It is Friday January 22nd, 2021. Week twenty has arrived and I am at school for my last day. Students will be coming into school for in-person-learning next week so the building is filled with other teachers preparing to welcome them back into the classroom. With nothing to prepare for myself I am alone with Lily in her office:
Putting the papers down, Lily speaks with tears in her eyes. “That’s amazing Jose. I didn’t know she had this in her.”
Lily was reading something Lauryn had written for my class. My students had watched a movie titled Finding Neverland and as their final assignment were required to write an essay or a short story that referenced this movie in two different and unique ways; Lauryn titled hers Through Those Eyes.
“I know,” I say to Lily, “It’s amazing right It? It brought tears to my eyes too.”
A knock on the office door interrupts us. Principal Sam leans her head in and tells the two of us to come meet in the break room. I watch Lily throw a tissue in the trash and walk out the door.
I stand up and follow Lily. Walking down the hall behind her I can’t help but admire how truly beautiful she is. And I also can’t help but notice that smell of hers…kinda cinnamony. Since I was a kid the smell of cinnamon has been my favorite, and smelling it now makes me again think that Miss Lily was brought into my life for a reason.
As Lily turns into the breakroom a loud song begins in chorus. “For she’s a jolly good fellow… For she’s a jolly good fellow… For she’s a jolly good fellow … WHICH NOBODAY CAN DENY!”
A few of the students have come to surprise Miss Lily on this day. All of the staff knew about this, yet it is now clear Lily had no clue herself. I watch her cry happy tears for the second time in under two minutes.
Balloons surround a dressed-up table holding a few cards and a fancy looking cake. On the cake is written “Congratulations Lilia!”
Standing next to Lily, I lean in close to her and say, “They could have at least spelled your name right.”
Turning to look at me, she pushes me in the shoulder, then hugs me. “That’s my legal name you idiot,” she whispers in my ear.
Miss Lily has gotten engaged. That boyfriend of hers finally proposed after a short little break in their relationship earlier in the year. She has gotten the ring she had been so eager to get, and I am very happy for her.
The breakup between the two of them had happened over some pornography Lily found on her boyfriend’s phone. “The shit he was watching looked so mean to me,” she cried telling me the story that day; looking heartbroken. Lily then did some research and I watched her casually incorporate what she learned in a class with our students; “What might excite some visually is not often the same as what excites most in reality—and what we think we want and what we really want can be two different things,” she said to them. Lily said that during a lesson we titled, The Grass is Always Greener.
She is amazingly gifted and will be having small meetings with my students to continue my class when I’m gone. Her fiancé and her obviously worked through their issues and things seem to be going really well for them today.
“You had your chance…” Mr. Henry says to me. I sit with him eating a piece of cake. “I still don’t get why you never went after that.”
I have come to realize that Mr. Henry is always thinking with his dick. I don’t say this to him but hearing him now makes it more obvious than ever.
When you’re young everything is about sex. Mr. Henry and I are close in age, but he hasn’t grown up much. Perhaps I would have ended up more like him if things would have gone different for me. He fancies my single life. But what he doesn’t understand is my single life isn’t what he imagines. While being single does have its benefits, he can only think of one.
Explaining to him all the reasons why Lily and I could not happen is pointless, so I try to think of something to say that will satisfy the requirement of idle conversation.
“Have you noticed Lily is always wears sunglasses?” I say to him.
“What the hell does that matter?” he replies.
“Sunglasses intimidate me.”
At these words, Mr. Henry lazily drops his fork to his plate, looks at me, and then shakes his head. “For a decent looking dude Jose, you’re a real pussy, you know that?”
I recall Uncle Marshall calling me this vulgar name earlier in the year.
“Yeah…” I say in response to his allegation, “I’ve been told.”
This zigzag journey through the ashes of my past is about to come to a close. While this will not be the last chapter in this story, it will be the last of these flashbacks. It’s been a bumpy ride…let’s hope it was worth it.
Back on that morning in May of 2016—when I saw the fire growing up the side of the house from out that kitchen window—I ran back into the basement where our bedroom was and told Sirena to grab our son and get outside. As Sirena does that, I frantically grab my laptop and a few notebooks off a small desk I have been working at. I then hurry out of the bulked exit and find the garden house. I turn on the water and try to stop the fire from spreading. The fire staring at me moves slowly. There is a chance I can put it out—there is a chance no one will find out about this…
A fireman eventually grabs me by my shoulders from behind and pulls me away for my own safety. A propane grille is very close to the flames that are growing in front of me. Once he has pulled me away, all I can do is watch.
The sound of shattering glass wakes up the panic inside me. I had just put those windows in a few months ago. Terror hits me like a wave crashing down. This is bad! — THIS IS REAL BAD!
The house I watch burn is full of stuff I have been working on to create that video of mine; the one that would entice people to read my story. Watching the fire, I am unsure whether to be upset or scared. Both! — DEFINETELY BOTH!
I had been letting my hair grow as I made a deal with myself not to cut it until I made my dream of becoming a writer real. With my hair in a ponytail; and a gruffy looking beard on my face, I smell the smoke from the fire and know that very soon everyone will discover what I’ve been up to in that house.
Sirena holds our son and watches the fire from a few feet away with some neighbors. We exchange a look and it immediately registers how cold it is outside. I step towards her and a song by Cold Play begins to play in my head: The Scientist. When things were good Sirena and I loved listening to music together, approaching her, a lyric from that song repeats: “Nobody said it was easy.”
Standing beside her, I recall the question she asked me once: “What if your story doesn’t work Jose?” This was a question I never let myself consider then. I put my arm around her and consider it now.
Sirena wears only a purple tank top and my warm hand feels the cold on her shoulder. Squeezing her, I look at the side of her face and see that she lost in her own concerns. I want to say I’m sorry to her—I want to say I’ll fix this. I want her to look at me and say everything will be okay… I want her to lie.
Her head turns and her eyes stare into mine. They are beautiful… and loving… and sad… and scary… all at the same time. Our entire life together is told in these eyes.
This girl I hold stood beside me in this fight day after day. When I decided to pursue this dream of writing she supported me, and I’m rather certain she even believed in me for a time. Looking into her eyes at this moment I’m absolutely certain she doesn’t believe in me anymore. I don’t blame her of course, but I also know that not believing in one another is never a good thing.
Sirena looks back towards the fire, but I continue to look at her. I lean my face into the side of her head and kiss it, taking in the smell of her hair. As I pull my lips away, I can’t help but question whether or not we will survive this. (We won’t.)
“Sometimes things have to fall apart to come together.”
Eighteen months after this moment with Sirena, my councilor John said this to me at the halfway house. (He was right.)
After the fire Sirena and I stayed at my parents with our son. No one went into the house those first few days after the fire, but I knew that once they did people would find all the work I had been doing for that video and I’d have some serious explaining to do.
My life was crashing all around me. Everything seemed to have converged in a single crisis and I felt as if a miracle was needed to survive it. Contemplating what to do next, I determined that I had one shot to make things right…I was going to make my video.
In desperation mode, I put on my headphones and let Eminem sing Beautiful Pain, Lose Yourself, Til I Collapse, and Phenomenal into my ears on loop as I diligently worked to put it together on my laptop. As I worked, a part of me wanted to believe the fire was allowed to happen so that this story of mine could get discovered. I wondered: Is there really some higher power working on my life I can’t understand?
Upon reflection, if there was some higher power working on my life at that time, I think it might have been telling me to stop.
On Saturday June 4th, 2016, one week after the fire, I downloaded this fifteen-minute video of mine onto YouTube and gave it a REMARKable title: JoJo Apocalypse. This was the day before Sirena’s birthday. If the video went viral, I was going to give her a new life as a present. I then shared this video on my social media accounts…in my mind: The Time Had Come!
(Dumb. Dumb. Dumb.)
Over four-hundred people watched my video the first day. Two of them were so inspired by it that they clicked the “dislike” button on the bottom of the screen. Not one person clicked the “like” button.
To this day I still don’t know who actually watched the video. It is another part of my life the people that love me have allowed me to forget. Unfortunately, those two dislikes still haunt me…I think I know who they may be, but the truth is I will never know for sure and everywhere I go now I imagine they might be looking at me.
My family saw the video of course and they wasted no time encouraging me to seek help. Embarrassed, I took their advice and voluntarily admitted myself to a psych hospital the very next day (Happy Birthday Sirena).
Within the first few hours of being at the hospital, I left; signing the A.M.A. paperwork (Against Medical Advice). The patients I sat with in the psych ward were arguing over politics. That’s when I left.
I then wandered aimlessly around the city streets in one last-ditch attempt to hide from my problems. A few hours later some friends found me and forced me into their car. After a lot of crying, I let them bring me back to the hospital. With all that had transpired I had absolutely no choice but to accept their analysis of my behavior.
The world that year went forward without me as I struggled to accept how crazy I truly was and fix that house of ours. I spent most of this time lost in a deep and dark depression. That is when I participated in the electronic shock therapy I told my students about. During all this I did my best to present a strong face, but I was beaten by life and had to constantly fight to endure another day.
Rock bottom for an addict—or anyone trying to navigate life—is not a moment in time or a single event. When we tell our stories, it might be easier to tell ourselves there was a single event, but more often than not rock bottom is a sequence of events and a duration of time.
On September 25th, 2017, more than a year after the fire and my second trip to a mental institution, I finally began my journey into true sobriety. To me, that means: No Drinks—No Drugs—No Choice: It is simply what I must do in order to truly live.
Writing this now, I am almost four years sober, and while I’m not yet the man I want to be… I’m working on it: Progress Not Perfection. Everyone’s recovery is different. But this is mine. Thanks for letting me share.
***End of Breaking Knews***
On the drive home from school after Lily’s mini celebration my phone rings. I press a button to answer it.
“Hello there my girl—What’s up?”
“Just wondering how the day went. Are you doing okay?”
“Yes, I’ll be fine. Tomorrow I’m taking the students out to lunch and letting read the end to my story, so I’m just thinking about that right now…” I smile into the phone. “You know they all refer to you as X2 now by the way?”
“Real nice asshole,” laughs Sirena.
I had told Sirena about the lesson from a week earlier. Teasing each other is part of the relationship we have nowadays.
“Oh—I love you,” I say, making sure she’s not really upset. “You know that.”
“I know you do…”
Sirena and I still talk regularly. There’s no question I knew who she was much better than I know who she is now, but people change, that’s just life.
Our lives were destined to crash into one another’s the day she moved down the street from me in sixth grade and we started riding our bikes together. Are we destined to be together forever? In a way, yes. But not like I thought at one time—I don’t think.
As a teacher, Sirena is honestly much better in the classroom than I am. I think it has something to do with her angry eyes. Or maybe it’s because she’s attractive and the kids think she’s cool. Or it could just be that she’s a really good teacher. Regardless, teaching was her calling and the world is filled with children that benefit from having her.
Motherhood, on the other hand, might not have been Sirena’s calling. But really, that’s okay. My son loves her, and she loves him. She would do anything for him. Even if that means stepping aside at times. Which is exactly what I do myself with my twins since they have a stable and happy environment with their mom and other dad: Loving a child takes many forms.
Whether or not Sirena is a “Good Person” is not for me to decide. My perception of her is skewed because she broke my heart. Today I simply choose to believe that my life’s story needed an antagonist and the role fit her well. That being said, if someone was to ask Sirena if she was a good person, she would confidently say she is a “fabulous person.” The same words the other antagonist in this story of ours would probably use, Donald Trump.
All I can say for certain about Sirena today is this: She is infatuated with mirrors. She is always looking at herself in them. Any chance she gets she’ll sneak a glimpse. The reason Sirena does this is another lesson for another day, but I bring it up because I imagine The Donald is the same, and it makes me wonder what those mirrors might say about these characters… (“Karmas not a bitch Jose, it’s a mirror—remember that.” Thanks Lily. I did.)
Sirena has helped me learn a lot of things about myself. The most important thing she’s helped me learn about myself, however, is this: I am merely a product of my own insecurities: so is she and so is he (and so are you).
For a very long time I have been ashamed of my life. Part of me blamed Sirena for this. It is easy to avoid telling people about my struggles with drugs and mental illness but being divorced twice is something one cannot hide from, especially with kids in the equation. Yet, I must remember the question I would often ask myself that has kept me alive this long: What would happen to them?
Thinking about my three boys, I asked myself this question multiple times over the years when I felt like giving up. For that I owe my life to their mothers who I will forever love for bringing them into this world. Yes…I do still love Sirena. I can’t help it—Love is more powerful than reason. And while I don’t ever envision a grand reunion for us, I also know that I cannot predict the future.
While it took some time to get here, I now know that this life is not the curse or punishment I once believed it was. Perhaps I messed up. Perhaps I made mistakes I wish I hadn’t. Perhaps my life would have been better if I had done this differently, or not have done that. Today, none of it matters because I now feel as if everything happened for a reason.
Of course, people will still judge me. To some I may be a twice divorced father of three boys, a drug addict, a dirtbag, a forever failing father—a mentally-ill-psychotic-asshole-loser who burnt down his house. But I am more fortunate than those people could ever imagine. I have my issues, yes, and I am not exactly normal, fine, but I am me, and if I can’t accept that then this life is going to be really painful.
As far as relationships go, no one has been knocking down my door lately—my mommy and daddy’s door to be more specific. Maybe that’s because girls just see me as a poor investment? But that’s okay too, because today I’m trying my best to stay focused, which means I’m trying very hard not to be like Mr. Henry; though that extra limb and tiny brain of mine does still distract more than I’d like—I am only human after all.
Maybe Lily was right though. Maybe there really is some girl out there looking for me…who knows. For now, however, I’ll keep myself focused on that dream girl of mine…the one just bit out of my reach at the moment…
“—But hey—If you ever do get published, you better not forget all I did for you,” Sirena says through the phone.
There are so many things wrong with the statement Sirena has just made but she just doesn’t see it the way I do, so arguing with her is a waste of time and not healthy for me mentally. Really, I don’t give a crap about money. All I want is an opportunity to do something meaningful with my life. If I ever do make it, I have no doubt I’ll end up taking care of her; and my twins’ mother as well. There is one gigantic worry I do have however: My Greatest Fear. I reference it now so that maybe she’ll remember down the road.
“Sirena…if that day ever does come, I promise to take care of you as long as you do what’s right for our son.”
My phone sits attached to a stand on my dashboard and I see her look at me through it. I see her want to say something, but she lets this statement of mine pass without addressing it and moves on.
“Jose, I know your excited about giving your story another shot but please be careful. You’ve come so far, and I just don’t want to see you lose everything again.” Those eyes of hers look at me caringly. “I’m very proud of you. You know that right?”
“Yes. I know. And yes. I’ll be careful.”
Even though I say the words, I know they are a lie. What I am about to attempt is dangerous, and I have some real concerns about it, but Sirena does not need to hear them: The Universe has made it so.
At this point in my journey I know what has to be done, and I know that YOU are worth the risk….
Week 20: Friday January 22nd, 2021
“P.A.I.N. through Fear”
For some, living in fear is comfortable. For some, being told “don’t be afraid” or “don’t worry” is annoying, frustrating, and condescending. Why do you think that is?
Last week I described a future where I had changed the world with the book I plan to write. While I painted a grandiose image for us to consider, the short story I’ve written for you today is intended to illustrate one undeniable fact of life: Things rarely happen the way we imagine.
With that in mind, try your best to stay in the present moment and touch this life as deeply as you possibly can. There is no greater advice I can offer you. And with that, let us get to this week’s story: P.A.I.N. Through Fear….
Sitting in my chair, the lights shining in my eyes are blinding and it takes a few seconds for them to adjust. When I can finally see clearly the sight before me is nothing short of a miracle.
What I am looking at cannot be real. After everything that happened, was I right to believe?
There is no way I can guess how many people are in the crowd I see in front of me. Slowly, my attention is brought to the people sitting in the first row; only a short distance separates us. It is then I realize that everyone from my school is here supporting me. My heart is full.
Music plays and the crowd stands together dancing with the host right in the middle of them. I, on the other hand, do not move from my seat as fear of this day has overcome me and I now feel paralyzed.
As the song ends, the crowd stays standing. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many people smiling at once.
The host makes her way towards me on stage. Sitting down across from me, she folds her legs beneath her and shimmies herself up against the back of her comfy armchair. I watch this woman take a deep breath and wiggle both of her arms to the side. She then reaches out and grabs a sip of water while the crowd and I wait for her to gather herself.
I have watched her on television, and I knew the environment she brought with her was electric, but never did I dream that I would experience it like this. The host and I lock eyes with one another. As we do, we both smile. The type of smile where both people are trying to stop themselves from bursting out in laughter…
This is really happening— Ellen DeGeneres is about to ask me a question on live television!
Once reality settles in, Ellen begins to talk.
“So, Jose, the question everyone wants to know the answer to…. Have you gotten the girl?”
Ellen offers her signature mischievous smile. I feel my face turn red but do not mutter a word. Instead I let Ellen continue.
“Of course—I’m joking…Everyone knows that story already.” She moves her hand in a way that might swipe the question out of the air. “What I’m really dying to know is what these secret meetings between you and Dwayne Johnson are all about. Would you mind filling us nosey peeps in on that?” She looks at me quizzically.
This is theatre.
The truth is, she knows what these meetings are about as she is very much part of the plan. She also knows that at this moment I cannot tell her in front of all these people. Acting nervous, I shake my head to say, “Please No!” without having to actually use my words.
On cue, a large man walks out from backstage wearing a black butler suit and bowtie. It is Shaquille O’Neal.
Shaq walks past Ellen without saying a word—between her and the audience—and then places a large silver serving tray on the table between us. Using a crisp white glove, he removes a lid on the tray revealing a ham sandwich sitting on a single white napkin.
“In case you get hungry…” Ellen giggles; looking back and forth between me and the audience with wide eyes.
Shaq puts a few white fingers over his mouth, gives a funny face, and then walks away without saying a word.
The crowd roars with laughter.
As the joke recedes, Ellen speaks again. “Well then, let’s get right to it shall we. You have come here today with the promise of telling us this the secret of yours…. So… What is it?”
Ellen leans back in her chair and eyes me. This question was a planned part of this interview as well. I sit hoping that I can deliver the showstopper-type secret I had promised.
My stomach jumps to my throat as I try to remain calm. Are they ready? I wonder.
I consider this question but realize that I have no choice and will find out soon enough.
In a second I will be telling the audience to reach below their seats. There they will find my secret written with a black-sharpie marker on a small, smooth, white rock. Attempting to give this a climactic feel, I do not say a word as I reach down to take a sip of water.
As I lean forward for my water, I realize my hands will not do as I want. I automatically look down to see what is going on. A white straitjacket is holding my limbs in place. I cannot move. Lifting my head to look up, everyone begins to laugh at me. This was always my greatest fear: that I would be a joke.
How could I be so dumb? … How did I let this happen again? … WHY DID I BELIEVE!?!
The room I’m in turns pitch black and becomes suddenly silent. The lights then snap back on and I see a single man left in the audience. Standing in a shadow, this man is wearing a crown on his head.
I watch the crowned man move towards me on stage and realize who it is. Standing in front of me, this large man grins down at me; his lips are glistening with sweat. The crowned man then slowly begins to pull his right arm out from behind his back. In his hand is a metallic looking gun. Despite the shock of seeing a gun, I can’t help but notice that this man’s hands are really big.
Calmly, the crowned man lifts the gun…aiming it directly between my eyes. With the barrel of this gun staring at me, he speaks, preparing to pull the trigger, “You’re Fired.”
Waking up from this nightmare, the bed I was sleeping in was soaked with sweat. Sitting up, fear again forced me to face the question that has haunted me ever since I came up with the idea: “Do I really believe I can do this?”
This dream with The Crowned Man had me feeling intimidated and I considered quitting before I even got started. That’s what intimidating people and fear do to a person: Drag you down in a public way so you destroy yourself in the dark.
Despite this dream—this warning—curiosity has trumped my fear and I have decided that I am going to have to find out if I can pull this off.
But before I do, let me share with you my FOUR ENTERTAINING TRUTHS:
One: What we learn as children stays with us forever.
Two: Children believe anything.
Three: We are all children.
And Four: Disagreement is as dependable as the funny bone.
QUESTION FOR REFLECTION:
“Disagreement is as dependable as the funny bone.” Why do you think this is?
The Teachers Playlist:
“Gonna Find You…”
—Ready Or Not by the Fugees