T for Tom

On Plans

Posted in Prose, Remember to Remember by johnsontoms on December 2, 2017

The least flawed. 

I remember when looking up from the television in my dorm room when the voice called out. The door was open because that’s how I listen to music, but also because that’s how I wanted people to hear my music, to acquiesce. The voice was female and in a split second the mind wanders, who is this, what does she look like, will she like me, what am I wearing, what do I say, before computing the question “Have you heard the new album?” and, not knowing that one existed, answering with “Oh, when did it come out?”

Transatlanticism had been playing through the speakers, loudly, out into the hallway of the 11th floor of the Jester East dormitory, a building that housed 4,000 underclassman at the University of Texas at Austin, a time in 2005 when that total was more than the population of my hometown. The album by Death Cab for Cutie had come out just two years prior, and in my adolescent state of education in the sweet, sweet, late teenage years, I had selfishly neglected to listen to it: it was adored by some people within my realm of influence that I frankly didn’t like, and rejected it on the basis of keeping myself at arms reach. Now, just three months after graduating high school, I myself could acquiesce and consume this album on my own, for in that short period of time I had already moved away from home, moved into a place of my own, and started a new life. This day, the day the girl called into my room from the hallway of our co-ed dormitory, was only two weeks into that new life, and this was a moment I remember: things are different now.

There weren’t any decorations on the walls of my cubed room yet, and I don’t think I was wearing a shirt. I was playing with the cords that connected the stereo resting on a steel tower that contained as a totem pole the refrigerator I shared with my roommate, the television I brought from home, and on top the speakers that I was using to blast indie music throughout the hall. It wasn’t much, but it was home now, and it didn’t keep this girl from stopping on her way to her own room.

She was beautiful, was my first thought. And she’s asking me a question in fondness, in bonding. I don’t know this person, but we have shared musical tastes, which is enough to call out to others, it seems. It was such a surreal sequence to be in a place for the first time, here among strangers, and have simple, friendly conversations for the first time. As before I had rejected a piece of music because I disliked the people who recommended it, here I didn’t the girl and could take her suggestions swiftly, and she was gorgeous.

“It came out a couple days ago,” she said. “Come down to room 1156 and I’ll let you borrow the CD.”

The serendipity that swelled inside of me couldn’t be matched, the thought of this person so casually opening their self to me, just to share a piece of music that we had in common. In the few minutes that passed between throwing on a shirt and walking down the hallway, all sorts of ideas can pop into your head: does she study the same degree I am, is she involved in my groups, will I see her again, what’s her schedule like, will we become friends, am I going to hang out with her right now, would she like to get lunch tomorrow, and more. But I rounded the long corner and came to her door a few ways down, which was propped open also. She saw me in the threshold before I could speak and had the CD ready on her desk. She rose to pass it to me. “Just bring it back whenever you’re done.” She started to turn, but caught herself. “Oh, sorry, I’m Elisa by the way.” She quickly turned and began busying herself as if nothing could bother her, and these things just happened. I took the gift back to my room and set about adding the album to my digital library.

The album was called Plans, whose monument to time I still adore. Plans. They never seem to go the way we imagine.

 

That was September 2, 2005, a Friday. I took the CD back to Elisa that day and we crossed paths a few times more throughout the semester and the year we spent on the same floor of the L-shaped hallway, the males on one bend and the females on the other. A few people toward the middle took the effort to become the party-room for the entire floor and I was always invited every time they passed by continually open doorway, music playing out. But by then I had made friends of my own and extended the reach of my influence beyond those I was coincidentally living near. But that day always lasts, and probably definitely because of the album, its themes, and its body of work.

 

It starts with a single, hollow chord rasping away from a static filled organ, like a church hymn rising slowly in low-fidelity. Soon another chord rises higher, and the third starts quickly with after with a mood that is both familiar and warm, a rush of emotion starting instantaneously: this sounds like all the things I’ve ever head before with all the things I could never imagine, at once. A chance at something new. Knowing the name of the opening track, Marching Bands of Manhattan, places an even larger emphasis on the sublime. Like marching bands in Times Square, we hope for the same grandeur in our own existence. Plans.

Coincidentally for me, this came at exactly that time my life resembled such assembly. The album remains for me, by definition, the least flawed I’ve ever heard. From start to finish, there are no moments of complaint. Death Cab for Cutie was, unbeknownst to me at the time, an already decade old band that was just finding their footing in the mainstream, and I think looking back creating an entire sub-genre of music that now fills record stores and radio waves. But where Transatlanticism opened the door, Plans made everything possible. It is canon.

Plans encapsulates through its lyrical and musical combination the truest centers of both crescendo and nuance. It manages to both swell rapturously and remain rooted in the heart at the same time, balancing a growth of emotion so intense that we are super-welmed, while sounding throughout like our favorite song that we’ve heard thousands of times. It can manage to give us new emotions upon every listen while continuing to bring up the same old memories. I believe its longevity persists for the purpose that our lives are the same in each moment: all the time unknown ahead with all the time behind following still. Plans does not deviate from your existence. It is the least flawed.

Song to song, upon every listen and even now as I write this, I restructure my favorite moments. Halfway through the album with the playing of Your Heart Is an Empty Room, begins a description of a room burned down and the ashes still smoldering. And just as we hear that the room is our own heart, a rising, hopeful two-note echo emerges from the guitar that replaces any tension with a sound that defines our new beginning. That simple, two-note rapture is one of my favorite moments in the album, and it defines the ability of each, or the album in total, to rise up so ceremoniously, and yet be actual nothing at the same time: compositionally the rhythm and the melody do not change, and yet you feel moved. There are many more moments like this on the album. It is Death Cab’s burst of light into the darkness, and their hope for the future.

And just as Plans fractures near the end, asking, “who’s going to watch you die?” we are greeted again with crescendo, again with nuance. I simply cannot understand how someone, this band and its members, can find such a way to do so much with seemingly so little. Waiting for the crescendo at the end of What Sarah Said, we are swept away in the rising fortissimo of the end. And yet, again, compositionally, nothing really happens. Instead of climbing the mountain, we are merely swept away to some unknown end, as if choosing to drift out to sea. And it feels like home.

Before the end, we are imposed: “I’m not who I used to be.” That is the way it goes of making plans.

And so, Plans remains the least flawed in all its individual moments and in each in total sequence. The same can be said for all the lives still living with plans of their own.

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One Minute for a Million Opportunities

Posted in america, poem, Remember to Remember by johnsontoms on August 24, 2017

Staring out the window of our second-floor barracks room, facing southeast outward to the parking lot in front of our Alpha Company building, there were a few tall, green oaks that stood in the hundred-foot space that separated our building from Bravo Company barracks next to ours. Our room was near the corner, and the two windows that on either side of my locker were always open because the air conditioner was in disrepair at all times. First thing in the morning and last thing at night, the scene out the window would be dark except for the orange glowing halogen in the street lamp between buildings. But every morning just after physical training and each afternoon at the end of class, the few minutes when I could slow down to think for myself for just one minute, I’d approach my locker and then swiftly move aside for the other five soldiers I shared the room with who were eager to shower or eat or busy themselves in some or other. Early on during that training phase in Virginia, the second and longest I’d endure after entering the Army, we had limited personal time and were under constant supervision. When other soldiers across the Army were training to be infantrymen and supply men and gunners and were scrutinized during a short, two-month period that saw constant activity and rare personal time, my classmates and I were the fortunate ones. As aircraft repairmen, we set about a long, six-month, class-based training phase that freed us up for almost every afternoon.

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The hangar.

And every day that I’d get off that converted school bus that carted us from the hangar back to the barracks, after standing in formation to hear our orders, if we weren’t scheduled to conduct barracks maintenance or trash pickup or supply loading or weapons maintenance or general training, and if we weren’t forced to get in the chow formation and march to the dining facility, if all those things lined up, we could have the evening to ourselves, only so long as we didn’t leave the barracks footprint. It was limited to the basketball court and bleachers immediately in the front or the PT field adjacent, but we could go there. If we wanted. And during those days, when I had the freedom to make a personal decision, I’d stand at that window and look out at the green, take in the sun through the window, and ask myself what I wanted to do that evening.

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The locker, the windows on both sides.

I’d listen for the clang of a chain net that meant some were playing basketball, or I’d see Ryan and Jason taking off to the smoke shack for cigarettes. Later on in training, as we were given more privileges, we would walk to the library a half-mile away and sit in the smoke shack there alone, away from the hundred other soldiers that were constantly around. During the first early weeks when we’d walk to the library or the post exchange, I’d picked up a couple CDs. It was the only way I had to get music, culture of any kind, and was the first time I’d been able to do either in six months time. One of them was the latest Fleet Foxes album, Helplessness Blues. A while later in the summer, it was Bon Iver’s Bon Iver, Bon Iver, but in the early weeks and with no other way to get new music, Fleet Foxes was played over and over and over. I put the album on my computer and on my phone which I had access to only in the evenings. The sergeants would occasionally do uniform checks in formation to see if any soldier had snuck their phone to class, and so going without, I made the habit of throwing that locker open when I came back from class, turning on a song and staring out the window. It was only 5pm, but after 12 hours of commands, that peaceful, gentle minute to myself, to make any damn decision, was the minute I lived for. What would I do today? really can be the truth of freedom.

We had a day once, just a couple hours. John and I set out to find the body of water on post, because godammit there was a body of water. If you’re not familiar with how wonderful the sight of a lake can be after six months of walls and trees, then you won’t understand why I nearly broke down crying just listening to the soft wave from a fresh lake lap up on the hard dirt beach. I mean, we just took a walk to the water, and it was magnificent.

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The lake on that day.

“After all is said and after all is done I feel the same / All that I hoped would change within me stayed.”

Through these little moments of repurposing our perspectives on freedom, the spirit was rich and growing, but I was still that lost, confused young man looking for answers, questions that led me to the Army. I guess I remember this song most during those early afternoons because I’ve always been afraid that I wouldn’t become something, even in the abstract. Because it was enough then just to have a cigarette after class, and it was enough then just to order a pizza a couple times a week if only to eat outside the DFAC, and it was enough then just to be with the friends I’d made in a forced environment. Inside me, some things stayed: the desire to be great, the unending feelings of failure and loss and hopelessness, that my dreams were always tethered to the fortunes of circumstance, circumstances that led me to the army. And I knew it would take much more time to get anywhere nearer I wanted to be, because in those times, in those vacuum environments, it was enough to just be with people who understood.

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That’s Ryan Landes in the smoke shack where we hid.

“After all is said and all is done / God only knows which one of them I’ll become.”

More days than not I chose to live. Thankfully. I could’ve never seen the rest coming.

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John, Jason, Ryan, myself; Hampton, VA, 2011

Age 25, First Snow

Posted in Remember to Remember by johnsontoms on August 22, 2017

I had only been back from Rome for a couple weeks and wasn’t traveling anytime soon to save for whatever came next. Most of my friends were off to the Alps for skiing, and I had been left behind without a plan, alone there on the post with the German winter to pass the time. It was inviting. Farmland spread all around, the grey skies over the rolling hills of deep green fields where the farmers woke before sunrise to till with manure before the ice set in. It was the beginning of January and the worst of winter hadn’t yet arrived. Without a snowfall, it didn’t seem to have been quite winter yet, though it was still very cold.

Just a few weeks before, on Christmas Eve in fact, I had been in a town about 30 miles to the east visiting a good friend at his own army post. We had gone out for the last of the Christkindlemarkts, the festivals in every German town where merchants gathered and music was played and food and alcohol was served and where the spirit of Christmas was so rich that it could’ve been a film played before our eyes. It wasn’t our first time to the Christkindlemarkts. I went there in Ansbach with John some three or four times, but I had been also to Wurzburg, Nurnberg, Munich, Bad Windsheim, Rothenburg ob der Tauber, and a couple more. Each were different and unique and I wanted to get them all in me, to see the lights and savor the mulled wine that was served by the cauldron at each, each township with their own slightly different brew. At the last of the markets there in Ansbach, we weren’t intending on getting wild, but posted up by a fire pit with a glass of wine and listened to the local horn bands play their renditions of Christmas classics up on the stage, complete with John Denver’s “Country Roads.” Under the blanked of night but standing under a wooden awning to cover the fire, the snow began to fall for the first time, at least in my life. John had told me before that it snowed in Ansbach a few weeks ago, but the 30 miles distance between the two towns was more pronounced by the nearly 300-meter difference in elevation as Illesheim, my home, sat just below a steep drop from the plateau that defined upper Bavaria. It was enough to keep us from sharing weather events, and the early snow fell above the plateau after drifting up the ridge with the rising winds. I had to wait for my first snow.

It happened in that couple of weeks after Rome when I was alone. I don’t remember what I was doing at the time, if I had left the gym or the commissary or was just generally going for a walk in the first place. But I remember seeing the snow begin to fall and thinking that I must walk further, out and into it. The thing I love and miss most about the German farmlands in their connectivity, each combined by a walking path for tractors to drive and horses to walk and just generally to get about in large areas where roads don’t exist. Where in Texas there was no way thru, in Germany everyone was welcome to saunter by. I had walked out into these fields this way already many times, but in the late morning hours on this day, I felt it in me as necessary. I packed a bag with a heavy number of half-liter beers, put on my jacket and just started walking toward the next village in the way I always had.

I remember along the way, after crossing the creek from the village twice and stepping over the bridge that headed to main turn toward Bad Windsheim, there was a little pond on the left. Very small, about the size of a bedroom, but a foot or more deep. It became the first frozen body of water I ever walked over on that day, and remains the last. I sat for a time at a bench along the walkway, staring at the thin line of trees that separated the two fields before me, watching the branches sway gently, the snow falling to the ground. When the skies are grey it doesn’t look like the snow comes from anywhere in particular. But the skies were always grey in Germany, and the snow was thick and real but soft and plenty. It landed on the arms of my black jacket and sat for a few minutes before melting away. It gathered on the paved walkway, it gathered on the leaves of the single tree next to the bench where I sat. I blew heavily under the bridge of the road about 100 meters away, and through that bridge by another kilometer was Bad Windsheim.

Instead of taking the path all the way to main road that entered the circular village from the south, I followed the short cut footpath into the village from the west where it would take me to the grocery store. The footpath ended on a road that guided me north into the heart of the village, a few lovely two-story homes along both sides of the road before a block of empty lots that sat behind the village cemetery. The cemetery gate was open and I went in.

There were a few people walking about the cemetery slowly. In the center was a small building that held maybe two rooms, and the headstones were on all four sides. It wasn’t a large cemetery, but it serviced the village well, I’m sure. The oldest date I saw was 1914, I remember clearly, because I learned from John later on that the bodies were interned for only so long before being rotated out – there just wasn’t enough room for all the people to be buried. But there were probably 300 graves there now, in one of most four shapes. The dark, dirt green and rust brown fading over the stone that on this dark day looked more black than any color of rock. Large oak trees sat in the center of each grouping of tombstones, to give shade to the dead. But in this grey, snowy sky, it cast a dark, late evening-like feeling over the middle of the day. I walked from corner to corner and took in the scene, all the grave stones that were marked with crosses, a few with saints, but none larger than a single headstone, no great fanfare for any single person over the rest. For the few people that still walked through the cemetery I eventually ended up on the northern boundary where the exterior wall of stone had a hallway lined with wooden benches. I took a seat.

I peered out from the hallway into the cemetery, dark above me from the brick overhead, shade below me from the trees, tombstones scattered out before me, and all of it shaking with the snow that fell to the ground, each piece growing more and more and more white with the time that passed and the snow that gathered. The sky never brightened, the day never ended, and I sat there for an hour or more listening to “o god, where are you now?” The song says there’s no other man that could raise the dead, but I felt like I could right then and there.

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The fields where I lived and walked often.

I Didn’t Miss It At All

Posted in Europe, Prose, Remember to Remember by johnsontoms on August 17, 2017

It was going to be my first time out of the country, or at least the country that was my new home. You see, in America, where I spent the first 24 years of my life, I had never crossed into a neighboring country such as Mexico or Canada. The distances were too far, the limits too great, the benefit too low. That last sentiment is surely wrong on all accounts, but it was the feeling I was given by my country – Mexico has nothing to offer, Canada is the same but colder. We never go, we never went.

But in Germany now for the first time, living and working with no end in sight, I had a grasp on the nearness of the countries, and by a large, unfilled whole in my working knowledge, I knew that each boundary meant separately unique, different, and succinct cultures and nations. I knew that each line was a defensive boundary built over hundreds and thousands of years and these simple lines meant new languages, new colors, new foods, new music, new politics, and new people. I had only been in Germany for six weeks but my appetite had grown immensely in the short time I had there. Each year in Belgium, the town of Bastogne celebrates its independence from Nazi Germany by staging a recreation of the march of the U.S. 101st Airborne Division that held during the siege of the Ardennes forest over the longest winter on earth, and pushed the Nazis back. There would be foot marches with citizens from around the continent, battle reenactments, regalia displays, parades, and booze of all kinds. I knew I had to go.

It was only a few months before while still in training in Virginia that I had purchased my first Norah Jones album, a CD of The Fall. That CD became a soundtrack to a room that I shared with the only person to understand me in the Army, and we played a long game of chess by moving a single piece at a time between our bunks. But when I got to Germany (as did my friend, although to another unit in another village nearby), I finally had access again to the internet. I decided I needed the rest of Norah Jones’s albums and went about getting them. In order, I listened to each of them in full.

So there, that month after arriving in Germany, I sat in the back of a Mercedes TMP, the kind the military purchases in lots throughout Europe to facilitate quick ease of transport for these types of events. It was a recreational event, but as one that promoted camaraderie with the local nationals, could be given a leave of absence and promoted throughout our unit. We were able to check out the TMPs and drive ourselves on the unit’s dollar. Everyone that was attending the event had been given pass to leave during the day on Friday, but there were a few of us stuck behind for the change of command ceremony to welcome the new battalion commander. As my reputation as a reporter always preceded me, I was selected to give the commencement and was among that small group leaving afterward. I didn’t know the sergeants I was leaving with well and took the entire back seat to myself, the floors stripped of any carpeting, the heater not working. And I sat there listening to all of Norah Jones while the roads passed by.

In Germany, there are no billboards or stores or gas stations on the side of the highway. There are farms and villages occasionally, but the highways were built to be out of the way of the people in the towns, and their rules regarding pollution keep it free of clutter and light and noise. The sky that day was a typical German sky, the kind I miss most; a deep grey throughout from the clouds that only just might drop rain, with small breaks of white, though the sun never shone through. The hills of Bavarian green grazed our sides for hours as first we passed Frankfurt, then Cologne, and continued west. Slowly, the hills became larger and the vastness of the forests grew in height. All the while the sky stayed green, and only occasionally a small mist might develop on the windows, but never a hard rain. The forest of oaks turned to large, upward columns of pine, and it’s the closest I ever got to a Vermont winter, all the way on the other side of the planet.

The first words were always the most important to me, from the moment I heard them: “As I sit and watch the snow fall…” It’s a feeling I always wanted since I was a child. To wake up and see the drifts of white descending to the ground, a new world unfolding over the one we walk through every day. I had never had that. But vast pieces of art, works of literature, and entire operas have been devoted to the snow. I had known it my whole life, but never seen these things other people talk about, the things that are dressed up in language to describe home, belonging, warmth. Snow always meant a sense of place to me – the idea that you could have a place to yourself under warmth of a fire while the snow fell outside. It wasn’t snowing on this day, but I knew it would soon, maybe days and weeks later, but I knew the snow was coming. I knew I would finally have the feelings I was never given during Christmas, during winter, during the times we should be alone and at peace. I sat there in the back of the van alone, listened to Norah, and stared at the pine and knew I would have my winter moment for the first time, soon.

I wasn’t talking, no one talking to me. There were no sounds of cars on the empty highway. There were no sights of people on a road miles from the nearest village. There was only the pine going by the thousands, and the sound of a piano in my ear.

I didn’t think of anything specific. I only thought of the general years and lifetime before these first few weeks abroad. And I didn’t miss it at all.

On Age and Reconciliation

Posted in Prose by johnsontoms on June 21, 2017

The smallest things can bring back a wellspring of memories so flush that the absence of the figures, the places, the smells and moments that created each one will be longed for so overwhelmingly as to supersede any wiser, calmer notions of present tense. Today I sat and waited through a simple slideshow commemorating the career of a lifelong officer in the Army, but the song that played over such militant bourgeois had with it the ability to conjure a past of my own – the song that played was typically reserved for soldiers who passed away and were then being memorialized, something I’ve sat through more times than a few. I hadn’t at any one time before known a soldier as a friend to have passed away, but to have gone through the act regularly to have then no longer heard the tune for nearly two years, put me right back there like the times before when it became passé. It put me right back in that place where I wish for all the earth that I could be 24 and in the Army again, but knowing all the while that every decision I’ve made that led to my exit has been the right one. These conflicting emotions are hard to reconcile.

As I get older, as each experience I endure becomes more rich, more colorful, more true, as I gain perspective looking back to understand the things I learned while I was young, I become more and more attached with the idea that their symbols will last forever. Even the past year when I was no longer in the Army and which I regard often as the hardest and most challenging mentally and physically, I find myself wishing I were back there to commiserate with those that needed commiseration. I wish that I were back in that bar serving beer and cooking hamburgers and finding company among the few others that understood how cruel the world had become, before I moved out to step back in line with the system that betrays us. A song maybe, or a certain color of the sunset, or even just the general sobriety that I keep these days can be enough to remind me that for a year and a half I was as if a child again with little obligations beyond paying my debts, which I was only just able to do, and the rest spent baking in the summer heat of a Texas sun while drinking cheap beer with my friends on the water we could find, the only peace available to those with little to spare. Even there, amongst the general confusion of a futureless existence, came peace a little a time.

Now with little present for sake of the future I am back to wishing I could have the world at my fingertips. I am reminded daily while working in the Army infrastructure that I once was the Army, in the uniform. Sitting next to me at all times is a framed collection of photographs that I made some years ago, photographs of the places that meant the most to me with the friends I kept – Paris, beaches of Italy, Salzburg winters, Netherlands adventures. And just as much as those moments shaped my entire existence, I think also of the hideous and despicable and asinine things that I was forced to endure just to have those few moments with those few great people – enduring gas houses, going sleepless for days wearing battle rattle, eating steaks off the desert floor, pushups for no reason, sleeping 50 to a tent, PT in the rain, yelled at constantly, standing in line all day, and above all, living with the knowledge that I could die if the circumstances were right.

There isn’t also a day that goes by that I know I haven’t made the right decisions. There isn’t a moment that I get home and not know that I’m in the right place because every time I look at the family I’ve got and things around me, only the things I love and need most, I know I’m going to be alright insofar as I’m allowed to control it. But when those times come and I haven’t seen or spoken to my friends in weeks, months, years, and I wonder where they are, I can’t reconcile that I wish I were back with them right then and right there, slapping each other’s helmets and telling jokes in the snow and missing chow time because we were greasing the cannon and working night shift in the winter and inspecting weapons and running in formation because we were friends and we hated everything we did but we did it together.

It’s hard to reconcile that time passes. I might still have my friends near me even after these changes if only the world didn’t separate us so casually, cast aside like figures on a map, each returning some way or another to a life they knew familiarly and hoping to stay in touch over the thousands of miles that now separates them. If only it weren’t so hard to get ahead and move freely about this planet, I’d have you all still near.

I’m working my way there. I just hope you can hang on until I get there.

I Will Not Miss These Things

Posted in Prose by johnsontoms on April 29, 2015

As you reach the halfway point on the North Franklin Mountain trail, heading southward during an ascent from Mundy’s Gap, just as the ridgeline trail meets the summit trail, there looking westward you can see the canyon below and the city further beyond. At your feet there, and for miles in each direction along the eastward side of the summit, is an unexplained number of unexploded ordnances from the years spent blasting rockets, artillery, rifles, missiles, and canons of all kind into the mountain for testing, or something. You can take the trail up to the summit from this point, but there’s only a single trail leading down, a single stretch cleared out of the side of the mountain where otherwise you might find a Vietnam-era mine waiting for you. I know this because there was a day, the second time I tried to summit the north peak, that I reached this area, my furthest point yet. I hadn’t really tried to summit the peak before and ran out of daylight each time, but I’ve never gone past this spot. There’s a giant sign in the ground and a long chain of fence keeping the hikers from descending improperly, lest they blow the fuck up. I didn’t get higher because I spent maybe thirty to forty minutes staring at it and thinking, what have we done?, or, what hasn’t been done to clean it up? and why not? I lost daylight thinking about it, and I haven’t gone back to try the summit again. I will not miss the opportunity for the loss.

I will not miss the mountains, in their empty and uninspiring way, for being so corrupted by the city below. When my wife came back for the second time we had a discussion about this place makes it so difficult to breathe. I’ve been confused for some time why a place that is situated in a river pass between two small mountain ranges could be so filled with grief, and in some time I knew the answer – from any perspective near or far, I couldn’t see the mountains for the city below. The first time I drove into the city, the first time I came down from the Sierra Blanca ridge, that day when the sun bore through the clouds and lit the valley below and the sight line stretched for a hundred miles and right there in the middle you could pick out an entire thunderstorm that looked merely cartoonish and singular in the space around it, the rain banding downward like a showerhead and in an hour I’d be covered with rain. Driving in that day I was bewildered at the sight of the mountains. But never since. I will not miss the city below.

The city is among the dirtiest I have known, and not from the sand and rocks and dirt that soak its atmosphere. It is littered with trash. From my porch I can look up the short hill behind the parking lot and see ten twenty thirty bushes with something stuck in it; plastic bags, bottles, potato chip sacks, papers of all kinds. What the wind doesn’t blow out, the rest is thrown on the ground by the people of the city. I will not miss the people of this city.

Driving home there’s a new billboard posted. It’s in the spot where just after the downtown there are two highways running parallel. Primarily the interstate, but just southward and below is Highway 85. Highway 85 is, for about three miles, the literal border. If you drive southward on Highway 85 from Sunland Park, the concrete shoulder of the highway is the fence. Well, it is the fence insofar as it has on top of the concrete walls a 10-foot high, 3-foot thick copper and brass fence that even a bird couldn’t pass through. This fence starts here and follows the city for the populace’s entirety, and continues on each direction. In certain high-traffic areas there are two such fences running parallel, a distance of about 100-feet between them. They are lit on all sides by a series of halogen lights, each light pole only 10-feet apart, running for 24-hours a day for maximum visibility in all conditions. The border patrol places a manned Chevrolet Tahoe every quarter-mile in these high-traffic areas. They rove the space between, a quarter-mile at a time. And, in what I guess is the most trafficked area, the fence even has inverted lips along the top, sometimes barbed wire. I will not miss the fence.

The effect of the fence, the effect of the people who transition daily from side to side, the final causality of El Paso is that it is stripped of any culture. The displaced people who come here in the military refer to this as Mexico, because it is clearly not Texas. But tellingly, it is neither Mexican. Those who got across at a time when there wasn’t a fence and those who come here daily for work or recreation, they come here to get away from Mexico. And they’ve brought none of it with them. They’ve replaced whatever culture they had (and wanted to leave behind) with what is the assumed American identity – where we lack for taco trucks, communal and religious events, colorful homes, and tight communities, we make up for in Red Lobsters, Olive Gardens, JC Penney’s, PF Chang’s, movie theaters, car dealerships, McDonald’s, Burger Kings, Starbucks, Whataburgers, shopping malls, Best Buys, Wal-Marts, gas stations, Subways, Taco Bells (no, seriously), Barnes & Nobles (there’s only two, but they represent the entirety of booksellers in El Paso), and car washes. I didn’t understand at first why there were so many car washes until I spent two weeks here. But more than the dust, I am disgusted by how difficult it is to find a local foodstuff. The best, and really only, genuine burrito I’ve found comes from a converted gas station by a business founded in Juarez. Its ingredients are all slow-grilled in large vats, and their tortillas are handmade each morning. The place is called Burritos Crisostomo, and it has two locations. Everyone I talk to says it pales in comparison to El Taco Tote. El Taco Tote is an El Paso foundation, and is best compared to Chipotle food, stuffed into a Dairy Queen building. I do not eat at El Taco Tote. I will not miss El Taco Tote.

Looking for any other kind of independent foodstuff, local or otherwise, can be counted on a two hands. There’s two pizza places, (Nona’s and Ardovino’s), an extension of Austin’s County Line Barbeque (here called State Line Barbeque), the aforementioned Burritos Crisostomo, Kiki’s Mexican (the oldest and most original Mexican restaurant in town that no one goes to), La Malinche (the only menudo to be found in a citizenship once famous for it), and Casa Pizza (which is actually a Greek sandwich shop that makes the best salami subs). This rest is a smattering of Denny’s, IHOPs (WHO THE FUCK STILL EATS IHOP), Olive Gardens, Chili’s, Applebee’s, TGIF’s, etc. These places all have the longest lines and numerous locations. This wouldn’t be surprising if it were a burgeoning frontier township striving for capital growth. But El Paso alone, excluding Juarez, is the country’s 14th largest municipality and has nearly a million people. They all eat at Red Lobster.

The reason for this, again, is the desire to seem American. The sad triviality of this is the cyclical and non-expansive nature of El Paso’s population. Outsiders do not come here, El Pasoans do not leave. The University of Texas at El Paso boasts a student body over 25,000, but I assure you that most come from the city itself. They graduate and return to the workforce in El Paso as the few who do not labor. Because of this the education system remains mired in a spiral, teaching its students to grow up and teach its future students, and for their lack of broad and divisive course study, they do not burden their current and future students with any thought of improvement, change, deference. El Paso is as it was and as it will continue to be: a city of poverty, labor, low-income, and poor man’s education. It bleeds into every facet of character both visual and visceral and cannot be misunderstood by anyone who spends more than a day here. Because if you spend any time more than a day, you will see that anything that was sacred in El Paso is no longer. And that can only be allowed by an entirely uneducated population.

There are of course the mountains that will never be cleared of explosives, but there is also the ghost town comprising El Paso’s former downtown. The brochures attempt to sell you on the historic nature of the Plaza Theater, the multiple Kress Buildings once running the famous Kress Department Stores, the Oregon Street shopping district. It is, I say assuredly, a photographer’s paradise. The kind of empty, decrepit relics of postwar booming American cities – neon signs that haven’t lit in decades, candy-striped barber poles, hand-painted advertisements, handcrafted aluminum signs and banners, individually numbered curbsides, aluminum awnings and full corner glassworks, red brick walls with giant painted Coca-Cola logos. It’s the kind of scene straight from Bogdonavich’s “The Last Picture Show,” and it encompasses every corner of downtown. In one notoriously jaded lower floor, there’s a stretch of windows plastered with make-believe images of stores that could be housed in the empty storefronts, emblazed with the words “this store could be you!” I doubt if there’s been a store in any of these buildings since the 80s, and I wonder if ever there will be again.

This is remarkable but entirely credible because the city is constructed of a commuter’s world. From its farther westward point to its furthest eastward point, El Paso stretches from 36-miles. My own commute to work is 26 miles. It stretches from the west side of the North Franklin peak all the way down to the pass, and then east and southward along the border until just after San Elizario. San Elizario represents the end of the municipality as well as the only remaining bit of culture. San Elizario is famous for being the only jail that Billy The Kid escaped from, which is the dubious variety of fame, but nonetheless. Pat Garrett was here the sheriff, and you know this from the films. Each of the first Fridays here in San Elizario is an event called Art Fridays where the well-maintained adobe hut buildings that comprise the downtown square open up with art galleries, wine, sidewalk projection shows, and live music. The only people who go are the ones who operate the event. The other 900,000 people all miss it, and I will not miss them.

Because everyday I drive home and one of these 900,000 people nearly take my life on the highway. [Ed. Note: the following few paragraphs will contain statements seemingly derived of hyperbole, but I assure you they are not an exaggeration]. Driving home is a dangerous activity here. If not for the poorly constructed weave of highways, or the central traffic funneling that is the interstate, or the endless construction zones throughout the city, then mostly for the people using the roads. A few bad drivers are blemishes to the record, but a city that experiences a dozen wrecks in a single rush hour has an endemic problem. This, the traffic and its inefficacy, is the largest and singular proof of the city’s problems and cultural clashes. Because there are two types of people on the roads here, split in unequal numbers; there are the native, uneducated poor who drive well below the speed limit from I assume is a great fear of death, police, and a cost they cannot afford, and there is the non-native, uneducated poor in the military who through brazen ignorance treat the world like a playground and only drive as fast as possible. There are no less than 10 cars abandoned on the side of the highway during my commute, every day. There are no less than 1-in-10 cars driving on spare tires. This is a big one for me, because it is the sad evidence of two terrible ways of life: the first, that the driver got in some accident to lose a tire; the second, that they have not the income or budget skills to replace the spare. The types of vehicle that make up the roads are the types of vehicle that you sold to a dealership ten years ago. Here there are ten trucks for every car, and not because we need trucks in El Paso. El Pasoans drive trucks because they are old, cheap, and can be purchased easily. When it breaks down, I assume they replace it with another 1997 Dodge Ram, as most have and are. Just the other day I tried to park in the garage of the University Medical Center, but it took fifteen minutes just to navigate to the fourth floor, because the trucks trying to drive and park in there were too big and driven by people who couldn’t handle the size of a dually, 2500 series hauling truck. It’s not because they need a truck – it’s because they need a vehicle they can purchase in cash, in whole, and for cheap. That vehicle will be driven until it cannot, and then it will be replaced. Whether by falling behind on maintenance or by totaling the truck in a wreck doesn’t matter.

And they wreck so frequently. Often, and by my own experience driving in Europe, I’ve learned that we teach our drivers in America to drive defensively to a fault, instead of driving aggressively. The intent of the adjective aggressive is not to provoke stupidity, but to instigate vigilance – the vigilance to be aware and cognizant of a vehicle’s surroundings. But by fearing aggressive driving for misunderstanding it as fast and dangerous, we default to defensive driving for sake of safety and isolation from fault. The thinking goes that if I don’t do anything wrong, nothing can happen to me. This is manifested mostly in the failure to obey any right-of-way or fast-lane designations, and primarily occurs in wrecks where entrance ramps enter the highway. Never once does a vehicle on the highway allow another vehicle to enter. To compound the situation, the vehicles entering the highway often decelerate out of fear to find an open space, rather than accelerate. And in the many cases where this results in a wreck, the immediate response is a shaking motion of the hands and the phrase “no police, no police.” I’ve seen this many times, and expect it many times more. But it is not their fault for fearing police involvement. It is our fault for creating this place. It is our fault for putting up a fence, divesting half the workforce, separating families, stifling the already poor, and enforcing it through force. It is our fault for creating a world that has yet to open its boundaries. It is our fault for being patriotic to a written document instead of to the human race. It is our fault for filling this city with problems and leaving it to rot. I will not miss the rot.

This city came to these problems the same way any other has. But only because it started in the muck, it buries itself even further with the added contemporary problems of a mortgage-crisis, low-unemployment, and border security. There is here like there is in all the world, a growing population driven by consumer interest. But where a city like New York or Tokyo or Paris might have the standard quality of life to allow its citizens the luxury of a new smartphone, El Paso cripples itself by choosing to buy the iPhone 6 even when household income cannot support it. At every stop light, the lead car is slow to accelerate because the driver is staring downward into a smartphone. This is not an exaggeration. It is doubly worse on Fort Bliss. Without failure, every car that I see swerving and driving with inconsistent speed is driven by a person that is looking at a smartphone. Just last week it was only my horn-honking that saved the Jeep in front of me from smashing into the highway barrier instead of curving with the road. It wouldn’t be so endemically true except that the places of highest congestion occur where there are shopping malls. I live near one. On every weekend, the roads there back up through all intersections. These people do not go hiking, do not go downtown, do not go out, they go shopping. They spend what little money they have on things, just things, and do nothing to improve their way of life. The city’s parks are not parks, they are dead-grass fields with a few lights. There is no entertainment in El Paso because the people wouldn’t go. There are no arts districts, there are no independent shops or bakeries or clothing stores, there are no live events. There are only shopping malls. I will not miss the shopping malls.

It is not their fault. We have created an education system that teaches us to want things, and to work for the money to have things. We do not teach our children to work for ideas or fulfillment. We do not teach them to work for life-enriching experiences, nor emotional stability. We teach them to work for money, and money buys things. Our status and fulfillment is derived from our possessions, our visual manifestation of who-we-are-cum-what-we-have. This is a problem everywhere, but it is a depressing reality in a city that should not afford its luxury. This is a city that should be building and cleaning and developing a better future. This is a future full of people that wanted to be better, but they stopped improving just after crossing the fence. We’ve taught people on both sides of the fence that over here it’s better because we have things, and access to things. If only we could get the things, our life would be better. And the people already on this side of the fence, we won’t let them over anymore to take the things we already possess. But we have so little things, and each of them are unimportant. If the people here could understand that. If only they could see all the things blowing here in the wind, the things litering the sides of the road, filling up the trash containers, and sitting around wasting in the desert sun. These were things that were bought on Saturday but were useless by Monday, and were thrown out. Not thrown anywhere particular, just out. Out onto the ground, into the desert, out of the room and no longer their problem. There is a special kind of laziness that only a poor education can create that allows this type of ignorance, this deference to nature and humanity. It is an education derived of living for, possessing, and needing things.

Things. They are just things.

I will not miss the things.

The same education that made this possible made the war that made the job I have possible. But this education infects the other 400-million people of this country as well. I will not miss serving in this capacity. It worked for me insofar as its benefits to my own life outweighed the negative effects incurred. For so long as it paid me a substantial amount o erase my student loan debt, I could suffer it. For so long as it subsidized my life in Europe, I could suffer it. For so long as it emboldened my experiences and placed within me within an environment of curiosity and wonder, I could suffer it. But it does none of these things any longer, and I will not miss it. I will not miss the city that it brought me to, or the people that continue to suffer it. I will not miss the handshakes I receiving for defending a country that shouldn’t be defended, and I will not miss the uniform that places me within a peculiar and isolated portion of society. I have done good things while in the military, but many of them are a result ancillary. The places I have gone, the things I have learned, the people I have met and the woman I have love, these are all indirect benefits of a system that now exists only to ruin my mind and further my depression, and I will not miss it.

I will not miss filling my days with data and facts and figures that amount to war. I will not miss knowing that my work, when even its fullest contribution and development still only totals 1/400,000th of the Army’s power, comprises 1/400,000th of this nation’s power for war. I will not miss hearing phrases like “combat power” and “force strength” and “shoot, maneuver, kill” and “strike the enemy” at simple board meetings and welcoming conferences, as if these phrases were as common as “brand synergy” and “competitive value” and “marketing power.” I will not miss being told to “impact soldiers” when there is no way for me to have an impact – if I present myself wholly, truly, and genuinely for the person I am, I am met with derision; I am not like these people, I read, I wonder, I think, I believe in peace, and I speak clearly. In order to make an impact, to have influence, I have to become, and have become, one of them. I will not miss being one of them. I miss being inspired, I miss being creative, I miss believing that everything is possible. And to get that back I have to be free of this, and I’ve errantly found a way. As has happened numerous times before, I’ve found another way to return to nature, return to searching, return to freshness. I’ve found another way to screw up, and I miss the feeling it gives me. I can do anything again. The end is here, but the beginning is coming up right behind.

No matter how the end comes, it is here and I will not miss it. Everyone I know repeats the same phrase unprovoked – I never belonged in the Army. I contend that there were moments when I did belong. There were moments, moments sitting along the Salzach river or the Italian beaches of Porto Ferro, moments drinking oak-barrel scotch from the frozen Finnish pubs, moments sipping mulled-wine next to a fire on Christmas listening to the village folk band play traditional hymns in a 10-piece brass band, moments when listening to my new Czech friends DJ their latest set at an underground club in Prague, moments running from the bulls in Spain, moments lying in the snow of the rolling farmlands of the German hinterland, moments when I felt at home that I could belong in the Army. In these moments I belong because the Army made those moments possible. But it no longer makes those moments possible and I am irreparably depressed for it, and I will not miss it.

The strongest, most lasting thing I learned is that I have lived overseas, and it is not so hard to do again. It seemed so foreign when I did it the first time, but I’ve physically done it now – I can physically do it again. The means are not important because I have the desire, the will, and the knowledge now. It is a skill gained, like any other skill of bootcrafting, sport, musical, or otherwise. It’s been done, and I know a little bit now of how to do it again. If everyone could get this just once, they might do it again. But until then, they are doomed to comfort and security. Doomed to a home in one place.

But the world is one place. The earth is one home.

…..

I was pilfering through old photos a friend of mine had posted online, a good large collection of pictures of people I grew up with and all the things they had done. I remember all of these moments too, days in junior high and days in high school, in and around my hometown. All the people I had grown up with in a small town where everyone knew everyone, all the people were there. There were the heartbreaking photos of the many friends I had that are now deceased, the moments we shared. There were poor fashion choices and high school pep rallies and pictures taken during an innocuous lunch on a random school-day afternoon. In each of these moments were precious memories, but I wasn’t in a single photograph. I wasn’t snapped or taken or involved. If I asked this person or these people to recount the details of our collective childhood, I have a place in all of them, and yet I’m not represented in the pictographic evidence even once. I always there for everyone, always on the border, but never really inside these circles.

I always felt like I didn’t belong or wouldn’t get in with this people, and I can remember a lot of these moments exactly as I’m viewing them now in the pictures – from just out of frame. There but not really. And I wonder why, until I realize that it wasn’t that I didn’t belong. I just didn’t get in there.

I didn’t really care to get in there. I think I have this shared, collective experience with almost everyone I grew up. Always considered a part of the group, but never inside the closest circle and not a part of any one’s life any longer, not worth holding onto. The geeks, the band nerds, the athletes, the popular kids, the outcasts. Everyone called me a friend, but I’m not a part of any one’s most cherished memory. In the end, I just didn’t really care to belong to any of these groups. When everyone cut their hair, I grew mine out. When everyone wore polos and stripes, I wore tees and solid colors. When everyone listened to hip hop I wen to the rock’n’roll show. I did it on purpose because I didn’t want to fit in. I relished it, even when I thought it would help get me in. But I know now, that I what I truly wanted was to be different. I know this now.

I don’t know if I’ll ever find a group, and I probably won’t. My beliefs have always been too broad, too strong, too universal, to enriched and empowering. The kind of beliefs that others find offensive, because it belittles their insignificant problems and worries. Maybe this is why my newest best friend is mother nature.   Unimportant.

What’s important is that I need to stop trying to belong. I’ve forgotten how to not belong.

We’ve All Been Through These Things

Posted in Prose by johnsontoms on August 10, 2014

 

the maturation of Mason

We’ve all been through these things. It may not be exactly the split parents, abusive stepfathers, life above the poverty line, failed dreams as a rock star, or changing schools as a child, but we all have these problems. I didn’t have many girlfriends and my parents stayed together through the worst, I never had to change schools growing up and I never had a girlfriend cheat on me, but I’ve grown up too. I’ve had a childhood with its problems, I too lived through Boyhood.

Watching Ellar Coltrane mature on screen has been the most affecting and rewarding film experience I’ve had in a long time, if nearly ever. The sheer notion of shooting a series of short films, each one year apart and signifying another critical period of young Mason’s journey from a world of adolescence into adulthood, is bafflingly simple to conjure but incredibly difficult to synthesize. Its total effect leaves the audience watching this young boy become a young man right on screen. And each of these capsules in time is breathlessly, flawlessly, violently a portion of each of our lives.

It helps none that the film is set in Richard Linklater’s home state, and my own, Texas. It helps no further that during each year a strong piece of music is used to cue the mood – many the very same songs I had at that time that strike the same memories for me as I saw again on screen in the life of another young man. Or that Ethan Hawke, as Mason, Sr., took the boy to an Astros game, or even just that Mason, Sr. is the sriking image of my own father. But then, maybe he looked like everyone’s father. We grow up with Mason, Sr. just as much as Mason, Jr. Because in its glorious, sweeping tedium, Boyhood isn’t just about one boy – it’s about all of us.

What Linklater achieves with his first major full-length feature, Dazed and Confused, is to illustrate the singular, encapsulated innocence of adolescence. Following a group of high school students during the course of a single day, Dazed presents us with that heightened if finite bounty of youth – that life with its worries and responsibilities and troubles is beyond, today’s moments will last forever and the troubles of present day are the most amplified of issues. It is of course why children could ever be so upset about doing their chores, why teenagers could be so frustrated with a curfew, or why a kiss at the end of the night could be so powerful. But where Dazed lets us wallow and swim richly within these amplified moments of bliss, Boyhood reminds us that wisdom comes only from experience, and that maturation is a lifetime.

Watching Mason physically grow up, recognizing and understanding the struggles that his mother faced, having the convenient position of being in the audience, myself a bit wiser, myself a bit older, I found myself holding back tears when the stepfather in a drunken rage started throwing his drinking glasses at the children across the dinner table. I cried again when Mason went to school the next day in dirty clothes, not having showered or dressed because his Mother fled with them from the home. Mason went to school that day in a town he had never enrolled, without friends, without even books. And each time he these stories came to an end, we knew already where the next would start.

As the mother dashed from husband to husband, struggling to finish school and create a life certain kind of life for her children, that kind of life that is all too familiar, we could sense the next step. Buying a home, moving in, paying bills, all the things that we think we want.

We could sense these things in Mason, Sr. as well. Ethan Hawke does superbly here what he did with Jesse in the Before Sunrise trilogy – presents a man contented with being alive even in a world that seemingly won’t let us. When his ex-wife won’t approve his visits, he extends them longer and brings more gifts. When she says he’s not welcome, he comes twice as often. When his children can’t be cheered up, he tells more jokes. He never gives up on his dreams, but he adjusts them to survive, to survive cheerfully. His presence as the father reminds us wonderfully – you can’t always get what you want, but you can get what you need. This lesson becomes the guide for his own son who, as the years pass from boyhood to manhood, we see increasingly embrace his own free spirit of adventure until finally leaving the home for college. But Hawke’s presence also painfully reminds us that not all dreams come true – sometimes holding it together is all we ever have.

The day comes for Mason, Jr. to leave his mother’s home for college. As can be expected, she breaks down into tears. But where we knew the empty nest would we happen, we knew because it happened to us, we felt it in a way we hadn’t seen before on screen. Patricia Arquette so poignantly eulogizes, “there’s nothing after this for me, there are no more check marks in the timeline. You leave, and I keep working until I’m dead in the ground. I just through there would be more.”

These moments of clarity are effecting all throughout Boyhood. Every time Mason has a sincere moment, a true conversation with a parental figure, a girlfriend, a teacher, a friend, the truth sets in – guffaws at breast lines, jokes about facebook, wanking motions. He is after all a boy growing up, if only a boy. This film never lets us forget and always gets it just right.

Eventually Mason, Jr. moves away to El Paso, at this point a foreign land in a domestic world. The mountains rise, the highways empty, the boy now grown is different like his surroundings. His first day on campus is spent hiking the mountains with other young adults he met just that day. They are young, fit, attractive, carefree, intoxicating. The sun is setting as they reach a rising rock face over a body of water, a girl for each boy. There is the one couple standing on that rock howling at the setting sun. There is Mason with the other girl talking about carpe diem. “Maybe the moment seizes us,” she says. “There are too many moments, all the time, for us to think we could seize just one.” Mason agrees, turns, looks at her, smiles.

The screen fades to black, Arcade Fire begins to play and I’m left wondering what will seize me?

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First Kiss – A Short Story

Posted in Prose by johnsontoms on August 23, 2012

…The summer of 2005, and into the fall of the same year, will likely include some of the grandest and most outrageous moments of my entire life, surely. And through the summer they befell in a series of weeks, each one building to the next. And if the first, my high school graduation and first consumption of alcohol, could be considered “The Fastest Ways to Growing Old” or “Early Follies of a Foolish Man” or “Tinkering With the Unknown”, then this episode I’m about relate to you would be the third chapter of such a novel, titled “Surprises at Every Corner” or “He Grows Bold.”  Without relating to you the entire story to this point, I went from God-fearing Christian devoid of alcohol, drugs, or women, to a drinking, smoking, and fucking rampage within about six weeks. This story falls at week four.

First it was Jack Daniels. Two weeks later I was drinking beer when I couldn’t find my brother. “He’s upstairs smoking weed.” And so I went upstairs and smoked weed. For the next two weeks following that, every night of the week I went to a friend’s house, she was dating my friend Chris. We all lived just two blocks from each other and could walk to meet there at her place. She had an outdoor patio upstairs connected to her room that could only be reached by stairs, was surrounded on all sides by trees, and a deadbeat mother downstairs that was on enough drugs to never wake up if even a tornado rolled through. We met each night there following work, and set about smoking as much marijuana as we could get our hands on.

No one believes me, but if you go from never smoking anything at all to sucking up piles and piles of marijuana within a matter of days, it is enough to blow you clean over. Tolerance is a real thing, but at that rate no amount of tolerance will save you. During this stage I would smoke so much that I would literally just fall over on the patio and sit staring up at the stars for over an hour, laughing uncontrollably, unable to think, talk, or even move my arms and legs. Most people don’t start about smoking this much and have never experienced this, but it is true. There is photographic evidence.

It became a trio of sorts, Chris and Leslie and Tom, the three stooges of weed. Other friends would come and go on certain nights, but one in particular, a female named Casey began to hang out for more than a few nights in a row. By the end of the second week, when the weekend had rolled around, they had devised a plan to party a little harder. “We’re going to take Ambien.” By this point I no longer had any inhibitions and just wanted to try anything and everything, save for maybe heroine.

The idea, hatched as graduation approached, was that I needed levity with myself. There was a world out there that I had been sheltering myself from for too long. I didn’t know then that God didn’t exist, but I was learning from a detached view that his most ardent followers were fools, children at best, and incapable of any sincere thought, pious or otherwise. Their behavior was crippling to their growth and I wanted none of it any longer. Instead I waited patiently until I graduated high school (and could no longer be punished by the school system) to try everything.

I needed to know what the singers and painters and poets and authors and filmmakers were all talking about. I needed to know what this life had in store, and I needed to feel connected to everyone around me who was already doing these things. Be damned or not.
These things came on so fast one after the other that I didn’t have time to process that Ambien was in itself nothing I had ever thought to take, but when it was offered it was gobbled up as easily as the rest. Just do it, I said.

“We’re going to do Ambien,” they said. “It will be fun,” they said.

So I said, yes, of course. I didn’t know then that it was a plan hatched by the girls to get me to have sex with Casey. As I was to learn later, Ambien was “supposed to make you want to get naked.” But that’s at the end of the chapter.

The evening unfolded like the rest, I got off work from my café job at 2200, and Chris got off from the golf course at the same time – we both went home at the same time, ate, and arrived at Leslie’s place at the same time, about 2330. She had the bowl of weed loaded and ready to smoke every time. Except on this night, we knew we were going to do something different. Chris and I arrived separately (I walked, he drove, this fact is important later) to find the girls sitting on Leslie’s bed dividing up little pills. They each squared away two capsules in their hands, Leslie taking two and giving two to Chris, Casey doing the same for me.

We didn’t have any weed because we didn’t need any, and as I would learn, no one is ever to smoke while on Ambien. But the things don’t kick in until about 30 minutes to an hour later. “Just wait,” they said. “You’ll know.”
“Know what?”
“Look, just don’t fall asleep.” Leslie said she usually paced back and forth to stay on her feet, and Casey joined her outside to do just that. I went out for a cigarette and laughed at them, surely telling some story. After about 30 minutes they went in for a beer and forgot to come back out. That left Chris and I outside, laughing at each other.
“So what happens again?” I asked.
“Everything just starts to change,” Chris said. “It’s different every time I’ve done it, but it can be hilarious.”
“What’s the danger again?”
“Everything. You’re brain won’t be working, so try not to do anything stupid.”
“I have a feeling we’ll need to look after each other for that one.”
I was right.  After smoking another cigarette for five minutes, it happened.
“Look!” I said to Chris.
“What, where?”
I grabbed him by the arm and led him to the side of the patio, looking toward the neighbor’s home. Through the pine trees the exterior light from their yard, bright and white, was pouring through the trees and leaving a contrast of only two items to be seen – what is black and what is white. “Everything is drifting so far away, I see only a thick of trees and black all around.”
“You’re crazy,” said Chris.
“No, there!” I pointed.
“What, what?!” he cried.
The trees were moving, and growing taller like Jack’s bean stalk, each of them bore from a white light that stuck high into the sky. Everything else was still black and felt like a sea below, as if a swamp forest lay before us. “We’ve got to go out there!” And I started down the staircase into the swamp, jumping the last half of the stairs as if to swim below. I ran out down the driveway hoping to look up at the trees high in the sky still growing before me, but I stopped halfway – somewhere I had gotten lost in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory on the way.

Now nearer to the ground I could see the pine needles along the ground glowing orange and brown, softly and serenely, like a floor of chocolate grass. The light still beamed through and all I could see were petunias and roses and daisies of white and brown, spouting out of the ground. I ran back for Chris. “It’s Willy Wonka’s Factory out there!”
“Whhhaaaaattt…..” I could see Chris was joining me, though not in the factory directly.  I managed to get him this time down to the ground so he could swim with me in the chocolate, and as we ran I got sick. Sick to my stomach. The trees were swaying now, and we rocked back and forth amongst the light like a ship lost at sea. I vomited.  I knew very little about pharmacology but I knew enough about vomiting to think that I had lost the pills in the spew.  “Shit!” I cried.  I ran upstairs to find Leslie and Casey sitting in front of the TV, staring straight forward with an unopened beer can in their hands.
“I need more!” I yelled. I explained to them that I got lost in Wonka’s Factory and vomited, but they only laughed.
“This is my prescription, you know, I can’t give them all away,” said Leslie.
“But I threw them up, this is terrible!”
She handed me two more and I swallowed them swiftly.

…Here now I was with four Ambiens running through my system. They say one is enough, two if you’re feeling dicey, and I was double that and up the river. In a strange way the thought of it connected slowly, and I was glad. To hell and back, every time, the first time.  I stayed inside to talk to the girls for a minute, but they mostly said they were good by themselves. I didn’t understand it, but then I didn’t understand many things. I got a beer out of it and went outside to rejoin Chris.
“Atticus and Kyle are at the park and ride, and we’re going to meet them,” Chris said.
“Let me get my shoes on,” I said.  I raced inside to grab my shoes and put them on. From where I sat on the floor struggling to tie the laces I could see Chris’s headlights turn on and spin out. He was leaving without me.

Frantically I went outside, one shoe on and one shoe off, to see if it were true. He indeed was leaving, had already pulled out of the driveway and was turning around. But I wasn’t defeated.
Leslie’s home was in a cul-de-sac, and to get back toward the gate of the community one had to drive away from her house and make two hard right turns, effectively putting the driver at an intersection just a few meters from her backyard, even though to drive there meant going way around the front. A sort of U-turn really drawn out. If I cut through the backyard directly to the intersection I could meet Chris in the road. Surely he would see me, I thought.
I slipped on my second shoe and jumped off the balcony, from ten feet up. Landing in the crab grass I raised to my feet and took off sprinting through the yards and into the next road once I emerged. Thinking I was safe I had forgotten how fast Chris’s Lexus could go. I didn’t miss him by much, but he missed me by a lot. Flying as fast as he was, and in his condition, it came as no surprise that he didn’t stop.  And so there I stood in the road, without a plan. It takes a little understanding on this small community to grasp what happens next.
The community, Hideaway Lake, was about 2500 in population, but was merely a gated community. Two exits, and only one was open at night, “guarded” by hired security who of course had no weapons. The entire community was made up mostly of retired citizens, 55+ years of age, and centered around three lakes and a golf course. No school, no post office, no grocery. Just homes. Because of this, anything went. Or at least for the children. If we wanted to run naked through the streets almost nothing was stopping anyone, in so far as the security didn’t show up. No one ever called the cops and no one ever got busted for anything major so long as there was a benefit of the doubt. So I started walking the 2km toward the gate on foot. It just came naturally to me.

Not long into the walk and shortly after passing my own home, the houses lining the road stopped having lights. The walk became slower and darker with each step, and the pills were kicking in. I took a turn and a curve a little ways and was making my way when I started to hear them. It sounded at first just like leaves rustling, but there was no wind blowing. Then I heard the whine of a coyote, or so I told myself. It was normal to hear coyotes around here, they whine frequently. It’s a high-pitched yelp almost, “YE-OW YE-OW” it sounded. But this was not what I heard.
At first it was just one. But got closer and more rapid. “Yoooooowwwwwwwwwww” of the wolf. At first one and then more. I stopped to turn around and that’s when I heard the clicking of their paws on the street, coming for me. I turned and bolted straight forward, running without end.
The sound of my breathing ruptured my brain and was all I could hear until I emerged about 1km up the street, out of breath, and I hoped out of the wolves’ way. As I stood there to breath, I didn’t hear the wolves anymore. But I did hear my name.

“Tommy, I thought you wouldn’t make it,” the voice said.
It couldn’t be Chris. I was only a little over halfway there, but maybe he had picked them up and was on his way back. This thought raced through my head before I even caught my breath and looked up.  I was about 1km from the gate, still in the darkness, and next to the golf course. A pond was just off the side of the road, but the fountain that runs water in it was turned off at this time of night. There were no lights, and no one standing near me.
“Won’t you come for a swim,” the voice said.
I stood there looking out, confused. I turned to walk back toward the voice, but I remembered the wolves and was afraid to take a step in my previous direction.
“The water’s nice this time of night,” said the voice again. “We won’t CHIRP bother you CHIRP.”
At that time a flock of about a dozen birds came swooping downward from the tops of the pine trees around me, stopping slowly in the air around me to float around me, flapping their wings.

“Please come swimming with us,” they begged. “It’s such a wonderful bath.”
At first, and I don’t know, I took two steps toward the pond. I have no idea why. It just seemed right, they were so polite. But after those two steps, I snapped – what the fuck am I about to do? I told myself. When it occurred to me again that I was about to go swimming with the birds in the pond on the golf course, I freaked. I need to find Chris now, or someone, before I go mad.  I started running again. The final kilometer was mostly uphill, and there were no houses or lights until I reached the gate.  That’s where I stopped.

As I’ve said, nothing ever happens in this community. But that’s also because it’s so removed from everything else. The highway is just outside the gate, but nothing else save for a gas station. To get anywhere one must drive, and that’s why there was an empty parking lot just outside the gate to be utilized for passenger pickups. Also for these reasons, no one just walks in or out of the gate. And I was supposed to do just that?
The idea came about because it surely wasn’t illegal to use my own legs. No, I was 18, a grown man. But at 0130 in the morning, no one just walks out the gate. It doesn’t happen. If I were to just walk by the guard and turn around to wave, in my condition, I would’ve been carted off to jail then and there. I had all of these thoughts as I stood there in the middle of the road under the only light there by the gate. Luckily the direction of the gate guard faced outward, in the opposite direction of where I stood, and this perhaps afforded me the time I needed to process exactly what I had done.  I never came to a conclusion. It felt like only a few seconds, but it could have been a minute, five, ten minutes, an hour. I kept telling myself “come up with something, come up with something,” but I couldn’t think of anything. I didn’t have the power to create options. I wasn’t going to turn around and erase my progress but I was empty. Couldn’t think of a damn thing.

Another five or ten minutes passed and thankfully nothing had happened, or no one drove by. Finally a car came up to the gate to pull in and drive my direction. I should’ve freaked out, but I thought I recognized it. Before the warm feeling could register in my mind, the car was up next to me and the window was rolling down.
“Tommy, what are you doing!?” asked the voice.
I bent down to look inside the coupe and saw two faces I recognized. Joe and Jessica. I knew they had been dating for a while and it didn’t shock me to see Joe driving Jessica’s car. Before I could answer all I could think was “I’m standing in the middle of the road because I’m on a lot of drugs I’ve never taken before and walked after Chris. We’re supposed to meet Atticus and Kyle at the Park & Ride but I’m not sure how to just walk out the gate.” The next thing I knew I was standing in the Park & Ride parking lot as Joe drove off in Jessica’s car. I must have spoken my thoughts out loud, and without knowing it got crammed into the back of that two-seater coupe. I was thanking God they were nice enough, or scared enough, to do anything more with me. To this point neither of them knew I had so much as ever even drank a beer, much less hopped myself up on pills. They were probably more scared than I was.
Before I could finish praising their God I saw before me a white four-door sport utility vehicle. It was Kyle’s. The door opened and Chris hopped out. As he was pushing me in Kyle yelled from the front seat, “Jesus, you scared the shit of me. Jessica just called us and said you were fucked up.”
“Yes, yes I am.”
“Fuck it, let’s go get high.”
To my utter and complete shock, we drove right back in the gate where I had come from. We didn’t head back to Leslie’s but instead drove near to the back of the community and emerged on the other side of the lake, parked outside a dark house I had only seen a few times and didn’t recognize as any of our friends’ homes.
“Louis’s family is renovating it,” Chris said as we got out of the car. “He’s got the car, we’re just going to smoke inside.”  And we continued to walk downhill in the driveway until going through the front door and into a completely dark home without furniture.

The next few minutes went by so quickly it seemed as if on fast-forward. Without any of the lights on and no inhabitants there, it was like trying to remember a dream that hadn’t happened yet.
When the dream ended (or started, I wasn’t sure) I was standing in front of a large mirror, in the bathroom I could only guess, with a single light on blaring into my eyes. I was holding a large water pipe, and was sucking out the last bit of smoke from the marijuana. (Remind you, smoking on Ambien is a terrible idea) but that hadn’t occurred to my drug soaked brain. I passed the pipe to a pair of arms that stood outstretched next to me. I couldn’t see anything else, and turned back toward the mirror.
Here, I saw the future. Before, in movies, in books, in stories, from friends, in songs, I had heard that staring into a mirror was a bad way to forge the steels of your soul. I never knew what it meant, this fear of seeing oneself in the mirror. I understood now.
Before me was a monster, staring back.
The monster stood about six feet tall, had blonde hair, blue eyes, was wearing my clothes and didn’t blink, neither did I blink. We stared at each other for what seemed like hours, and the monster stared right back. After a long trance like time, the monster spoke to me, telepathically. “That’s you, YOU FREAK!” It shouted in my head.
The monster now felt real. It still was disconnected, the body and the flesh I saw did not seem to be connected to my physicality, but the thing looked, breathed, and moved like me, and I realized it must be me.
What kept me disconnected from this life-life twin of mine, was that I knew we had separate minds. In the mirror and in life it was me, it represented me, it looked exactly like me, and I’ll be damned if it didn’t stare back at me exactly like myself, but I knew, just knew, that we had separate minds, separate souls. And that’s when I knew the future. These things would continue, they would get worse, and that person, that monster that was staring at me, was my future.  Who I was now was just the beginning. I was frightened at this thought.
To have a full glimpse of the days that hadn’t passed, to see before me my own flesh and blood, moving exactly like me but knowing that it’s mind was separate, divided, grown and lived of a different life, was utterly terrifying.
Who was that person? I thought to myself. How could that person be, and is that person really me? Am I doing these things, or are they fake? Real? What have I become, and where will I go?  What did it mean that it would get worse? Is the monster, that thing, just me?

I woke up with Casey on top of me, she wasn’t wearing a bra.

“How did I get here?” I asked.
“You asked me to roll over here,” she said. “I was sleeping on the floor next to you.”
“No, here, in the house,” I said. “When did I get here?”
“You showed up with Chris, a while ago.”
“And I guess I fell asleep.”
“Yes, I made us a bed but you just hit the floor and didn’t move. I’m glad you woke up though, and asked me to sit here.”
She smiled, and I was starting to get the drift, if the breasts in front of me didn’t say enough already.
“Don’t you want to take your shirt off?” she asked. She started to lean forward, and I knew what was going on, or had been going on. I met her halfway and we kissed. I’m sure I did terribly, but the motion seemed slow, natural. It wasn’t rushed and our lips moved together in unison. There was no way I was any good at this, but she was on enough drugs also to not know better.
I picked her up by her ass and rolled her onto her back until I was hunched over her, her legs straddling me around the waist. We kissed again, slower. I could see that her eyes were closed tight, and she began to breathe more deeply.
“Do you know how long I’ve waited for this,” she said again.

A thousand things ran through my head all at once. Drink, smoke, sex, pills, drugs, rock’n’roll, sex, beer, liquor, Jack Daniels, fucking, remember, don’t remember, weed, drink, whatisallthisandwhyisithappeningsofast?
In a weird way it didn’t surprise me that she said that, now, or at all, whether she was under me or not. I could sense it in the previous nights before as we smoked our life away on the patio, or just had a drink. Things were happening for me, and all the people that knew me before were starting to let me in their lives, if only I played along with their bad habits. But really, they were dying to have me all along, or so I was learning.  I was their little pet, something they thought funny to laugh at while I caught up to their years of imbibing, but really they were only catching up to me. I knew it all before me, and I knew this wasn’t the way. I knew also that these things worked best in steps, and wasn’t going to now go any further with something that could’ve killed me. The sour taste in my mind wouldn’t go away.  I kissed her again and pulled away.
“You’re not going to take your clothes off?” she asked, almost begged. Her voice was slow, still from the drugs I imagined.
“No, why would I?”
“Ambien makes everyone want to get naked,” she said. “It always works on me.”
“It must be because I fell asleep and have woken up now.”
“But you don’t still feel it?” She was still speaking slowly.
“Not the way I did.”
“But you don’t want to have sex with me?”
“I’ve only just now received my first kiss.”
“I know. Let’s keep going.” She tried to pull me in and reached for my cock. After a tight squeeze I pulled her hand away.
I wasn’t thinking of God, but it had only been a few weeks since the last time I did. And this wasn’t going to happen.
“Maybe soon, Casey. But I just can’t now. I need to wait a little longer.”
“So you’re still waiting?”
“Yes.” It was enough to put it to an end. She let out an “awww” and rolled over onto my side. I’m not sure what she was thinking, and didn’t care.
I was glad to finally sleep for good, even though it was there on the bare carpet, with only a single pillow and blanket to share between myself and this girl, who I barely knew.
But I got to sleep.

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