“It seems that earlier this evening you got into a fight. All we here know is that you punched someone and they punched you. You both passed out and were checked in to the ER in ambulances at about 6 o’clock. “
I like being alone because it’s the opposite of being with people. I’m only in my thirties, and I’m already completely exhausted with human relations. I live for the moment where I get to go home from my job, from the long, tedious day of labor. Not that the labor itself is so bad, but I can’t stand the humiliation of it. The people. Just today at work, I was reminded of all my ex-friends who are more successful than me when I saw a group of fancy consultants wearing ties walking down the street. And there I was, collecting trash from their houses. I hate that I have to do that.
Every Thursday, I start in the south neighborhoods. The poor ones. You would think their trash would be the worst, but actually, the rich people’s is sometimes more disgusting. Not saying it’s fun in the south, though. It’s not. I’ve just become numb to the whole process at this point. Nothing changes, especially not in the projects. When I reach a new neighborhood, I jump off the truck, run down the street as fast as I can, and have to manually pick up every single bag of trash these people leave out. I used to think about it a lot more, you know. I used to wonder what was in the slimy white bags. I wondered what these people ate, how much they slept, what their families were like. I used to look at their houses, look at the scenery. Now I don’t wonder. It’s just trash, and their houses are all run-down anyway.
Once I’ve made it all the way down the street, I have to haul the bags back to the truck. Then, my partner in the truck has to help me load them in the back. My partner’s always the same. Joe. We don’t talk much, but there’s an understanding there. He’s a big guy, bigger than me with more muscle. I’m a little more pudgy, to be perfectly honest. Joe’s married with kids, but we don’t talk about it. I’m not either of those things. He knows this. Our communication is nonverbal. It’s like, he throws the bags in there for me, and then I sort them out, putting the big ones on the bottom and the smaller ones on the top, optimizing the space.
We make our way up north. I can see the colors getting clearer, more flowers popping up, you know the way you always do when you get into a “nicer” area. It’s like some kind of eternal fog has been lifted and the blue sky is back in sight. But somehow, it’s not comforting. The rich people are arrogant. They always give me pointed stares from the street, and I have to look away. I’ve never lived in a rich area. Where I live isn’t extremely poor either, it’s somewhere in the middle. I’ve always lived in areas like that- not beautiful, but not horribly maintained. Not big houses, but not tiny ones either.
Once I get into rich neighborhoods, it’s the same thing as the poor ones. But like I said, their trash is different. Not the actual content, but how they take care of it. They’re lazy, because everything is handed to them on a silver platter. They never tie the bags up all the way, so I have to push wrappers and tissues and apple cores in the bag. My hands always get nasty. I carry around some sanitizer back in the truck, just because I hate the smells that linger on me. These streets have less houses per street, because they’re more spread apart. So there are usually less bags to carry, thankfully. But in the end, it still takes just as long. Joe sits in the truck, waiting. He plays with his hands a lot, but doesn’t do anything of substance. What is there to do?
At the end of the route, we drive the truck back to the city department depot. It’s the same every day. I have a fuller route on Thursdays, but I do other jobs for the rest of the week. Refuel other trucks, plan alternate routes in case of bad weather, supervise other workers. I’m somewhat of a senior, as is Joe. We’ve been working here for ten years. There’s so much shame in it, in these jobs. I would be lying if I said I was proud of what I do. But I am committed. There’s a difference.
I wanted to be a schoolteacher. I liked kids. A lot more than adults, for that matter. I’d never liked adults, but “teacher” seemed like a good profession where I wouldn’t have to deal with them that much. I applied to two public schools in the area. Application denied. Couldn’t be a teacher. I gave up. Don’t know why. I just lost hope. After that, I waited tables for a couple years. I hated it. Way too much interaction, people stepping all over me, entitlement. “This isn’t what I asked for. I wanted the mashed potatoes, not the sweet ones.” Who raised these people, I grudgingly thought to myself. I needed something more solitary.
Garbage collecting it was. I had always been pretty strong, and I was able to manage the routes. I didn’t think it would be the time of my life, but little did I know how it would depress me. I’ve lost contact with all my friends from college. It’s not like I ever had many. I had a lot of anger issues in college. I was very impulsive. Made bad choices. I only had two or three real friends. One of them is a consultant now, one is a lawyer, and one is some kind of business associate. They’ve all done better than I have, by the normal standards of success. We kept in touch the first few years after college, but after that, it just stopped. I still once in a while get Christmas cards from one of them, Rob. He’s married and has a beautiful family. It hurts to see. Christmas cards always do. They’re just reminders that everyone else has figured it out, and I’m just here. I mean, I do have a steady job. That’s something. And I boat. That’s the one thing I truly love. I love the water. I boat, sometimes fish, I swim too. On the weekends. The water is comforting, because it’s so otherworldly. A place where not everything is hot and sweaty and dirty. Dealing with trash collecting, dirty is unfortunately my normal.
Is there anything else important? My parents are both alive, still married, whether it’s happily or not I don’t know. I talk to them sometimes, but not that much. I was never very close with my parents. I never fought with them either, but I just never connected with them on much. If that’s not horrible to say. I was always close with my siblings, though. I loved my little brother. He was kind of a quiet kid, and had trouble standing up for himself. I remembered one instance when I was in 7th grade. He would have been in third. Some kid called him a retard because he was having trouble with multiplication or something. Stuart came home sobbing. He was so sensitive. The next day, I hunted that kid down after both of our schools were finished for the day. That was where all my anger issues, my dislike of people began. How could anyone be mean to my small, kind, mousy brother? I didn’t understand it.
Nowadays, Stuart’s learned to stand up for himself. He’s still a pretty non-confrontational guy. He gets along with everyone. I wish I was like that. I guess I get along with the guys at work, but there’s been a couple times in the last few years where I’ve just had these fits of rage. Like there was a time when I beat someone up in a McDonald’s parking lot. Another time, I told someone else who was boating at the same time as myself to shut up for no apparent reason. But the worst of it all, and I mean the worst, was when I yelled at a homeless guy on the street and ended up in the hospital. Let me backtrack.
It was a hot, hot summer. Very humid outside, the kind of summer where you can’t escape the sun’s glare. A week before, I’d been boating and holding my sunglasses in my hand. I’d fumbled a bit and they’d fallen straight into the ripples of the water. Gone. Now I had no shield.
Besides going down to the water, I’d been trying to stay inside as much as possible this summer. I much preferred the cool air coming from the AC vent to the air outside. But I hadn’t been to the grocery store in a month, and my various staple foods (tomatoes, tortilla chips, et cetera) were growing rotten and stale. I decided I would make a very quick round downtown and then return. I wouldn’t dally there. I’d been in a bad, brooding mood all week. Some new, too-talkative trash collectors had gone on the wrong route, deposited the wrong trash in the wrong place, and wreaked havoc on the entire system. This had happened more than once. I managed to keep myself together, but something was bubbling at the surface.
I walked out of my house into the scorching sun and felt its rays beat directly on me. I shuddered and headed straight into my car. I always hated driving downtown, and today was no exception. People were so disrespectful. When I saw them throwing trash down on the ground, letting bottles and cans loose from their hands, I felt a sting in my chest. I have to clean that up. I’m their maid. I have to work for these people. I told myself to breathe, not to lash out.
I had made it all the way to the grocery store when I opened my car door to an interesting sight. A seemingly homeless, blonde man wearing a cap and long pants (despite it being summer) was begging passersby for money. Typical. I didn’t know why I had no sympathy. Was I a psychopath? I didn’t have much time to ponder this before I got out of my car and thrust myself into total disaster.
“Excuse me? Do you have any spare change?” His tone was far from polite, I felt. I didn’t want to give him any money.
“No, not right now,” I said gruffly and began to walk away. Most homeless people would leave it at that, you’d think. But he was ruthless.
“Please. I’m really hungry and I just want to eat something.”
That’s when I felt myself tip. Into unknown territory. It’s like a monster took over my body and my hands and my mind and I wasn’t me anymore. I couldn’t have been responsible for what happened next. I won’t hold myself responsible for it.
“Shut up!” the monster screamed.
“I can’t stand desperate people like you begging people like me for money. I don’t have time right now. Leave me alone.”
The eyes of the homeless blonde guy, who I later learned was named Henry, widened like a deer in the headlights. I was about to briskly walk away and into the grocery store to fulfill my actual purpose of being downtown when some random decided to add insult to injury. He approached me with a confrontational expression on his face.
“Dude,” he said. I stood still, waiting for the punch line. “Don’t be such a jerk,” he said to me.
“Come on. That guy is homeless. Seriously, just give him some money.”
First of all, why couldn’t this man just mind his own business? Second…I never formulated a second.
That’s when a blinding light flashed in front of my eyes. My palms were sweating. It felt like I was above my body, like I was watching myself. Watching this monster. His fist outstretched. He punched the man straight in the gut. The man doubled over. I felt myself return back to my body. I was nauseous.
I woke up in a bright white room very suddenly. Jolted alive. Tied down to a chair with an oxygen checker on my arm. No one in sight. What happened to me? I felt chills all throughout my body, and an anxious feeling as though I was crawling out of my own skin. A nurse came in. Oh. I was in a hospital. Wait- why?
“Excuse me? Can someone please tell me what’s going on?” Her seemingly once-warm brown eyes looked tired, tired of this work. I didn’t blame her.
“Look, I’m just the nurse. I need to get the doctor that was working with you in.” I breathed in and out a few times before responding.
“Okay,” I finally mustered. I felt slightly calmer now that there was someone coming.
A few minutes later, a male doctor with short brown hair and a white coat approached the chair.
“You woke up,” he said. I nodded.
“I guess I did. Look, I really want to know what’s going on.” He looked down at a paper next to him. My records? Notes about whatever was happening?
“It seems that earlier this evening you got into a fight. All we here know is that you punched someone and they punched you. You both passed out and were checked in to the ER in ambulances at about 6 o’clock. I can’t tell you anything else about the other man involved, for confidentiality purposes. All I know is that now you’re awake, we need to get you all checked out and make sure you’re fine.”
It was exactly one hour from when Dr. Malfour said that and when a new nurse came in to poke and prod me. I was pretty sure I was fine, and they seemed to think so too, considering they gave multiple other patients priority. Which was okay with me.
I will never forget how it felt in that emergency room. I have never liked hospitals. They make me tense and put me on edge. But they can also be places of inner revelations, of thinking about things you’ve never thought before.
I had none of my belongings with me in the ER. I never even bought my groceries. Thinking was all there was to do.
Why did I punch that man? The simple answer was, I lost my temper. I lost my temper and I wasn’t thinking and I wasn’t myself. That was crystal clear, because the normal me couldn’t have done this. The normal me got mad and lashed out, but couldn’t have punched a stranger on the street.
The deeper question to ask myself: why was I so angry?
Once when I was in seventh grade, I was sitting in my newly-painted blue room, lying on my bed. Listening to music. I recall it was classic rock, though I can’t remember the artist or the song. It was October, and I remember the paint smell and the crisp smell of the air from outside my bedroom window blending together to create a distinct fragrance. I was peaceful.
My inner calm was abruptly interrupted by the front door opening and shutting. Stuart was home.
My little brother annoyed me as all little brothers (and sisters, for that matter) can, but I was protective of my sibling and loved him very much. I still remember him running up to my room, thrusting the door open. His little voice trying to speak but being interrupted by tears.
“Josh. G-g-guess what happened today? Seventh period?” My attention was all on him now.
“What happened? Stuart, come on. Tell me.” He gulped out the story. That a kid had called him retarded because he had had trouble with some timed multiplication game the teacher had made them play to help them learn. My brother didn’t like the pressure of being timed, or any pressure at all, and was known for caving. I shook my head in distress.
“What did your teacher do about it, Stew? Did she get that kid in trouble?” I felt my fists ball up. I needed justice to have been served. But somehow, I knew it wouldn’t have been.
“B-b-barely. She made him sit outside for a few minutes, that was it. He barely got yelled at.” The vision in my mind of my brother’s blue eyes and puppy-dog expression was as clear to me in the emergency room as if it had happened the day before. The camera lens in my mind zoomed in on his face, in and in and in until finally, he disappeared.
This was the first time I ever felt this anger. My heart beating out of my chest, my fists squeezing over themselves.
Right as my brain was circling around, a new nurse came back into the room. She tested my blood, and performed a quick physical examination on me which included checking for injuries. In all the quantifiable ways, I was fine. “You’re fine,” the cheery redhead chirped.
They chalked this episode up to my “mental health.” Very vague. They recommended that I go to therapy for my anger. Screw that, I thought, my introspective self from moments before almost completely vanishing into the distance. I left the hospital and walked back to where my car was. I could go back to work the next day. And I did. As far as I was concerned, this experience could be water under the bridge.
I told Joe what happened the next day. I’m not sure why I did. I didn’t really think we were friends, but at the same time, we were partners. We were picking up trash from a new neighborhood on the west side of town. It was a very quaint area. The people somehow all seemed small and insignificant. The way I liked them. They seemed like the type who would mind their own business. There was something that calmed me about the place, how it was pretty but not perfect. I felt at ease, dangling my feet below me.
“I punched a guy yesterday,” I blurted as we were about to go into another neighborhood. Joe looked at me, looked back down at the trash, and chuckled. I almost completely regretted telling him right there and then.
“What’s funny?” I said indignantly.
“Sorry, Josh. I didn’t know what to say. It’s just that I’ve known you for so long, and I just knew that you…I can just see you doing that. So what the hell happened?” Despite his less-than-comforting words, I felt that Joe genuinely wanted to know, and I wouldn’t deprive him of information at this point.
“So there was this homeless guy. Asking me for money when I got out of the car to go to the store. He was bugging me a lot. I said no, I wouldn’t give him money. Some jerk basically comes up and tells me to give him the money, and I just kind of lost it. I punched him, he punched me, we both passed out for a while, we went to the hospital. I got out last night, I guess.”
Joe nodded. “I see.” That’s all he said. I think he already felt he overstepped his boundaries by saying that he expected this of me. Which, in my opinion, he did. But maybe I would have appreciated more than just “I see” in response. I didn’t know. This was the relationship between me and Joe, men of few words and even fewer rampant emotions. At least, ones we would openly talk about.
The next day was the weekend. Saturday, my day off. Days off were usually not a big deal because it didn’t matter to me whether I was working or not. It wasn’t like being at home was so freeing.
But that day, I decided to take my boat out on the water. It was a windy, cool but very pleasant summer day and a perfect day for sailing. I drove up to where it was parked at Capan’s Island, a mere forty-five minutes from my house. The most powerful and transformative forty-five minutes to have ever existed. Because when they were over, the blue sea laid out in front of my eyes was better than any land dwelling could ever be. That was just what I thought, what I think, what I’ll always think. No humans can survive underwater.
Sailing comes easily to me. Ever since I was a young boy, I’ve been fascinated by the way the wind could move things just the right way. How it wasn’t another person who made my boat work, just me and the forces of nature surrounding me.
I have just turned ten years old.
My father and I don’t communicate very much. It’s always cordial, but he doesn’t make an effort, and I’m only ten and don’t know how I can. The ways he shows his love for his firstborn son are limited, the number one being “presents on my birthday.” Normally, I don’t care much for presents. New clothes, new toys. Sometimes, I don’t even end up using them. “Thanks, Dad,” I always say, and give my dad a hug whether I like my presents or not.
It’s my birthday again. My dad tells me that his present is a “special trip,” to occur the next day, and says no more than that. In the morning, he takes me down to the beach in Quay, a beach town two hours from our house. We go there sometimes as a whole family, but I’ve never gone with my dad alone. I am thrilled when he asks me, though. Thrilled and shocked. Dad wants to hang out with me? Just me?
We fill the ride with my father’s classical music blaring from the speaker, the windows down and the salty beach breeze getting more and more noticeable as we near Quay. We have a cooler, two towels, and goggles for me. I will swim. He won’t. He’ll read the paper on the sand. This I know. Today is unusual already, but not unusual enough for my dad to swim.
I’m wrong. My dad doesn’t swim, but today is more unusual and magical than any other day in my life so far. As we walk onto the boardwalk, my dad walks me over to one of the lifeguards on duty. The one who’s not sitting in the chair. This lifeguard’s job is to walk up and down the beach and make sure everything’s going smoothly, collect tokens, and answer questions. When there are any. The beach is usually a pretty question-free place, lucky for him, but today, my dad and I approach him. “Hi, do you know where the sailing class for nine-to-twelve year olds is?” my dad says.
The lifeguard motions to a group of kids sitting in a circle next to the sailboats on the sand. There is a blonde-haired man with toned muscles and an athletic build standing next to them. His arms are crossed. “Head over there.” My dad nods thank you and we walk away. I’m tugging at my dad’s sleeve, begging that he tells me what is happening, but he won’t. He knows that I wouldn’t agree to sailing with other kids if I had any choice. He also knows I love sailboats.
When I was five years old, we came down here and I saw a group just like this. The big kids. On sailboats, on the water. I still remember marveling at how free they were. They can do anything. They go anywhere. I told my dad, “One day, I’m going to be big and I’m going to sail on the water and I’m going to be special.”
I don’t think my dad paid attention to me when I said I wanted to sail, to propel myself over the limitless lake. But here I am, walking up to these exact sailing lessons. The instructor’s name is Logan. The kids, I don’t remember. They’re all fine people, but the social part of the experience is and will always be lost on me. Which is fine, because what I get from it is so much more important. I’ll never forget the feeling when they finally let me sail. It is worth all the time spent explaining how it works, going over the safety procedures. Once I am on the water, it is clear I am a natural.
I still am. I spent my whole Saturday that day on the water, until it grew late and dark. I then parked my boat, which I got two years after my first sailing lesson. I sat down and watched the sky. I hadn’t seen any stars there for years, so there was nothing to look at. I drive home and go to sleep. The next day, it isn’t my day off anymore. Weeks pass without incident.
I haven’t been on the boat since then. I tell myself it’s because of time. But even I know that of all the things I’m missing, time isn’t one. I could make time.
I tell myself it’s because of winter coming. Which is true. But I’ve been making excuses to not go to the water since midsummer. It’s like I get something out of making myself miserable.
I don’t like summer either, but winter is by far the worst season. When I begin to see evergreen Christmas trees crop up in the neighborhood, when I see wreaths placed carefully on doors, that’s when I know it’s “failure season.” The season where the timeline of everything comes into picture, where I see that everyone else is moving smoothly through the maze of life. “Married.” “Kids.” “New Job.” I have never sent a Christmas card. I don’t do much on Christmas, unless Stuart asks me to celebrate with his family. He knows I don’t like to, so maybe he won’t this year.
It is finally spring. I’m sitting on the dock near my parked sailboat, feet in the warm water. The buoy calmly floats on the low tide, canoes and motorboats alike laid out on the sand behind me. The sun’s shimmer begins to dim as it sets in the west. I’m staring into the waves below, everything else sliding away from my thoughts. I hear a rustling, imagining it to be leaves from the trees on the street, and then realize that I’m wrong. It’s nothing but a white trash bag, floating on the surface of the current.