reality I was unhappy with…Honestly, I was grateful at the time. Did she keep me in handcuffs when she broke me out—Yes…. But you cannot say that she took advantage of the situation: I knew what I was getting myself into.”
Silence had gripped the office while Lily did her councilor thing. I could see she was thinking of what to say to me next. Finally, she spoke, “Did you just refer to yourself as ‘Forbidden Candy’ Jose?”
“Well—Yeah…. I guess I did.”
Laughing at myself, I noticed a small smile awaken on Lily’s face. Unable to help myself, I added, “Don’t I look delicious to you?”
“You’re an idiot.”
Lily laughed, as my comment successfully wiped away the seriousness she wore on her face while counseling me. Noticing her blush slightly, I leaned in close and went straight for her funny bone, “I’m SOOO yummy that I’ll dance right down your throat!”
Damnit Jose—You always take it one step too far!
And on that note….
In 2013 I got fired for the first time in my life. It was June. I was thirty-one years old:
“Jose, we are not going to re-hire you for next year.”
I’m sorry, I was not fired, just not ‘re-hired’— Big Friggin Difference!
Sitting across from me, giving me this news, were two women. One was the school’s principal and the other was a higher up from downtown. This other woman had also been one of my sixth-grade teachers. I had done a Martin Luther King speech in her class and she told my parents, “He’s a really great speaker.” This lady was also one of my good friend’s mom. I had gone on a trip to Washington D.C. with them when I was a kid. Sitting in that office with her across from me I was more ashamed and embarrassed than I had been my entire life (up until then at least).
This was my third-year teaching after I had left my job in finance. If I had made it through that year I would have been ‘tenured.’ That basically means it becomes very difficult to get fired afterwards: the first three years is pretty much a probationary period. I was brought into that office and told I had not been ‘re-hired’ on literally the last day they could tell me.
Anvil Number One.
Though they did not need to give the reason for this Non-Re-Hire, sitting there I felt they knew exactly what was going on with me—They must have known…
Seeing how upset I had gotten at the news, they let me go home for the remainder of the day; as making me teach the rest of my classes unable to see must have seemed like excessive punishment to them. At this point in my life, emotionally I was a mess. I remember every day, not just this one, being a struggle. Driving down the hill, away from the school, I had a choice to make.
Where was I going to go—What was I going to do??
Ultimately, it really was not a choice at all: I went straight to my dealer’s house.
At this point in our story you should have come to the realization that Sirena was my second wife.
We actually ended up teaching at the same school. The school that had just fired me. At the time she was 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 on this day, I had nowhere to be, and no more pretending to do at the moment.
This dealer was not simply my supplier, but my friend. When you are in the game, that’s how things usually work; for me at least. I never blamed this guy for taking all my money. He wasn’t getting rich off me. He was simply doing what he needed to survive himself. This is something I tell you, My Reader, but not something I would tell the world as I’d surely upset someone.
After getting the medicine in me I felt better. Opiates were my thing. I used to call it the most effective anti-depressant on the market. Once the shower of calmness cascaded over my brain, I began to realize that my life was not yet over: “I could fix this!”
With nowhere to be I offered to bring my dealer to get groceries for his family that day as his car was not working at the time. This drive of ours will forever be a memory that sticks with me.
I told him everything that had happened, and all the challenges I had ahead of me. We had not seen each other for a while, and he was a good listener—But I’m sure you’re gonna think that’s only because we were both on drugs.
“I’m a talented guy. I can do anything. Maybe teaching isn’t for me,” I said to him; as I outlined the number of different things I could do; trying to plan an escape route.
This little reprieve from worry would soon come to an end of course. If you have ever used opiates, then you know what I’m referring to. While I may have felt optimistic in that moment it was only a matter of time before I would need more medicine to simply breathe without the million pounds of anxiety restricting my airways.
I might have been able to earn a living without that teacher’s job, but the real fear would soon set in: “How was I going to afford my medicine?”
Of all the things I said to him that day, there is one thing I’ll always remember saying on that 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 Laughing Emoji Here.)
***End Of Breaking Knews***
Leaving her office, Lily and I headed to the afternoon assembly. The Superintendent-Of-Schools in our district was coming in to give us some Big Pep-Talk: very exciting stuff.
“How’s that article coming by the way?” asked Lily; as we walked side by side down the hall.
There was a creative writing contest that I had decided to enter. Lily knew about this, and I had also told my students about it. Promising to share my entry with them this Friday, it would be this week’s article I gave them to read and reflect on.
“I’m almost done,” I said, “There’s just one part that I’m stuck on, but I’ve almost figured it out.”
I had gotten the idea for the article when Lauren did her little report on the television show, 13 Reasons Why, the previous week. Writing this article was emotionally challenging for me, but I thought I had done a good job creating something unique; both for my students to read, and for this little contest I’d be entering.
Taking our seats in the cafeteria, the meeting had just begun. I had my phone out and was doing my regular mindless scroll when Lily stood up and gently tapped me on my thigh: Quietly telling me to, “Put it away,” with what looked like a smile on her face.
The chairs for this assembly were all placed six feet apart and everyone was wearing their masks. Doing anything other than listening at this meeting of ours was going to be impossible. This would be hard for me as I had made a living being inappropriate during these types of “important gatherings.”
For the first fifteen minutes we listened to steps that the district was making to, “Keep kids and staff safe.” My mind struggled to stay present as the meeting was handed off to someone I did not recognize. This person was going to talk to us about administering MAP testing to our students next week.
It was at this moment I let my mind leave that meeting. None of what was talked about was relevant to my class, but really, I just secretly despised all this testing crap, and would do anything not to have to listen someone tell me again how important it was that we “take it serious.”
Paying little attention to the voice in front of me talking about “The importance of data driven analyses,” I instead used this time to struggle with the words I’d use to end my story this week….
Week 6 (10.16.20):
What if I could have caught a break— What if I didn’t give up— What If…They Believed Me???
As I walk the quiet streets in darkness, the ‘What Ifs’ come and go like the streetlights passing bye: One after another. This had become my life now. Even though today would be the day, it was truly no different than any other. My life was like a movie playing over and over in my mind. But it is only now I finally accept that not all movies have a happy ending….
“When did life dIverge on me?”
I knew the answer to this question far too well. It was the day of the fire; the day I watched my life go up in flames. I would never recover from the burns that fire left on my heart and soul.
Maybe it was my destiny all along?
The date today is April 15th, 2040.
Where had the time gone?
Please do not think I did not try. I wanted to get better for my kids, my family, my friends—For all those people that believed I could. But I just could not defeat the demons that tormented me. I remember everything so vividly. Relentlessly, day after day, the dark clouds blocked all light from entering my world.
“What else could I do but use— To Open That Box??”
They wanted ‘Happy Me’ again, and that was the only way I knew how to be that person: I was just doing what they wanted—Wasn’t I?
It worked for a while, but of course it never would last (I know that now). Eventually they 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 father, son, and husband they all wanted me to be: That I wanted to be.
But it was too little too late.
My wife left me; my second wife. 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 is 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, the 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.”
But unfortunately, I could never accept where life had taken me: I needed to escape.
So today, I remember that for a while, vodka did the trick.
It was never my “Drug Of Choice,” but it was cheap, and it helped me forget. I wasn’t hurting anyone—At first, I remember…
Today I am sick. I know I should not have left the hospital, but what was the point?
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 (that was my diet for so long now).
Slowly walking towards the tunnel entrance, I recall 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 was laughed at and ridiculed more times than I can count. Little did those people know I once dreamt about being the person to save the world from self-destruction.
How delusional I once was.
As I descend the stairs, tears begin to gather in my eyes. Which is a feat in itself as someone so dehydrated usually cannot cry. But the swelling in my brain must be causing enough pressure to push what little water is left out of my system.
My body knew it was time.
My friends were in their usual places as the last train would be making its final stop for the night. We needed to find a place to sleep down here before they closed the gates, or we would be left out on the streets for what remained of the night. Sometimes we were kicked out, but not tonight: “Thank you for that,” I thought to myself.
I could smell the moldy air and moist concrete as the sound of rumbling made its way to my ears.
It Was Time.
I lowered myself onto the tracks; in the shadows so that no one would have to see (It was the least I could do). If I timed it right, no one would know. That is how I want it to be. Finally, to detach—Forever.
As the rumbling became louder, I thought of my three boys: I once had dreams of making them so proud.
Quietly, I whispered into the stale darkness, “If there is anyone listening, I am sorry. If you want to grant me one wish, let it be that they forget me.”
With those words directed to the Universe I closed my eyes and hugged Billy’s tattered book to my chest. I could sense the bright light approaching as the noise became louder and louder. Calmly; I took my last breath, finally accepting—
“I Am Insignificant.”
QUESTION FOR REFLECTION:
What do the words diverge, destiny, and detach mean to you?
The Teacher’s Playlist:
“Who do you call when you need some help?”
—Let Go by Beau Young Prince