(The following is an excerpt from a longer work.)
I am what survives of me.
— E. Erickson
“Another Brick in the Wall”
Ho-hum… another day, another mandatory chat with “Cornball” High’s finest—and only—school psychologist because I have discipline issues. We’ve been wasting time together since the eleventh grade. “Let’s try to work on Moe’s attitude,” said a frustrated Mr. DeMars, the Cornwall principal. “Suspending him doesn’t work.”
Mom agreed to counseling. “What do we have to lose?” she said, hoping I’d say, “Oh, yeah, let’s do it!”
Sorry, no way.
It did bother me, though, when Mom had to meet with DeMars. She would sit and stare at the floor avoiding people, some who knew she’d dropped out because she was pregnant. “Just once,” she muttered as we waited to see DeMars, “I’d like to be here for a good reason.”
Mom had tried to discipline me since middle school, but I couldn’t help myself. What I needed—to smoke a little pot, occasionally skip a class, or tell rude people off—didn’t jibe with the norm. When I messed up, I felt bad about letting her down, the pot-smoking then revving into high gear. Reluctantly, I agreed to meet with the psychologist, but no freaking way was I going to talk. What I did was my business.
Mr. Nice-Guy shrink sat at a polished metal desk with a nameplate, neatly folded newspaper, yellow pad and silver pen. On the wall was a portrait of a smiling family, pretty wife, and two blonde-haired, blue-eyed boys: I disliked him right away.
At first, he tried. He asked about the stuff Mom thought was bugging me, like my grandfather, Pep, dying or about not having a father, but I wasn’t going there. Sure, it sucked when I was little not to have a dad, and I missed Pep, but that was kid stuff. I wasn’t a baby anymore and those feelings were history. He’d ask why I couldn’t follow the rules, but I’d just shrug. I didn’t see the point. If I couldn’t fix me, how could he? He worked for the school, too—confidential? No chance. We survived by sharing a routine: I’d check in and he’d ask the same questions he knew I wouldn’t answer. I’d leave and we’d move on with our business, both us of hoping to never to meet again. I figured the shrink was cool with that arrangement until today.
Despite a comfy March sun filtering in through the window, he was cranky, exasperated. There was none of the calm, patient, let’s try to understand you, bull. Instead, his façade was cracked; he had flames in his eyes, anger. I’d been tardy to school lately, so instead of another suspension, DeMars had me sit with Mr. Nice-Guy. Guess an unplanned drop-in wasn’t on his agenda. “Really? Again? What’s your problem, anyway?” he asked.
Now this was interesting. Finally, it was about to get real.
All right, I thought, let’s see where this goes. I said, “You want to know what my problem is, huh? My dad’s an ex-con, and I can’t stay out of freaking trouble. How’s that, Mr. Nice-Guy?”
His eyes narrowed and I waited for the, “I see. Tell me more,” blah-blah, but he was silent. He was doing the count to ten routine he preached to me. He didn’t care about my dad, Ray Parent—right, ironic—the Houdini who knocked Mom up. Honestly, why would someone with fancy diplomas on the wall care about me, or mom, who never remarried? Bulimia, suicide, child abuse that’s what he signed up for, not wasting his time having to babysit a punk. The world was full of losers and sorry ass families; where was the challenge in fixing that? He might as well try to stop rain from falling.
Odd, though, he was still listening so I added, “And, no, I’m not a drug pusher, but I get edgy sometimes, so I spark a joint, okay? Basically, I’m a pothead and a jerk.” I sat back and thought, how’s that for a steaming load of me? Maybe later, he could tell Mom about our “breakthrough” and we’d all live happily ever after.
He reclined in the smooth leather chair, his ears red. “You’re not easy to like at all,” he said, “and you’ve got the jerk part right, for sure. What you do about it is up to you.” He waved me away.
Ah, screw him. I liked who I was. Not taking crap worked for me. My school day, though, lasted all of two hours because I made the hugely dumb move to quit right after second period.
In the hall, my long time crush Colette caught me eyeballing her smooth, white thighs. She winked. “Take a picture.”
“Like the mini-skirt,” I said.
Colette had strung me along since middle school. I hoped we’d get together, but she had her choice of cool guys—jocks, mostly—to date and I wasn’t one of them. If we hadn’t sat together in the same science and math classes since the eighth grade, she wouldn’t even know I existed. Luckily, she sometime needed help, and I was eager to provide it. I hoped, too, for a make out session someday and I imagined it often: The two of us kissing while standing in the shade of the maple trees, but it hadn’t happened. She said I looked like a hippyish George Harrison, but the Beatles weren’t her type, ha-ha.
Near the library, DeMars caught up with me.
“Mister Richard. Anything in your locker?” he asked, interrupting chitchat time with Colette.
“Nope,” I said, annoyed. “Got nothing,” and I wasn’t lying. I’d shared a joint with Frankie before school, but that was it. “Only thing in my locker is dust.”
“What do you mean, ‘dust’? Angel dust?”
“Come on. I’m joking.”
“Turn your pockets out,” he demanded, arms crossed.
“Uh-uh. Sorry. No way.”
He stood closer. “You’ve carried before.”
“Not today,” I said, as students gathered. I hated to be told what to do, especially with kids gawking. When someone got after me, everything was brighter and sharper. I felt jumpy.
“Show me, or you’re going home,” he said, hands on hips.
I knew he meant it, but I laughed. I couldn’t take him seriously, not with wrinkled slacks hanging below his potbelly, and his extra chin hiding the knot of a cloth tie. He was sick of me, though, and there was no talking him out of stuff like when I was a geeky, who me?-acting freshman.
I shrugged, “Going home then.”
Following, he said, “You won’t graduate with that lousy attitude.”
With my right hand, I tapped the “Class of ’91” banner over the senior exit door. “You’re right,” I said and left.
During the five-day school suspension I’d earned, I met my “bud,” Frankie, early in the student parking lot, got high, then spent the day walking the streets. I’d bought the weed with some cash Mémère gave me “for lunch,” I told her. I was seventeen, not a jock, and didn’t have a girlfriend, but now that I was out of school, the black hole was gone, sort of. It had been with me since I was little and made me anxious, jumpy or scared when it was around. It was unpredictable and smothered me with confusion and panic. Getting high kept it away, but I’d still get pissed easily, or do something stupid—black hole side effects, I guessed. Mom said the anxiety started after Pep died when I was in the second grade, but I wasn’t sure. I didn’t remember much of his death except for Mem making sure she locked the windows and doors at night, or Mom telling me not open the front door. Maybe feeling something bad would happen whenever I set foot into school had started then, but I remembered it being a problem from day one. Now having made the decision to drop out freed me of it—the world, finally, wasn’t spinning too fast.
Luckily, pot got me through with my junior year, and I smoked with Frankie into the summer. By September, the “screw this” feeling I now had made being a student silly. Sitting and paying attention like a trained mutt, really? I had more fun out of school.
When high, we’d dare each other. Once, I stripped naked and jumped into a stranger’s in-ground pool. When the kitchen lights flashed, I grabbed my clothes and ran. Slipping on the grass, I chipped my left front tooth on a steel post. Later, under a streetlight, Frankie said, “It’s busted. The corner’s missing.” But I didn’t mind. After stealing a half-pint bottle of ginger brandy from the liquor store—old man, not too alert at closing time—to rinse the blood from my mouth, I realized the chipped tooth was the me I liked best, ballsy and a bit crazy.