By Shion Aikawa
It only takes a shuffle from a ledge, of a couple of bad lucks to direct an individual’s spirit, rolling it down the hillside into the dark valleys. The fall is soft and one never realizes how thick the ground is from the moss of the grass. You are presented with a thick fog as you begin to stand up — a fog as thick as a duvet meant for a cabin in the high mountains. Taking a step is heavy, and you’re never surefooted, having you wonder if taking a step at all is worth the anxiety of losing your balance. All this makes you confused about where you had come from, and how if you’ll ever come back up. In those dark valleys lie monstrous beings that never present itself, but hide in the thick mist and whisper the voices your heart believes it is its own. Your heart becomes feral to the point where you forget that you were ever lost. Sometimes though, a vine extends amongst the trees and you take it. The fog parts incrementally as you take a step. One foot after another, you start feeling a bit of the incline, and before you know it you are sure that you are walking upwards. You don’t need the vine anymore once you’ve gotten your grounding, and the stories you tell of the account exclude the aid of the vine that you used to pull yourself up. It’s of the fall, the monsters, and the fog that occupy the story of your return. I think these stories are everywhere, stories of self-made beings, and a hero overcoming adversity. Some stories though are as benign as becoming financially free, finally losing a few pounds, graduating… the list goes on. It’s been the talk of business books and surface-level memoirs — that you are the master of your own domain. Maybe we’ve forgotten others, in hoping, that the self is the magic sauce only needed to complete oneself. Self-determination sounds more like a philosophy of someone so isolated as the landscapes seen in western movies.
In the summer of 2003, I had made a choice to move back from my mother’s in California to Austin to finish my high school education at Westwood High School, which nestled inside a small suburb north of Austin, TX. Anderson Mill was dangerously normal. It is the only place that I would call a location where I ‘grew up’, because before settling there, my family of three had moved almost every year or half-year for reasons I have never been made to understand. It was a neighborhood in the cusp of lower to middle-class ambition — where people really just wanted to be…neighborly. It was a neighborhood where families at the kitchen table deliberated on if on Sunday, ‘should we mow the neighbor’s yard?”. Being at the age of sixteen, I was given to a friend’s family over the summer. My mother remained in California to pursue work or some sort of secret efforts. Once I had some footing, a job as a lifeguard, school transcripts in order, and the coincidental occurrence of my brother deciding to live back in Japan, I had made the move of living in a shack behind my old home at the end of a cul de sac on Rusted Nail cv.
It was good at the beginning of the summer when I had a chance to reunite with my old friends that I hadn’t seen in a year hence. We gathered around and talked of what had happened while I was away, and how life just slipped by unnoticed. I enjoyed an amazing position of freedom, even envious of those who had parents and other familial pressures of life during young age. I was jelly’d on, as some of my circle had much to be restrained against. I was able to stay up late, eat whatever I wanted, and nobody could tell me how to be an adult.
The semester started out quite easily. I had a plan. I’ve always done well in school — and never realized that I had issues with my course load. I had two jobs as a lifeguard, one at night perched onto a guard stand while a YMCA swimming curriculum had been held, and another in the mornings sometimes before school and weekend mornings overseeing the safety of a master swim class. I had the lifeguarding job before leaving, and they were happy to put me back into the fold. Thanks to my brain (I thought), I had held up nicely in terms of grades, and homework was slain with quick effort. Tests came easy. Aided by my job, in which I had 20 minutes every hour to break, I had a routine of study and exercise that I feel envious of my past self to date. I conceited in myself that although I couldn’t buy new clothes, buy the new video games, or make many social appearances due to my scheduling, I was doing well as any ‘adult’ would be doing. I didn’t consider until later in life that adolescence should have been treated as a vestige.
At the beginning of fall, a giant Texas storm broke out, rendering my car flooded from a break in the rubber gasket of my sunroof. My power windows were also failing me, to which more rainwater had seeped in. No problem, I thought and shelled a couple of hundred dollars to replace what was needed. Mr. Rios would also help me fix my window rolling apparatus with putty concrete. Thus began my obsession of attempting to bond everything broken, including kitchen gadgets with J-B weld. My white 1992 Nissan Maxima was my steed, I needed it to get anywhere in this expansive American landscape- at least through the landscape of the American suburb.
Weeks later, while attempting to park near the school on my way to class, two police cars stopped me a half a block from the entrance. Expired inspection, insurance expired two days prior, and a tail light outage was written on the ticket. It wasn’t bad luck, there were always cops — as hyenas were predisposed to encircle weakened or innocent prey. I paid the ticket begrudgingly, knowing that I’d have to crawl back up to my savings goal. The whole day of the event put me in a small spiral of anger- and most probably I became short with a lot of my friends. Shortly, replacing the master cylinder was another $189. Half of the American households today find it hard to scrounge together $400 for emergencies. Nearly 25% of Americans do not have emergency savings to pull from. I was the first, then became the ladder in a matter of two weeks' time.
By the end of September, I stopped looking at my bank account. I don’t remember what I used the last of my money for, but I knew everything I bought that month was taxed at the overdraft fee of $30 at every transaction. It was always something practical. My cell phone bill read in bold red letters ‘past due’. The whole ordeal made me wonder if having a job was even worth it, given that all my money was put to nothing that was fun or interesting but to pay off some sort of past karmic misgivings. Looking back, I was too proud to call mom (or maybe I thought she was broke too) about how terribly and quickly my financial standing had degraded. I guess that by calling her, it was me admitting to failure. I felt betrayed too, by everybody. I started making complaints amongst my coworkers about us needing raises, being short with pool guests, and the pool managers- people who had been caring and kept me employed. I was fired from another job for smoking near the pool (I maintain it was outside of the gated premises). I told myself that I didn't need that fucking job anyway, they were a bunch of phonies. I quickly became raw.
On October 2nd, a schoolmate triumphantly sat down at our lunch table, rustled in his pocket, and pulled out a fat waxing gibbous shaped item. It was customary at the time in society to wear baggy cargo shorts with giant pockets. He pulls out of a pocket a calzone, a plump little thing, filled to the imagination with oozing cheese and pepperoni. I imagined the taste of the satisfaction of its salinity and fullness in my mouth when biting into one. The calzone was warm and still emanating the smell of nitrates- somewhat sour and metallic but substantive and savory. It was starting to sweat a little grease, the good kind that fountains to keep its outer layer shiny and youthful, though it could have been a survival mechanism — such as that of a burn victim developing a weeping blister. From small openings, blood moon colored oil flowed from the tributary of his upright hand down to progressively formed streams. His wrist caught with a foreign buildup of hydration reflexively flickered and splattered the oil down to the floor making no noise of its languid innocence. The calzone was on its half-life, bleeding out and oxidizing in the boy’s hand. As he showed it to us, he explained that because there were only two lunch ladies present, it would be readily easy for one to stuff the dome baby into a pocket with little detection. I was eager to try this method. Free stuff? Yes, please. I was wearing a straight leg Levis that day. I knew something was wrong when I hurriedly stuffed the calzone in my pocket, the pressure of the pocket started squeezing orange liquid out soiling a ring under my hip. I wasn’t sure what ultimately gave me away, the fat bulge on my hip, the warm wafting of fountaining cheese, the grease spot on my hip, or was it the expressive face of a first time criminal?
Ten minutes later, I was met inside a room with an executive desk dividing me from the vice principal. “I have to call your parents,” she says. And I smirk, “go ahead,”. She picks up the phone and dials a number. Nobody picks up. Perhaps out of her impatience, she fails to realize that the number she had called was a useless one — a phone number out of touch with my family’s movements. All she had to do was ask for the right number, and perhaps I would have been fearful enough to give it to her. She exclaims that I will be sent home with a letter to my parents and that she needs me to get it delivered to my mother. I nod my head. “You will be taken to in-school suspension for the rest of the week”. That’s how I spent my birthday week. For five days, I sat inside a cubicle staring at a wall along with two other listless boys also staring at a wall inside a detached portable out from the main building. There was a poster on one wall -
‘Respect Starts With You: Responsibility, Excellence, Self-Control, Politeness, Empathy, Cooperation, Trust’
How is that going to pay my goddamn bills? I became 17.
Throughout the fall I remember the times I asked my friends for french fries, extra milk cartons, and general leftovers at the cafeteria. I remember swooping from one table to the next, such as a vulture would do to greet a carcass as if I was pecking at dead things nobody wanted. I remember being punched in the gut for trying to take someone’s milk (he had two), invariably spilling some on the puncher’s shirt. I remember my friends and I once developing a scheme involving the local economy hotel off the highway. They had free continental breakfast open to guests, and it was a bit miraculous to how terribly guarded this service was. Basically, the trick was to be confident- and by this time, I became confident in knowing that I deserve to be given food. My face, in contrast to the calzone fiasco, had learned steadiness and conviction. Besides, ‘They’ owed me. My friends may have only taken this scheme to it once out of thrills, but I was ashamed of telling them that this was something I adopted to do once or twice a week for about a month. I do remember my last time there — like a chipmunk I had stuffed my face hard. I packed in the pancakes as much as possible into the corners of my gums. I would try to swallow whole globules of different things and choke. I didn’t sit to enjoy food anymore. I’ve become rabid. To this day, I catch myself eating way too fast, choking on unchewed balls of stuff, and for minutes anguish in the pain of passing food down my throat.
I continued drifting around for a while, through the winter and near the beginnings of spring. While drifting, I noticed myself becoming more of an observer. I faced the backs of crowds as if to hide away from being looked upon. I began to obsess over strategies to the exit doors when the bell rang. Somewhere in the spring, an English teacher caught me at the end of the line of students exiting. He put me aside and waited until everyone left the portable classroom and asked me why I was looking dark and serious all the time. I looked up to this man, and blanky, without thinking said to him, ‘I’m hungry’. I was not particularly hungry at the moment, but those words put him to stir. He pulled out an apple from his desk drawer and handed it to me.
The apple the teacher attempted to lift up my spirits was with authority, the worst. I remember that it had no smell thanks to its wax plated armor — also rendering it cold as rolled steel and haptically contrasting. It looked smooth, shiny, and ‘delicious’, but in fact, had the tactile character of the inner side of boiled cow tongues. I took a bite outside of the classroom a few minutes later and wondered how something can simultaneously chew like a lizards’ skin and at the same time an underside gunk and silt of an unwashed oyster shell. The flavor of the Red Delicious is as if you had discovered plantains for the first time mistaking it for a banana at the grocery shelves. We should not call it an apple, and render this produce more closer to where parsnips would be. While spitting out the first bite and chucking the rest in a bin chained and bolted on a siding of the portable, Mr. Kristan’s silhouette behind a window was felt in the corner of my eye. I learned that he had been watching after my act of displeasure.
The following days were unremarkable, except that I felt that there were more eyes patrolling me. I felt that maybe it was just a symptom of becoming more reclusive. One teacher asked if I had plans for dinner. I tell them yes, the Rios’ are making papas con huevos today and I plan to be there to shovel my face in it. Another faculty member handed me a small bottle of orange juice in the hall on the way to second period. These little actions had not much impact on my character, though upon looking back, it may have contributed to small steps of me reframing the environment. I was stopped and given something, not the other way around.
For a couple of months, I remember contemplating the apple. Why did it seem wrong to be seen throwing out a piece of valueless and inedible produce? I realized one night after a dinnerless evening, that it was more guilt that kept me free of thought. I stirred a spoon of Milo into some water and stared at the bubbling chunks of malt yet to be dissolved. Guilt was a new sensation, a sense that I had done something wrong. I realized that even if I was given something that I may not have valued, it should be deserved a ‘thank you’ nonetheless. By the time my drink married and was ready to take a sip — I sensed that I didn’t thank Mr. Kristan. I was missing a sense of gratitude in my life.
There are a lot of people I didn’t thank to survive the course of my high school years. The Rios’ housed me at some points of my confusion. They helped me get my car back in running shape and fed me by ways of afterschool snacks. I would go to their home for dinners, and also once near Thanksgiving, took me with them to Mcallen Texas for a weekend of family gatherings. My love for menudo was born there. At the pool where I worked, Mrs. White would always find ways for me to find more hours. In the winter months, she would make sure that I was warm. When I left town before, the community of lifeguards at the pool put up a note on the signboard, “Goodbye, Good Luck!”. And Finally, Mr. Kristan, the “Apple Giver”. None of it was an epiphany — a rush of an overwhelming thought. It’s only come back to me slowly, after years and years of thinking that I was alone in my development, that no one had a stake at helping me. You don’t need to be prominent, nor omnipotent to influence the course of human life.