Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Old Ang Sty

 I am sitting in our staff office, listening to a concerned parent on speaker phone.

Our Christmas party is in full swing outside the door. Students are eating shape cookies; an Alvin and the Chipmunks song is playing. I want to be out there with them, but I can't.

Since my return to this classroom, I promised the Special Education Gods that I would be more involved. This has meant sitting in on a lot of meetings and taking notes.

It is the hardest thing I have ever done in my life.

Part of the problem is that I can't stare down at a blank piece of paper without doodling on it. This habit has plagued me for years, earning me the scorn of teachers, administrators, job interviewers.

As the mom on the phone keeps talking, I try to mouth to my co-worker the message that outside the office door, a fabulous Secret Santa gift exchange is unfolding, and I should be there. I need to be.

She frowns at me deeply.

Angela is always getting politely asked to not come back to things.

She neglected to put on underwear for one of her family parties and flashed the entire gathering when she sprawled on the living room couch. She was not invited to the next one.

Her rendition of a Backstreet Boys tune given at the school talent show ran "overlong", and even as the host frantically gestured at her to stop, Angela closed her eyes and soldiered on. They changed the entry conditions for the show after that.

When her mom mentions something about church, I can't help but be a bit intrigued.

Apparently, a member of the congregation heard some kind of whapping sound during the Sunday service.

She followed the sound through an open door, down a few stairs, and to the little classroom where the children attend Bible school.

There she discovered Angela, on her hands and knees, being vigorously spanked by her boyfriend, a short, squarely built guy with Down Syndrome. He was Angela's guest at the church that day.

The general consensus in the office is that I am not taking things very seriously, and I am told to leave.

This suits me fine, as I am so desperate to party.

The revelry has moved out of the classroom. 

Cookies are broken and smashed into the carpet, wrapping paper litters the room in cabbagey bunches. Someone has left a Justin Bieber Christmas song on endless repeat.

One student slumps in her chair, tremoring a bit as her sugar coma begins to peak.

I spy the gift bag with my name on it and perform a greedy rubbing of my hands.

One year, a kid gave me a spoon for Christmas. Yes I realize I have written of the Christmas spoon before, but this time you get a picture:

I don't know what it says about a man, that the great circularity of his thoughts seems to orbit around the gift of a utensil, and despite all that has taken place in his life, he still looks to that singular moment and finds it worth writing down not once, but twice.

Maybe my memory is a useless butthole.

Anyways, he handed it to me while his mother stood by, politely smiling.

"He picked it out for you. It was in our kitchen drawer and he just grabbed it and said your name."

She had tied a small bit of red ribbon around the handle of the spoon. When I thanked him, he just paced away, clamping one hand against the side of his face and muttering.

As I empty the contents of the gift bag, the other students trickle back in.

Instead of running through the streets, caroling wildly, squeezing every possible high from the euphoria of Christmas spirit, they had all just been in the bathroom.

I am one of those people that always feel like some greater party is taking place just outside of the party in which I am trapped. That somewhere in the night, people are doing large things: having a fire on the beach with a crowd and a DJ, or flying on a whim to Thailand to catch a fashion show.

That's it. Those are the only two things I can imagine anyone doing.

But the point is, it's stupid to think this way. No one is having fun at all, they are just doing mundane things like going to the bathroom. Never forget that.

The students gather around me to see what Santa has brought.

With each gift, their anticipation brings their bodies closer and closer.

They are practically on top of me as I pull out the final present, a bottle of baby oil

"Uh...what's this for?" I ask.

The kids look at each other, searching for answers. Their Christmas smiles falter when faced with such an inexplicable gift.

"It's for your head," one of my co-workers offers.

"You know," and she pantomimes rubbing it onto her own scalp, "to make it shiny. So you can have a shiny head."

"Oh. Okay."

The music starts up again in earnest.

Students sway to a particularly emotive rendition of 'Silver Bells'. They form a circle and close their eyes.

They beckon for me to join them, but I am always an outsider at these things. Forever alone.

I put them off with a subtle gesture meant to convey, 'you guys are great, Christmas is wonderful, no way in hell am I slow dancing with ten girls murmuring ding-a-ling.'   

It ends up looking like I am dropping invisible groceries while trying to keep my pants up, but the dancers somehow get the message. 

They leave me to my crayons and my little bottle of baby oil.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Friendship is magic

I've never owned long underwear before.

For some reason, I thought only moonshiners wore them.

But my wife recently purchased a pair for me, and after my initial skepticism, I tried them on.

It's hard for me to describe what it felt like, sliding on a pair of long flannel underwear for the first time. It was as if a lumberjack was squeezing his way along my legs until settling into a hug around my waist, slightly lifting my privates with the top of his floppy eared hat.

Now I never take them off. Really. We had to scrape them from my body with a spatula the other day, just so I could take a naked shower. I prefer swimsuit showers, but sometimes it's fun to go a little wild.

My wife has taken to calling the long johns my "buddies."

I arrived at work five years later, only to discover they had replaced me with a frowny face balloon tied to a bidet.


It could be that my wife bought me these buddies because I have no real friends.

I used to have them, mind you, but they all slipped away when I proved to be really terrible at keeping in touch. They're out there, somewhere, in the aether, or on Facebook. I would track them down but the guilt, man, the guilt.

Ah, to be picked up from my parent's house by friends in a car, a real car, and driven off into the night-to do this for the first time, so many sensations flooded me: the world was an enormous, heaving thing spilling over with possibility. I wanted to go down every side road, peek in every window, ring every doorbell and run away giggling. I longed to span America in my friend's mom's minivan.

I was so excited, I couldn't swallow.

I turned to the guy beside me in the backseat, and suddenly noticed that, though he was 6"2 and fairly thick, he appeared to be dressed in a child's Cub Scout uniform. Those shorts on that body were simply scandalous.

"Uh...where are we going?" I asked.

"Phil's got his three man slingshot with him. We're gonna launch burritos off the top of a parking structure." He didn't explain his outfit.

It didn't matter. For the first time in my life, I was truly free. Nothing could dissuade me from that notion. And as I held the plastic handle of a giant slingshot made from surgical tubing and watched it rocket a Taco Bell taco into the city sky, the force of it's velocity first shedding its paper wrapper, then scattering it's contents: beef, cheese, lettuce, over the streets and the people, I felt my teen-aged soul rising with it.

A disembodied voice began barking at us.

"FREEZE! Stay where you are. Do not move."

"Shit!" someone yelled, and everybody started running for the minivan at once.

The guy in the Scout uniform had been caught in mid-pee, and had to sprint and urinate on himself at the same time.

The driver, my friend Philip, started to take off with the sliding door still open, and everyone else inside, holding their hands out and telling me to hurry the hell up.

I felt like that adorable little bear Corduroy, who marvels at how the spontaneous events of his life match up perfectly with his heart's desires.

These must be friends. I've always wanted friends.

This must be a moving vehicle. I've always wanted to jump into a moving vehicle while possibly being chased by a policeman.

I ran for the open door as fast as my furry little stump legs could carry me. Just as I neared it, Philip slowed the van way down. Instead of making a dramatic escape worthy of the Duke boys, I slowly climbed into the middle seat and half-heartedly wheezed, "Drive, drive".

Looking through the back window as we sped away, I could see a parking attendant with a flashlight sprint a few steps after us and give up almost immediately. He gave us the finger.

"What do you guys want to listen to?" Philip asked, as he merged onto the westbound highway out of Ann Arbor.

I was always well behind my friends when it came to music. They were listening to Kraftwerk and Sonic Youth while I was writing out the lyrics to Bette Midler's The Rose in my school notebook, occasionally dotting the i's with secret tears.

To volunteer a musical preference with that crowd was to risk an entire future of maybe not being taken seriously.

So when Philip asked about tunes on that night, my first out of the house unattended, my baptism into the world of cool teenagers being effortlessly cool, I clutched the Winger cassette single of Miles Away in my pocket and kept my mouth shut.

"C'mon guys, somebody pick something. Anything."

Philip pronounced 'anything' like "ennethin." He said words all crazy like that because he was born in England.

Once, he revealed to me that his entire family hung around the house with no clothes on. Mom, Dad, the two boys; all of them chomping blood sausage and kidney pie in the buff. His parents were relatively fit and pleasant looking, certainly not the worst people to see in the nude, but I didn't like the thought of it. You could not consider your friend's naked family without being tortured by thoughts of "What if my family....?" Good god, no.

I am not sure if it was nature or nurture in Philip's case, but as we went through our college years, he exhibited a growing preference for living life in the nude.

He would throw house parties wearing nothing but Birkenstocks, and then harass everyone else for their puritanical attachment to clothing.

Very few girls ever hung out with us at these parties.

Philip titled this disparity the "fellatio ratio", and though he might never have admitted it, the gender gap might have been at least partly attributed to the spectacle of his naked body standing on the front porch, a giant slice of pizza in one hand and a beer in the other, tomato sauce in little splats from his beard to past his nipples.

Occasionally, something like a fever would sweep through the other guys, and I'd be there on the front lawn, surrounded by a bunch of naked young men shooting off bottle rockets and chasing after the city bus as it made it's last rounds for the night.

It's strange what situations you can find yourself in the middle of, and still feel in your heart that you've arrived at some kind of pinnacle.

I'm an amazing person, living an amazing life, I thought, while watching naked Philip fall with a tremendous whump of smoke and ash into a roaring campfire.

He burned his leg so badly that he was hospitalized for several days.

When I visited him at his home, he showed me how they had to soak the burnt, dead skin and then scrub it off in sheets, leaving what looked like raw hamburger behind.

"Does it hurt pretty bad?" I asked.

He gave me a withering look. Philip was always a little uncertain as to the actual state of my intelligence.

I knew the question was stupid. I was just so nervous that his family was going to pop out, all the way naked, and offer me something to eat. It was making me say things I didn't mean.

Dumb Facebook. Sitting here all accessible and stuff.

I'm studying what little of Philip's profile he has public, piecing together the current state of his life.

There are kids, somewhere on an ocean beach. He still has most of his hair.

He's tan and happy and fully clothed, but I panic over the button for 'send a friend request'.

I can't have friends,
I think. My life is too crowded, what with children, video games, eating. If I have friends, when will I do the dishes?

Time has become a selfish thing I can't give up, even if I'm lonely; there's just not enough of it.

Or maybe, deep down, I'm just a really, really shitty friend.

I notice Philip's friends list is stuffed with familiar names. A couple of mouseclicks and I'd be in the middle of a virtual reunion on a terrifying, suffocating scale.

"Hug me, buddies," I whisper to my long underwear.

And they do.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Bus Persons

We were packed in tight on our bus trip the other morning.

I couldn't help but notice that the college boys smashed in around me were at the physical peak of their young lives. Giant-sized, carved from single blocks of cologne slathered meat. I came up to about sacrum height on most of them.

There were a few girls wedged into the mix as well. As the bus lurched and threw our bodies around, the one nearest me, a blond in a fur-lined brown coat and black leggings, kept finding herself snugly pressed against the likely rock solid abs of one of the guys. 

She didn't seem to know him, but with every collision, they smiled at each other and she laughingly apologized.

Suddenly, the bus swung wide in the opposite direction, sending the girl directly towards me.

You could see the calculations taking place in the second before impact: her eyes widening when she realized she was about to go all in against the body of the fat, sad looking little man behind her.

The girl went through a most fantastic contortionist act. She arched and strained and pressed her toes away from the fate that physics had intended to hand her. Not even the aura of her coat touched me.

There is no thrill in having the hair and shoulder of a nineteen-year-old girl crash into the side of my face, but to be rejected so thoroughly by an entire person....it smarted a bit.

I felt a kinship with the unkempt mentally ill who set up little camp sites on their bus seats and are shunned by all the other passengers, even when the content of their erratic mumbling is occasionally legitimate and deserving to be heard. Perhaps a request for a particular bus to be held, or a complaint about the cold weather.

So what if the conversation happens in June? There's never a wrong time to bemoan the cold.

An irritating old chestnut spouted around here: don't like the weather in Michigan? Wait a minute and it will change.

The only permissible response to this is a "right, right", or a wry, knowing chuckle.

I mistimed a knowing chuckle several days ago.

The maintenance man was explaining our new door security system, which is essentially a rope you're supposed to tie around the handle if an active shooter comes marching down the hall, blowing holes in everything.

"I'm really bad at tying knots under pressure," I joked.

Except I wasn't joking. I suck at tying things, even given a generous time limit.

When I used to work in a book packing warehouse, the supervisor would show me how to bundle flattened boxes with twine, over and over again.

He made printouts of knot tying tips with step-by-step illustrated instructions and tried to talk me through them.

Eventually he gave up, not just on me, but on recycling that cardboard all together.

"Carry it out and throw it in the dumpster," he said, disgusted.

The warehouse shared space with a little commuter airport, meaning no trees, meaning nothing to dampen the wild winds that ravage southeast Michigan.

On the long walk to the garbage, I would watch little Piper Cubs climb lazily into the sky and think, Man, flight. How'd we do it?

Not really. My thoughts were much more substantive and melancholy, and therefore, quite boring.

The wind would come roaring and blow the boxes from my hands, scattering them across the parking lot and pinning them to nearby chain fences, where they hung in defiance of gravity. Flat, brown prison inmates, yearning to be free.

I felt like Rockbiter in the Neverending Story, unable to clutch his friends tight enough to save them from The Nothing.

Turning back, I could see my supervisor silhouetted in the open loading doors, arms crossed, shaking his head.

"You'd better find every one of those boxes!"

A few had blown by the dumpster of a neighboring business. I knew better then to leave them anywhere near there.

I had once tried to throw a pallet away on their trash pile because I was tired of carrying it and didn't want to walk all the way to ours.

A big guy with long black hair and cantaloupe shoulders stepped into view from the far side of the dumpster.

"What chu doing?" he asked.

He puffed out his body in a way that implied I was not to do whatever it was I had been thinking of doing.

After confrontations like that, I can never stop shaking. Sometimes I cry.

As I threw the pallet into our dumpster, I hoped for a loud, angry impact. Maybe the scary guy would hear it and feel relieved that things had not escalated to punching. Anyone who can make noises with wood and metal is probably pretty tough.

But the pallet landed gracefully on a tall bed of flattened cardboard and let out a delighted sigh.

The maintenance man tied the emergency knot for me, gave the door a yank, and pronounced it secure as Fort Knox.

I meant to time my knowing chuckle to come right after this statement, but I waited too long and let it out as he was already beginning a new sentence.

The overlapping sounds were indecipherable to either of us.

"Pardon?" he said, squinting.

I just shrugged.

It had already been kind of an off-day anyways.

Earlier, I had boarded a near empty bus and inexplicably chosen a seat right next to an elderly Chinese man.

It's always a fun game to watch people get on the bus and survey the seating landscape. You can see them scan the available spots and make snap judgements about each passenger, weighing what a ride next to them might consist of, how it may smell, or terrify.

As a socially anxious person, I prefer to have a buffer of about one bus length between me and any other living being. However, in these stupid commuter friendly times, that is almost never possible.

The desolate bus with its lone Chinese occupant should have been savored. Yet on I came, as if in a daze, and proceeded to skootch in next to him.

Sitting by a stranger on a crowded bus is an unfortunate necessity; sitting by one when the bus is almost empty is just creepy.

He seemed as surprised as I was that I had sat down, and he failed to shift his belongings to his lap in time. I pinned his umbrella to the seat with one of my buttocks.

Thinking it was his hand, I leapt up and apologized. He smiled politely, but as I relaxed back down, he shrunk within himself, as if willing his body to become more diminutive then it already was.

We have a new girl in our classroom, and socially, she is still pretty rough around the edges.

Having noticed that she likes to stare at people on the bus, especially people sitting right next to her, I told her to start bringing a book to read so her eyes would have somewhere appropriate to go.

She took the seat in front of me and my new Chinese friend. After about a minute, she turned her head around and began to stare at us both.

"Did you bring a book in your bag?" I asked.

"Yes, yes." She quickly pulled from her purse a small paperback copy of Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe and began to study it upside down. I am not sure why our classroom has that book, or how she managed to find it wedged between Little Critter and Smile! Let's Read Faces, but there it was. The cover depicted Africans screaming and little huts burning in thick bright 70s colors.

I wondered what my seatmate might be thinking, but he appeared to be asleep.

How? I thought. How could he sleep at a time like this? We're sitting so close together. I know what the side of his knee feels like, pressed against the side of my knee. There's so much to think about. Do I stink to him? Does he to me?

I took a subtle whiff.

My student had lifted her eyes from her book and was watching me. 

"It's hard," she said. "It's hard riding the bus."

She says everything is hard. When I told her not to imitate the admittedly hilarious fitness running of a man at the gym, that was hard. When I explained to her that she could not pick her nose in the library, that was hard.

But when it came to the subject of riding the bus, her and I were in complete agreement: it was hard.

Thinking this, I wanted to take the hand of the man next to me and give it a little reassuring squeeze, but I figured he would not appreciate it.