Pizza

It was a cold, gray morning; Pablo’s eyes were bleary and his brain was foggy.  He slumped against the passenger-side window of the family car as his dad drove him to school.  A dull feeling of dread burned in the pit of his stomach.

Pablo’s dad glanced over at him.

“Why do you look so sad?  You’re going to school.  You should be happy!”

Pablo looked back at him with an empty stare.

“When I was your age, I didn’t get to go to school—but you’re luckier than I was.  You can become anything you want!  You can be a doctor, or a lawyer or an engineer!”

Pablo’s face remained blank.  His dad drove up to the school’s front gate, where a group of sharply dressed girls stood.  As the car squeaked and rattled to a stop, Pablo glanced at the girls and turned bright red.

“Why do you always look so embarrassed when we get here?”

Pablo muttered something about the car being a carcancha—a tired old car better suited to the scrapyard than the road.  The enthusiasm over doctors and lawyers and engineers faded from his dad’s face.

“What’s wrong with the car?  I keep telling you, there is nothing wrong with this car.  It got you here, didn’t it?  You didn’t have to walk, did you?”

Still beet red, Pablo shrugged at his dad as he reached for his backpack and opened the door.

“Have a good day at school, son.  Comportate.”

Pablo flashed his dad an annoyed look as he stepped out and shut the door.  As he walked past the girls and into the courtyard, dread gushed through his body.  Pablo felt a pang of sadness as he looked around.  Groups of friends loitered around lunch tables in the center of the yard, and couples stood around the edges holding hands.  He had always liked school—been good at it, even—until he started the sixth grade earlier that year.  New school, new people; it should have been exciting, but for some reason it wasn’t.  He walked through the courtyard quickly, past the lunch tables and toward his first class of the day.  Outside the classrooms, more groups of friends stood around, laughing and talking.  A very pretty girl, blushing deep crimson red, walked between rooms carrying a teddy bear and bright red balloons.

Valentine’s day.

Pablo had completely forgotten about Valentine’s day.  The teachers hadn’t said anything or given them lists of people to bring candy for.

I guess that’s how it works in middle school, he thought to himself.

He walked into his classroom and made a beeline for his desk, staring at the floor the entire way.  He sat in the far corner, where nobody noticed him and the teacher never called on him.  It was better that way—he couldn’t say anything embarrassing about himself if he never spoke.  As he sat and waited for the teacher to arrive, students trickled in.  Two boys sat near Pablo, speaking in excited tones about a birthday party.

“It’s going to be at my house.  My dad just got the pool set up, so it’ll be a pool party!”

“Nice!”

They have houses, Pablo thought to himself.  Real houses.  He thought about his family’s cramped apartment and wondered what it would be like to have a backyard.

“My mom’s going to get pizza, and we’re going to have music outside!”

“Awesome!”

More students came in.  Boys wearing new clothes, the type they sell at the mall; girls carrying candy and teddy bears, wearing smiles that bordered on smirks.  Pablo looked down at the faded denim of his jeans and fraying edges of his shirt.  He shrank into his seat as far as he could, wishing he were invisible, and wondered if anyone would sit in the empty seat next to him.  Probably not, he guessed.

The teacher walked in and looked around the room.  As she turned towards Pablo’s corner, he looked down at the floor.

“Good morning everyone.  Today we’re going to finish our writing exercise.”

As Pablo dug into his backpack for a notebook, he began the daily countdown in his head.  Six classes, and then he would be free.

* * *

At lunchtime, Pablo sat alone on a low concrete wall near the edge of the courtyard.  He chewed on a soggy sandwich as he gazed at the swarming lunch tables.  He’d never felt this alone in a crowd before.

A girl with silver-blonde hair, eye shadow and a backpack with “I ♥ My Chemical Romance” stenciled into it sat at a nearby table.  Pablo wondered what a chemical romance was, or why anyone would want one.  The girl giggled as she talked to her friend, a formidable tall brunette with crossed arms and a frown on her face.  As Chemical Romance talked, Crossed Arms nodded and scanned the courtyard, systematically staring down one table after another.  Pablo wondered if they had seen him looking.  What would they say to each other about him?

He decided not to look in their direction anymore.

He finished his sandwich and pulled a notebook out of his backpack.  He set it on his lap, tilted it so the pages couldn’t be seen from the lunch tables, and began to draw.

Drawing was a new interest of his.  Earlier that year, he had started doodling in the margins of his notebooks during his classes.  The doodles quickly grew large and spilled out of the margins—they filled entire notebooks and dripped out on scraps of paper, where they sloshed around the walls of his backpack in waves that grew thicker every day.  Although he couldn’t explain why, the drawings helped him.  They made life easier somehow.

Today, Pablo drew a small, puffy oval.  It was a balloon, he decided.  He added a fluttering ribbon—a balloon being carried away by the wind.  Was it part of a bouquet?

No.  He began outlining clouds; this was a lone balloon drifting across the sky.  As he shaded the clouds in, he began to lose himself in the drawing.  The clouds grew complex and detailed, and he drew without pausing until the lunch bell rang.  He almost forgot he was at school, but then the lunch bell rang.

With a surreptitious glance at the nearby lunch tables, he shoved the drawing into his backpack and began walking toward his afternoon class.  He caught stray fragments of conversations as he walked through the crowd around the lunch tables.

“Where’s Robert?” said a tall, lanky boy as Pablo walked past him.

“He’s still trying to get lunch, I think” said his friend.

“You mean he’s still in line for the free lunch?”

The two boys sniggered.

“What a Mexican,” said the tall one.

Pablo felt a burning, misty feeling in his eyes.  He looked down at the floor and walked faster, leaving the boys behind him.

Three classes to go, he told himself.

He entered the next classroom and, as usual, sat in the far back corner.  As soon as the teacher started lecturing, he began to draw again.

He drew a pair of eyes—eyes that looked back at him with a cold, piercing gaze. He smudged them with his thumb, giving them a murky look as though they were sinking into water. A loose, flowing clump of hair materialized above them, and a face began to form. A sharp, angular face that grew more and more panic-ridden with every pencil stroke. He added ears; a nose; lips with streams of bubbles escaping from their corners.

He’s drowning, Pablo realized.

He added a torso, legs, outstretched arms—the drowning man was reaching for him, shocked and confused as he sank into the water.  Pablo tore the page out of his notebook and began shading the murky depths around the drowning man, turning the paper repeatedly as his pencil strokes picked up speed.  He felt energy surging onto the page in a way he never had before, and—

“Mr. Ramirez, what are you doing?”

Pablo looked up from the drawing.  The teacher had stopped lecturing and was standing over his desk.  Pablo froze in his seat.

“I would appreciate it if you kept the drawings put away, Mr. Ramirez,” said the teacher.   Horrified, Pablo looked around the room as thirty sets of eyes bored into him.  The teacher reached down and pulled the drawing off Pablo’s desk.  Pablo’s heart pounded against the walls of his chest and his breath stood still in his lungs—was the teacher going to show his drawing to the class?

He wished he could disappear.

To his relief, the teacher dropped the drawing in the trash can by his desk, and Pablo began to breathe again.

The rest of the day was a blur.  Pablo couldn’t escape the feeling of thirty sets of eyes looking at him—he kept his head down for the rest of class, and when the bell rang he was the first to leave the classroom. When the final bell of the day rang, he walked away from school as quickly as he could.

As he walked home, anger began to bubble deep inside him.  Who or what he was angry at, he couldn’t say—all he knew was that by the time he reached his family’s small apartment, he was fuming.  He opened the front door to find his mom setting the kitchen table.

Hola mijo,” she said.  “Are you hungry?”

Pablo stared back at her unenthusiastically as he sat down.  She set a large plate of freshly made sopes in front of him, topped with queso fresco and salsa verde.  As their aroma wafted up from the plate, Pablo scrunched his nose.

“What’s wrong?” his mom asked.

Pablo stared at the plate.  “I hate you,” he said without looking up.

His mom gaped at him.

“What?”

“I said I hate you!”  Pablo looked her in the eye this time.  “I hate this apartment, and I hate this food.  I wanted pizza!”

His chair scraped loudly against the linoleum floor as he stood up.  His mom stared at him, her face equal parts shock and betrayal, as he walked toward the small room he shared with his younger brother and slammed the door behind him.

* * *

On the drive to school the next morning, Pablo’s dad didn’t talk about doctors or lawyers or engineers.  Instead, he kept a straight face as he pulled the car over a block away from the front gate of the school.

“I’ll leave you here today,” he said with a grimace.

“What?” said Pablo.

“I’ll leave you here,” he said again.  “You can walk the rest of the way.  It seems like this is what you prefer.”

He reached across Pablo and pushed his door open for him.

“Have a nice day at school,” he said in a stiff voice as he handed Pablo his backpack.

Spinning Walls

A full moon hung low in the night sky as Matt drove his tired old Buick.  The car rattled and groaned as he pulled into a crowded parking lot near the pier.  Directly across from the parking lot, a steady crowd of pedestrians filtered through palm tree-lined sidewalks; up the narrow street that ran alongside the ocean, onto the pier, and then back down.  An endless procession of boisterous children and their parents, giggling packs of teenagers, and couples walking hand-in-hand.  The chatter of the crowd floated in the air and mingled with the orange glow of street lights, creating a feeling of warmth despite the chill of the ocean breeze.

Matt shut the Buick off and surveyed the scene through the dirty windshield.  He glared at the crowd with simultaneous feelings of longing and contempt.  What he was doing there, he wasn’t sure.  He’d gotten in his car after his shift was over and driven mindlessly, as if some invisible force had taken the wheel and the pedals, until he arrived at the ocean for reasons he didn’t quite understand.  He reached under his seat for a pack of cigarettes, then pulled the key out of the ignition and pushed open the heavy door.  Fresh ocean air washed over him, and a sudden feeling of emptiness numbed his senses.  Vague memories of sunshine and laughter came over him, taunting him, jeering at him from some unknown location within the foggy depths of his brain.  Matt stared out the windshield with a vacant expression on his face for a few seconds, then with a start regained his composure.  He stepped out, shut the door, and walked across the street.

He walked past the pier onto the dark shore of the ocean, where the orange glow of the street lights gave way to silver splashes of moonlight.  He lit a cigarette and began to walk.  Each step carried him away from the crowded parking lot, the busy pier, the chatter of the crowd on the sidewalks.  Away from his job and his empty apartment. Away from it all.

* * *

The next morning, Matt awoke bleary-eyed and stumbled out of bed.  The floor of his bedroom was littered with dirty clothing; a collection site for the unwashed garments of the preceding week at work.  He stumbled through the mess and made his way to the bathroom.  As he entered, the stench of dried vomit invaded his nostrils and the pounding inside his head became unbearable. His vision swam and he struggled to maintain his balance as he reached over to flush the toilet.

What had happened the night before? Matt’s brain struggled to put the pieces together.  Driving.  A walk on the beach.  More driving.

Matt stepped out of the bathroom and into the kitchen.  A cheap bottle of vodka and a two-liter container of soda lay empty on the kitchen counter, surrounded by the remains of an empty wrapper from a frozen pizza.  Fragments of memories started surfacing:  Arriving home after the long drive.  Empty apartment.  Drinking alone.  Walls spinning.  More drinking.  Ceiling spinning.  More drinking.  A standard Sunday night, really, for Matt.  It certainly wasn’t unprecedented for him to drink himself into oblivion after a long weekend at work.  He opened the refrigerator, saw that it was empty, and decided to smoke a cigarette instead.  He walked through a sliding door onto the scrawny balcony behind his apartment and lit his cigarette.

All things considered, it hadn’t been the worst weekend at work.  The restaurant hadn’t been as busy as it would have been if it had been a holiday weekend.  He’d stood behind the kitchen line and kept pace with the orders.  Lots of steak this weekend, and lots of salmon.  That had kept the sales high, which in turn had kept the managers happy.  The waiters had been impatient assholes as usual, but hey – that’s waitstaff for you.  At least he’d managed to avoid Kate.

Kate.

As the name ran through his mind, his heart gave a jolt and the pounding in his head thickened.  Matt took a long drag from his cigarette and exhaled slowly.  He held the cigarette between his fingers, examined it for a few seconds, then tossed it over the side of the balcony.  No matter how much he tried to convince himself otherwise, smoking always made his hangovers worse.

* * *

Matt went back to work on Wednesday.  He hated his job, but it was better than sitting alone in his apartment.  Better than driving around aimlessly for hours, listening to sad songs, wasting gas.  As he turned the old Buick off the road and onto the parking lot of the restaurant, he saw a long line out the front door and groaned.  It was busy — far busier than he had expected it to be.

“Great,” he muttered to himself.

He parked the car and walked into the restaurant’s kitchen through the back door.  Inside, empty boxes and overfilled trash bags lay strewn on the floor.  The humidity from the dish pit and the heat from the stoves were worse than usual, and the roar of the ventilation system flooded his brain.  “Thank God you’re here,” a manager called out from across the kitchen.  “We’re slammed. I need you on appetizers right away.”  With an air of resignation, Matt pulled an apron over his clothes and took his place behind the line.

“Look who decided to show up!” yelled Brian from the entree station.

“I had a feeling you pieces of shit couldn’t handle this without my help,” said Matt.

“Fuck you, ‘master chef,’” Brian retorted, grinning, as he turned back to the four plates he had propped up between the burners of the industrial kitchen stove.

Kitchen banter, Matt mused, as a brief grin flashed across his face.  How else were cooks supposed to make it through their shifts?  But the grin quickly turned into a frown as he started cooking.  Matt assembled one plate of food after another, trying desperately to keep up with the relentless barrage of orders.  It wasn’t long before he fell behind and the waiters started yelling.

“This went out looking like shit and I need it replated on the fly!” screamed a waiter standing directly across the line from Matt.  “Don’t give me that look; I wouldn’t be here bothering you about it if you had made it right in the first place!”

Another waiter walked up.  “Where the fuck is my calamari?!  You said it would be ready five minutes ago!”

Matt did what he could to pacify the waiters and keep up.  The brutal rhythm of the kitchen became a blur, and amid the chaos he felt a strange sort of peace.  Just keep cooking, he told himself.  Just keep cooking.

* * *

Several hours later, Matt sat in the Buick, alone.  It was his lunch break, and he’d done what he usually did: walked to the car, climbed inside, shut the door, and sunk as low into the driver’s seat as he could.  He sighed and stared out the windshield with a vacant expression on his face.  His shift was halfway over.  In a few hours, he would be free.

And then what?

He sank lower into the seat and looked up at the sagging ceiling.  His shift would be over, and then what?  A sudden knock at the window startled him.  He looked over, and his heart dropped into his stomach.  It was Kate.

“Long time no see, stranger!” she said excitedly.

Matt sat up and rolled down the window.  He reached for a cigarette and placed it between his lips, attempting to give off an air of nonchalance.  Be cool, he thought to himself.  Be cool.

“I really wish you wouldn’t smoke those,” she said.

“Are you trying to tell me how to live my life?”

“I gave up on that a long time ago.”

Matt looked her in the eye deliberately as he lit his cigarette.  Loose locks of golden brown hair framed her delicate face and flowed down the front of her blouse.  Her eyes glimmered in the afternoon light.

“I’ve got big news” she exclaimed, beaming, as Matt took his first drag from the cigarette.

“Did you finally figure out how to be a half-decent waitress?”

“Asshole.”  She held her left hand up, where a diamond ring shone brightly on her fourth finger.  “Robert finally proposed!  Can you believe it?!”

Matt’s insides froze over, as if ice water had started gushing from his heart.  His cigarette quivered between his lips.  He’d known this day was coming for a long time now, but he hadn’t expected to feel so shocked.  He struggled to maintain his composure as Kate began to ramble excitedly.  In his daze, he heard only fragments of what she was saying.

“We went downtown … dinner … on his knee … totally caught me off guard … recorded it, it’s on Facebook if you want to watch … wedding in June … summer wedding … parents are so happy … you’re totally invited.”

Matt blinked slowly as she finished speaking.  He forced his lips into a smile and tried to look her in the eye.  “That’s great news,” he said, as convincingly as he could.

“Isn’t it?!” she exclaimed, oblivious to the sadness in Matt’s eyes.  “I’m going to run inside and tell everyone.  Are you working tonight?”

“No, my—” Matt’s voice trailed off and he glanced over at the restaurant.  “My shift is over.  I was actually on my way out.”

“Okay!” Kate replied cheerily.  “Have a good night!”

Matt watched as she walked away and entered the restaurant.  He pulled his phone out of his pocket, shut it off, and locked it in the glovebox.  Then he started the car, calmly maneuvered it out of the parking lot, and drove away as fast as he could.

* * *

A few hours later, Matt found himself staring out the windshield at the ocean.  He’d driven aimlessly until, inexplicably, he found himself in the parking lot by the pier again.  Zombielike, he shut the car off and pushed its heavy door open.  Ocean air washed over him, and he froze.

This time, the vague memories of sunshine and laughter didn’t taunt him from a distance.  They strangled him, squeezed the air out of his lungs, made it impossible for him to step out of the car.  He shut the door and let out a quiet whimper.  He turned the key in the ignition, started the engine again, and drove home.

An hour later, Matt stood outside his apartment door.  He put the key in the lock, hesitated, then turned it slowly and pushed the door open with a look of resignation on his face.  The apartment was dark and empty, just as he had known it would be.  He flipped a switch and a lone lamp came on, casting dingy yellow light over the cramped kitchen and living room.  Matt shut the door behind him, opened a cabinet, and pulled out a bottle of vodka.

It was going to be a long night of spinning walls.

Congenital Glaucoma

“Congenital Glaucoma,” said the doctors to my parents as they held their newborn baby.

The year was 1996, and my brother had just been born with opaque, milky blue eyes.  Glaucoma. An eye disease usually associated with the elderly, but in my brother’s case, congenital. From birth. A condition that affects only one in every ten thousand infants. A surprise of the worst kind.

The surgeries began immediately. So many, and so often, that they quickly became a blur — over forty before he reached the age of two. I was four years old when my brother was born, and the surgeries are my earliest memories. I remember them in flashes, as if they were scenes from a movie I saw long ago.

Morning drives down the freeway to La Jolla, my dad gripping the steering wheel tightly, face devoid of any emotion. My mom sitting in the passenger seat, holding back tears. The tense elevator ride to the operating room on the fifth floor of the Shiley Eye Center. Harsh fluorescent lighting and the smell of band-aids and gauze. Nurses putting wristbands on my newborn brother, wheeling him through large swinging doors into the cold operating room. The heartrending grief of my mom as she watched her baby being carried away from her. Crying. Waiting. Seeing my baby brother lying in a hospital bed, still asleep from the anesthesia, with large plastic eye patches and medical tape obscuring his face.

The perpetual surgeries left my brother’s eyes sensitive to light, and for years we kept the windows of our apartment covered with heavy blankets. The darkness consumed our lives entirely, and the apartment became a dungeon of grief. How my parents made it through those years, I’ll never know. They had only been in the United States for a few years and spoke very little English, making their already terrifying ordeal even worse. How I made it through those years, I’ll never know. I didn’t fully understand what was happening. I only understood the constant, devastating sadness.

As the years passed, the situation improved somewhat. The doctors were able to save some vision in my brother’s right eye, and the surgeries began to slow down. My parent’s English improved, and the visits to the surgery room were replaced by visits to support programs for parents of children with disabilities. They provided some semblance of hope, I guess.

But the shock and the grief never went away for my family. Instead, as I entered my teenage years, they grew into something far worse: a complete lack of emotion. We built walls around ourselves, walls so high that we stopped showing any emotion for fear of appearing vulnerable. Walls to protect us from the harsh realities of congenital glaucoma: that my brother will always be legally blind, that he’ll never drive, that it will be difficult for him to ever be truly independent in life, and that what little vision he has he will probably lose one day.

Later, therapists would tell me that what I went through as a child and teenager is called “emotional abandonment.” The result of exposure to a prolonged lack of emotion. It’s the reason why, as an adult, it took me years of therapy and soul-searching to fully understand what had happened to my family, to understand what happened to me, to understand why I’ve had to fight so hard for my self-confidence and inner peace. To figure out why it felt like the walls were caving in around me when I closed the door to my room at night. To understand why I have such a hard time enjoying myself, why I feel so guilty every time I drive my car, or ride my bike, or see a beautiful sunset. Why I feel so guilty every time I do something that I know my brother can’t.

I’m not sure what any of us are supposed to have learned from this experience. We’ve found no closure, because there is no closure. It’s an ongoing pain that can never be resolved, only accepted as a fact of our lives that is woven into the fabric of our realities. There’s only one thing I’ve really learned for certain:

Don’t ever take your eyesight for granted.

Goodbye.

“Goodbye.”

In the beginning, “goodbye” is a deceptively simple word. We think it means “I’m leaving now to go do something else.”  It’s a farewell, but not a permanent one. In the beginning, “goodbye” means “see you later.”

But nobody remains a child forever, and as the years start adding up and life removes your innocence, the true meaning of “goodbye” begins to reveal itself. It grows bigger and heavier until you realize that “goodbye” is not a word, but a never-ending fact of life.

“Goodbye” delivers the entire range of human emotions. Sometimes it makes us laugh, and sometimes it makes us cry. Sometimes it is a friend, sometimes, a foe. Sometimes, we choose to say goodbye. Other times, we are forced.

Some goodbyes are liberating. Old grudges, bitter feelings, anger.

Some are painful, but necessary. Hopeless crushes. Unrealistic ideas about life.

Some are bittersweet. Old friends. Schools. Places you once lived. Eras of your life.

Some are soul-crushing. Failed relationships.

Some are life-altering and irreversible. Death.

More often than not, “goodbye” is painful. But it’s unavoidable. So every day we get out of bed and start another day, hoping that in the end our “hellos” will have greatly outnumbered our “goodbyes.”