Jamie A. Hulley
DEATH BEHIND HIS EYES: Michael
My father died when I was seven. I was there and I remember it clearly, one of those memories that you can reenact in your mind so vividly it is like watching a movie behind your eyes. I do that a lot. Close my eyes and imagine these funny little death scenes. At least eight hundred times a day. Everywhere I go. Gives me something to do when I’m bored. And I’m bored a lot.
Let me elaborate on my situation for you. I’m a senior in high school. Finally. I take a lot of very demanding classes. I am extremely intelligent. I have a bright and shining future ahead of me. And, I am not, absolutely not, ready to give up that future because of some stupid mistake.
On my way to A.P. Physics I have to pass this staircase at the far right end of the school that leads down to where the janitors’ “office” is. I mean, the “office” is really just a holding area for all the stuff they use to clean up our crap, brooms and mops and shit. I guess its good enough for them though. They hide out in the office all day drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes, probably fighting over who gets to buff the tiles that afternoon. Anyway, so everyday I pass this staircase. It is wider in length than all the other ones in the school and much, much longer on the way down, hundreds of very small steps, and there is a metal hand railing attached to the left wall. I always drift toward the other side of the hallway when passing it, just in case. Just in case someone pushes into me from behind and I take one wrong step, my foot snaps at the ankle, and I am lurched down those tiny steps, rolling, and tumbling, until… bam. Neck broken at the bottom of the stairs. The janitors would most likely be the first ones to help me no less, rushing out of their office cigarettes still in mouths. Six fleshy, fifthly men lifting me over their heads like their king, carrying me to the ambulance which will be of no help. What an awful way to go, King of failure. My fellow classmates have no clue just how close they come to the end every time they round that corner.
I’ll be sitting in my Advanced Literature class third period, second row fourth seat in, not daydreaming of Ahab and his stupid whale (what a fucking stupid book), but wondering what would happen if that long rectangular fluorescent light fixture came crashing down in the next 30 seconds. It is just long enough to hit Marc, Lauren, and maybe Sarah. But not me. I’m safe. 4…3….2…1… nothing. Wouldn’t that be funny though? Killed by a light! Or at the very least brain damaged.
Michael doesn’t talk much. Everyone thinks he’s kinda weird. I guess I do too. He was assigned to me ‘cause I was having some trouble in math. Okay, I was flunking math. I’m in Algebra II now, which I guess he did in like 6th grade. He’s like a genius. And I’m not, so he gets really frustrated with me. Sometimes, after he explains a problem twice and I still don’t understand he will just get real quiet and stare around the room for like 10 minutes not saying a word. It makes me uncomfortable, so I usually pretend to search in my backpack for something, or go get a drink from the water fountain. Sometimes he’ll stare at me with this half smirk on his face, like he gets the joke and I don’t. He thinks I’m really dumb. But it doesn’t matter ‘cause I’m the one who has lots of friends and who goes to parties on weekends and has a life. I’ll bet all he ever does is study. Actually, I kinda feel bad for him. I try to say hi to him when I see him in the halls. Usually he doesn’t respond, except to look at me with that half smile. I’ll bet his heart is real empty inside.
I didn’t think he had any real feelings at all ‘til this one day something really weird happened. Every year we have a winter carnival for all the seniors held inside our gym (obviously ‘cause its too cold outside!). There’s cotton candy, and game booths, and all sorts of great stuff. It’s held during school hours and everyone who’s in school that day is required to go from second period on. I’m sure if Micheal had the option he would have stayed home. But he never gave himself options like that. He once told me in a conversation I remember perfectly,
-Kara you weren’t in school yesterday.
Yeah I know I
-I had the problem sets all ready. Do you know something Kara?
(he stared intently, I tried nervously to balance my pencil on its point, not looking at him)
-You want to know something incredible? ( small pause)
What? (switching to the eraser end, still not looking at him)
– I have never missed one day of high school. Not one. Never been absent. Never had anything better to do. At the end of the year I’m going to get an award for perfect attendance. Are you going to get an award?
Don’t be a jerk Michael. You know I miss school all the time.
( the pencil dropped to the floor out of my reach and Michael bent slowly down and grabbed it)
– Yes I know.
So that’s why Michael was there that day, for his stupid award. Well, the carnival was so much fun. My friends and I had been sipping vodka from water bottles the whole afternoon and we were having a blast. Everyone was, there were all these groups of people laughing and dancing around, winning silly prizes like stuffed purple bumble bees. Then I saw Micheal. He was sitting on the bleachers, hunched over, head cupped in his hands scanning the room. The look on his face was so pathetic. He looked so lonely and …. well, sort of scared. I wondered what he was thinking. Through the rest of the day I kept glancing over to the bleachers, and every time there he was. Same position. Same pathetic look. Then once, I looked and he was gone. The next thing I knew, there was this screaming, like a frickin’ banshee or something and the acoustics in the gym made it even louder. Everyone was looking around all confused. I saw Michael running toward the exit doors, his face all messed up like I’d never seen it before. I think he was crying. He shoved the gym doors open, the doors made so much noise, and everyone saw him leave. No one knows what happened. I never asked him, and if I did I’m sure he wouldn’t tell me anyway.
“Karen come back to bed.”
No Adam, you annoy me too much. And I can’t go to sleep with that light on shining in my face!
Adam followed Karen as she stormed out the bedroom and into the living room. She snatched a blanket off the black chair by the window and plopped herself down heavily on the couch. She covered herself hastily with the blanket, laid her head back, arms crossed at her chest, and sighed. It seemed her whole body sunk into the belly of the couch with that sigh.
That stupid, ugly awful couch. It was in fact Adam and Karen’s first purchase as a couple when the met senior year of college. They had decided to take a walk downtown to get smoothies; it was unusually hot outside, the kind of hot that makes you drowsy. Half way to Mainstreet a yard sale in front of the Church deterred them or rather just Karen. Karen loved old things, according to her, things weren’t broken or scratched, instead they had “visible history”. They had “lived” as she put it. There were large cardboard boxes lining the lawn in slopply rows filled with clothes, and toys, and all sorts of junk. On the sidewalk nearest to the street was an old radio ( the kind that stands up like a dresser), a dusty Television set, a few wooden chairs piled on top of each other, a night stand, and that couch. It stood out simply because it was this terrible shade of green, a fresh lime dipped in egg yolk. The material was a fuzzy and worn short on the bends of the arms. Karen was instantly attracted to it, “OH my God! Adam! Do you see this?” She petted the top of the couch with her hand, then leaned over and nuzzled her head into the back cushion, “Adam its so soft!”, She plunked herself down on the seat, legs and arms sprawled every-which way, “I love it! Its absolute heaven, perfect for us.” Adam who saw no trace of heaven in the couch, complained there was no way to get it back to the apartment, it wouldn’t fit in his car. Karen suggested they carry it back, “Come on Adam this couch has lived, it’s been places. It’ll take us places.” She gave him a kiss on the cheek and then made an exaggerated pouty face at him. “I’m sure it will”, Adam replied somewhat sarcastically, somewhat hopeful. He bought the couch for two dollars and carried it all the way back to their apartment on that uncommonly sunny fall day. That was how much he loved her.
And they had kept that couch for all those years, a constant in their lives. But Adam, or Dean Abeson as he was called at work, was beginning to realize how much had changed.
THE PICTURE: Michael
I got a 1590 on my SATs. I was distracted. There was a large yellow truck outside the window. It wasn’t the noise that bothered me. It was the thought that the truck might suddenly veer left right into the room where I was completing analogies and then, and then, my score would cease to exist. 3…2…1… nothing. 2…1 nothing. I kept counting and it was distracting.
Not to worry, I retook them and received a 1600. Anything less on a test as easy as that would be a failure. My dream is to attend Harvard University. I will go to Harvard, get a degree, graduate with High Honors and make lots and lots of money in the real world. It is the only plan.
My guidance counselor Mr. Bertolini, a truly idiotic bumbling man, called me into his office after he had heard about the incident at the carnival. Everyone knew, it was all over school. “Mr. Perfect went crazy” they were whispering. Mr. Bertolini sat me down very seriously, ” I’ve been hearing some things, and people are concerned, are you…..”
he was wearing a pink knit sweater with a white turtle neck underneath. The fabric was pulled thin all over like he purposely had his children play tug of war with it acting as the rope. I know he has children because I saw the picture frame on his desk, a younger Bertolini with a cleaner beard, and less weight around the middle, stands smiling in front of an evergreen tree next to an equally happy woman (his wife I assume) who is cradling a baby; a small boy about four stands in front in the center projecting a silly grin, one hand clutching his daddy’s pants. I’ll bet he looks at that picture a million times a day and then closes his eyes just praying to God that he could go back in time.
While Bertolini was rattling on, ” Michael we have counsleors if you want to ..” I kept staring at his stupid pink sweater, didn’t he know all the kids were calling him a “gayass fag” because of it. His glasses kept sliding down his sweaty nose until at the last second he would save them, pushing them with his index finger back up the bridge of his nose. With each slide and push back I was reassured I would never, ever be him, swaggering back and forth in the creaky office chair, wearing a pink sweater like a dumbfuck. I suppose I started to smile at the thought. ” Okay buddy, you seem to be feeling better, but remember I’m here if you need it.”
Of course I would never tell an idiot like him what really happened.
PROMISES and LIES: Karen
When he first began the job as Dean of Admissions, Adam was a very different man. He and I would talk late into the night about all the good things he could do to at his job. Financial need blind admittance, truth before money offers. He thought the SATs were stupid, rather meaningless tests, and grades were a good measure of person’s ability, but not necessarily of the person himself. He was so excited. We laughed and kissed all the time and he would tell me about the great essay he read that day. Over the next two years, Adam began spending more and more time in the office, saying he was obligated to give everyone who applied a fair chance, ” I am responsible for their future Karen, don’t you understand?”. He would leave at 7:30 in the morning and come home anywhere from midnight to two o’ clock or later. I told him he was obligated to talk to me and listen to me once and while. But he was absolutely consumed in the lives of the people on the pages. He was sullen when he was home. I hardly ever saw him sleep. I put up with it for awhile. Being an artist I work out of our home, and so I tried desperately to occupy the hours. One day I found a stack of those maroon folders under his pillow. I opened the first folder. There was a note clipped on the first page of the application, “DO NOT ADMIT: stupid name, Sandy.” It was Adam’s handwriting. I opened folder after folder and they all said DO NOT ADMIT ,colon, some ridiculous reason like “essay not in standard font.” I thought he had gone crazy. Is that what he had been spending his days on? I confronted him about the applications. He got very angry and said, “Its for the best Karen, they don’t want to fail.” I finally left him after three years of being lonely. For all my talk I am not very strong. I broke down several months later and came back on our anniversary. I still loved him. I brought some wine and an old table, yellow paint peeling, I found on sale in a consignment shop to make amends. I wanted to work things out. So did he. He told me not to worry; he would change. He would spend more time at home. We flittered the night away, drinking the wine and talking.
That one night, a full month after my return, I had been woken up, not by the bed light, but by the familiar sound of paper rustling and lightly scraping. I opened my eyes to find his side of the bed littered with maroon folders. He hadn’t changed.
He was thumbing through a very fat folder, name: Michael Abbay.
Michael spent three hours sitting on the bleachers, scanning the room for accidents, periodically closing his eyes and imagining.
“What if Paul- stupid- fuck- Gabriel got his arm caught in the cotton candy machine. Ouch. Poor Stupid fuck. There goes the football scholarship. What if Robbie Sisto all of a sudden went nuts and held Tiffany Gull’s head under the water while she bobbed for apples. Who bobs for apples these days anyway? She deserves it for even trying to something as stupid as that. I think she was planning on being a hairdresser anyway. What a fuckin waste”
He almost fell asleep during his daydreaming but then he was jolted awake by a distinct sound. A sea gull. In the gym? Impossible. But he had heard it, or something like it and Michael rarely doubted himself. He jumped off the bleachers and moved toward where he thought the sound was coming from. People were crowded together as if huddling for warmth, laughing and saying ridiculous things. Idiots. He saw Kara, the girl he tutored on Wednesdays, standing over by the “Guess your weight” booth. Her hair was pulled back in a pony tail, she didn’t look old enough to be a senior with her hair done like that. Her face was flushed and she was hysterically laughing about something. She looked pretty. Then Michael heard the sound again. It was coming from the dark purple tent set up on the left side of the gymnasium directly underneath the basketball hoop. Michael couldn’t help thinking that if some idiot had made a basket right then the whole tent would have collapsed, split down the middle, the displaced air instantly filling up the surrounding area, a swollen purple flower with the spinning orange ball as its center. 3…2…1… Nothing, and so he approached. He heard inside the faint sound of waves crashing against rocks, and yes, seagulls crying. The whole tent looked like a uniform curtain, it took Michael four minutes to find the entrance, which irritated him plenty. He slipped in.
Inside was a woman in a yellow sundress and long gold dangling earrings with glass teardrops quivering at the ends. Chestnut hair, pale skin with no make up. Her skin looked dry and the light above her face illuminated a few deep creases around her eyelids. She glanced up at him and smiled.
“My third customer today! Oh, I’ve been very bored. Come sit. Come on. Ya know, I don’t know why peoples are so afraid of the closed curtains. I only did it for privacy reasons.” She talked very fast. “But I guess this means I get only the ones who really want to know.”.
– Know what? Michael asked in a flat tone.
“Exactly! Come….sit down.”
Michael stood firmly planted until his eyes sought out the small radio resting at the base of the table leg closest to the woman’s right foot. A blue candle was burning next to it in glass bowl.
No, that’s all right. I was just curious about the music.
“Yesssssss. That is my brother’s work. He records, ummm, how do you say…. natural sounds and makes tapes of them. This is the ocean. Waves, isn’t it lovely? You want one? They are only six-
No. No, thank you. the woman eyed him with one thick arched brow raised.
“Okay, you sit down now.” Her tone was rather firm. She knocked twice on the wood table to motion him forward.
Michael decided to stay. She said whatever she did was for people who wanted to “know”. That was most certainly him. He wanted to know everything. The woman explained she was a person of many names: fortuneteller, psychic, gypsy, phony, savior, entertainer, and Michael was free to choose which one he would know her by.
“Give me your hand” Michael was nervous after just three minutes of being in the tent alone with the woman and those strange ocean sounds. His nose began to run, and his hands were shaking slightly. He himself recognized it was rare for him to be so emotionally and physically responsive.
“Ugh! your hands are all wet Michael!”, she dropped his hand like it was a nasty bug and wiped her hands clean on her dress, “Never mind, look in my eyes now. Look”
Michael looked, and the woman closed her eyes. ” You are afraid Michael, all the time afraid of everything. That is why you want to know. Right now you are very uncomfortable. You know why Michael?”
How do you know my name? he said in the same flat tone
” Your school ID was sticking out of your pocket, don’t move, keep looking at me.” She laughed. It was a nice laugh, sort of a soft hum. “Don’t change the subject. You are uncomfortable because you do not like the beach. You hate the ocean. You despise the sand and the birds. Do you want me to turn the music off Micheal?”
No, I’m just fine. You can drop that stupid accent. I know you can speak properly.” He was shaking more, but his gaze held steady. She ignored his comment and continued.
” I see through your eyes something yellow in the ocean moving farther and farther away, and you are sitting on the beach feeding the birds. Laughing, throwing bits of bread and digging in the sand.” Micheal sniffed, and clenched his jaw. ” you are writing something in the sand with one hand and pointing with the other, B….. Y…. bye. The birds scatter as you scream it, “BYE!, bye bye bye bye .. over and over. What are you saying goodbye to?….Michael?” He looked away from her blind gaze, to the floor, at the radio. His breathing was erratic and his vision blurry.
“Michael, okay, give me your hand now.” Transfixed by the sounds emanating from the little radio he offered it to her. She gently stroked his open palm and then curled each finger over ending with the thumb, forming a fist, then uncurled each finger slowly. There was silence that overtook the ocean sounds as she gazed intently at his open palm. Something was wrong.
“Micheal do you see this line here?”, she pointed to a small crease originating from a centimeter below the pinkie finger and ending at the fleshy pad under the index finger.
Yes. He sniffed and rubbed his nose and eyes with his free hand.
“That is your heart line. That is your soul Michael. Most people’s heart lines split into two, like a fork in the road at the end. It means they have love in their life in some form. Someone to share with…..Do you see this?” she pointed to another crease deeper then the last and about a quarter of a centimeter below it.
Yes. Michael closed his eyes, he imagined the lamp falling over smashing the unsteady table and knocking the small blue candle out of its bowl. The whole tent igniting in flames. Flames, red and yellow, licking his face. I have to go. He yanked his hand away and stood up.
“NO, you listen. They are two identical lines. You see. You are afraid because you are only half here Michael.”
The sound of the waves began crashing into Michael’s eardrums, seagulls screeching over his head, salt in his eyes, he began to cry violently. He was screaming.
He heard the woman yell over his voice and the roar of the ocean, accusingly, mockingly, “Who are you Michael? Do you know that?”
He had to get out. He ran, the King of goodbye, screaming from the gym into the bathroom where he scrubbed his face and hands with that pearly pink soap from the dispenser and the rough brown paper towels. After, he looked down at his hands, and although they were red and wet he saw them. Two perfect creases side by side. He closed his eyes imagining the heavy crown on his head, “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day, to the last syllable of recorded time; and all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!” He had memorized most of the play, Macbeth; it seemed appropriate for the King of Lies.
RULES AND DISCRETION
Dean Abeson ran the entire Admissions process at Harvard University. He had been running it for 7 years, restructuring and amending the process until it suited him. It was rumored by the students that Dean Abeson had sort of a mental “disturbance” around the beginning of his third year and was now running the Admissions office like some sort of Nazi boot camp. They were not far from the truth. There were some things he could not formally change, but most people in the office knew his unspoken rules. He sat in on the Admissions committee meetings, took extensive notes, and then had several hundred files pulled a week for his own review. On his own last year he read 11, 327 applications out of around 18,000. He turned down more than 87%. Everyone on the committee understood that their job was simply for show. Dean Abeson made all the decisions and how and why he made them was his business only.
FIRST COMES: Michael
I changed my name on the day of my eighteenth birthday, November 7. Right after school, I did it. Well, it took almost three days for the stupid dumbfucks to get the processing done, but by the end of the week my old name no longer legally existed. I had to get all these documents reprinted and a new license and library card made. It was a pain in the ass, but worth it. I just kept picturing graduation day. I would deliver an impressive valedictorian speech and then I would graduate, first name called in the class, “MICHEAL ABBAY”. I really couldn’t let Dave Abertson graduate first, he’s such a complete jerk-off. Cheated on the Physics exam.
I never stopped loving Karen. And I was fully aware that with every application I read she slipped further and further away from me. But I couldn’t just stop! So many names, addresses, words. My favorite was the essays. It was my only opportunity to really try and get to know the person in any genuine sense. If I didn’t like their essay they were gone. After the first couple years, it seemed like the same thing over and over. Constant deja-vu. And let me tell you, that shit is hard to deal with. The same fuckin’ people applying every year with the same boring words. I had to get a little harsh. Not everyone can go to Harvard, right? They’ve got to really want it. They’ve got to be special. They’ve got to show me they are special. I can’t use failure.
Sometimes when I’m up at night reading, I look over at Karen and smile. She usually has some bits of paint still stuck to her fingers. I would look at her and wonder why I couldn’t reach out to her, a real person, heart beating, beside me.
THE ESSAY: Michael’s words
It was late and Karen was asleep.
“My father died when I was seven. I was there and I remember it clearly, one of those memories that you can reenact in your mind so vividly it is like watching a movie behind your eyes. I do that a lot. Close my eyes and imagine a different future. At least eight hundred times a day.
Let me elaborate on my situation for you. My father drowned. I was playing on the beach, feeding the seagulls the leftover crusts from my sandwich. And I saw him, drifting away on a yellow blow up float. I even waved and said goodbye to him. I let him drift away. Does this make me a bad person? What does this make me exactly?”
Dean Abeson liked this boy. He was honest. He read on to the end.
“There are many people in every person I think. So many that a person may never discover all of himself in a lifetime. Some are distinct, almost cookie cutter like models of people, others are only fragments of a whole, an arm, a eye….I am a fragment. So I was told. Sometimes I think the split in me is only a small crack, as insignificant as a tiny thread hanging from my sleeve. Sometimes it seems as endless as the ocean.”
Dean Abeson looked over at Karen. He put his hand on her cheek. She opened her eyes.
A SMILE: Kara
Michael kept tutoring me for the rest of the year after the carnival incident. He stopped staring so much and being so quiet after that. I think he was always the one who felt uncomfortable after that. He even starting trying to have conversations. Once he asked me what I was planning on doing with my future. He seemed sincerely interested. So I told him I was going to state school and that I wanted to work with children, maybe run my own daycare center. He smiled at me, a real smile. I asked him what he was gonna do. ” Oh, I don’t know,” he said.
Karen looked up at Dean Abeson and then sighed and turned away from him.
“Wait Karen. Look at me.” She turned around. Dean Abeson brushed all the maroon folders off the bed. Papers spilled all over the floor. “Come here”, he grabbed her hand and put it on his heart.
What Adam? What is this all about?
“You should be here Karen. I’m so sorry.” He sniffed a bit and rubbed his eyes. Karen thought he might be crying. She leaned over him, put her head where her hand had rested on his chest, over his heart.
There was warmth and silence. And then, and then, it sounded like the far off ocean heard through a seashell.