What If…?

A few weeks ago, I attended my 20-year high school reunion. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go initially. I had only gone to school with these people for those four years, having grown up in a different town. I didn’t think I’d have much to discuss with them. The crowd I’d hung out with in my early high school career weren’t going to attend—likely because most of them are surely dead or in prison. No, I did not hang out with the honor roll students. My crowd was morally ambiguous at best. My closest friends from my later high school career were unable to make it. Thus, I figured I’d be talking to only a couple others and wondering why I’d given up a Saturday night shift at work.

I went to my 10-year reunion when that had come about. There was a strange pressure to seem vocationally successful. Most of the conversation had revolved around that. What do you do? How much do you make? The prospect of going through that again was less than thrilling.

However, I spoke to a friend of mine shortly before the reunion. He’s slightly older and had opted out of going to his 20-year. He had been going through a divorce at the time of his reunion and felt like he didn’t have it “together.” Now, he wishes that he had gone. He helped make my decision. I would go, but would probably hate every minute of it.

With all of that said, I highly recommend everyone attend their 20-year. First off, we had more alumni show up than had at the 10-year. More importantly, the entire affair was different. We had all reached an age at which what you do was not nearly as important as who you are. I overheard discussions about careers. I even had a few myself. But there was a casual joviality present. My former classmates and I were not worried about who was successful. We were allowing ourselves to bask in the presence of one another. We were learning who each of us had become as opposed to what we had become. We smiled. We laughed. We told stories. We reminisced.

It was in that reminiscing that I began to wonder days later. How am I different from the boy that I was? What events changed me? What decisions did I make that altered my path? If I could go back and change anything, what would it be?

I lost my virginity at a young age. I had no idea what I was doing, let alone the importance and power of that act. Perhaps if I hadn’t lost it back then and waited until I could fully grasp the moment, I would view sex differently. Maybe I would have fallen in love with that woman. Maybe I would be happily married today.

When I went to college fresh out of high school, I majored in English with a focus in creative writing. I felt working long hours to pay for books and housing was too much of a burden on me on top of my classroom responsibilities. I was tired all the time. So, I dropped out. Having gone back later to earn my degree in Criminal Justice while working full-time and being a parent, that earlier workload seems miniscule. What if I had simply stuck with it? Maybe I would have gone on to live in a big city, writing for a prominent publication. Maybe I would be a successful fiction author.

At age 19, I was seriously considering going into the military. However, I began working at a restaurant that promoted me quickly through the ranks. I discarded thoughts of joining the military. I had a good job. I was respected and appreciated at work. I left the company years later and now find myself still serving and bartending. What if I had opted for the military instead? Maybe I would have risen through those ranks as well. Maybe I could have been a military man with benefits and a secure future. Maybe I could have gone on to work as a police officer or firefighter when I passed the testing, instead of losing points in the interview for having no military background.

At age 21, I met Sarah. She was the most beautiful and intelligent woman I’d ever known. She made me laugh. She encouraged my writing. She challenged me. I fell in love with her. After a few years of having been together, she was offered a career in New York. It was an opportunity she couldn’t allow to pass by her. She had to move halfway across the country. She asked me to come with her. Out of fear of the unknown and that level of commitment, I turned her down. Instead, we would remain friends and said if it was meant to be, it would. I still see her in my dreams sometimes. And it still makes my heart break. What if I had gone with her? Maybe she would have challenged me to be an artist with my writing in New York. Maybe I would have married the one woman who loved me for who I was and who also knew there was more inside me when I didn’t recognize it myself.

At age 24, I met Liz. Although Liz was also beautiful and intelligent, what drew me to her was her passion. She believed in living for the moment. She brought me adventure. I laughed with her harder than I have with any other woman. Together, we were a force with which to be reckoned. We drank. We joked. We made love. I loved her for the abandon she caused me to feel. All relationships that thrive from unbridled living, though, also struggle with brutal arguments. We had our fair share interlaced with the joy. When it ultimately didn’t work out, I found myself in a bad place. I drank too much. I slept with women for whom I felt nothing. I became slightly jaded. What if I had never met her? Maybe I wouldn’t be so cautious with women now. Maybe I wouldn’t prefer the company of movies at home over a couple cocktails in bars, enjoying the company of a lady.

I could have done any one of these things (and so many more) differently. Any one of those decisions going the other way could have changed me drastically from who I am today. I would be a different person.

Last night, as I do every night she is with me, I tucked my daughter into bed. She instantly shot her arms out from under the covers to put her hands on the sides of my face. She does this because I try to kiss her ears and make lip-smacking sounds. It’s a game we play. She tries to stop me. I try to sneak past her hands. She giggles, which is a rarity for an almost twelve-year-old girl. I then kiss her forehead and tell her goodnight.

It is because of that moment on those nights that I have my answer to the what would you change question. The answer is nothing.

As with the concept behind Chaos Theory and the flutter of a butterfly’s wings, changing the most seemingly inconsequential thing can change it all. What if I’d lost my virginity differently and was happily married? I wouldn’t have my daughter. What if I had gotten an English degree and become a successful fiction author? I wouldn’t have my daughter. What if I had moved overseas with the military and seen the world? Same. What if I’d moved to New York with Sarah? Same. What if I never met Liz? Most importantly, I would not have my daughter, because Liz is her mother.

Am I what most people consider to be successful? No. Do I sometimes struggle with bills? Yes. Do I sometimes get lonely when I have no one with whom to share my day? Yes. Do I sometimes think how nice it would be to live in a place where I could step into the ocean? Yes.

Would I change a single thing? No.

Because I have hands on my face. And a giggle in my ear.

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Jigsaw Puzzles

I snuck into a girl’s bedroom last night. By that, I mean I was taking on one of the many roles of a parent. I was the Tooth Fairy. Some criticize method acting, but I maintain that I pull off a tutu and tiara quite well. My daughter lost one of the few remaining baby teeth she has left. By her count, she has lost six within the last year. Another one is loose as well. I suppose by the end of next year, she will have rid herself of those remaining teeth. Life, time, and experience take little pieces of us all. Like jigsaw puzzles we find in our grandparents’ attic.

The evidence lies partly in my hairline (or lack thereof) and my metabolism (see previous aside). In my early high school years, I had thick, wavy hair. Girls would sometimes play with it. My parents, on the other hand, would often ask when I was going to cut the mop on top of my head. They need not have worried. Time did it for me. Although it is nice being able to walk past the hair product aisle in the store without a second thought, I admit I hold a certain disdain for those men with finely-quaffed hair. I’m not wishing lice upon them, but my heart wouldn’t break. And then the metabolism. Every time I watch my eleven-year-old daughter inhale her meager body weight in food, I am reminded of the man I was in my early twenties. I was convinced back then that “serving size” suggestions were designed for toddlers. Now I find myself actively looking at the calorie-count of food on a menu. That second cupcake at a cookout bypasses my stomach and makes its way directly to my love handles.

On a wall in a hallway of my home is a picture frame that simply says, “Laugh.” That frame holds three pictures of my daughter when she was very young. In every picture, her eyes and mouth are open wide in full cackles. “LOL” and emojis hold no candle to those images. I haven’t heard her laugh like that in a long time. She’s not a sad girl. My daughter, like you and I, merely lost that piece of herself as she grew older. Certainly, we can still laugh until we cry at times, but it’s rare. Another casualty of growing up.

Hiding my face behind a blanket and then reappearing to say those magic words “peek-a-boo” once elicited squeals of delight from the baby who was my daughter. For her, in that moment, the world was full of wonder. Dad had vanished. Dad was back. Magic. I tried it again once recently just for fun. The response was not the same. As opposed to delight, her face held a look of slight worry and more than a little embarrassment. There was no squeal. Instead, the response was, “Really? What are you doing?” This, of course, while looking around to assure herself that no one else had seen the horrific display. I’m pretty sure I heard her apologizing to the cats on my behalf later. Life and experience took the wonder over something so ridiculous years ago.

Hair, physique, youth, metabolism, unbridled laughter, wonder. Life, time, and experience can take them all and more away from us bit by bit. It’s easy to think back on those pieces of ourselves we lose. What we often fail to recognize are the gifts that replace those missing pieces.

Where those baby teeth once sat in my daughter’s mouth, new teeth have sprouted. Those are the same teeth with which she’ll smile at a boy someday. That boy, mesmerized by that smile, will eventually ask her to be his wife. In his company, she’ll laugh until she cries. That game with a magical blanket will be played again, but with her draping it in front of her own children. Those delighted squeals will come to her ears and lighten her heart all over again. That man she married will lose his hair and get softer around his midsection. Her own hair will thin and her skin will loosen and wrinkle around her bones. Because of this, they will be able to say they grew old together.

Life. Time. Experience.

Take away.

We Become Art

Madison.” A single word you’ll find on my back, across my shoulders. My daughter’s name, written into my skin with needles and ink. I paid a man money years ago to stab me repeatedly. This might sound like an exaggeration, but that only means you never went to the particular tattoo artist I did. The bonus of using him is that I will never need to have my tattoo touched up. I’m certain the ink is in my muscles. That guy went deep.

I chose that tattoo in that place for a reason. I can now carry my daughter on my shoulders regardless of how old she gets. Cheesy? Maybe. But it means something to me. I’m proud of that work. The design of the lettering was created by a friend of mine. It’s unique. No one else will ever have the same name written the same way. It’s mine.

I like tattoos. I have many friends who have them. I like hearing the stories behind them. There are song lyrics. Children’s names and dates of birth. Those terrifying portraits of loved ones that always resemble something from The Walking Dead to me. Exact replicas of deceased parents’ signatures. Images from favorite films. Excerpts from favorite books. So many Japanese characters. I even enjoy the awful ones—those works of art decided upon during drunken stupors. Every tattoo represents the owner in some way.

I’ve heard some people criticize those with tattoos. “How could you deface your body like that?” “Why would you give yourself scars like that?” And it’s true that tattoos are nothing more than scars. They just happen to be the ones we choose. The choosing makes them art. And every piece of art has a history and an inspiration. It is because of this that I’m attracted to ink on the body.

However, I’m even more drawn to those “blemishes” that required no exchange of money or color schemes. I recently had a conversation with a friend about this. On her forearm is a dark scar. She explained that she got it when she had first moved into her apartment with her daughters. She had ventured out on her own and was making her first go at being a single parent. While making a pizza in the oven, the door she wasn’t used to had swung back up and hit her arm. The scar left behind is her reminder of that scary, freeing time. It will continue to act as a reminder for the rest of her life that she is a strong, independent woman who acted to take care of her children. That’s the beauty of those involuntary scars we hold.

After 37 years, my own body tells stories by way of accidental art work. My skin is my abstract canvas.

The middle knuckle of my right hand is carved with a small white crescent. In grade school, a boy named Jeremy was teasing me. I was getting angry and he knew it. With a mocking grin, he had dared me to punch him. The result was his tooth going into my knuckle. I felt a moment of exhilaration when that grin turned to surprise and pain. It was the first real time I ever stood up for myself to someone bullying me.

In my early twenties, while sitting on the toilet and reading various bathroom supply labels (it’s what we did before cell phones, kids), I looked down and noticed off-colored lines running across the inside of my thighs. When I had a conversation with my mother later, I asked if I had ever had an accident that would cause that. With an amused look, she told me they were stretch marks. My legs to this day act as a reminder of the chubby little smartass whose father used to refer to him as his “little human garbage disposal.” I wear those scars with pride and appreciate them every time I exercise.

My right shoulder has a white line given to me in my youth. It is the result of a gardening hoe being plunged into my skin. The hoe was wielded by a young girl who lived down the street. She had come to play gardening with one of my younger brothers. I didn’t like the girl and told her I wasn’t going to get my brother and to get away from our house. That scar reminds me of the wrath of a woman scorned. It should also act as a warning in dating volatile and insane ladies. Some of my dating history, unfortunately, suggests that I’m an idiot and a poor listener.

My left elbow and right calf share art work. At seven years old, I flipped my bike and it landed on top of me. The bolts from the front and back wheels found themselves inside me. One in my elbow. The other in my calf. Luckily, my crying was heard by Betty Cook, the mustached and muumuu-wearing babysitter who had the genius idea of pulling the bike off me and then pouring hydrogen peroxide directly into the wounds. That day, I learned to be more careful with my bike. I also learned that adults are often lying when telling you, “This will only hurt a little bit.” In addition, that Betty was not a nurse.

When I get tan in the summer, there is a thin white line that runs diagonally down my back. A scar given to me by a girl I know only as “Yoda.” This is obviously not her real name. I can’t remember her real name because I was very intoxicated when I met her. By the time I slept with her, I was extremely intoxicated. I knew what she was trying to do. I told myself I wouldn’t do it. I had standards. That was until she whispered filthy things in my ear. That scar, delivered by fingernails in the heat of passion, is a monument to the weakness inside me when tiny, unattractive women say horrible things after enough alcohol has been consumed. Am I petty and disgusting? That’s a fair assumption. Blame the scars. They tell only the truth.

Above my lip and just under my nose, there’s a nice divot. That one was brought about by me trying to work with pliers on my car. The pliers slipped and bashed me in the face. Whenever I think about trying to work on my own car, that scar reminds me to step away and consult a professional. There’s no room for a man-card when chances are good you’re going to maim yourself. And when you know absolutely nothing about cars.

Having worked for years in construction, my arms and hands are peppered with faint lines. Rogue joist hangers, stripped screws, unforgiving cement-mixers, and sneaky utility knives are all culprits. My lack of automobile and sports knowledge notwithstanding, I like to think they allow me to maintain some semblance of the aforementioned man-card. If I make no mention of my cats, I should be good…Well, shit.

Scars epitomize chapters in everyone’s lives. I know women who have survived breast cancer and have scars on their breasts. The marks of survivors. Women whose white lines on their stomachs tell stories of pregnancies or C-sections. The marks of mothers. Men who have only disfigured skin where limbs used to be. The marks of soldiers.

Whether we choose them or not, scars are beautiful. Don’t hide them. Don’t cover them with makeup or clothing. We should wear them proudly. They’re evidence that we’ve lived.

(It) Feels So Good

When was the last time you felt angry? Sad? Hurt? Embarrassed? These images and emotions are easy to conjure. With very little effort, we can bring them back in our minds. Like cacti, they require minimal nourishment and still thrive. Also like cacti, they can be dangerous when handled. These feelings pierce us and cause us pain.

Now ask yourself another question: When was the last time you felt true joy?

On my way to work the other day, I pulled up to a stop light. The woman in the car next to me didn’t immediately register my presence. She was switching through the radio stations and, for just a moment as I pulled up and glanced over, I saw her face light up and her mouth drop open in unbridled happiness. I have no idea what she had stumbled upon. A favorite song maybe. A stand-up comic on a comedy station perhaps. Hearing her name being said in a news story possibly. Regardless of the cause, it was a second of pure joy. It emitted out of her like a lighthouse beacon. That light shone right into my own car. It actually made me feel better. And then it was gone just as quickly. Her eyes snapped slightly to her right and “reality” set in. She was not alone. Her face deadened and she started bobbing her head with only a hint of a smirk set on her lips. Nope. Flag on the play. Ten yards for exhibiting joy. No public displays of true happiness allowed.

I felt as though I had walked into a bathroom as a strange woman climbed out of the shower, unaware of someone else there. Her instantaneous withdrawal back into herself was like the yanking of a towel to cover her naked soul. It was surreal. And heartbreaking.

I’m left wondering at what point we stop allowing happiness to be all-consuming. Have you ever taken a two-year-old outside to blow bubbles or play in a sprinkler? Elation. Ever made a raspberry-fart on a baby’s belly? Jubilation. Look at the face of a seven-year-old on a bike, flying down the road at break-neck speeds with the wind tossing his hair. Revelry.

We are born with the capacity to experience joy in the simplest things. To be human is to be joyful. It’s only through our own shortcomings that we allow the world around us to take that away. Do bad things happen? Certainly. Is the world a stressful place? Absolutely. Does any of that matter? Only if we let it.

I’m working on opening myself to more unbridled joy. Last night, I made a taco salad that I’d anticipated for two days. I experienced what could only be described as ecstasy while eating it (the fact that I’d had a few cocktails prior should have no bearing). Saturday at work, I laughed with coworkers until I had tears in my eyes. I can’t even remember what we were laughing about, but I’m holding that feeling with me still today. While I drive to my daughter’s softball game tonight, I’m going to put the windows down and sing at the top of my lungs to whatever catches my fancy. Maybe I’ll inspire other car singers to put on their own concerts. Maybe they’ll do the same to even more. And that’s how it should be. When it comes to rapture, may it always be expansive.