Category: Issue 1.3

Let Me Eat Cake

I am fat. Obese. This is according to the Wii Fit. A person can do all kinds of things with this video game system: yoga, soccer, strength training. But I only use it for one thing—a scale. Once a week, I step on, and weigh myself. And when I do, there is a cartoon figure on the screen, designed to look vaguely like me, and every time my weight is calculated, this little cartoon, this animated me, heaves a sigh and sags, as if she’s never seen anything as depressing as those numbers.

My first trip to a weight loss center was three years ago. It was a little brick building, and the inside looked like any doctor’s office. Bland paint on the walls, a water cooler in the corner. A bitchy secretary.

“Do you have an appointment?” the girl behind the counter asked. She ignored me until I cleared my throat, and although she was much younger than I was, I was still a little afraid of her.

“Uh, no. I didn’t think I needed one. I heard your ad on the radio, and I thought I could just stop in.”

She rolled her eyes.

“If you’ll just put your name on the list and have a seat, someone will call you back in a few,” she said, heaving a tortured sigh.

I sat down in one of the chairs, making sure to keep an empty seat on either side of me. There were two other women there, but I avoided their eyes. I’m sure they avoided mine. Because being fat isn’t like being part of some exclusive club. There aren’t get-togethers and matching tattoos and elaborate secret handshakes. If you’re fat, you’re not a speshul snowflake. You’re just fat.

But it’s not quite that simple. There are two different types of fat women. The first is the jolly fat girl. If you fall in this category, you’re completely happy in your own skin. And that’s fine. Be proud of your saddlebags. Love your muffin top. Flaunt that shit. Drop it like it’s hot.

And then there’s the unhappy fat girl. The kind who is constantly tugging on her clothes and worried about how she looks and will pay an obscene amount of money to anyone who might be able to clue her on how to get skinny.

I’ll give you two guesses on which kind of fat girl I am.

I sat in that waiting room for 15 minutes, then 20, clutching my purse on my lap. This is a learned behavior, one a lot of fat girls use. Anything will work in a pinch. A purse, a pillow. All that work to hide the fat paunch that rests so cozily on the tops of the thighs.

The woman who came in and called me back was skinny. Smiling. Nearly chipper. Young.

I hated her.

“So, you’re here to lose weight,” she said, grinning, even as she was flipping through the pages of a manila folder with my name printed on the tab. I’d only walked in the place fifteen minutes before, and I already had a file? I wasn’t sure whether to be impressed with their efficiency, or frightened. “How much do you think you’d like to drop?”

“Huh?” I said. Witty, I know, but her question left me confused. How did I know how much I was supposed to lose? Was a lot a good enough answer? “I don’t know. I hadn’t really thought about it.”

She laughed. For the first time, I noticed the nametag pinned to her blouse. Tammi, it said, in loopy cursive writing. The dot above the “I” had been replaced with a gold foil star.

“I felt the same way before I started losing weight,” she said. “I didn’t have any idea where to start. But when it was all said and done, I lost sixty pounds.”

“Really?” I said skeptically. I couldn’t imagine it. “Sixty pounds?”

“Being a member here was really what did it,” Tammi said. “Having so much support kept me so motivated.”

This little speech was so smooth, as if it had been rehearsed and choreographed to perfection. I could imagine Tammi at her bathroom mirror, practicing. Smiling with those crocodile teeth.

“There are all those photographs,” I said, thinking of the framed pictures in the long hallway, hung from the ceiling to the floor with hardly any room left between. I’d only seen a few men in those photos. It was mostly women. Serious-faced, sad eyed women, photographed in nothing but their panties and bras, their shoulders slumped and defeated, their rolls of fat gleaming dully in the bad lighting.  The “before” wall. It was one of the saddest things I’d ever seen. “Are you out there?”

For the first time, Tammi’s smile faltered. But only a little.

“No,” she said. “Somebody lost my photo, and we don’t keep copies.”

She was lying, I thought. Tammi had never been fat. She was only pretending, because she was a salesperson. I understood. I’d once had a job selling computers, and I  lied my ass off to get someone to buy something, anything. I’d tell people that my father owned the same computer they were looking at, that he was a freaking computer engineer, that’s how good it was, and it just happened to be the last one I had in stock. I could understand lying to make a sale.

“Speaking of pictures, let’s take yours for the wall,” Tammi said, jumping up and clapping her hands. “Aren’t you excited? I’m so excited!”

“I guess so,” I said gamely, watching as she pulled a camera from a desk drawer. “Where do I stand?”

“You’ll need to get undressed first,” she said. “Just down to your underwear.”

I paused. Tammi watched me expectantly, a smile frozen on her face.

“I don’t think so,” I finally said. I couldn’t—I wouldn’t—have my half-naked photo pinned to a wall. I couldn’t even look at myself under the kind lights in my bathroom at home—I wasn’t about to let strangers stare at my every dimple and stretch mark, immortalized on cheap photo paper and stuck in a fingerprint-smeared frame. “I’ll just take my photo in what I’m wearing.”

She sucked breath in through her teeth.

“Well, the thing is, that’s not normal procedure,” Tammi said slowly. “We really want everyone on the same page, you know?”

“I’m not getting undressed,” I said.

Tammi gave me a look. Clearly, I was being a real pain in the ass.

“All right,” she said. “But you won’t be featured on the wall.”

“I’m fine with that.”

She was huffy with me during the photo, but all that cleared up when it came time for the big question: was I going to sign on for a membership with the center or not? Then she became the perfect, smiling salesperson again.

I hesitated. It wasn’t only about the money (although I could definitely find better things to spend a thousand dollars on),it was also about the commitment. I would have to eat right. Exercise. Come back and visit this place twice a week to weigh in. Go to their support classes, and take their vitamins. It sounded like a lot. It was a lot.

In the end, I signed all the paperwork Tammi shoved in front of me and gave her a check. The lure of a skinnier me was far too great.

The center required me to be on a strict diet—nearly every thing I ate was protein. No carbs. At first, it sounded easy. A variety of meats. Endless piles of bacon. Quivering mountains of Spam. Fountains running with cheese.

But the reality is much different. Everything is a carb. Even the stuff I’d always figured to be healthy had carbs, and was suddenly off my menu. Carrots. Broccoli. Bananas.

Have you ever eaten eggs for breakfast every morning? I mean EVERY. SINGLE. MORNING. I did, for three months. At first, I was charmed. I couldn’t get enough. I bought the carton of five-dozen at Costco, and blasted my way through it. Boiled, sunny-side, fried, scrambled. I ate them here, I ate them there. I ate them all the fucking time.

But the novelty of the eggs wore off pretty quickly. I would wake up some mornings, and the thought of forcing another egg down my gullet made me sick. I started dreaming about strawberry Pop-Tarts (36 net carbs. In one. ONE. And those foil packs always have two. And who the hell wraps up that second one and puts it back in the box?), still warm from the toaster, slathered in butter on one side. Sometimes I would cry. I would break down and weep on my kitchen counter, because I couldn’t have a Pop Tart. Or even a piece of toast to go along with the eggs I was choking down.

“What happens if I go out for dinner?” I asked. This was during my first weigh-in at the center, just two days after I first signed up. “Like, to a restaurant?”

Tammi bounced up and down in her chair. I wondered what she’d had for lunch. Something caffeinated, no doubt.

“You’ll have to be very careful,” she said. “You should always bring your food scale, so you can weigh out your portions.”

“A scale?” I said, snorting with disbelief. “To the restaurant? And just put it out on the table?”

“People do it all the time,” she said. I didn’t bother arguing, but I’d neverseen a person weigh their food at a restaurant. I once saw a ten-year old kid piss his pants and scream bloody murder in a restaurant, but weighing food? Nope. But I nodded at Tammi, smiling. I was never going to do it, but there was no reason I had to tell her that. “And you should take in your own salad dressing.”

“Sneak in a bottle?”

“You can’t trust the dressings at a restaurant. They’re packed with fats and sugars.”

“I’ll need a bigger purse,” I said. “Any other contraband I should be carrying?”

Tammi gave me a withering look. I don’t think she liked me much.

“No,” she said. “Just stay away from the bread basket. Remember, protein will be your saving grace.”

I laughed every time I heard someone at the center say this. And they did—a lot. I mostly laughed because it sounded so stupid, but also because of the way people said it. Almost reverently. As if they’d founded a new religion, one led by four ounces of grilled chicken breast.

It wasn’t long before I ate at a restaurant. I didn’t bring my food scale, and I didn’t bring my own dressing. I ordered fajitas withgrilled chicken and vegetables. It seemed like a safe choice, until they came with one of those plastic containers of tortillas. When I lifted the lid, a cloud of steam puffed into my face.

Before I knew what I was doing, I’d eaten four of them.

“Why would you do that?” Tammi asked at my next weigh-in. She was looking over my food diary, running her finger down along the meals I’d faithfully recorded. I’d told the truth about everything, even those four tortillas, which had sat like bricks in the pit of my stomach after that meal. Soft, delicious bricks. “Why would you do something so dumb?”

I felt trapped. Shamed. Like I was a dog who’d just taken a gigantic shit on the living room rug.

“I ate them because I was hungry,” I said shortly.

“You’ve ruined your whole diet,” she said. Her face was calm, but I thought I could see judgment in it. She was looking at another fat girl with no self-control. She probably saw a dozen of us a day. Women who didn’t know how to turn down a second helping at dinner, or how to politely decline dessert. I wondered if she laughed at all of us after she clocked out in the evenings, laughed at all the dimply thighs she’d seen that day, at all the chubby, pathetically hopeful faces she’d dealt with. It made me angry, to imagine it, even though it probably wasn’t true. But at that moment, with those four tortillas still burning a guilty hole in my big, fat gut, anything felt possible.

“I didn’t ruin anything over four fucking tortillas,” I shouted. I couldn’t stop. “I wanted them, so I ate them. And they were amazing.

Tammi wouldn’t see me again privately after that meeting. I would see her in the hallway sometimes, as I was being led to a weigh-in, but she would always find a reason to look in the opposite direction as I walked by. A cough, usually. Sometimes she’d just pick at the front of her blouse, as if she’d seen something there that she hadn’t noticed before.

A few weeks after my blow-up with Tammi, I found myself alone in one of the weigh-in rooms. The woman who I was meeting with had stepped out for a moment, and she’d left behind a manila folder with my name printed on the side. It was same folder that Tammi had liked to furiously scribble in during our meetings, and I’d always wondered what she’d been writing. So I picked it up and looked.

There were a lot of notes, but only one sentence stuck out. It was in purple ink, and had been underlined three times. The pen had dug so deeply in to the page it had nearly ripped the paper. Angry and violent, it said. Be careful.

I laughed at first. Then I felt stupid. All I’d done was yell. I hadn’t thrown anything. And Tammi had just sat, a smile frozen on her face. I’d been coming in twice a week for almost a month since that incident, meeting with different employees, and all of them had seen that warning written in purple, and then they’d looked at me over the top of the folder, their eyes carefully watching. I was like an unpredictable wild animal. A rhino, maybe, or a hippo. Snorting and angry, kicking my feet in the dust.

I stood up, left the folder on the desk. I walked out. It didn’t matter that I’d already lost ten pounds. It didn’t matter that I’d already paid them an obscene amount of money. Those words, written in that stupid purple ink—I was running from those words. I would never be the jolly fat girl, but I also didn’t want to be the angry fat girl. The kind who suspiciously watches the skinny people of the world from dark raisin-eyes sunk in a doughy face.

I have a friend named Samantha. We’ve been friends since high school, and many of our conversations revolve around our weight. They always have. I have photos of the two of us, hugging each other by the shoulders, our cheeks sunburned, grinning. Both us were skinny. But still, even then, we complained about being fat.

“You’re not fat, I tell her. And she’s not. She’s gorgeous. But by the look of disbelief on her face, I know she thinks I’m lying.

You’re not fat,” she said. We were sitting in a restaurant, but neither of us had ordered food. Just drinks. Alcohol never entered in to our calorie counts, somehow. “You look amazing.”

I don’t believe her.

“Yeah, right.”

“Have you seen the dimples on my thighs?” she said, sighing. “I stood up this morning, and M&Ms fell out of them. That’s how deep they are.”

I snorted.

“Please,” I say. “I’m so fat I can barely fit on this side of the booth. Did you see how much trouble I had scooting in?”

“Have you ever tried just not eating?” she asked. “It’s hard. I made it a day, and then I broke down and gorged.”

“Maybe bulimia would work better?” I said sarcastically.

“Maybe,” she said.

I’d flirted briefly with bulimia, years ago, when I was first married. I wasted a few months of my life vomiting, crouched over a toilet after nearly every meal. It hadn’t gone on long before my husband insisted I go to the doctor. He thought I was sick, that there was something wrong. He never guessed that the vomiting was about my weight, and I never volunteered the information. I couldn’t bring myself to say it out loud.

Maybe you’re pregnant, the doctor said.

I’m not.

Still, we should run a test. Urinate in this cup and give it to the nurse.

I wasn’t pregnant. The only thing cradled in my belly was a food-baby, and I was constantly trying to get rid of it. Birth it, abort it, whatever. Just get it out of my body.

I stopped forcing myself to throw up for a few reasons. Mostly because it didn’t work so well for me. I never lost a pound. I wasn’t all that good at it. I could only stand to give a few half-hearted gags before I’d give up. Most of my food stayed firmly in my stomach. It made me think of my mother, making oatmeal on winter mornings. This’ll stick to your ribs, she’d say. That’s how every meal was for me.

You also learn a few things when you spend hours with your head stuck deep in a toilet. Like, when you vomit mint chocolate chip ice cream, it comes up purple. And still cold. Even if you ate it hours before.

But you also realize how pathetic you are. Because you are trying to keep the sounds of vomiting to a minimum so your husband won’t hear what you’re doing, and that the inside of your toilet is ringed with urine and dried shit. You’re the asshole who can’t get bulimia right, and you can’t keep your toilet clean, either.

This story doesn’t have a triumphant ending, like it would in a movie. That single sentence written in purple ink didn’t motivate me to work harder, to lose the weight and go back to that clinic to show Tammi I didn’t need her help, all while choreographed to a feel-good soundtrack.

I’m still not skinny. But I don’t try to fight it anymore. At least, not as hard. I don’t want to cry over Pop-Tarts anymore. I don’t want to walk into a party and immediately wonder if I’m the fattest woman there. I don’t want to be the woman sitting in a tiny office, her purse clutched on her lap, willing to do anything to lose a few pounds.  That woman, I’ve come to realize, is so unhappy and desperate and angry that the extra pounds are the last thing anyone would notice.

And I don’t want to be that woman.

Those words Tammi wrote still give me a bitter pang. But in the long run, I think they’ve done me more good than harm. It’s better to be beautiful on the inside than on the outside, which sounds so hippie-dippie that I’m a little embarrassed to write it—although it’s true. There are more important things to worry about than how many tortillas I eat with fajitas, or how big my gut looks in my blue jeans. You never hear anyone say Emily Dickenson was hiding a big ass under her hoop skirts, or that Marie Curie had jiggly upper arms. No history book ever mentions that Eleanor Roosevelt always passed on the bread basket to keep her waist trim.

Because no one gives a shit.

So if I’m hungry, I eat what I want. If the waistband on my jeans is a little snug, that’s life. At the beginning of every year, I try to make resolutions to be a better person. A smarter person. Not a thinner one.  

I’m still not skinny.

And maybe that’s okay.

 

 

 

Imaginary Me

I’m daydreaming, bare feet propped up on the dash, eyes directed out to pine trees and sky. I glance over at Ruben’s face just in time to see how it contorts with doubt and hope as he guns the pickup to pass the junker we’ve been following. I can see what he does: we’ll make it. This single straight stretch on this mountain road is short, but the slow-moving, erratic-driving asshole he’s been cussing out for a mile is only getting slower. Some part of me is aware of this, though mostly I have been elsewhere, with an alternate me in a nonexistent life.

Suddenly: “Oh fuck!”

I squint at Ruben, confused. He hits the brakes, jolting us to a slower speed, and I sit up, looking ahead to see what we’ll crash into, how our lives are about to end. My eyes search and search – sky, trees, edge of the road! nothing! – until I see what he sees. In the car we are passing, a man drives with one hand, and punches the woman next to him with his other.

Then the car is not beside us anymore. Ruben has reentered the space behind it, just as both cars curve around a steep bend.

I touch my forehead with both hands, as if that will help my brain offer quick-fire sequences of words to explain. A man is punching a woman. Dark hair and a red face. Blood smeared across the woman’s face. Ducking, leaning away. A thin jean jacket and a ponytail. Man punching a woman who has pressed herself against the door.

All in an instant.

Also: the ear-shattering buzz-silence of confusion.

Ruben lays on the horn, then speeds up to tailgate the car. “Write down the license plate.” He barks numbers and letters at me, and I grope around for a pen. I knock my head on the glove compartment as my body sways forward and then back as Ruben abruptly accelerates. I look up to discover that the white car has sped up; so has Ruben in an effort to match the pace.

Hijole, Ruben! Don’t kill us.”

“B-Y-2-0-2 something. Write it down, write it down!”

I scrawl this across the front cover of the book I’m reading. I see myself as I was this morning, tossing the book in the car, hoping to enter its imaginary world.

“Can you see the numbers?”

“Slow down, Ruben.” Then, “Ruben. Ruben. Híjole! Andaban con un cipote detrás. Did you see the kid? I’m just now realizing there was a kid!”

His eyes dart to me, back to the road. “What?”

“There was a kid in the back seat.”

“Four-door, Honda, 80s.”

“Ruben, did you see that kid’s face? Did you see that kid? As we pulled alongside them? Did you look in the back seat?”

His eyes dart at me again. “Really? Are you sure?”

Only now has my brain registered another image: A light-haired boy, somewhere between infant and toddler, car-seated, staring wide-eyed at the two people in front of him. There are tears running down his face. His mouth is just starting to open in surprise, or maybe in a cry.

My daydream was about the same man who always inhabits my dreams, the one who’s been in my head for years, the one who falls in love with me again and again for various reasons and in various circumstances. He doesn’t have a name, even after all these years. But these dreams aren’t about him, anyway, and they’re not even so much about love. I know this because I am mostly interested in imagining the falling-in-love stage. After that, our relationship blurs out of focus, and I start a new fantasy altogether. It took me awhile, but now I know: what these dreams are about is me – a different, better, fascinating me. A heroic me. Someone worthy of attention, someone worth falling in love with.

These daydreams: an addiction. Simple enough to understand. I like feeling my heart swish open with excitement, constrict with pain. Which is what had been happening at that moment: My heart had hurt with anticipation for a first imaginary kiss. The man leaned forward, and the courtship was over, kiss complete.

“Let’s stop for lunch,” I’d said.

“Let me get past this driver,” Ruben had said. “What a jerk.”

The white junker is going way too fast around the corners, which means we are too. Up ahead is Blue Moon. A post office and grocery and a few homes and businesses gathered together. Sweetheart Lodge Ahead, one sign advertises. Night-crawlers, beer pairs well with people. Food! Good company inside – Stop Here! But what Blue Moon really has, we all know, is a phone, there being no phone reception anywhere on this mountain.

“Stop here.” I touch his knee. “We should stop here and call.”  

Ruben hesitates. We can see from the silhouettes that the man has stopped punching and is instead hunched over the wheel, glancing in the rearview mirror. The woman is slumped against the door. The child I cannot see.

“Let’s not follow – what would we do? – let’s call the police. Stop here.”

To our right, log cabins appear. Such a cabin is where I have imagined meeting my falling-in-love lover. Such a place is where we talk about joining to eke out our quiet, simple lives. Such a place transforms me.

Ruben slows and pulls into the parking lot of the Sweetheart Lodge. We both jump out, look at the white car as we jog for the store. Then Ruben is asking for the phone, saying “It’s an emergency!” over and over to the sleepy-looking guy at the counter. Ruben grabs the phone book the man hands him, flips to the front and finds “Sheriff,” and holds his finger to the number as he dials. As he waits for someone to answer, I glance around the store at the deer heads and mounted fish nailed to the wall, and when I turn back around, Ruben is already telling the phone what we’ve seen.

I listen, silently urging him to better convey the seriousness of it, the momentum of the man’s fist, the woman’s bloody face, the way her body ricocheted from the force of his blows.

Ruben tells the police the make of the car and apologizes that he never caught the full license plate – there was mud splattered. He answers questions about our location and names, and then there is a pause. Ruben is searching, I know, for a way to end this conversation right – a way to ask for help for this woman. I am searching, too, for something, anything.

“Tell them to hurry,” I whisper.

“It looked pretty bad,” Ruben says. “You might want to hurry.”

Then he hangs up the phone, turns to me, and holds his hands out in confusion.

“I love you,” I tell him. I take one of his hands and hold it to my face.

We couldn’t find the car, the sheriff tells us that night. Ruben and I are home from our hike now, the hike that wasn’t so enjoyable or beautiful after all. I am cooking dinner but I can hear the sheriff’s voice, booming over the phone, assure Ruben that they did send up a patrol car; they did look. They didn’t see a thing matching our description, and there wasn’t much else they could do, since the license plate was incomplete.

Ruben hangs up, turns to me, shrugs. We should have followed. We should have pressed on.

I return to cooking dinner. By now, of course, the image has hijacked my mind – a frozen moment that I cannot shake away. I can see the man, the black stubble on his red cheek, the dark blue of a t-shirt. I can see the hair of a woman, the wisps of hair sticking to a swipe of blood. The boy in the backseat, the surprised O of his lips. His eyes have that look of wanting something. I don’t know what. Confusion. Sorrow that he cannot be a hero. Or perhaps I project. Perhaps he is too young to know that the world is full of missed opportunities, that to be a hero is all any of us want. Perhaps he is too young to know that every adult human – even that man who was driving and hitting – dreams of being a hero. Too young to know that we spend more time daydreaming of that scenario than any other. Even love. It is, perhaps, the greatest part of being a human.

While water boils, I write a letter to the Colorado State Patrol in big, loopy handwriting and bad grammar. I don’t know why I want to disguise this, to make it different than our own report. I write, Dear who-ever, I saw a man beating up on some body in his car and it looked real bad so I’m writing to tell you his license plate number. I think it was BY2002. Please, I hope you do something about it because there was a kid in there.

I leave a half-cooked dinner on the stove to run the letter down to the mailbox on the corner, as if running will speed its delivery, as if the postal carrier will pick it up sooner if she sees how I have rushed. I hope that my mind will let go of the images now, that the search for words and explanations will disappear as the envelope falls from my hand.

I want to close the boy’s eyes, transport him somewhere else, take him away from the real. But his eyes are locked open, so instead I close mine.

In bed that night, Ruben sleeping beside me, I try to conjure up my imaginary man, the one who isn’t concerned about the terrors of the world, because he is too intent upon me, or who is concerned with the terrors of the world, and holds me to him, and we push our foreheads against each other’s shoulder for comfort. He is not there, though; for the first time, I cannot find him.

I stare into the dark and time passes and it is not until later that I come out of my thoughts enough to view them, to listen to the conversation I am having with the woman. We talk about her leaving this man, I assure her of her worth, we work out the details on how she can live alone. I mumble things about her child’s safety and comment on his beautiful eyes. I offer advice on safe and welcoming places to go. I even invite her and her son to live with us.

She reaches out to thank me, to hold me. I concentrate on how my heart feels, the way it swells with the joy and approval of this imaginary me.

 

 

 

 

The World Ends at 8:05 p.m. Eastern Standard Time

My hours are from 8 to 5 Tuesdays through Fridays. Sunday’s taken, and ain’t anyone except graduate students at the university on Saturdays, and they’re stubborn as mules. Don’t like Mondays. I don’t have a job, so this is what I do. You just have to believe God gives you these things for a reason, and I do believe that’s the why. Spread the Holy Word. Came all the way out here from Dallas to do it.

I walk out onto the university mall with my bullhorn while the students sit enjoying the Arizona sun. That’s their right. This is mine. I lift the horn and fill the mouthpiece with the Holy Spirit. They pretend not to hear, looking skyward.

It came to me in one of my premonitions. It said, “Lift yourself up and go into the desert.”  The Lord sees fit to send his disciples where they are needed most. That’s why he has chosen this place; I know this to be true. This city is ripe with villainy.

I met my wife here. I’m not with her any more.

I see now what has gotten the students’ attention. A boy wearing only a pair of cut-off blue jeans, hiking boots, and sunglasses sits on top of the clock tower in a lawn chair. It’s the biggest building on campus, with a clock on every side, each reading its own time. Hanging over one of the clock faces is a sign with a crude doodle of a telescope crossed out with a big red ‘X’. It reads: stop the scope, save the squirrel.

It makes me angry that all he’s got to do is climb up on some building and people are all eyes and ears. So many temptations here, at this age, with the elites filling their heads with all sorts of ideas lacking in the Divine. I’m not some prude, though.

I used to be an alcoholic.

I used to be promiscuous.

I used to do drugs and ride the fast life.

I was reckless.

Yet through it all, I had a gaping hole in my heart that only God could fill, and his name is, Yeshuah: “Yeshuaaaaah!” I shout.

Aaaaaaaaahhhh!!! The students shout back, breaking their trance long enough to lift their hands in the air to complete a stadium wave around me.

This is the burden we Christians must carry, to be scorned, laughed at and ridiculed. It’s what is to be expected by one who’s been visited recently by the Son of God.

I used to work for Arthur, Schmidt, Hanson & Fife. Advertising firm. Made commercials for used car dealers, lawyers, and insurance companies, which turned out to be a blessing, considering. We were filming for a personal injury lawyer. Had one of those cameras on a boom that could swoop down when you told it to, a big metal arm on a crank and swivel. It was this, they tell me, that caused my “cranial contusion.”  Some such. Can’t recall. What I do remember is the tunnel of light and the singing. I was hovering over the operating table as they worked on me below.

It was then that I had my first premonition, though I had yet to see the hand of God in it. I woke to my wife and son standing over me. He was just a grade-schooler then, with emerald green eyes. I looked at my wife and said, “Patty, you’re going to leave me.” 

“Never,” she said, but she was gone inside a year. Said Tommy couldn’t stand seeing me like that, as much a child as he was, but I knew it was herself she was speaking of. For three months, that’s all I could say: “Patty, you’re going to leave me.”  Everything else came out in tongues.

They gave me speech therapy three times a day, but I learned mostly through TV: 700 Club, Hour of Power, Reverend Holland’s Old Time Gospel Show. That’s when I took to the Lord’s work, though I suppose it’s the same general principle as before: know your target audience, know their insecurities, their fears, and make them believe the big client can bring them to joy. Only difference is this time the joyful can truly be delivered.

Eventually the program in Dallas offered to buy me a one-way ticket to anywhere I wanted to go. Luckily, I had myself another premonition—the one about going into the desert—so I set to wander until His will became known to me. As the Lord, God, said unto Isaiah: Go, and tell his people, Hear ye indeed, but understand not.

The bus would have took me all the way to Tucson, but I made them stop when I saw the desert open up. It started as a mere sliver of light in the ground, spreading the desert floor open like the Red Sea itself. One of the passengers told me it was one of those Titan missile silos, and it might have been, but it was a sign for sure. Jehovah hath opened up his armory, and hath brought forth the weapons of his indignation; for the Lord, Jehovah of hosts, hath a work to do in the land of the Chaldeans. Jeremiah.

I stood behind the barbed wire fence like the wooden sign told me to, long after the bus went on it’s way, and I watched the people in uniforms climb out of the earth, and the hole glowed red like a portal leading into the depths of hell, as the earth kept letting out its tortured wail: doot, doot, doot, doot.

I imagined how scared Tommy’d be, if he had been there, hugging my knee. I’d point to the swirling red light and tell him not to be afraid, that it’s always a joyful time when God shows us things to come.

That was three weeks ago.

“Three weeks, going on three years,” says the fellow who mans the desk at the Tucson shelter.

He’s all right. If I keep quiet and stand back enough, he lets me watch the sports scores on his TV. I don’t have many possessions beyond the Good Book I keep beneath my cot since people sneak off with whatever you don’t hold close to you. I leave out pamphlets in the hopes the thieves might see the errors of their ways, but the stack’s always there in the morning.

When I turn in, I can still see the alcohol caught in the whiskers of the man on the cot next to me as he snores. I place one of the pamphlets in the palm of his hand, which he clasps by instinct.

Back when I was in advertising, I reached thousands of people every day. Thousands. Anybody who flipped on the TV would hear my message. It is impossible to put into words how it felt waking up in the hospital, not being able to reach anybody, not even hardly able to speak, to connect. I’ve been trying since to gather another flock.

I stand before my cot and start to lead the group in prayer. I tell them in the next world, things will be different. You gather with all the people you’ve forgotten throughout your life, and all the people who have forgotten you.

“Shut up!” someone shouts.

The drunkard turns his back toward me, grumbling briefly before continuing his snores.

“Go to bed!”

“I’m giving you a message brothers!” I say. “I am telling you about a new life!” 

A wad of newspaper strikes me on the forehead. I don’t see who did it, but I hear the laughter. I tell them they will have to do more than that to keep me from His word. I have been jailed, hauled off, scorned and ridiculed, fined and spit at for what I believe. You—you sir, know nothing of censorship. Your viewpoint is on the news, on the TV, and propagated by Hollywood. You have the airwaves and radio waves and universities at your disposal while I fight for my plot of land on the university mall. You do not know tolerance, or oppression.

I, sir, ask for nothing.

I want nothing.

I need nothing.

Nothing, nothing at all, except to be heard.

  ‡

The boy on the clock tower has been going on four days. At night, one of his friends ties a bag of trail mix and a canteen of water to a string that the boy then hauls up to the top. The news crews have attracted all sorts of riff-raff and attention-seekers, and the powers that be in the university police have taken it upon themselves to confiscate my bullhorn, thinking that will silence me, but they’ll have to drag me from the mall clawing and scratching at the grass before that will come to pass. My lungs are good.

Like so many others, the students here are sleepwalking through life, unable to hear, to see, to feel. They are zombies, marching about with no perception of what is going on around them. It is the same as it was after the accident. No different. I’d carefully choose the words, but they kept coming out in tongues: 

Hommina, unim, inim.

Hommina, unim, inim.

Hommina, unim, inim.

Patty, you’re going to leave me!

On like that. Now the words come, but they still have no meaning to anyone except myself.

I have created a dance to get the students’ attention. A short little jig when I say His name, a representation of the way I feel when I am energized by the Holy Spirit. I hold my Bible overhead, clasped firmly with both hands, and jog quickly in place, looking skyward so I can see the gold inlay on the Good Book as I sway my head from side to side: 

“Yeshuaaaaaah!”

And they respond, flinging their arms up and shouting back: Aaaaaaahhh!

One of the girls, I notice, has her breasts exposed. I stop to look, and sure enough, there’s about five or six others, all topless, holding signs, but I don’t pay much attention to those, except I hear someone say it’s a “tit-in.”  I just keep looking at that girl sitting there as God made her, smiling at me and waving: Aaaaaaahhh!  She’s got little tiny nipples the way Patty did, and I don’t believe it’s a sin to think that way, seeing as we were united in the eyes of God. So beautiful, even when she stops waving her arms to yell: “Yeah, I see you. I see you looking at my tits!” shaking her shoulders like a Marimba dancer. 

One of the reporters asks me questions, says she’s doing a story on the protests at the university and wants to know what I think about the university’s efforts to crack down, but I’m not really listening; it’s the girl I’m looking at. For some reason, I start telling the reporter about Patty and the camera booms. I tell her about the tunnel of light and my premonitions, and how I have a son who’s not with me any more. I start to cry, but I keep going, telling her everything, long after the lamp on the camera goes off. The reporter just nods with the microphone at her side.

“Do you think they’ll see me?” I ask, pointing at the camera. “Do you think they will tonight?”

“Never know,” she says, excusing herself. I think that maybe this is it, my Holy mission revealed. I am needed on the TV, to be seen by all those people again. They’d listen. All those houses out there, like before, unfiltered, my message clear and pure. Patty’s bound to be in one of them. She might have returned here. Never know, like the lady said. I find I’m a little envious of the boy on the tower. The view he must have up there, all of creation before him. Up there, he could see the whole world. And the whole world could see him.

I didn’t make the TV. The guy behind the desk checked the evening news for me, but the main story is about the boy who finally came down off the roof. Arrested then released. He said he’d be back if things didn’t change, but they don’t show any more.

“I’m sorry,” the guy behind the desk says.

I want to ask if he thinks they’ll show me on the twelve o’clock, but I know they won’t. The fellow behind the desk is all attention again when they bring up the basketball scores. I think of leaving, but then it happens: that odd feeling I get in the gut like I’m falling, the same blurriness of eyes.

“The world is going to end,” I tell him.

The fellow just keeps watching TV, not really speaking much. “What’s that?” he says, glancing from the set only briefly. The Suns lost, as did the Spurs.

“It will be consumed by a fiery wall of flames from the west. I have foreseen it.”

“That may be true, reverend, but I’d sure like to see the Suns win one more game before then.”

I close my eyes. “Perhaps. Perhaps not. Hard to see. Soon, that’s all I know.” 

The weather is next. Tomorrow’s forecast: partly cloudy with strong winds by evening. Low chance of rain.

“Maybe Wednesday.”

“Never can tell, preacher,” the man says with a yawn.

The next morning I stuff the Good Book into a pillowcase along with a plastic cheerleader’s megaphone I found at the thrift store to replace the bullhorn the police took, and I gather some rolls from the soup kitchen. I tie the pillowcase shut and head out to the student union, and I climb, holding the knot in my teeth. The mall has quieted since the media left, taking the protests with them.

I find a metal service ladder around back and scale the building, almost losing my supplies as I lift myself onto the roof. A few students walk below on their way to early morning class. I pace the edges, taking in the beauty of God’s handiwork.

The strangest thing is the snow-capped mountains, rising out of the desert valley. It is an odd combination of cold and heat, like the burning of my skin in the sun beneath the morning chill. Someone built a large metal A on the side of the smaller mountain, painted white so the sun glares off it. The boy saw fit to leave his lawn chair up top, which I pull to the edge and I sit, watching the students stroll about, oblivious as to what is to come. It must be an hour before a girl points me out to her friend. Some passing boys follow their gaze, and they see me, too. I sit, letting them gather as the air warms. I undo the pillowcase, retrieving my bullhorn: My shield, and the horn of my salvation, my high tower. Psalm 18.

When six people gather, I pace along the edge, trying to walk off my nerves before I put the megaphone to use. I preach the day, pausing only for a roll before the high lunch hour traffic. I fill their bellies with prophecy.

“Don’t jump,” someone says.

I tell them it will come from the west, but they only look to the east where I stand. A man in a uniform arrives with a bullhorn of his own. He calls up to me, asking me to come down, but I tell him the only way I’m getting off this tower is by going the other way. 

The camera crews come in time for the six o’clock news, only this time they direct their lenses towards me. The fire truck is next. “Come down,” the fireman says. “What’s it going to take to get you to come down?”  But I ask him what it’s going to take to lift himself up?  What’s it going to take join me up here with the Lord? I dance. I run in place. I hold the Good Book up for all to see.

“We shall dance, friends, at His feet!” 

The students whoop and holler.

“Please, just take it easy…”

Take it easy? Take it easy? When judgment day is upon us? 

“Praise the Lord,” someone hollers, and the students laugh.

“Praise the Lord!” I say. “Praise the Lord!” And they applaud.

“Don’t be alarmed. I’m going to send someone up there to talk.”

“Whoever it is better be a dancer!”  The students laugh, but I don’t care. I pretend I’m already there, dancing about His big toe. Sure enough, the fireman’s ladder starts to extend, and I pace, not wanting this to end yet. It could be over soon, just when I’ve gained my audience back.

“Just be calm. We’re not going to hurt you.”

“I’m not coming down!” I shout. “I won’t!” 

“We just want to talk…”

“Don’t come up here!” Not yet.

The ladder stops. “All right. It’s not going to come any closer, okay? You just need to slow down.”

The sun’s sinking just beneath the mountaintop, and the wind has started to pick up. Not too much longer now. I recognize my counselor from the shelter, who takes the bullhorn. “Richard,” he says. “We want you to come down.” 

I shake my head. It’s getting dark. A gust of wind nearly knocks me off balance, and I hear gasps.

“I’ve got someone who wants to talk to you.”

He hands the bullhorn to a woman whom it takes me a moment to recognize, wearing a blue skirt and blouse. She’s put on a little weight, and her hair is much shorter, but it’s her.

“Richard? We want you to come down now, okay? No one wants to see you get hurt.” A large, bearded man holds her shoulders, like he’s afraid she’ll fall backwards without him. “We just want you to come down.”

“Who’s he?” I say.

The man lets Patty go and she looks at the counselor, who shakes his head. “That’s not important. The important thing is that you come down so that we can talk to you.”

“Where’s Tommy?”

She doesn’t answer for a long time. She’s got the same lips, the same eyes, the same way of scowling when she’s upset. It’s almost enough to make me forget my divine duty and come down there. “Tommy… well he’s, he’s right here… you have to understand I just wanted what was best for everyone…” That’s all she can get out before her voice cracks.

She offers the bullhorn to a boy who can’t be less than fifteen, so it must not be him. Can’t be. He’s got beautiful long hair like the Savior’s, down to his shoulders, and a black T-shirt and jeans. I can just make out the white letters on his shirt, which spell Metallica. He rests all his weight on one leg and his right hand is thrust into his jeans pocket, with the thumb of his other resting in the same loop that anchors his wallet chain. His free leg bobs nervously as he looks elsewhere. His face is thin, yet somehow familiar. I want to see his eyes. If I see his eyes, I’ll know for sure.

He takes the horn. “Yeah,” he says, scanning the crowd instead of looking up. “You should probably do what they say, you know? Cause nobody sees why you got to stay up there all the time.”

“Because it’s the end of the world.” They don’t seem to hear me, so I use the megaphone: “It’s the end of the world!”

“That’s a drag,” the boy says. The man with Patty snatches the bullhorn and gives the boy’s shoulder a slap. He laughs and tries to look away, but I can see that he wants to be up here.

“We’re going to send someone up now, okay? Just to talk,” my counselor shouts up, and the ladder starts to move again.

No!” I say when the fireman starts to climb. He stops, but they leave the ladder at the lip of the tower. I’ll have to keep an eye on them, to make sure no one sneaks up. “Only Tommy. I’ll only talk to Tommy.”

 “I’m sorry, we can’t do that,” my counselor says. I don’t understand.

“Please,” I say. No telling how much time’s left. “You’ve got to let me talk to Tommy.” 

“If you want to talk to Tommy, you’ll have to come down.”

“Tommy? Tommy?” I say, but the boy refuses to look up. “I never went away. I never wanted to go. Only for a couple of weeks, that’s all it was, until I got better. Tommy…”

Tommy’s expression changes, like he’s suddenly uncomfortable in the crowd’s gaze. He scratches his arm, kicks at the dirt.

“It all makes sense, don’t you see, Tommy? That’s why the premonitions, and TV, and the girls all with their tops off…” I hear chuckles. I want so badly for this to make sense. If Tommy were up here, I could explain it to him. “It all makes so much sense, Tommy, can’t you see? Me up here, and you? I never went away.” People still chuckle, but not Tommy. He looks off to the side, eyebrows scrunched up at the bridge of his nose, like I’m just making him confused. Or sad.

I’m so frustrated, I collapse into my lawn chair. I want to say more, but it’s no use. The words don’t come. Nothing left to do now but watch and wait. The people below have convinced themselves the glow of fire in the distance is the sun. I sit, I don’t know how long, while the counselor talks, trying to get me to answer, but I won’t move. I’m up here for the duration.

Something causes the crowd to gasp. I look down just in time to see the boy leaping past the fireman onto the ladder. The fireman pursues until the boy slips, his leg falling through a rung of the ladder, causing the fireman to back off. The boy stops halfway up the ladder to wave when the crowd cheers. My counselor looks too afraid to even speak, but he’s got to know I’d never hurt Tommy.

I can hear the megaphone, but Tommy just shouts back at them. “Don’t you come up here,” he says. “Don’t you try it, or I’m the one who’ll jump.” He chuckles, proud of himself, as the crowd cheers.

The wind picks up again, blowing stronger. I unzip my pack as Tommy rubs his arm, looking like he’s at a loss now that he’s up here. I hold out a roll, waiting for him to take it. Finally, he looks up through his long hair. Has it really been so long? It still seems only weeks have passed since the accident. Months, maybe, but years? Tommy takes the roll, pinching a bit off the top.

“It looks like a storm,” Tommy says, and chews.

I smile. It does look like that, in a way. “You probably don’t recognize me, Tommy. You probably got no idea who I am.”

“Yeah I do,” Tommy says to his boots. “You’re my dad.”

“That’s right.” I don’t know what else to say. I want to tell him what I’ve been doing all this time, and why I haven’t been able to see him, even though I wanted to, but none of that comes. Tommy huffs, looking around him like he’s searching for something better to do.

I take another roll from my bag, leaning back in my lawn chair. “You can sit,” I say, patting the roof beside me.

Tommy obeys, pinching off another piece of the roll.

“I’ll be going away, soon,” I say, even though it’s not just me who’s going—it’s all of us.

“I’ll say,” Tommy chuckles. “You’re going away for a long time.”

There’s so much I want to say to him, but I’m coming up blank, so we just sit looking off at the horizon where orange fades to red. For a time, that’s what we do. We just sit, breaking bread together. There is a strong gust of wind, scaring a few of the smiles off the faces below as the cloud of dust, glowing red, rolls over the ridge of the mountain.  There went up a smoke out of his nostrils, and fire out of his mouth devoured. Psalm 18.

A few turn to watch the storm of dust moving in, and I hear someone say it’s a sandstorm, still not wanting to believe.

He bowed the heavens also, and came down; and thick darkness was under his feet,” I tell Tommy, proud to finally break the silence. I point to the fiery wall just over the horizon, lighting the sky.

Tommy squints, looking hard. “It’s just a sunset.”

I have to laugh. He can’t see it yet. “And he rode upon a cherub, and did fly; Yea, he soared upon the wings of the wind.” 

Tommy cocks his head, listening. The wind blows, nearly knocking us back. It whips Tommy’s hair, and we feel the dust prickling our faces, causing Tommy to cover his eyes.

“Don’t look away, Tommy.”  

I take Tommy’s hand. Tommy tenses, looking down at my hand on his, but he doesn’t fight it. I can almost hear the footsteps of the four horsemen beneath the rumble of air. Tommy pulls the bangs out of his face and squints, cupping his hand on his cheek. The counselor yells something about the storm and us having to come down, but I just laugh.

“Are you watching, Tommy? Do you see it?” I have to shout so Tommy can hear.

Tommy doesn’t say anything. He just keeps looking off, concentrating. I squeeze his hand as the horsemen ride nearer. I try not to make it hurt. If I do, he doesn’t show it. Tommy shakes his head, not wanting to believe. He bites his lip, trying to fight it. “It’s so dusty.”

It’s there Tommy. He made darkness his hiding place, his pavilion round about him, Darkness of waters, thick clouds of the skies.”

The crowd starts to break apart, thinking they can escape it.

Tommy rubs his eyes clear and looks again. “Maybe,” he says, still not wanting to commit. I laugh, lifting Tommy’s hand in mine. He shakes his head, and takes another good, long look into the storm of reckoning. “I might see something…”

Yeshuuuaaah!” I shake my fist at the wind. I shake it at the dust beneath the galloping hooves, riding nearer: “Yeshuuuuaaah!” 

Tommy looks at me, amused. “I see it,” he says with conviction. “I see it!” Then he stands, shaking a fist of his own: “Yeshuuaaaah!” We both take a moment to look at each other, chuckling as a dust devil weaves its way through the mall, chasing civilians.

And he sent out his arrows, and scattered them; Yea, lightning’s manifold, and discomfited them.

The fireman holds his helmet on with one hand as he climbs the ladder, pausing briefly to look west. My counselor screams into the bullhorn, but I no longer hear the words.

“Yeshuuuaaaah!” We shout together, smiles on our faces as the people run, heading for cover. Why does everyone fear it? It’s not a bad thing. It’s a rebirth, a chance to be with God, to be reunited. When the end comes, we’ll all be whole again.

We lean forward, Tommy and I, shaking our fists, clasped as one.

 

 

 

One Ninety-One

“Isn’t this exciting?” the woman from Pittsburgh said.

I nodded. It was exciting. For that tiny moment, we were all winners. We had survived The Test.

We were ushered into a small waiting area where we sat in yet another set of metal folding chairs. The Who Wants to Be A Millionaire? staff retreated into small offices. They would come out individually and call our number (one ninety-one, one ninety-one, one ninety-one) for our one on one. Our big shot.

“I knew someone by that name,” the man next to me said in a crisp British accent.

“What?” I was confused. I was trying to devise a killer soliloquy. One that would showcase me at my most Millionaire.

He pointed to my last name, carefully written in black Sharpie on the back of my questionnaire.

“Really?” My last name is unique. I don’t run across many Rapers. Unless you count Tom Raper, the self-proclaimed RV King of Indiana, who everyone in the Midwest seems to count.

He launched into a story of the Raper he knew back in England, an old schoolmate. Always getting into trouble. Didn’t know what happened to him.

Yep, that sounded about right.

“I’m Robert. But don’t ever call me Bob,” he said, a friendly lilt in his voice like a choirmaster from Hogwarts. I regarded Robert carefully. He had this shit locked in. He was talking to everyone, prospective contestants and staff alike. He made jokes like Monty Python and faces like Mr. Bean. Everyone was falling under Robert’s spell.

“One ninety-one!” the most senior and most grim of the producers called. I knew he was an “actual producer!” because an energetic young staffer had told us so.

Robert wished me luck. “You’ll be brilliant!” His ‘brilliant’ sounded like the animated cartoons in those Guinness commercials. I began to suspect Robert might actually be a Bob who works in dinner theater in New Jersey.

It all started on a regular Thursday. I was watching Who Wants to be a Millionaire? while enjoying my usual, a turkey special: roasted turkey, cole slaw, and Thousand Island dressing. During a break, the show issued a call for contestants:

Who out there wants to be a millionaire? Well, me, obviously. Who wouldn’t?

Do you think you have what it takes? I thought so. I mean, the guy before the commercial had never heard of Mary Tyler Moore, for chrissakes.

Are you going to be in the New York area? I lived in the New York area!

I immediately fired up my laptop and filled out the online form. I waited for an email confirming my audition. Secretly, I hoped it would never come. I feel the same way when I apply for jobs. Things that I really want. Like everyone else, I want people to like me. I want them to want to pick me for their exciting, life-changing, super-fantastic teams.

But if they don’t want me, if they don’t like me, I’d rather just be ignored. Being ignored means I can keep the high ground. While I might die a little on the inside that I’m not going to be the next social media guru for my favorite brand of peanut butter, on the outside, I get to fill in the blanks and own that narrative. I’m a writer after all. Making shit up is what we do. So, if I never hear back, if my application disappears into the void of the internet with all the other ignored job applications, I can come up with a million reasons why that phantom rejection had nothing to do with me at all. In the case of Millionaire, I had the first draft of that short film already finished: Can you believe those jerks? I couldn’t even get an appointment to take the test. And I’m a genius!

Instead, the email from the Millionaire scheduling robot showed up in my inbox shortly thereafter with the pertinent details: Tuesday, 5:00 PM, Millennium Studios, 106th and Park Avenue, New York City.

The reality of committing to audition for Millionaire resulted in a lot of (unnecessary, self-inflicted) stress. I planned my outfit. The email had suggested causal, but that felt like a trick to me. Unless you’re Jillian Michaels, yoga pants don’t exactly scream ‘winner.’ I went with a blue and white striped dress and bright yellow cardigan. I hoped my attire read relaxed but put together, even if I happened to be neither. I printed directions to the studio with turn-by-turn street view pictures from Google maps. I reviewed traffic websites. I checked the parking app on my phone for garages in the area. I told very few people I would be going to the audition because I was worried I wouldn’t pass the written test. There was also the very real possibility I would chicken out entirely.

Lots of people don’t pass the written test. A bright, energetic, captivating person I know, who teaches in an Ivy League MBA program, enjoys fine wines and French literature, didn’t pass the first time.

“I got tripped up on a couple of questions about rap music,” she said. “And then there was something about housewives. Is that a reality show? I don’t watch much reality TV.”

I left my house precisely when I had planned wearing the precise outfit I had planned. I followed Google’s directions to a tee. I located a street spot and carefully parallel parked. (Two inches from the curb—go me!)

I was an hour early.

I considered getting back in my car and heading home. No harm—no foul. No one would be the wiser. The auditions would go on without me and no one would even notice. I could probably make it home before rush hour. I had a whole hour to stand in the heat, in what would soon become a line, and think about my Millionaire audition. I had a whole hour to worry about my hair, my clothes, the answers I had given on the written questionnaire. (What makes you quirky? Oh, Meredith, we don’t have that kind of time…)

But I didn’t go home. I wouldn’t let myself go home. The die was cast. The wheels were in motion. Every cliché about not turning back now flashed on the teleprompter in my head as I worked up a nearly literal head of steam.

Soon other hopefuls gathered on the roasting sidewalk in Harlem. I overheard conversations about the dreaded written test. The guy next to me in line said this was his last try. If he didn’t pass this time he had promised his wife he was done. I overheard phone calls to loved ones to check in. One guy was even tracking the scattered thunderstorms that threatened to rain on our parade. This felt a little bit like the time I’d paced outside the ballroom at the Holiday Inn in East Lansing to take the Michigan Bar Exam. We weren’t allowed to go inside until just before the test was to begin. So hundreds of harried, anxious law school graduates perched like seagulls waiting to pounce on a toddler’s fallen French fry.

After the hour had passed since I decided to stay and stick it out, the Millionaire producers came out to greet the crowd that by now had swelled to around fifty people, give or take one or two befuddled passersby. We filed into the air-conditioning and passed through metal detectors. The air conditioning was a relief, but the building had that false comfort smell of a big box store. Even the rubber treads on the metal staircase smelled like bike tires in the Sporting Goods aisle of Target. Being a studio, every room we passed through felt like an empty cube, chameleon and changeable. As contestants—potential contestants—we were as integral and interchangeable as the sets, the lights, and the costumes. We were building blocks for the illusion.

Every single one of us wanted to be a millionaire, you could just tell from the undercurrent of excitement and anxiety. The staff handed us sealed tests and a Scan-Tron sheet, those answer sheets for multiple-choice tests where you have to fill in the little bubbles. The more questions, the trickier they become, since the odds of a fatal error, like missing a question or filling in an unintended bubble, increase exponentially. There were even Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? number two pencils because the grading machines can only read number two pencil lead. The whole experience was starting to feel even more like the bar exam, or, at the very least, the SATs.

The producers and audience coordinators were young, hip New York City-types. I looked for traces of irony when they pumped up the crowd or asked who traveled the farthest. One woman was there from Pittsburgh. Another had come from China. China!

“I teach English in China,” she said. “I went there after I left the Peace Corps.”

“Oh.” What do you say to someone who was in the Peace Corps? No, seriously, I want to know. I have never figured this out, because while they were busy after college purifying water in a hut somewhere, I was busy drinking a ridiculously-sized diet Coke at the movies.

“The Peace Corps? How wonderful. My daughter did City Year in Philadelphia,” Pittsburgh said. “I’m here on vacation visiting her. We went to see Wicked yesterday.” I used to see kids wearing their red City Year windbreakers a lot when I lived in Philadelphia. They give a year of service to work in schools with high dropout rates.

“I’m here on vacation, too,” China said.

“What does your daughter do now?” I asked Pittsburgh. I told her I often wondered what happened to those City Year kids when their year is done.

“She works in finance.” Huh.

China said she had just decided on a whim to give it a go with Millionaire, but still, China! She was a shoo-in for sure.

These two would probably use their Millionaire winnings to buy Toms for everyone in their book clubs. My stomach did the same flip as when my high school guidance counselor told me my extra-curriculars weren’t as strong as some of the other college applicants.

The loudest and most outgoing member of the staff was someone I’ll call Tiffany. Tiffany was young and pretty, but not too much of either to be intimidating. She worked in TV, and for the contestant wannabees like myself, that was intimidating enough. She had her speech down.

“Who are my first-timers in the crowd?”

Over half of the room raised hands. Some waved excitedly. Others, like me, timidly reached for the sky like a beleaguered bank teller in a hold-up.

“Whew.” I didn’t buy her relief for a second, but it didn’t matter. “That means my jokes will still be funny for you.”

Nervous laughter.

“Who’s here from outta town?” Tiffany would have been a hit on the Borscht Belt circuit in the sixties. Her banter was charming despite being too practiced. That is it was charming until she repeated the process word-for-word for the other half of the room when the last of us had made it through the security check and filled in the folding chairs. I was seated in the middle. I heard it both times.

“If you pass the written test…no!…when you pass the written test,” Tiffany said, correcting herself to cheers from the exited group. “When you pass the test, you will meet with one of our producers.” This meeting, she informed us in a conspiratorial tone, would be our chance to really show off our personalities. To convince the powers that be that we had what it took to be on Millionaire.

“Tell them why you want to be on the show. And don’t just say, ‘I like money.’” Tiffany gave the impression that we were all in this together. She was probably better at that we-the-people thing than the other staff. It would be hard for the girl who looked like one of America’s Next Top Models to get us fired up about ourselves. Quirky Brooklyn Hipster guy probably couldn’t even pretend to look like he cared; that’s just not what Brooklyn Hipsters do.

“When you go in there, be yourself, but be better than yourself. Be the super version of yourself. Be your Super Me.”

Super me? Did she say, “Super me?” I knew how to do that. I’d done it for years working at my corporate job. I had to be a Super Me more and more with each passing day. It became harder and harder to be myself. I needed that Super shell. It was a survival instinct. The truth was, I had learned to be the Super Me not from Tiffany at Millionaire but from Campbell Scott in the Cameron Crowe movie Singles. The Super Me is all about being a heightened version of yourself. It’s not as new age-y as living your best life Oprah-style, but about pushing your confident parts to the front so they can edge out the wobbly bits.

Were we seeing Tiffany’s Super Me? Or did she save that version of herself for things that mattered to her? Things that would make her a millionaire, so to speak?

I was getting ahead of myself—way ahead. I still had to pass the written test. Thirty questions. Ten minutes. Number two pencil. My Super Me couldn’t help me if I couldn’t answer questions about South American geography and the oeuvre of Steven Spielberg.

“If you don’t pass the test, come back and see us again.” Three times like the guy next to me. Two years of tests like some lady in the back. Tiffany set the timer on her smart phone. The rest of the staff swarmed around the room like sharks looking for people trying to cheat or phone a friend or steal the test. We opened our sealed envelopes and dove in.

I finished early and put my test in the envelope before glancing around. No one had broken out in a flop sweat, but the girl next to me was only half way through. I made eye contact with China and she gave me a big smile. I turned around quickly to face Tiffany, who was fiddling with the green straw on her Starbucks cup. China’s confidence was starting to freak me out.

“Pencils down.”

We waited quietly while they graded the Scan-Trons. I could hear the whirr of the machine from my metal folding chair. I kept repeating the number of my exam in my head. One ninety-one. One ninety-one. One ninety-one. Tiffany had said we needed to remember that number. It was the only way we would know if we passed the test.

To my relief, about two thirds of the way through the list, Tiffany called my number. I jumped to my feet and cheered remembering my Super Me. I had an almost overwhelming feeling that the Millionaire producers and staff were evaluating everything we did from that moment on. This might have been game show contestant paranoia, or residual middle school angst, but it was unsettling thinking people might be watching, judging, deciding if I was smart enough, funny enough, weird enough, pretty enough, whatever enough.

My Super Me was having an existential crisis as I followed the other successful test takers up the stairs toward the producer’s offices. I glanced over my shoulder. China was right behind me. Pittsburgh two people behind her.

Those who hadn’t passed were packing up. I just barely heard two conferring about a question they both had struggled with. I made eye contact with the man who had made the promise with his wife. I smiled. He shrugged. His Super Me wouldn’t even get a chance with the producers. His Actual Me had to call his wife.

“One ninety-one!”

I followed Serious Important Producer into a tiny room. A small Flip video camera was mounted on a tripod. I wasn’t allowed to sit down. I was uncomfortable and hot and I could feel my Super Me slipping away. She wasn’t excited to be here. She wasn’t passionate about Millionaire. She had no idea what she would say to Cedric the Entertainer if she got to meet him. “Nice shoes,” was the best she could come up with for Serious Important Producer.

“What kind of contestant would you be?” he asked. “Would you be crazy and scream or would you be more quiet and reserved?”

I knew this was a seminal question. Game shows don’t want quiet and reserved. They don’t want a Meyers-Briggs INTJ personality. You don’t see a lot of introverted thinkers running down the center aisle on The Price is Right, for example.

I gave it my best shot. “I would like to think that I would be quiet and reserved, but sometimes when I get really excited I can lose my mind and get crazy.” Really? I continued. “Once, I saw Mike Myers, the actor—you know, from Wayne’s World, not the slasher from the movies—at a hockey game. And I tried to play it cool, but I stopped in front of him and yelled ‘Wayne!’ at the top of my lungs.” True story.

Serious Important Producer didn’t even crack a smile. “Let’s try some trivia questions.” Five or six trivia questions and three or four incorrect answers later, I was on my way out the door. “You’ll get a postcard in a couple of weeks letting you know if you’re in the contestant pool. Once you’re in, you’re in for two years.” Two years? Was there a no-trade clause in the contestant pool? Could I veto a trade to Wheel of Fortune? Not that I’d want to—people make serious cash on Wheel. But I definitely wouldn’t want to end up on Wipeout or Oh, Sit!

Robert’s voice, as upbeat and energetic as it had been when telling me tales of jolly old England, carried out into the hall where I passed him chatting with Quirky Brooklyn Hipster who had led us up to the offices. “I’ve been stateside for twenty years, but I just can’t shake this accent.”

Right, Bob. I checked my watch. 5:45 p.m. All of that and only 45 minutes had passed since I’d finished the test. I had spent more time pulling up and printing my directions on Google Maps.

On the drive home, I had a lot of time to think about the audition. I knew it didn’t go well. Even though I hoped they would toss me in the pool, deep down I knew that I had better chances of being in an actual pool with Michael Phelps. I thought about my Super Me. When I worked a corporate job, I knew who I was pretending to be: tough, detached, analytical. In more than one performance review, my boss told me I needed a “thicker skin.” The Super Me at work had that thick skin. And she never cried in front of people. It was acting, but it was authentic. For Tiffany and Serious Important Producer and Americas Next Top Model and Quirky Brooklyn Hipster, I was trying to make my Super Me a super version of the regular me. And regular me isn’t what makes for interesting game shows. Or reality shows. Or dinner theater in New Jersey.

Again, Singles popped into my head. Steve, Campbell Scott’s character, asks his friend David:  “What if the Super You meets the Super Her and the Super Her rejects the Super You?”

“Then it’s no problem,” says David.

“Uh-huh. Why?”

“Because it was never you, it was just an act.”

I never did get a postcard. Instead a got an email about a week after my audition. It read like a twenty-first century break-up text:  Hello, Thank you for your interest in being a contestant on “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.” You have not been selected to be a potential contestant. We appreciate your continued interest in the show and thank you for taking the time to audition with us. In bold letters at the bottom of the email it said, “Please do not respond to this email.”

It would be a lie to say the email didn’t sting. Like I said, I like it when people like me back. I wondered about Robert and the lady who came from China. The Millionaire people seemed to like them. I could picture Cedric the Entertainer giving the audience a knowing wink before asking Robert if he wanted to use one of his lifelines.

Steve’s friend David is right about what happens when someone rejects your Super Me. It was all an act. I had miscast myself in the wrong role and the Millionaire people had called me on it. The person I’d pretended to be hadn’t been the right Super Me anyway.

I have since spent a lot of time thinking about me, my Super Me, and my Millionaire flame out. When you quit your job, or get married, or get divorced, win the lottery, or otherwise change direction in your life there are no roadmaps. The charm is that you get to decide who that you is who you’re going to re-launch into the universe. The curse is that you have to decide. Eventually.

I know who I am—most of the time—when I’m alone or walking the dog or working at my computer. I’m still working on who that person is out in the real world. Once I get a firm grip on Actual Me, then I can turn up the volume on my version of Super Me. I might even take it to eleven. My new Super Me is probably never going to be a person that gets to meet Cedric the Entertainer and “Ask the Audience” for help.

Besides, there’s always Jeopardy.

 

 

 

 

Staying in the Game

When I was 10-years old, my father took me to a Boy Scout track and field competition at the local school playground. The scouts in my troop were competing in events like the 50-yard dash, long jump, high jump, and shot put. While the idea was to bring fathers and sons together to promote fitness, many of the kids, including me, were there to win.

I was a woefully underachieving scout. I only excelled in starting fires and watching anything from dirty underwear to boxes of cereal burn in them. Unfortunately, there was no merit badge for arson skills, so I went my entire scouting career without a single award to pin to my uniform. However, I was into all things sports, so I took this particular outing more seriously than, let’s say, advanced tent folding.

Because my parents were divorced and I lived with my mother, I only saw my father on occasional weekends, and he rarely attended any of my school, sports, or scouting activities. He and my mom couldn’t stand the sight of each other, so it was easier for him to just not come around. This day of track and field would be the one and only athletic event of mine he would ever attend.

At that point in my young life, I was a scrappy athlete. I was the catcher and lead-off hitter on my little league baseball team, and usually one of the first picks for kickball and football teams in gym class and neighborhood games. At the school playground, I was one of the only kids who could launch a kickball over the 12-foot-high, right field fence onto the street, and I was ecstatic if the ball happened to hit a passing car in the process. Nothing made a kid cooler than such a feat of elementary-school machismo.

At the Boy Scout track-and-field day, I was by no means the best athlete, but I held my own in a few of the competitions, especially short-distance running events. In fact, I made it to the final round of the 50-yard dash. I was a fast little dirtball, and the dash was an event I actually thought I had a shot at winning.

When I competed that day, my dad stood quietly on the sidelines in grey plumber’s wear, hands in his pockets, puffing on a stubby cigar. He looked completely out of his element, as if someone had dropped him in the middle of Madagascar without a map. He was short, pudgy, didn’t have a single athletic cell in his body, and knew absolutely nothing about track and field or any of America’s favorite sporting pastimes.

I am certain that in his day he made one hell of an industrial arts student – he could design, build, or fix just about anything made out of metal or wood. In fact, he “helped me” build many of my Cub Scout arts and crafts projects – I called them “farts and crap” – which always received great accolades. He once built a model wooden sailboat for me that was so meticulously carved and painted, I was afraid I’d receive a lifetime ban from scouting for committing first-degree arts-and-crafts fraud. It looked as though I had gone to the store and bought a ready-made sailboat, pulled it out of the box, and brought it to the pack meeting.

A few days before we sailed our boats on a neighborhood creek, the other scouts and I unveiled them in our den mother’s basement. I prayed that no one would ask me what paints I used, how I attached the keel, or what material I used for the sails. I didn’t know how to begin to answer those questions. Fortunately, they left me alone, perhaps intimated by my alleged craftsmanship. I was especially glad my den mother didn’t ask much about the boat. But she must have wondered, “What the hell inspired that Shaberman kid to finally do something constructive? Maybe he got that long-overdue can of whoop-ass from his parents.”  Little did she know. I was just glad to have completed the project, avoiding the embarrassment of having shown no effort whatsoever.

On that track-and-field day, I ended up taking second place in the 50-yard dash to Michael Lilly, a lanky kid built only of bone and muscle. He had freakishly long limbs, and moved with the quickness and agility of a cheetah in pursuit of its prey. He seemed to effortlessly cover ten yards with a single stride. To no one’s surprise, he dominated most events, especially the long and high jumps. So, finishing second in the dash was a hugely satisfying moral victory for me.

My father said nothing to me after that race – nothing about me or the phenom who had left me in the dust. I could imagine him thinking, “Okay. I took the kid to the playground. He fooled around with his buddies. No one got hurt. Mission accomplished. Now I can head to the pliers and wrench sale over at True Value.”

But before we left the playground, one of the other fathers, Mr. Fox, came up to my dad and said, “Your boy has good reflexes. He’s a quick little guy.” Then he smiled and walked away. Mr. Fox’s compliment inspired no comment from my father, though I desperately wished it had. I was so proud to receive the unsolicited praise from a guy who had his own kid to cheer for and no reason to say anything to us.

Had I been a little more mature for my ten years, I would have realized my hopes of ever being an accomplished athlete were virtually nonexistent. I needed only to take one look at my father to see that we Shabermans were not of the championship pedigree. But like many kids, I had visions of athletic grandeur, and thought that maybe, just maybe, I could make it to the big leagues someday.

There was nothing I enjoyed more than spending hours on end in the alley next to my house throwing a rubber baseball against a concrete wall, imagining I was a major league pitcher. I spray painted a rectangular strike zone on the wall, so I could count balls and strikes to imaginary batters like Hank Aaron, Carl Yaztremski, and Johnny Bench. Back then, most of the important things in my life revolved around sports – either playing, watching, or reading about them.

My father’s silence about the events of that track-and-field day, and frankly, about my entire athletic career growing up, never came as a surprise, but it did come as a disappointment. Not only did he not share my passion for sports, I don’t think he understood what it meant to me to win a race or hit a line-drive triple as the first batter in a baseball game, the crowd cheering me on as I slid into third base under the tag. Moments like those were indelible for me. I remember a little-league playoff game when I was playing catcher and tagged out my opponent’s star player when he barreled into me at home plate. Miraculously, I held onto the ball. My buddies and I talked about that play for months to come. But sports worried my father, because I could get hurt, and perhaps most important to him, they could distract me from schoolwork.  He had dropped out of school, didn’t get his GED until he was in his thirties, and desperately worried the same thing would happen to me. All he wanted was for me to study and go to college.

At that stage in my life, I loved sports so much, I didn’t necessarily need his support or approval to succeed and have fun. I did just fine without him.

But by eighth and ninth grade, competitive sports were no longer the picnic they had once been. Kids got bigger and stronger – much bigger and stronger than I was. I tried out for my eighth grade football team, and after only two days of practice, I gave up because I couldn’t hack the physical demands of the scrimmages and drills. I walked away from those practices feeling drained and defeated, and ultimately, I gave up. I had never faced such formidable athletic challenges and didn’t envision any way through or around them.

I’ll never know if some encouragement or support might have inspired me to give those practices more of a chance. Maybe after a week or two, I would have gotten in better shape and began to enjoy, or at least tolerate, the running, hitting, and calisthenics. Maybe not. My mother was thrilled I gave up football, because she perceived the sport as dangerous, and my father, who lived 1,300 miles away by that time, had no idea I had even tried out for the team. Every Friday that fall, the day of the game, all the players on the team wore their jerseys to school, providing me with a keen reminder of my inability to make the cut.

In ninth grade, I managed to make the wrestling team, but gave up after just a few matches. On the mat, I was thrown around like a rag doll, even during practices. I had neither the strength nor the stamina of the other wrestlers, often running out of gas during the first two-minute period simply by trying to avoid getting pinned.

The most embarrassing moment in my wrestling career came during a B-Team match when I not only got pinned in the first period, I ripped my tights right down the crotch – my athletic supporter sticking out like some bizarre appendage – to the laugh-out-loud amusement of the cheerleading squad. I felt like such a pussy. I never talked to anyone about that demoralizing experience. Instead, I walked away from wrestling, never to return.

That spring, I made the freshman baseball team, but only batted three times during the entire season. I struck out twice and was hit by a pitch during the other at-bat. I felt pathetic watching almost every game from the bench. But it was a fate I deserved. I wasn’t nearly as good as the other players. It was a cruel form of punishment to watch them play while I just sat there, on one hand wanting to play, but on the other hand afraid that if I did get in the game, I’d embarrass myself by striking out or missing an easy pop fly.

By my sophomore year of high school, I finally threw in the towel on competitive sports. As much as I loved playing, I could no longer take the humiliation of losing or sitting out. I also discovered pot, got my driver’s license, and fell in love with girls and rock and roll — a path of much less resistance than athletic pursuits.

But my pot smoking also caused a major rift between my father and me. We didn’t speak from my junior year of high school through the middle of my senior year of college because of it. He never believed I’d make it through college, but I did, and he was proud of me for it. He passed away shortly after I graduated.

I never took the opportunity to talk to him about my victories and disappointments while I was a young athlete. I never told tell him how much I wished he would have encouraged me to stay in the game, to never give up, to keep giving it my all, even if he knew it ultimately wouldn’t have mattered. And when I did crash and burn, how I wish he had been there to console me, to tell me everything would be ok.

But I also never got the chance to thank him for that perfect sailboat he had made for me. He wasn’t even there to witness its one and only voyage. As much as I dismissed the boat, I still vividly remember its sky-blue hull skimming the water, and how amazed I was at its perfection as it glided down the creek alongside the other, lesser boats.