Debt has a particularly unique effect on the human psyche, and i’m not talking about credit card debt. I’m talking about school debt, student loan debt, the big bank stuff. The kind of financial obligation that’ll violently shred up your college degree and spit you into the workplace kicking and dragging your feet into the machine. It’s the ability to both destroy your childhood fantasies of living the bohemian life you thought you could have while at the same time activating your humility in order to find a way to make money that makes student loans so goddamn oppressive. We all have to pay our bills. That’s the way our society functions. And debt, it seems, is one of this societies key machinations.
I owed about $85,000 in student loans. And after my father had paid for my first year of school in cash, he lost his job, and in a manner which defines my father exactly, he was fired, and left his family with an empty bank account and massive credit card debt. My father was real fucking good at getting fired, and even better at spending money than I am, because he always spent the money he didn’t have. So three remaining years of school were paid in full by the banks with no help from the federal government because, well… they, rightfully so, didn’t believe my father was dead broke soon after writing a check for $30,000 to pay for my freshman year. So I borrowed everything I had to, and promised to pay it back with a signature and a family member as my cosigner. And it was about a month after I graduated when I got my first bill in the mail from the bank… for something like $750. No way I could afford to pay that. So I deferred the payments and continued working at Louis Boston — the most unbelievably lux boutique on Newbury street — for about $300 a week after taxes, an salary which at that time nobody had believed when I told them.
I worked full time, scribbling down tight budgets every week, with I think something like $50 available to spend on food. My college girlfriend had wanted us to move to Brooklyn together. This was back in 2004 when you could get a one bedroom apartment in Carrol Gardens for $1,500, but I knew that if I moved to NYC with my college girlfriend that most of my life as I understood it would be laid out in front of me. And whatever I thought I could accomplish, whatever I dreamed of being as a young man, felt as if it would slip through my fingers. I had relied on her for the kind of emotional and financial support that a child would expect from his mother, and I wasn’t speaking to my parents much at the time. I was sick of them even when they loved me; I wanted to find another way through my life. A big ask, really, when I had nothing available to me other than a sweet, loving woman who had offered her life to me, so long as I was content to eventually move out to the suburbs and raise a couple of good Christian children. I refused her and her life, and I tried over and over to explain to her why, but soon we went from being together and it being long distance to breaking up. She drove from her mothers house in Long Island all the way to Boston one morning to declare her love for me and to hope it would get me to stay with her. I almost sent her back home packing without so much as opening the door. I was so angry at her persistence.
She went back home after a day or so of us talking, talking, talking through it. Which really must have been the two of us finally releasing ourselves from each other. She was, in many ways, my mother as I wanted my mother to be. But it was about time for me to detach from her, from my real mother and father, and all my memories of the past life I had lived until now. I packed up my books and poems from college and rented a one bedroom on Adamson Street in Allston, stored all my ambitions deep in a front hallway closet and buried my head instead into a job I didn’t want, but fascinating enough to keep me going back every day. It was a paycheck, and I decided if I was going to pay off my debt I had to buckle down and learn everything I could about this new, alien world. The world of commerce.
At first I keep my face flat to everyone at Louis Boston, and I ask a lot of questions. The mens shop in the tall four-story building was happy to answer, but as I was tasked solely with maintaining the fitting room area, it was really my duty to be proactive in asking questions. Being humble and getting to know everyone there. Often, it was necessary at first. But soon, the questions became distractions. One of my first Saturdays — the busiest retail day of the week — I watched a man spend the entirety of my student loan debt… that’s right, about $85,000, on a seasonal wardrobe for himself in a single transaction. I wondered if I could walk right up to him and ask him for the money I needed, and what he’d say to me. I ran it back again and again in my mind as his things were being bagged up at the register downstairs near the exit, but I knew it would cost me my job. I wasn’t an idiot, just desperate. That night, and in the coming weeks, I remembered that payment, and where it had placed me in this new world. I was nothing. A steel washer stacked onto a single moving part of a system so immense I could be burned up or broken off without impeding a single operational transaction. This world didn’t need me, but it would absorb me. So I kept my face flat.
I had learned how to do this in college studying performance, how to control the muscles in my face. I can morph my body into stone, or into a carnival, depending on what’s necessary for the moment. And since I didn’t have anything to say to anybody and didn’t really even WANT to be there, I relied on whatever training rose up within me to manage my employers expectations when they looked over at me. Keeping busy, asking questions, and all with a flat, affable posture and face. And I watched them, the salesman — or Wardrobe Consultants, as they so put it… how they carried themselves and the clothing they were handling in front of the customers. One man, Arthur Jordan, a tall thin old man, a real handsome character, one of the oldest of the group, pulled me into the fitting room one afternoon about a month into working there and let me in on it. “It’s all in how you handle the merchandise, Derek. Present it like this — and here he would set the tie down on the shirt abruptly and crudely — and it doesn’t read. Present it like THIS instead — and here he studies the tie, holding it carefully, preciously, and rests its long blue body across the shirt collar with a simple grace — and they’ll love it. It’s all a performance, Derek. Lets give em what they came for.”
Had I decided to work in a new kind of theater? Would this insight be the key to rising up in this world? I left work that day and went home like any other day and ate my dinner alone in my room. It was November, or early December, when the sun is running out of warmth, and the room grows cold at night. I write a poem about it, a bad one, and listen to some music. I play a song I love to sing along to and sing along to it, but hushed so as to not bother anyone else in the apartment. I get up and shake my body to the music, my reflection in the mirror. If it’s performance they want, I will oblige them. It’s what I know, after all.
Hey. I’ve been here, lying underneath this blog screen, with a bunch of unfinished ideas and half thought out articles on topics ranging from my history and involvement with Magic: the Gathering, to a couple of social outcasts sitting on lawn chairs before a bonfire on top of an abandoned mall in suburban connecticut. I’ve been sitting on all this energy, chewing on it, taking notes and attempting to work out these ideas. And each night dreams fire off within the private realm of sleep… dreams that used to provide so much meaning for me… dreams that used to frighten me, ignite me to action, forgive me, ridicule me… a cacophany of emotion, but a beautiful and elaborate scenario always. Always a store. Always a crowd. And there’s me, among the going, thinking of how I could leave the mall, leave the party, leave the buildings and the cities and find somewhere hidden. Somewhere new and dark and vast and unexplored. A mystery in the age of information. These are the dreams that I can remember. The other ones are a blur of voices, characters, and scenarios running on and on and on. A crime. A love. A city.
my mind is so hungry for a narrative, for some kind of story to tell. And I need to tell them, somehow. I believed for a long time in my secret abilities as a writer, and dreamed a life wherein I lived to write. But it wasn’t in this lifetime, instead in another time and place altogether. And it was then I knew I was making up stories about myself, about my life. Dreaming up a manner to live it that evoked my desire to escape and my desire for the past to be the present, I lied about who I even was to others. At each turn, I was someone else, someone I believed I needed to be, and I was damn good at doing it. The arenas of my life separated me into different mirror images of my story, where at each turn I could morph my posture, my behavior, my thought and, perhaps most importantly, my presentation of myself.
And how exactly am I supposed to get down into it, then? How am I being true if I never really was any of them? Why did I navigate my life as if it were simply a play, and I the superstar at every turn? Why did I not just look at the sky? I’ve never known who I was, but who I am right now… is it really that important to understand? Or, is it merely a focusing of this scattered energy into something real, something tangible I can use?
In the darkness of my dream I stand before a row of avenues carved out of stone, and each passage is equally guarded with iron bars. A dog sleeps. A woman approaches me, her old frail body warmed only by rags, her hair big and gray and dry. She gestures to the smoky night sky above us and says, ‘look at that sky.’ Beyond us up a staircase a massive house hosts a massive party scrambled with aquaintences, friends, faces of strangers and all the discussion meaningless. All the laughs are hearty. The clothes are all beautiful. I left that party down a long stairwell to get here. The four avenues, they end in ancient doorways that must creak and whine when opened.
The dog is awake, I hear its chain jangling as it lunges and tackles me under its massive weight. I throw my arms up against it, and feel the dogs teeth sink into my wool coat, but the teeth don’t penetrate into me.
It’s morning when the man appears… early morning and only when i’m in the shower. My showers are only five minutes because he insists I only have five minutes to wash myself, and its exactly because these showers must last five minutes I adopted a soundtrack to play along in my head in order to keep time. Smells like Teen Spirit’s recording time is five minutes and one second… it’s what play every morning, and I guess Morning Man is okay with this as i’m still alive, still returning to the bathroom to clean myself and continue each day going about my usual business.
Thing is, I can’t ever see Morning Man even though I know he’s there. I can feel him, though, floating somewhere just beyond the periphery. He appeared in the corner, where the shower curtain and the white tiled bathroom wall meet. You’d think a full grown man with a tall black hat holding a knife that glints in the bathroom light would be easy to see, especially in a place as small as a suburban condominium bathroom… but he has a real fuckin knack for slipping out of view when I finally get fed up and pull the curtain aside to look. Keeping an eye on Morning Man’s whereabouts is useless, but I go through it anyway, everyday… and he continues to slip away before resuming his pose there in the bathroom, pale and silent, holding his knife, his eye bore through me.
So I keep the shower curtain open and sing to myself my favorite Nirvana song, keeping time, the beat and the lyrics as near to the recording as I am able to orchestrate… steam rolling up into the vent or hanging there in the little bathroom, caught on the mirror, the faucet and the sink, the towel rack. The water white hot. And even with this precautionary measure, Morning Man persists. I turn, and I see nothing.
Morning Man tells me how long my showers will last. He also tells me other things, too. Like what time to wake up, or go to bed. Mom and dad do that stuff too, but it’s different when they do it. Morning Man tells me how they’re fucked and they shouldn’t have gotten married, and ultimately it was me who drove them apart. I hate how Morning Man makes me feel about my parents, but he insists on it, just like he insists on a lot of my other shit too. Like what happens alone in the basement, or when friends sleep over on weekends. Morning Man calls it all fucked, pathetic… and if you don’t straighten up and fly right you’ll end up just like them, too. Like all the rest of em. Morning Man can be fairly dramatic.
His knife hasn’t penetrated me. Not yet. When I step out of the tub all wet, open the door to the hallway with the shower running… thinking maybe I heard him somewhere. Early enough nobody else’ll be up yet so… it’s fine. Fine and whatever, its five minutes. I return to the shower, still hot, press play on the song resuming in my mind, the steam rolling onto the hallway carpet as I rush through each step with my heart coming through my chest.
He leans against the tile wall, his faded cartoon black hat and pale eye. The knife clean and shining.
If I don’t take care of things like… I dunno what’ll happen to me. If I don’t straighten up and do it right. I won’t be there to see it. Morning Man says I have asthma. Cancer. That i’m fucked. Doomed. He gets all big with me when i’m walking to the bus stop to go to school. I don’t talk about Morning Man, and I try not to believe in much he says, but it doesn’t matter much to me if eventually I turn up dead.
The shower’s off. Toweling dry in front of the mirror I listen. I hear my parents talking, or fucking, doesn’t matter which I still listen. Silently I plot a path to the bedroom door at the end of the hall and move. I can barely breathe. I hear something. A thud, a silence stirring. And in the darkness of morning with all the house lights out and my face pressed against the bedroom door, his long and silent fingers slowly prey.
In my parents finished basement where I spent most of my time, with friends, my brother, or with my two best friends Nintendo and Sega, I discovered one afternoon after school a slug on the carpet watching the television. The television was on and had already been tuned to channel 18, the playboy channel, but the broadcast was heavily blurred… flickering a distorted and infinitely scrolling picture… the bleep bleep bleep bleep bleep bleep bleep — that sound, instead of what you wanted to hear. And the slug was simply there, contentedly watching the images ripple incomprehensibly, the alarm soundtrack going going going… and that’s when the slug reached up with its antennae and clicked the dial forward once to channel 19.
Channel 19 was, in terms of the audio and video, the almost complete inverse of channel 18: you could see nothing except dirty snow shimmering on-screen, but could hear everything happening over on channel 18 well enough to follow along. So the slug was at it when I arrived downstairs: clicking the dial back and forth between the two channels, sliming the carpet area where I usually sat down and played my Nintendo. I spent a good few moments staring at the slug, disturbed by its presence but also, and probably moreso, engrossing itself over the two channels I had kept to myself so closely and secretly for well over a year. It not only knew what it wanted to watch, but it was almost as if it had sneaked into this basement at the exact hour I had already check-marked and set aside for this very routine and time-sensitive activity. And the slug, while ostensibly not doing all that much, was quite the display. The carpet was beginning to stick together, had already become shiny and gnarled from the trail of obvious filth it had secreted and used to slide on over from the cellar door. It stunk humid and warm and stale in the basement, like the way I imagined sex could smell. The slug looked up and acknowledged me with the side of its antennae before shrugging me off to resume its deranged enjoyment, clicking disapprovingly between the channels, between a blaring alarm and canned moans or ugly talk, with a sort of quiet, lubricated poise.
I ran upstairs and grabbed the salt shaker from the kitchen table.
As I readied my way back down the staircase to the basement again a sourness had begun rumbling up from my stomach. As I took my first steps, salt shaker in hand, the sourness lurched acridly upwards into my throat. I wrestled it down, swallowed it into a ball of nerves and continued slowly downward, stumbling off the final step and nearly spilled my teenage body — and the salt shaker — face-first across the carpet. It was summer and the heat brought with it a storm of insects to the condominium complex where we lived, a village surrounded by the woods I used to play with friends in as a smaller child. As you walked Happy Hollow Circle the road eventually led to a roundabout, and at the back end of the roundabout a grassy patch coaxed you inside the Woods… the soil was usually damp there from a quiet brook that moved softly through small rocks and over dried leaves — and all the kids who lived on Happy Hollow Circle could be found at any point there in the day along this partition. My mother told me never to play there, as an inch of water was all it would take for me to drown. If I slipped and fell, and I did spend a lot of time falling, I could have died there. I played along the brook in the woods whenever I wanted to, defying her wish. She always wanted me to stay away, and for the most part it was ingrained in me. I never traveled beyond the brook in the woods and I never went into the woods at night.
The carpet held within its little grasps a garden of negligence. As a teenager i’d hidden my pimples picked clean in the basement, and to learn about sex from these crude images instead of asking anyone, or my parents. It was better to have a place I could explore myself, a place I could break and leave and come back to without change. Often, i’d come onto the carpet standing up, my jeans still around my ankles, the bleep bleep bleep bleep bleep bleep bleep cheering me on and then, pulling it back together, the television quickly to channel whatever, I’d stomp upstairs and tear into my box of Wheat Thins, pushing at and adjusting myself. Once the rest of my drizzle had oozed out and stiffened my boxers I tucked them into the hamper pile, expertly beneath my family’s supply of socks and washcloths. Sometimes, I just left them on the carpet among my bitten off nails and leftover toys, but they’d be gone, washed by the time I remembered I should be hiding them. I always became flushed when someone had the nerve to penetrate my garden.
Since my discovery of Channel 18 i’d humped anything even suggestively soft in the basement garden. The couch, a repulsive rust color, had perfect little crevices between each section. My blue convertible floor chairs that opened into beds could be squished together nicely. The torn back of a stuffed animal. Socks from the adjoining laundry room drier, which i’d hide in storage boxes or seasonal shoes and boots filed away on the upper shelves of the laundry room. There were spots on the carpet by the television i’d grown to avoid and used the floor chairs more frequently. Nothing felt quite right, even though I knew nothing of what it should feel like, but I maintained an imagination that supplied me with a warm body in every secret place i’d selected.
I hated the way it smelled, and it was always a little damp feeling which brought on spasms same as when I resorted to killing bees with magazines or the bottom of my sneakers. An oily rush of blood, the way i’d imagined death. The slug there, minding its business and ignoring mine, aware but not wholly concerned with my steady approach. It was so disgusting to me… but I couldn’t think of another way to get rid of it… the shame was already so overwhelming, the shame of resorting to this bullshit… it was bullshit to kill the slug. And I had never even tried it before… what would happen to it? Would it break into a panic and slither away fast as a cartoon back up the little hidden place it arrived through? Would it simply explode? Or would I hear it shriek… cry out… wail in a death agony? I just didn’t know anything at all, and I was seething with fear and shame over what was about to go down in my garden. I unscrewed the shaker and held it slowly over the slug.
It was making a fool of me. It had watched me, no doubt, at this exact hour watching Channel 18 and Channel 19. It had watched me grow, stroke, and spread my teenage bleach across the carpet like a clown, a madman… and now it was here to do its own kinda getting off. Whatever that was. I began sweating oil as I tipped the shaker over the slug from a height of at least 2 feet. The slug swells immediately. I screamed and gripped the shaker ran upstairs to the kitchen feeling sourness in my throat I turned and spit drooling into the sink… hung suspended over the counter and bubbling off my bottom lip… I started to cry hot sick tears and slammed my palms on the kitchen counter hard… again…again… until I could feel it sting.
I managed to sit down at the kitchen table. My head fell into my hands. Being summer Mom didn’t need to cook breakfast so i’d eat cereal and milk, but sometimes i’d make myself scrambled eggs. I would watch her make them for us during the school year: the little kitchen television playing Good Morning America, her scrambling with salt pepper and milk the eggs and pouring the mixture in a sizzling pan streaked with butter. She’d empty the cooked eggs onto my plate and we’d eat. Her with her baked potato and salsa and egg whites, me with my juice and scrambled eggs. I’d grab the salt shaker before tasting the eggs and shake a little over my plate. Taste it first, she’d say, don’t wanna put too much salt on you’ll blow up. She had it down for everything she ate how much salt would go into it. I didn’t care… I liked salt, made everything taste better, put as much on as I liked. Especially when she made me overcooked eggs, you needed salt to make em better.
I put the shaker back in its original pose. The light that fell through the kitchen window darkened the afternoon. I only hope I used enough salt.
Unfolding a towel from the linen closet I held it open as I made for the basement again, Blanketing the mess and pulling it together in a heap underneath. I formed a tight ball with the towel, careful not to look, and held it at arms length until it was in with the trash. Back in the basement, humid and stale from slow summer, the dehumidifier clicked on. It rattled and shivered as it pulled the moisture from the air. The television had been turned off. The carpet needed to be cleaned. Cereal bowls stacked high with dried milk on their spoons loomed. Evening entered along with the rest of my family, and we decide to get Chinese food. Low sodium soy sauce, she said, and the salad dressing on the side, please. Thank you.