How About Now?
“No.” I shook my head sternly. “I’m not seeing enough attitude there. I need to see more volume. I need it to have more… personality.”
Rochelle rolled her eyes and set the mirror down on the counter in front of me. “Since when do you care so much about how your hair looks?”
I smirked. “I have a date tonight.”
“Yeah?” Rochelle smiled. She slid her fingers through my hair and delicately lined up her scissors, barely snipping the ends. “This is a new girl?”
I’d recently separated from my girlfriend of about eight years. The last time I’d been to Rochelle, we had talked all about it. Rochelle and I had been friends since high school, still talking every couple of months when I’d get a haircut from her, so I felt fairly comfortable opening up to her about my personal life.
“It is,” I said.
“Where’d you meet her?” Rochelle flicked on the razor and gently pushed my head forward.
I felt goosebumps run up my spine as she brushed at my neck with the razorblade. “I actually haven’t yet. We both swiped the same way on Tinder. I guess that means we’re cosmically compatible.”
“Tinder?” Rochelle asked skeptically. “How old are you?”
“Don’t worry about it Rochelle. I’m old enough.”
“Yeah,” she laughed. “Cuz that’s what I meant.” She grabbed a feather duster off the counter and wiped hair away from my neck. She unsnapped the cape, yanked it off to the side, and I stood up, analytically gauging my reflection.
“Rochelle, do you have like any maximum sass type of hair gel?” I wondered as I began to follow her toward the cash register up front.
“You’re more upbeat than the last time I saw you,” she replied. “You have a new girl, a new haircut, and a new attitude. That’s the boy I remember from tenth grade.”
We had actually been pretty good friends for a while back in high school. Most people thought I was a jerk back then, mainly because of how introverted I was, but she and I always got along great. In hindsight, Rochelle might have been my closest friend for a couple years back then. We kept in touch throughout college but as time wore on, a space grew between us. Our lives forked in different directions and the only time we talked anymore was when I’d return to her chair every couple months.
“Does my hair look better nowadays?” I joked.
She set a bottle of hairspray on the counter. “Here, Mr. High-Maintenance. This is a three-spritz compound. Just spray a little cloud in the air, walk through it, and go crazy with whatever style you want. You’ll have about five minutes before it hardens.”
“That’s what she said,” I giggled.
Rochelle rolled her eyes and smiled. “Don’t use too much or it’ll look like a shell.”
I handed her my credit card. “What are you up to tonight?” I asked.
Rochelle’s face lit up. “I have a first date too, actually.” She slid the card through the reader and handed it back.
“You’re not with Francis anymore?”
She shook her head. “His name was Frankie. No, he was a little too… how do I say it?”
I raised my eyebrows. “Boring?”
“No, just kind of dumb. Like he had no depth to his thoughts at all.”
Rochelle never stayed with a guy for very long. I think her longest relationship had only lasted just over a year. I never understood it either. She was sweet, pretty, and easy going, and most of her boyfriends seemed like nice enough guys by the way she talked about them.
“Well, good luck tonight,” I said. “Maybe I’ll run into you on Tinder one of these nights.”
Rochelle covered her mouth and muffled the shot of laughter she couldn’t contain. “See ya later Mikey,” she said.
I walked out the door and headed across the parking lot. My mind wandered toward where it usually did when I left Rochelle’s salon – to wonder why I hadn’t ever asked her out. I always heard people say we’d be great together. I couldn’t pick out too many flaws with her either. We just didn’t have any sexual sparks between us. Being around her was always sort of like eating vanilla ice cream – comforting, but lacking something. Maybe I was too picky. Or, maybe my dating expectations were always a bit unrealistic. Rochelle was different than anyone I’d ever been with so I’d always assumed she wasn’t my type.
My last girlfriend was a full blown narcissist and emotionally abusive. She seemed nice enough when we first met but before I knew what was happening, years had gone by and I felt mentally trapped, like she had convinced me of all the ways in which I’d been broken before, and she was the only one who could fix me. Before her I dated Mel, a girl I met through a friend in college, and she spent ninety percent of her time pissed off. Mel was a rebound anyway. The girl before her cheated on me, then pretended like we were never together. Come to think of it, no matter what I did, I always seemed to find the exact same girl. I hated drama, but I never could seem to find someone that wasn’t full of it. I guess I subconsciously always wanted the relationship my parents pretended they didn’t have.
“Wait,” I said to myself, stopping near my car. “Why don’t I just ask Rochelle out?” I spun my head around and looked back toward the salon. “Maybe she’s like the girl in the movies – the obvious choice who everyone else wants me to end up with but it somehow doesn’t occur to me until the last scene?”
I felt myself seriously considering the proposition. It wasn’t like we’d be ruining anything if we tried dating and it didn’t work out. Oh well if she wasn’t interested. Worst case, I’d just find another hair stylist.
“You know what?” I whispered to myself. “Screw it.” I began striding confidently back toward the salon. I could see Rochelle through the front window, sweeping near her stall, smiling to herself as she seemingly searched her thoughts. She was probably daydreaming about the possibilities of what her upcoming date might bring. I suddenly felt my stomach tighten with nerves.
“Maybe she’s thinking about me,” I said, trying to ward off the bout of second guessing I knew was barreling toward me. I picked up my pace, practically jogging as I neared the door.
I skidded to a halt just outside the entrance and took a deep breath to compose myself. I was going to walk in, smile, and just ask her if she’d like to have drinks together before our dates. If she seemed overly excited about the proposition, I’d ask if she’d have any interest in cancelling our respective dates and catching a movie instead.
“New girl,” I whispered to myself. “New haircut, new attitude, and… new life.” I reached my hand forward to open the door.
“Mikey!” I heard someone call out. I looked to my right.
“Chelsey?” I asked. She was just as beautiful as I’d remembered. The nerves in my stomach turned into butterflies.
“Hey!” she replied. “You’re not still mad at me, are you?”
I hadn’t thought about her in years. After she’d cheated on me, I always found myself wanting her even more, like she was somehow unattainable in a weird, attractive way. I pretended to hate her to hide how much she had hurt me. It took me a long time to get over her.
“I was never mad at you,” I said, unsure of why I was lying. I scanned her ring finger out of curiosity and didn’t see any jewelry.
“I can’t believe I ran into you,” Chelsey smiled. “I just broke up with my fiancé a week ago. For some reason I found myself thinking about you last night.”
My heart began to race. I tried to play it cool. “Lucky me,” I smirked.
Chelsey didn’t seem to pick up on my sarcasm. “Yeah.” She looked up, staring directly into my eyes. “Maybe.”
I looked inside the salon and noticed Rochelle staring at me, smiling. Her expression seemed expectant, like she sensed what I was thinking about doing and wanted me to come inside. I knew that’s where my head wanted to be.
“Do you want to take me out to dinner?” Chelsey asked.
My body tensed up. I could feel my heart trying to escape. Even after all these years, Chelsey still stirred something inside me. And, I still wanted to hate her for it.
“When were you thinking?” I asked, still watching Rochelle. She waved, turned around, and headed toward the far end of the salon.
“How about now?” Chelsey said.
I nibbled my bottom lip as I debated. Deep down, I knew I’d already made the wrong decision.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
“Thanks for buying me dinner.” Chelsey hung her coat on the back of her chair and sat down.
I smiled, pretending to be confused. “Am I buying?”
She burned a wry grin in my direction. She knew I was kidding, there was no doubt about that, but she was making it known in a not-so-subtle manner that it would be my treat. I expected to pay, and I would have insisted should the topic have come up naturally, but I didn’t really foresee it being stipulated before we’d even met the waiter.
“I’m just kidding Chelsey. Of course I’m buying.”
She carefully opened her menu without responding. Whether she was mad, annoyed, impartial, or just being playful in her own unique way, I sensed an anxious energy forming between us already. I knew I was uncomfortable at any rate. My chest was tingling ever so slightly and my foot had begun its nervous bouncing exercise beneath my chair.
“Have you ever eaten here before?” I asked, watching her beautiful blue eyes scan across the menu she held just above the table.
“No, but it seems pretty nice.”
“Yeah,” I agreed. “I think it’s got a good date aura about it.”
Chelsey’s eyes strayed from the menu and bounced around the dining room, dissecting the elegant views, and I found myself becoming more hopeful. The calm lighting soothed my negative thoughts, transforming them into self-awareness. I was too used to my ex I figured, her always criticizing me and demanding control over everything, and I was letting it interfere with the beautiful date I was on with a beautiful girl. As I debated what question to ask next, it occurred to me; I didn’t remember much about Chelsey’s personality. When we dated in college for a few months, most of our conversations revolved around hockey, each of us having played back then, and outside of the occasional study session or night out at the local bar, we’d spent most of our time together making out. As much fun as it had been, we hadn’t built much of a tangible emotional connection. I must have fallen in love with the idea of what we might have been back then, not what we ever were. But I knew once we settled into the night in front of us and loosened up a bit, we’d have no trouble reconnecting. We were progressing methodically toward our future.
Chelsey looked back at her menu. “I mean… this place is no Emmanuelle, but it’s fine.”
The word swimmingly jumped into my mind. Things were progressing swimmingly.
“That place costs two hundred dollars a meal. And you get like three bites.” I grabbed the wine menu. An imminent investment in alcohol was in order – for both of us.
“No, it’s fine Mikey. This place is very nice.” Her comforting attempt to pat the back of my hand didn’t feel as agreeable as she’d meant it to be. “Oh, and I didn’t mean to interfere with your haircut earlier. Did you not have time after we talked?”
“Oh… I had just gotten it cut. I was going back in to leave a tip.”
“Really?” she asked skeptically, looking at my spikey dew with almost exaggerated intent. “You wanted it to look like that?”
Alright I thought. Have some self-respect here Michael. You don’t need to be a dick, not that you could pull that off anyway, and don’t act overly nonchalant like you’re trying way too hard to be sweet, but stand up for yourself. Otherwise this whole dynamic will trend the wrong way in a hurry.
I chuckled. “The last person who ripped on my hair had to pay for their own dinner.”
Brilliant maneuver Michael. Great choice of words there.
Chelsey’s face slowly reddened while she glared straight through me. Somehow she was constricting my airways using nothing but a silent judgment charade. I didn’t feel comfortable, my jokes were missing big, and Chelsey’s vibe was as comforting as an electric fence. It was time to stop kidding myself and admit I’d made a huge mistake.
“Listen,” I said, practically inhaling. “Can I just say goodbye? I don’t want to be here.”
Even though I’d transitioned into complete avoidance, purposely dodging her gaze, I could see Chelsey’s lips tremble for a split second. It didn’t look like sadness though. The audacity of what I’d just said to her was bubbling throughout her body, stirring up a pile of kinetic energy that I could tell was about to erupt.
I stood up and grabbed my jacket. “Take care Chels,” I said, and as I strode away from our table, Rochelle popped into my mind. I hadn’t gone back inside earlier to talk to her and regret was slowly filling me where my meal should have been digesting. Hopefully, if we were meant to be together, I’d have another chance with Rochelle. My instincts told me to go out with Chelsey and they’d been wrong once again. My whole life I followed my heart, and the universe’s guidance, and time after time they had let me down.
I pushed open the door and walked outside, forcing myself to find the silver lining in it all. The best decision I’d made all day was not driving Chelsey to our date. I figured I’d better not, just in case.
A boy and somewhat familiar looking girl were walking past the entrance when I emerged. “I don’t know,” she said to him. “Maybe we’re cosmically compatible.”
Before he even responded I could tell his eyebrows weren’t buying it. “Why?" he wondered. "Because you both swiped the same way on Tinder?”
I felt a sense of déjà vu disorient me.
“Yeah,” she giggled. They were already a few feet away and I could only see her back, but I could have sworn I’d met her before.
“Isn’t that app for teenagers?” her friend asked. “Are you sure he’s old enough?”
“Meghan?” I called out.
She spun her head around, half confused and half excited, and saw me. She closed one eye while she sized me up for a few seconds. “Are you… Mikey?”
Our date was still about two hours away but she was definitely the girl from Tinder – the one I’d almost cancelled on, the one I’d purposely avoided picking up Chelsey because of. Just in case.
I walked toward her and extended my hand. “Nice to officially meet you.”
She gripped my fingertips and lightly shook my hand in return. Her touch was very gentle. The softness in her energy felt nice. And she looked prettier in real life than in her bio picture. I’d fallen in love with a thousand girls the first time they smiled at me but I felt something different with her almost immediately – a connection I couldn’t explain. I was attracted to her presence. It was a feeling I couldn’t remember having prior to that moment.
“Do you still want to meet up later?” I asked.
Her mouth opened slightly and she looked at her friend, clearly seeking his approval to ditch out early on whatever they had planned. He seemed saddened but didn’t object, simply shrugging his shoulders in impartiality. She quickly looked back at me and smiled. “How about now?”
Good thing I left it up to the universe I thought. Hasn’t let me down yet.
Truth was, I was finally ready to listen.
The snowflake landed on her nose. All I wanted to do at that point was flick it off.
I knew it was going to drive me crazy, watching it balance effortlessly on the tip of her nose like that. With no wind to speak of, I knew it wasn’t going to move on its own either. I couldn’t walk up and breathe on her face to melt it... I’d probably get punched. Trying to covertly blow it off would be a high risk, high reward maneuver. What could I do?
I suppose I could stop looking at it; that might be the best solution.
No, it was too late. I couldn’t help but stare. It was all I could focus on. It was gigantic too! How did she not notice it? I could practically feel it on my own nose. The cold, wet, melting sensation, expanding almost imperceptibly, was making me twitch as I stood there staring.
Wipe it off! I thought. It was slowly melting into a small bead of water, still big enough to annoy me, but weightless enough to hang frustratingly off the tip of her nose for God knows how much longer.
My mind was stirring itself into a frenzy. How does that not bug you!? Wipe the *%#&ing thing off!!!
She must have somehow heard me losing my mind. Her head spun toward me, the momentum flinging the drop of water off her nose and in my direction. It splashed against my forehead, causing me to wipe the sleeve of my shirt across my face. I immediately felt my heartrate begin to slow down when I noticed her nose again. The satisfaction of seeing her bare skin, free of any lingering remnants of the wayward snowflake, was palpable.
My gaze scanned upward and focused on her eyes, and I noticed her staring at me. “Excuse me?” she asked.
“Yeah?” I replied.
She pointed at me. “You have a little drop of water there on your forehead. It’s kind of annoying. Could you wipe it off please?”
Oh my god I thought. Who is this girl? I have to have her!
“You’ve gone through a period of self-discovery lately. You’re trying to find yourself aren’t you?” I asked.
Keith nodded. I could tell he didn’t want to give me anything. Most of my clients came in skeptical, like they wanted to believe but looked for all the reasons not to.
I looked deeply into Keith’s eyes. “You’ve come a long way. What’s this new thing you’re working on? A new project?”
He nodded again, his eyes searching deep inside mine with curiosity. “Yeah,” he said. “Actually, I’m starting a café where people can go… hang out.” He didn’t want to finish explaining the concept for some reason. I felt like he was skeptical of himself as well.
I closed my eyes and listened, picking up on the subtleness of Keith’s presence. I felt something else. “I’m picking up a lot of logic with you. Were you a lawyer or a judge or something?”
Keith scrunched his eyebrows and looked down at his outfit. He must have figured the pair of black shorts and the white t-shirt he wore wouldn’t have tipped me off to anything. He looked back up at me, nodding. “I am a lawyer. How did you know that?”
“Why wouldn’t I?” I smirked. “If you believe in psychics.” I could sense a subtle interruption in the energy surrounding him, like there was interference in his aura and some of it wasn’t emanating through properly. “What’s with the medication?” I asked.
His eyes opened a little wider, like I’d caught him off guard. His face reddened a bit and he smirked. “I’m bipolar.”
That was what I’d picked up on, not the café idea or a new business venture. There was a change going on inside Keith. I sensed he was aware of it but didn’t understand it completely. “When did you find that out?” I asked.
“Couple months ago.”
“That seems pretty late,” I replied. “You look like you’re in your forties.”
I wasn’t an expert on mental illness but I knew enough to understand how abnormal a bipolar diagnosis would be that late in life.
He shook his head and shrugged. “Yeah I just had my first manic episode. I’m 43.”
I studied him for a few seconds. “You’re not convinced, are you?”
“I don’t know,” he said, shaking his head again. “I didn’t feel delusional. I just felt…” he trailed off as he tried to think of how to explain it.
“Like there’s more to the world than we realize?” I asked.
He sat motionless, staring at me. “Yes.”
What I was picking up on was accurate. Keith was pretty closed off, and his meds were disrupting his natural energy field, but I knew why he had come. I gave him a warm, soothing smile before I spoke. “The internal battle you’re waging right now; you realize what that is don’t you?”
He smiled, though seeming a bit saddened. “My head against my heart.”
“Who do you think’s going to win that one?” I asked, luring a wry smile out of Keith. He knew which one he wanted to win.
His phone began buzzing on the table and he rolled his eyes when he saw the number. “Sorry,” he said. “I have to cut this short.” He stood up and grabbed his phone.
I stood up as well. “Do you know what it means to be an empath?” I asked him.
“Look into it. I think maybe what you experienced was real.”
“The mania?” he asked. Keith looked excited, like he was hoping to hear me say that. “How do you know what I experienced?” he wondered.
“I don’t. But I can see it in your eyes; you believe it was real. I experience the supernatural every day. Believing in it doesn’t make you manic, or bipolar.”
Keith’s posture deflated noticeably when he heard me use the word supernatural. The concept of a spiritual realm was kooky to talk about, for a lot of people, and Keith was no exception. His heart wanted to believe, it felt like it needed to believe, but his mind wouldn’t be convinced so easily.
He turned to walk toward the front door. He took a few steps and paused, keeping his back facing toward me. “How do I know you’re real?” he asked. “I just want to know if you’re real or not.”
“Nothing I could ever say would convince you, would it?” I said.
He shrugged his shoulders and looked toward the floor.
I smiled. “When in doubt, follow your instincts. They connect to a different dimension, a place you can’t see with your eyes or feel with your fingers. The logic in your brain will always be disconnected from that realm. That distinction is what helps you survive in this reality we’re standing in. But your instincts, Keith, are the essence of you. Those are what guide you. You don’t want to be a lawyer anymore. You find no purpose there.”
He spun around to face me. I could see his bottom lip quivering almost imperceptibly.
“Your café?” I asked. “You don’t envision it being some ordinary, run of the mill coffeehouse, do you?”
He shook his head convincingly. “I want it to be… mystical.” He covered his face with his hand and smiled.
I walked toward where he was standing. “Don’t doubt yourself Keith. You know what you know.” I pulled a silver amulet out of my sweater pocket and held it in the palm of my hand for Keith to see.
“What’s that?” he asked curiously.
“It’s my gift, to you. Carry it with you. You don’t need to do anything else. You don’t even need to believe it works. I just want you to have it for a while.”
Keith smiled bashfully and took it from my hand, analyzing it with wonder. “Thanks,” he said. He slid the amulet into his back pocket, slipped his feet into his sandals and opened the door.
“Feel your own energy Keith,” I said. “You’re changing… in a good way. And come back in a couple months. Please.”
Keith nodded and walked out the door, closing it behind him. A wave of dizziness immediately washed through my entire body.
“He does not understand,” I heard someone whisper.
My head snapped around and I looked behind me. Nobody was there. The voice was back. I’d been hearing it for a few weeks, intermittently. Until Keith had arrived for his appointment, I didn’t understand what it meant.
“I can help him.”
The breathy whisper stirred up a twinge in my stomach and sent a shiver down my spine. The spirit wanted Keith. My work sometimes created a gateway between the ordinary reality and the supernatural domain, and something wanted to walk through.
“And I can hurt you.”
I tried to ignore the voice while I walked briskly toward the kitchen. I knew my fear fed powerful energy into the spiritual world, and without my amulet, I’d be unable to fully protect myself. Keith needed it more though. At least until he learned how to accept his new reality.
“I want him!”
I ignored the voice once again and sat at the table, lit a candle, and sprinkled salt into a small circle. I held my hands to each side, palms facing upward, and bowed my head before I began to recite my old spell of fortification.
“Pletha, amora, memarra, astick!”
“Pletha, amora, memarra, astick!”
I felt a gust of wind push against my face, the spirit beginning to fighting back. I was confining it into my body’s orbit, granting it access to feed on my aura. I knew it wanted to be free and follow Keith, but I wouldn’t allow it. I didn’t know what Keith’s purpose was, but I knew it must be important. The whispers only wanted the people they perceived to be most dangerous, and those were the people I wanted to protect the most.
I’d get by, for the time being. Hopefully, when the time came for me to ask Keith for the amulet, he’d be ready to give it back. Returning the gift back to me would be the only way to break the curse I was putting on myself.
I hated him for having whatever I didn’t, for being all the things I wasn’t, and for stealing her heart. I hated how I could never get her to like me either.
I hated my parents for making me do the things they wanted me to do. I hated the things they wanted me to do, and I hated the fact that I pretended to love doing them.
I hated my friend who was funnier than me, more popular than me, and smarter than me. My classmates didn’t deserve money and happiness. I did. And I hated all of them for their successes.
And you… I hated you the most. I hated how you thought you were better than me. I tried as hard as I could to be as good as you but you didn’t let me. I wanted nothing more than your approval but you never gave it.
So, I sat around resenting everything and everyone around me, including you. I turned into the worst version of myself because of you. Whoever you were, I hated you for making me feel this way. And I hated you for not helping me feel better.
Then one day I broke. When I put myself back together, everything became so clear.
You weren’t the person I hated my whole life. I was.
You were really just me all along. You were jealous. You were entitled. You were full of idealization and pedestalization and inadequacy. You were so fake. God I hate you.
The worst part was that I ran from myself my whole life to chase after you. I ran after you because I was afraid of who I might really be. What does that make me?
I love you now. You’re my hero. You can do anything you want. You can help everyone you meet. There’s nothing in this world you can’t accomplish. Everybody’s waiting.
It’s ok to be you. In fact… it’s perfect. You’ll never be anyone else.
I love you now. Even though sometimes I still hate you.
Hi. I’m Awkward.
I’m Jameson. That’s not my real name though. I can’t tell you my real name. I can’t tell you I’m Schizoaffective either. The word Schizoaffective is scary and intense sounding. It even looks unsettling, maybe even a bit mysterious. Can you imagine how my corporate finance career would start to track if I pinned that word onto the top of my resume? Jesus. Someday I hope I get to do that, just to see the hilarity that would ensue.
Being a shy, introverted, sensitive soul has always been in my DNA. Even though my face blushes incessantly, I still like me… most days. I have a fiery, passionate side too. Or at least I used to, anyway. I don’t show it much anymore, outside of my writing. Not since I went off the deep end. To me though, what changed the most wasn’t that I actually went crazy. I just finally admitted to who I really am. I think living the past 35 years of my life pretending to be someone else is what was truly crazy.
But it is funny what one little hypomanic episode will do to everyone’s perception. Now, I have to pretend to be subdued all the time so I don’t raise concern. I can’t stray too far in either direction either. If I’m happy, I’m manic, and if I’m not, I’m depressed. Spending too much time walking right down the middle of the tightrope deems me dissociative. Standing up for myself gets me labeled narcissistic. Being a pushover makes me a prime candidate for having a personality disorder. My life right now is an advanced class in method acting.
Actually, I just found out I have Asperger’s Syndrome, according to my fiancé anyway. She even monitors my writing, my blog, and my twitter account behind my back to make sure I don’t run out of bounds. I would probably laugh about it if she wasn’t doing it for the purpose of building a case against me, just in case we separate. Custody battles get nasty. I found that one out the hard way. My fiancé and her lawyer dad kept my two young daughters from me for three months last year. Not because I’m not a great dad. They both admitted I am. Not because I don’t support my family. All I do is work and spend time at home. But because I broke off our relationship. Now that we’re back together, trying to work things out, I sure as hell better not say anything controversial. I always thought those closest to you were supposed to support your passions and desires, not hold them over your head.
At work, I pretend to be someone else. At home I try not to be me. So who am I really?
Well, I finally found out I fit in with the artistic crowd more than anywhere else. I want to be a writer. That’s right. I’m dragging all of you right down with me. Don’t worry… take it as a compliment. We’re the ones who are going to save the world someday.
All I want to do is make people smile and laugh. First, I pepper you with drama and depression to soften you up though, then I pounce. I know what it’s like to feel like shit half the time, and I wish I could make it so nobody had to feel misery ever again. Odds are high that I’m one of the least judgmental people you’d ever meet. I wish money and politics would just go away forever. I think we need to move past the inequality debates that persist between us. We are all one. Everyone is a human being. That’s where it should start and stop… there is no difference between anybody. I was the jock in high school who people thought less of because they assumed I thought less of them. They were wrong. I never thought enough of myself. Now I know we all need to think the most of each other.
I like to use my mistakes as teaching points for other people. Don’t assume anything. Always be yourself. I spent my whole life pretending to be someone else. Now, when everyone is concerned about me acting differently, and I think I’m finally acting normally, it’s a complete clusterfuck.
Earlier, when I said I’m Schizoaffective, I was telling you what one doctor thought. He landed on that diagnosis because I said I’m an empath and that I can feel the emotional energies of people around me sometimes. All my other testing came back normal, and two other doctors adamantly disagreed with him, even going so far as to laugh at the notion. Why did I lead with that point then? Because it sounds scary and intense, maybe even a bit mysterious. I was probably more intriguing to you back then. Am I a different person now in your mind? Probably only in that you don’t like how I misled you. I hope that’s how you feel. That’s the more concerning trait to be weary of. Lying, manipulating, and deceiving. In my corporate job, those are the behaviors I see every day in my interactions with a lot of the executives. Those people might find me strange and different, but they sure as hell scare the absolute shit out of me.
Yeah, I’m the weird guy who talks to animals and enjoys ghost stories. I genuinely believe in shamanism and spirituality, and nobody will ever convince me there’s such a thing as coincidence. Call me crazy if you want. I don’t care about that anymore. Today’s level of sane is frightening.
It’s a crazy world. I guess I fit right in.
My First Autumn
“Stop!” Kathleen yelled.
I didn’t listen. My car went airborne as it entered the intersection, soaring straight through the bright red stoplight. Time was of the essence.
“This isn’t timed!” she screamed, her hands squeezing desperately to the sides of her seat.
“What?” I slammed both feet down onto the brake pedal and we skidded to a halt. The car rocked back and forth a few times as a tense quietness settled in. “This is a driving test,” I said. “How can it not be timed?”
Her body was shaking. “The test is over!” she said, fumbling around with the door handle. She managed it open and jumped outside. The door slammed shut and I watched Kathleen stride powerfully away from me – toward the administration building.
I leaned my elbow on the button beside me and lowered the passenger side window. “How do I find out the results?!”
She ignored me and persisted in her escape.
I nudged the gas pedal, turned the car around, and followed the driving course’s main road toward the exit. I passed by a few cars that were headed in the opposite direction, and I could see each of the cars’ occupants staring at me with bewilderment written onto their faces. I nodded politely and continued on, steering my car around the orange cones that were blocking the way out.
“Dr. Dan’s office,” I enunciated into my phone. The navigation app loaded and spun through a few scenarios while I worked my way through the parking lot. The optimal route flashed across the screen and I jabbed at the start button. When I looked up I saw traffic on the frontage road breezing past me in both directions, so I eased off the gas and allowed the car to drift itself toward the stop sign.
Gurgling inside my stomach caught my attention. My eyes scanned across the dashboard until they landed on the clock. It was nearly one. I hadn’t eaten lunch yet. Where had the day gone? My gaze shot upward. The sun was already past its apex, though still hovering significantly above the horizon. Days were becoming imperceptibly shorter, secretly throwing off my circadian rhythm. I’d better grab food before I spoiled dinner.
I pulled out onto the now empty road and sped up. Up ahead, a billboard for a new pizza place was speaking my language. My route would take me right past its location. I dialed the number and listened while it rang a few times.
A youngish sounding boy answered. “Pickup or delivery?” he asked, lifting his voice above a noisy background.
An awkward pause erupted.
“We don’t have a drive thru sir,” he replied.
“Don’t have a drive thru? It doesn’t say that on your advertisement.”
I could hear the young employee’s confusion stiffen. “I can bring it out to your car if you want. When it’s ready.”
“How long will it take?” I asked.
“To cook your pizza?”
“No, to walk it outside.”
I swear I could hear the kid smiling before he spoke again. “Just a few seconds sir. Once it’s ready.”
“Oh, no problem then. I can just come in,” I said. “I can help you carry it out.”
The kid chuckled. “Sounds good.”
“Thanks,” I replied. “See you in a few.” I hung up the phone and returned my attention to what lie ahead of me. The colors were beautiful. The orange and yellow leaves that painted the edges of the road, visually offset by the deep blue distant sky, reminded me of my youth. Autumn was the beauty before the beautiful. The coming of fall meant hockey season was right around the corner. I hadn’t actually played in a few years, but I still felt the tickle of anxiety stir through my stomach whenever the leaves began to change. The feeling was instinctual. For most of my life, hockey was my identity. Now, it was my shadow. Maybe I was its shadow. Either way, I still felt the connection through the arms of the season’s transition.
“My pizza!” I blurted out, realizing I’d forgotten to actually order. Before I could react, my phone was already vibrating against the dashboard. I didn’t recognize the number. Maybe it was the pizza shop, calling me back.
“This is Dr. Dan,” I answered.
“Good afternoon Dr. Dan. It’s Eugene calling.”
“Dr. Hancock,” I laughed. “I didn’t even recognize the number.”
“How are you doing today Dan?”
“Not too bad. Failed my driver’s test.”
Gene offered a nervous chuckle. “Why were you taking a driver’s test?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. Just thought I’d mess with Kathleen a little.”
Gene couldn’t hold back a more robust outburst of laughter. “Your daughter’s friend?”
“Yeah. She works part time at the DMV.”
Hearing Eugene continue with his uncontrollable giggling made me smile. I loved it when people smiled. Anything I could do to ignite a burst of laughter was well worth the effort. I had just spent half the morning trying to make myself laugh, but it was better with other people. I didn’t have to work anymore, so that’s how I’d spend part of every single day – pranking people, joking with people, and just trying to bring a shot of adrenaline into people’s lives. That and helping people were my life’s priorities at the moment.
“You headed into the office Dan?” Gene joked.
“Yeah. Long day ahead of me.” He knew I referred to my home as my 'office’. He and my dad were best friends. I’d known Gene since as long as I could remember.
“Let’s meet for lunch instead,” he said.
I shook my head and snickered. “I can’t man. I’m finally framing my honorary doctorate degree today.” I wasn’t a real doctor either. Not technically, anyway. My alma mater thanked me for my recurring donations by offering me a fake diploma along with an awkward appreciatory commencement ceremony. It was their way of branding my name to the arena walls to help with recruiting. I didn’t mind. I did like to joke about it though.
“Come on… I’ll buy,” Gene persisted.
I just didn’t feel like meeting for lunch. “Can we meet next week instead?” I asked.
“The MRI and cranial scan results came in,” Eugene said, going right where I didn’t want him to.
“Maybe we should meet for lunch,” I suggested. I pulled over quickly and parked my car along the shoulder. “I knew you sounded a little too serious today.”
Dr. Hancock nodded a few times. I could hear it. I could see his comforting facial expression in my mind’s eye. I could even hear the thoughts inside his head. Those weren’t very comforting.
“Gene?” I asked.
“Dan, you have Alzheimer’s.”
A tingling sensation spread through my chest and I felt my lip quiver. I don’t know why it quivered. Somewhere, deep down, I already knew. The finality of it was tough to hear though.
“I’m only 44,” I said, directing the confirmation of my denial more toward the heavens than toward Gene. I had taken the tests over a month prior and thought maybe I’d passed. No news is good news, right? I’d forgotten to take into account that Gene was an old family friend. He couldn’t get himself to spill the beans I imagine.
He knew the drill though. Many patients had tried bargaining away his diagnoses before. Still… this was different. The somberness of his tone told me he was gutted too. “I don’t know what to say Dan.”
I wiped my hand across my face, hiding myself from the brightness in front of me. “Is it from hockey?”
“I’m not completely sure. But my guess is… yes, it’s probably from hockey. This is a pretty early onset. You don’t have a family history.”
I wasn’t sure what to say either. I felt myself suddenly wanting to cheer him up for some reason. “Wait, what did you just say there Gene, like a second ago?” That was the only way I knew how to feel better myself.
This time, Gene forced his chuckle. “Let’s talk for a while Dan.”
“Ok… Osseo Pizza?” I asked.
“Sure Dan. I’ll be there in ten or fifteen.”
Neither of us said a word for a few seconds so I hung up. I still didn’t care to meet. Nothing he’d tell me would change anything.
“So, this is the autumn of my life, isn’t it?” I asked the emptiness around me. I knew the scene in front of my eyes would be burned into my memory for as long as memories existed inside me: the colorful trees, the perfect sky, the breeze running effortlessly through the blades of grass. And I couldn’t think of anything else except how bittersweet it all was to look at. Everything in front of me seemed more real than ever, and I knew nothing would ever be as beautiful as I saw it at that moment. The colors were already fading away, right in front of my eyes.
My phone rang again. I picked up the call without speaking.
“Kathleen thinks you’re crazy.”
“Why is that good?”
“She’s studying psychology, right? Trying to be a therapist?”
“So, I’m her first patient. She doesn’t know it yet, but she’s going to fix me.”
“Dad, stop messing around. Kathleen had a tough upbringing. She has like no confidence.”
“Why do you think I went there today?”
“Because you’re weird and you think you’re this funny, wise old shaman man.”
“She needs to believe in herself Alexandra. Just tell her I’m a narcissist or something. Tell her I refuse to see a therapist. Maybe sprinkle in a little OCD too.”
“You want to act insane behind her back so she can fix you behind your back?”
I smiled. “Sounds like me and your mom. How is your mother anyway?”
I heard Alexandra laugh a shot of air through her nose. “I think she’s ok. Did you get your test results yet dad?”
“Oh, no… not yet. I completely forgot all about that.”
“That’s not funny dad.”
“I know. I’m sure it’s fine.”
I could hear the tension in her breathing. I think maybe she could sense mine too. It wasn’t the right time for me to say anything.
“Dad, I wrote you a poem. Do you wanna hear it?”
“Sure,” I said, pinching my eyes to trap the tears in. “What’s it called?”
“Hope,” she replied.
I felt the tingling hit at my chest again. “Ok. Let’s hear it.”
I heard her take a deep breath. I knew she wasn’t embarrassed or worried about me liking it. She was just nervous.
“To my dad…” she began. “Hope with all your heart. Maybe everything will be just fine. Hope with the irrational part of your soul. Hoping is actually a really good sign. It means you won’t give in. It means there’s always a chance. It means you’ll never lose your sweet grin. Tomorrow will bring at least one more dance. Some things are bigger than us. Miracles happen every single day. I’m scared, I admit it, but one thing’s for certain. God will answer you, whenever you pray. If you lose hope, you lose your will. You lose the essence of what makes you fight. You know I’m right. Your future’s bright. Your future, to me, is a beautiful sight. So be the fighter I know you are. I’ve never known you to shy away. Dream the most marvelous dream you can think of. Because I need you to stay dad… I need you to stay.”
My lungs were empty. I couldn’t inhale for a few seconds. I hung up and burst out crying. The news still hadn’t even sunk in properly yet and already I couldn’t function. When I saw my phone start ringing again, I swallowed hard a few times and cleared my throat. “Hi sweetheart.”
“Did you hang up dad?”
“No. I just went through the tunnel. I heard the whole poem though before it cut out. That was so beautiful.”
“Thanks dad. You’re still holding out hope, right?”
“Will you call me right when you hear back from Dr. Hancock?”
“I’ll try to remember.”
“Dad. Promise me.”
“Alex. We’ll find out soon enough. You have your own life to live. Don’t ever let anything get in the way of that, ok?”
“Yeah, sure,” Alexandra replied, sounding only slightly convinced. “You wanna hear a secret dad?” she asked, more excitable.
I smiled. “I would love to.”
I already knew. Liam called to ask my permission a few weeks prior. “Who is Liam again?”
“Did you say yes?”
“I assume his parents are paying?”
The carefree sound of Alexandra’s light laughter perked me up. I couldn’t help but smirk. The leaves suddenly looked immaculate again. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe the beauty in front of me would never truly diminish.