Home Is Where?

        I remember
        When I lost my mind
        There was something so pleasant about that place.
        Even your emotions have an echo
        In so much space

        And when you're out there
        Without care,
        Yeah I was out of touch
        But it wasn't because I didn't know enough
        I just knew too much

            -    Lyrics from the album St. Elsewhere


     I was a quiet kid. I never caused any trouble or even minor disruptions. I remember once when I was at the dollar store with my paternal grandmother, Grammy, she bought me a plastic dagger with a holster that I tied around my arm. It was the coolest thing I’d ever owned at six years old, and as we walked out of the store the holster fell off my arm. Grammy kept walking ahead and I ran to catch up. I left the holster on the ground, too scared to ask her to wait for me. Another time at school I pissed my pants when I didn’t ask Miss Henderson if I could go to the restroom. Hell, this trend of not rocking the boat was present even when I got a haircut. My hair was medium-long and parted to the side with mousse, and as I sat down I made it my goal to be the perfect client. I tried to predict every “now turn to the left” and “look down” so that the barber wouldn’t have to tell me or guide even my head to the side or down with his hands.

     At school I was the same. Very obedient, and always straight As. The only thing I could remember going wrong at this age was a bully I had. I don’t remember too much about him, but I do remember Dad showing up to the cafeteria decked out in his brown police officer uniform sized at least XL. His golden badge was shining high above my head as he asked me to point out the kid who was bothering me. I pointed to a kid across and further down the long brown table, who promptly hid his face in the square plastic bowl of Frosted Flakes. I’m not sure what else Dad said, but that kid must have dove into that bowl or something because that’s my last memory of him. Did you know my dad could beat up your dad? I did, and I didn’t doubt it. He was my shield, and he’d drop me off at school in his cop car, and WHOOP the lights as he said “Bye Mario!” through the speaker.

     These were happy times. My parents and I spent a lot of time together. We made frequent trips to Hollywood, Florida, to eat at our favorite pizza place by the beach, where we’d always order the white pizza. They took me to Disney World and to all my soccer games and practices, and one time they even picked me up early from school to head to Metro Zoo. I couldn’t believe it; school was everything, yet there I was, between Mom and Dad and swinging from their arms as we went to go see the albino alligators. I loved the animals, and loved learning about dinosaurs, and insects, too, and they always bought me tons of books to keep my young mind piqued.

     We lived in a big house for just the three of us, a three-story pink home in a neighborhood called “Allegro.” My parents had the top floor and I had the second. When I wasn’t in my room playing with Legos or reading books and I’d go upstairs to play in theirs. One favorite game was hiding under the covers of their king-size bed and crawling around in circles until I had no clue which wall I was facing. I’d throw off the blankets and for a second I was lost. I wasn’t facing the TV or the wooden bedstead, but some wall I’d never noticed before. In that brief moment of disorientation I felt like the world was a new place, and even something so mundane as a wall, when seen in this new light, was enough to get me going in circles beneath a blanket. The novelty of the experience is what hooked me. It also explains why I watched Fantasia over and over and over again. Barney wasn’t enough for me, oh no, I wanted bright vivid colors thrown at me in new ways, sharp contrasts of dark and light. “I love you, you love me,” yeah, yeah, Barney, I loved you too, but you couldn’t compare to an actual tyrant lizard engaged in mortal combat with a spike-tailed foe. You taught me the magic words, but please don’t pretend you offered anything as riveting as the evolutionary trail of some of earth’s most magnificent creatures and the story of life and death set to Stravinsky’s hopeful melodies and dissonant chords. My young mind couldn’t speak these words, of course, but I worshipped nonetheless, repeating “again, again” in between bouts of wide-eyed wonder.

   I was still six when Michelle was born, and now I had someone to look after and even play with. By the time I was seven I was already changing her diapers, giving her the bottle, and burping her, and just a year later she looked just like the little girl from Monsters Inc and would follow me everywhere, walking that tottering walk that toddlers do. We played together all the time, especially the game where I laid on my back on the couch with my arms tight to my sides as she tried to kick me off.

     A few years later we all moved to a new house, a one story with a pool in a nicer neighborhood. I was about twelve by then.  Things started to change. We took fewer trips to eat out. Mom wasn’t a teacher any more, and her new job meant she was always away on business. Dad didn’t slack off with the added income, and after 9/11 he began working a lot of overtime at PortMiami. 90 plus degree weather in near perfect humidity while decked out in dark brown in a working a job he hated, and on his feet the entire time, it must have been hell. No wonder he started coming home tired and angry. I could tell how bad his mood was by the way he opened the door. It was thick, dark, heavy wood, and he’d bully it open and throw it shut behind him. By the time it hit the frame I’d be in or heading to my room. Every little thing set him off. Maybe there were dishes I didn’t put away, or maybe I fucked up and dropped a glass or spilled milk. If it wasn’t him yelling at me it was Mom. Grades were a big deal to her. I was always the smartest kid in every class, and she had high hopes for me to get into Harvard. By the time I was in sixth grade I went from bringing home straight As to Ds and Cs. It was like the only attention I got was when I did something wrong. I didn’t catch all of it, though. Michelle got it too for whatever fuckups a six-year-old is capable of doing. The worst fights were between Mom and Dad. That scene in The Godfather with the smashing scenes comes to mind. I don’t think Dad ever hit her, though. Sometimes after their fights I’d go in Michelle’s room just to be with her, to feel better let her know it was ok.

     Without the yelling it was a quiet house. There was rarely any talking, just the extremes of shouting or silence. Looking back it’s no surprise I started smoking weed, not even thirteen yet. It made me laugh, I actually smiled. There’s not a single photograph of me smiling at that age, not in any of the family reunions or events, but when I was high you can bet your ass I was cheesin’ big. I was happy, or at least it felt that way. My first drunk was just a couple years later, and in high school I had learned to properly half-ass school and appease my parents with a photo-shopped report card. Despite a few Cs and Ds somehow still get a full-ride thanks to all the AP courses I took and a decent score on the SATs. I tasted freedom in college, and by the time I was kicked out I was smoking blunts every day and dealing Xanax bars while snorting the ones I kept.

     My parents sent me to Indy to restart my life. I had given up Xanax by then, having learned through experience that it was bad for your brain, and even made it back to school.  I switched majors from psychology to biology, and divided my mind between devotion to my studies and the constant need to make myself feel different. I didn’t know I was bipolar then, but looking back there was a definite trend. I’d wreck a car one semester, and get As and A+s the next. I’d give up drinking for a year, find myself a nice girl and excel at work, only to relapse in Florida, punching a woman in the face and fighting cops. Whatever I was looking for I wasn’t finding in a bottle and I wasn’t finding in school. I turned to new chemicals as a last resort.
I did my research and found out about a chemical called dimethyltryptamine, DMT for short. It’s endogenous to our bodies, but if you want more than what’s already in there it can be cooked right in your very own home. Did you know I got in A in chem lab? I pulled out my old lab notebook, ripped out the pages that showed how to create green crystals and gasses that would burn in different colors (this was the teacher’s attempt to make chemistry cool) and put the recipe down for a different type of crystal. The lab and equipment were simple affairs, a small kitchen in a one-bedroom apartment, a pipette made from a turkey baster combined with a Visine bottle, and other supplies you can find online. Just Google “Acasia and Lye” and you’re good to go. After some careful measuring, pouring, and diligent note-taking, I poured the fluid into a Mason jar and put it in the freezer. Three days later I opened the freezer, and while I didn’t find Jesus, I did see small white crystals on the bottom of the short Mason jar. I scraped them out and into a glass pipe traditionally used to smoke methamphetamine. It looked like a bubble on the end of a thin glass stem, with a small entrance for the crystals. I heated the side until the glass glowed yellow-orange beneath the black stain from the lighter’s flame, and turned the pipe. The crystals fell into the hot spot, and soon the glass was filled with thick white smoke. I took the hit.

     The smoke tasted like lighter fluid and copper. After the first drag I felt invisible waves thumping into me. It was like being at a concert with the bass turned way too up, but no sound. Outside my apartment I heard a neighbor walking by, talking to his friend about some movie.

     “He was launched to another dimension.”

     Immediately everything was in double, and the unadorned white walls of my apartment melted unto themselves into a giant checkerboard of diamond's light. I closed my eyes and I saw a ball, painted in squares, purple and red. It shone like wet pearl in the sun, and bloomed into a symphony of geometric shapes, each more complex than the last. It was a living fractal, an impossible flower with no sun to lean towards, no bees to attract, existing for the sake of existing as a beautiful impossibility. Again and again it flowed from inside out of itself. Each birth swallowed me whole; I was looking at the spectacle while being lost in it as well. The colors and their combinations were always new, and though the shapes were never the same they shared the same quality, of impossible beauty brought to life. It was like the world itself was stuck in a dream, had realized it and had come to life. Matter had a flow, a pattern of truth, a beauty that could never express itself in four dimensions. But here reality realized it was alive and in its newfound consciousness realized that beauty is its ultimate expression, and so formed itself around that concept.
     This was a world I couldn’t imagine, and I was absolutely enthralled. It was Fantasia all over again. Again and again, because one drug was never enough, and LSD and mushrooms supplemented my psychedelic voyages. Different drugs do different things, and though these last two never launched me past the fifth dimension, they had another effect I couldn’t let go of. Now let me paint you a picture. Imagine a long voyage away from home, in a country or city you never chose to go to, but had to nonetheless. Imagine those closest to you visited rarely, and most of the time you spent living in this new home you spent with roommates that were never happy. One would come in late every day, dressed in black and slamming doors, shouting at anything. The other would come to you and remind you of all the things you did wrong, spitting between sharp teeth. And after surviving them both you’d retreat to your room, finding peace and solitude in a book, until you heard they’d found each other to yell at. You’d put on head phones to hide away a little more, but every now and then you’d hear the smash of porcelain, or be called to take a side. Imagine their shadows chased you all your life, even after you left their hell, and then one day you walked in your room and saw a wooden box with a red button on top. You press the button and all of a sudden you’re back home. The shadows are gone, nowhere to be found. Your parents are there, and they’re like the way they were when you were young, patient, caring, and fun. Imagine you’re back at home and you’re free to walk around without the fear of knocking something over or whatever fight was sure to break out next, that you can walk smiling outside to a bright green endless field where the clouds are few and always white, and always look like something you recognize, that favorite animal, favorite toy, cartoon character. On the fields you can run and jump and never fall, held aloft by a cool breeze. What a relief this place would be, what a gift the box would be. It would be like with just a press of a button you could alive again, before the blame, before the shouts, before the arrests and the hiding and the fear. It’s no wonder the last time I got high and the feeling set in that the first thought that came to my mind, with tears in my eyes, was “I’m back home.”
 

Just A Song Away

     Rehab in Naples, Florida was fun. It was always sunny and never rained, and I got to share my fears and insecurities with caring, loving, and compassionate folk. Yes, my biological father abandoned me, and though the subsequent and temporary loss of my mother sowed sad seeds of abandonment in my innocent baby mind, it was time to rise above circumstance and get my life in order. I did all the rehab readings and worksheets, made dozens of friends, and tried not to cry when my roommates didn’t eat the toast I made.

     Now, while in rehab I met a girl who we’ll call Sela. Sela was a cocaine addict trust-fund baby whose famous grandmother I guarantee you know. Rehab Mario, riding a confident and prolonged hypomanic high, had it going on, and made damn sure she knew it. But, alas, it was not meant to be. You see, having sex with beautiful women is frowned upon in rehab, and though we were willing and quite able, I got on my hands and knees every day and prayed to God to keep us from having sex. My glorious God did not let me down, much to my disappointment. He had a greater plan for me. You see, I had to make a choice between going home or staying in Naples in a sober living house, and if I stayed there was a chance I could defy the Lord and sleep with Sela. Well, Sela and I never did get together. Every single time it could have happened something beyond my control put the squash on it (I’m looking at you, God), but whatever, I was where I needed to be, surrounded by my peers and working a program of recovery. If it wasn’t for Sela I might not have stayed and my life would have turned out very differently. So I moved into a sober living home and devoted myself to my recovery. I went to AA meetings almost every day and had my first taste of what we in recovery call “The Pink Cloud.”

     Everywhere I went I went on my bike. Grass and trees and manicured bushes shined like jade all around me. The sky was a baby blue blanket, and of all the times it rained to wash away SoFla’s sins I never got wet but twice. I flew through the emerald city, and learned to let go of the handlebars and let my legs carry me wherever I leaned towards. I tasted freedom and danced on wheels, two buds of music blooming in my ears; the sound was like all the tears I’d ever shed had come back to pluck invisible strings to a rhythm above and beyond the blues I was leaving behind. I swayed as I surfed the soundwaves, my hands painting patterns on an invisible canvas in the sky as my body boomed through the ant-like monotony of the cars passing by. Every day I felt the wind on my face, felt it stretch and pull the sweat off my body like cool vapors. My skin turned bronze, and the smile I wore bright as white on caramel is I rode that pink cloud all the way through. For once in my life I was on the right path, flying on a natural high.

     As carefree as those first few months were, reality dawned when I realized I was out of money. I couldn’t stay at the home anymore. Hell, I couldn’t even buy gum, not with 16 cents. Payday was days away, and whatever minimum Old Navy and Hollister were paying for my labor couldn’t cover rent anywhere, not even with the dime nickel and penny I had tucked away. There were two places, however, that would welcome me without a deposit. It was a familiar choice. One of these was my parent’s house over in Plantation, Florida. The other was closer to sunset, St Matthew’s House, a homeless shelter in the less pristine side of lovely Naples. You can imagine how difficult this decision was. Both had free food. I was torn. Over and over I ran the choice through my head: home, or shelter? If I had a quarter I could have flipped for it, but I couldn’t afford to take such a chance. Instead I put my faith to the test and asked the heavens for a sign.

     The universe works in mysterious ways, and the first place I went looking for a sign was at a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. I always felt safe here in “the rooms,” and this meeting in particular was filled with old timers, grandpa’s and grandma’s with decades of sobriety under their belts. I could vibe with that, as I had far more respect for the old and venerable than I did for the juvenile drunks and addicts my age. There was no judgment here, even among the baby-boomers when I came in with my white baggy hippie pants, tie-dye shirt, and solar flare bandana. It was like rehab, a place where I could share my feelings and fears and actually being listened to. Sharing was new to me, and it felt like heaven. We said the serenity prayer and went over the twelve steps before the group started to share. Halfway into the meeting a young woman with black hair as long as mine spoke up. I don’t remember all her words, but the gist of it stuck with me even years later.

     “I showed up with a bag of clothes and my small suitcase of books. I was always a reader, ever since I was a kid my head was stuck in between pages. I was the only one at St. Matt’s with a locker full of books,” she laughed. Something inside of me perked up at the words. An alcoholic homeless bookworm? The resemblance caught my ears. Maybe St. Matthew’s House was the way to go, but I wasn’t yet convinced, so I set forth to the next most spiritual place I could think of besides the Brown Bag and the sacred realms I visited tripping balls on DMT: the church down the street from Office Depot. I walked through the wooden doors and what do you know, Father Iforgothisname happened to be preaching from Saint Matthew’s gospel. I was swayed but still unconvinced; it’s not like he had many gospels to choose from, after all. Still… I couldn’t help but wonder. I was torn, and with an undecided mind I hopped on my borrowed bicycle and said a prayer. I grabbed my phone and put Pandora on shuffle, welcoming chance. The first song was by Jay Z, Hova himself, and in his rhymes he spoke of a book I’ve come to know well. I’m sure you can guess the name. The Book of Matthew. Three strikes was what it took for me to get a hint from the cosmos, and days later I was with the saint.
My first night there I spent on the kitchen floor. Down to earth, and I didn’t mind. Before sleep I tied up my clothes in a white trash bag to keep it sealed from the roaches. I was given a plastic mattress six inches thick, a pillow, and a sheet. That mattress was a zero-sum game: unless I was laying down flat the air would rush to wherever I wasn’t. The next day I moved on up and got a bigger piece of the pie in bunk 33. It was the upper bunk with the same type of mattress, but with cherry on top: a clip-on book-light clipped onto the plastic rack by where my head would come to rest. At the foot of each bunk were two orange metal lockers, about six feet high. Mine was filled with books and gym clothes. The place was like a barracks; my wing had two rows of four bunks, and smelled like men. At the end of the hall was a bathroom with four sinks and three showers. No tile, all concrete. If there were windows I don’t remember them.
St. Matthew was strict: lights out at 10pm on the dot, and back on at 6am the next morning. You had to be out of there by 8am, enough time to shower and eat breakfast in the lanai. Every morning we ate donated pastries, rarely stale and always sweet, their glaze already melted in the sunless, humid air. Once we left we couldn’t come back until past the afternoon, they didn’t want us hanging out and laying around all day when we could be working. We had to be back by lights off to meet the breathalyzer, and if anyone was late they’d better have a time slip to prove their grind, which I always did. The saint was demanding but kind, and always had at least one plate of food saved to reward the six mile ride back home. I ate dinner in the same lanai I spent the mornings mopping, and kept my legs up to keep from getting bit by the bugs that preyed on shins. After I ate I’d change and shower. In the showers there was a mystery to be solved. One day I noticed what looked like small wet chocolate chips on the floor and on the off-white curtains. My monkey brain took over and in the spirit of inquisition I leaned over and took a whiff. These were undoubtedly not tiny Hershey Kisses. No, these were flecks of shit. The general consensus was that Fat Mike was to blame, by virtue of his mighty ass, but I wasn’t so sure. I was content enough to shower in the curtain-less stall, and the problem, at least for me, was solved.

     This daily routine of mine was ended by the nightly scouring of the bed sheets and mattress for bed bugs. Some of the guys would pinch them and toss them to the ground, where they’d stomp them to small splatters of blood. Fuck that. I’d seen too many men with eyes to the ground looking for the biting sons-of-bitches, never to find them. I jabbed them the second I saw them, the stains on my white sheets proof of death. They stank of spoiled fruit when split-- even their death was a miserable last fuck you. Each bite lasted at least two weeks, and they burned worse than any mosquito bite ever could. It was miserable, over and over I scratched and kept scratching, even when I broke skin. It was weeks before I’d find their hiding place. Until then l learned to sleep clutching my sleeves from the inside, long socks pulled up over my pant-legs sealing off any entrance. Better that than add more scars on my ankles and wrists.
While this may paint a literal shitty picture of what it was like to live in St. Matts, to tell only the downside wouldn’t do it justice. In a place like that no one walks around with a big head, no one looks over the fence and down on their neighbor for what they had or didn’t have. We all knew where we were. We all ate at the same hall and locked our bikes at the same rack. It was easy to talk to strangers since there was no mask to put on. And people were friendly, despite their pasts. Helpful too, like when one of the guys lost the key to his locker, and a fellow felon came to the rescue with a paper clip and deft fingers.
We were a helpful, giving bunch; take for example those long socks I wore nightly. They were a gift from Old Man Dukes, the illiterate ex-con with a heart of gold. He was over fifty, about 5’10,” big in the middle and walked with a limp. He always wore a baggy pair of blue sweatpants and a large, old gray t-shirt. He smiled and laughed a lot, and was very easy to talk to. I’d help Old Man Dukes on Sundays to use the ATM machine. I always made sure I was the one to help him; I didn’t trust other people not to take advantage of his illiteracy. He’d always offer me a coke for my troubles, and I sometimes accepted. One night he called me over to his bunk, two rows down from mine. He had a big square book of Greek mythology someone had given him, the kind with about half text and half color photos, with the good white paper with the sheen. He asked me if I wanted it, and of course I did. That night I clipped the book-light on and read about Hercules. There was a part I’d never read before, about when Hercules was at a fork in the road, a woman on each side. One was named Desire, she was beautiful and dressed in fine fabrics and jewels. Her path was of green grass, clear skies, and the shade of fruitful trees. The other was named Duty, plainly dressed but still attractive. Her path was rugged, the bushes adorned with thorns and the ground beat down a strewn with rock. He chose the rugged path and began his labors.

     The days were the same. Every morning before work I’d spend an hour or so reading, writing, and studying poetry in the food court at the mall. At night I’d scratch up my journal with the aid of the book-light, letting go of whatever errant thoughts stayed with in the dark. Weekends I had off and made friends with the other two young guys in my bunk, Jesse and Adrian. Adrian was a white kid that made you think of middle class and tennis. Jesse was dark like me, but with short curly brown hair. Both were skinny and a bit taller than me. Adrian I always felt was full of shit, the kind of kid who’d brag about a blowjob he may or may not have gotten, but Jesse and I had something in common. Aside from a sincere desire to stay sober, we both hated bed bugs. When the infestation got especially bad the terminators were summoned. The beds were stripped and sprayed from top to bottom, along with every corner in every room, and beneath all the lockers. I had to throw away most of my books, since pages were the perfect hiding spot for the bugs. I ended up throwing out my grandfather’s bible and my first book of AA, with all the signatures of my fellow rehabbers. Half my locker was cleared out that day. The only books I kept were Writing Poetry and Mary Kinzie’s A Poet’s Guide to Poetry, which I had left in my book bag.

     The terminators ultimately failed, but Jesse and I didn’t let that hold us back. We’d had enough of the little suck-fuckers. We rod our bikes to Home Depot and bought some caulk. Back at St. Matt’s we asked our bunkies to keep a lookout, lest any of the counselors disapprove of our mission. We cleared out the plastic bins from beneath our bunks and searched every inch and crevice for the foe. We both had top bunk, and never thought to search below, a clear mistake. We lay on our backs and shone a light up into the juncture where the bed-legs met with the crossbeams. What we found was pulsing, rolling masses of brown bodies, some fat and many flat and shaped like leafs. Beyond them tiny white eggs stood and twitched in big clusters. Jesse passed me the bug spray and his BIC lighter, but before we could kindle the pyre one of the guys warned us. Flame-throwing might be considered a war crime, and could even get us kicked out. We settled for flame and flame alone, and put the spray away. With a pounding heart I summoned fire with a click and spark, and held it under the crevice like a vengeful Prometheus. SNAP POP POP POP. We Rice Krispied their asses, the fetid aroma rising from their graves proof of our success. We were faithful to their massacre. Whatever bugs survived, shielded by the charred remains of their filthy brethren, were sealed with caulk, a white tomb we proudly slept upon like conquering Mongol Khans. Our cheers were effusive, back slapping and manly hugs mixed with boyish jumps of joy were met with smiles and nods from our peers. 

     Despite this success, living every day on a thin plastic mattress and falling asleep in humid air to the sounds of snoring men and the occasional rustling sheets from some uncouth masturbator was getting to me. This was no way to live, and bit by bit the frustration set in. I went to the Brown Bag and shared how I felt. Big Book Bob, a scholar of the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, shared a bit of his experience, and what he said was that when he started to accept where he was in life, that’s when his circumstances started to change. I took that to heart, and gave thanks to God for being in a homeless shelter, trusting that it was for my own good.

     A week later I was mopping the lanai, and I stopped by my bunk to get some things before leaving for work. On my bed was a folded piece of paper. “Go to office.” I had no clue what I did wrong, but my gut still dropped like it knew what it was. I stopped by the office, but the door was locked. With a sick stomach I made it to my bike and hopped on. I reached in my pocket for my iPhone, and by some fluke of movement I clicked on the music app. “No Worries” played, by Lil Wayne. I took it as another sign from the heavens as I hopped on my bike and felt the breeze. I had a feeling I’d be ok. Halfway through work I got a phone call from the owner of the sober house I had stayed in three months back. He needed a house manager, and wanted me for the job. In exchange for giving the residents drug tests and holding regular house meetings I would live in the house for free. I got off work early that day, and back at St. Matt’s I grabbed all my clothes and threw it in a white trash bag. The guys congratulated me on making it out, and my new boss picked me up soon after.

     The first thing I did once I got to my room was throw myself onto the bed. Never in my life had I felt such comfort. I grabbed the furry blanket folded at the foot of the bed and wrapped it all around me. If you’ve ever taken Ecstacy and pet a cat you can begin to relate to how soft this blanket was, and trust me, it was better. It felt like it was whispering warm I Love You’s all over my body, tickling me as it caressed me with a million purring kitten kisses. I was in heaven and almost in tears. How could I not be, having gone from sleeping in a homeless shelter to living in a $700,000 in the blink of an eye. I had put my faith to the test and tasted the fruits, I was learning to put my life in the hands of God, that no matter the circumstance I would be ok. And that note at St. Matt’s from earlier that day? My dad had mailed my passport and some candy. No Worries.
 

The First Collage

6 years old

     It was Tuesday and Mario's mom and dad picked him up early from school. He couldn't believe his luck as they drove all the way to Metro Zoo. Once inside he kept his head down, following the white painted alligators on the ground. They led to the special exhibit, albino alligators. The alligators were rare because they couldn't hide from predators, he learned. Mom and dad took photos everywhere, and he laughed when he grabbed their hands and swung between them.

     On Saturday he was up early to watch cartoons and eat Trix. He didn't like it when his mom mixed it with the healthy cereals, but she didn't this time. He picked up the bowl and drank the sweet milk. It was his favorite part. After the cartoons he took out his Legos to play before his sister Michelle woke up. She was one and looked just like the girl from Monster's Inc, and would bang on his door and say "Mah-yo, Mah-yo." He built his Lego house and cried when it broke apart. He sulked and went to the bathroom, where he crashed his Hotwheels off the tile into the wall.

     A bit later it was noon, and Daniel called asking if he could play. Mom said ok, and he put on his Superman cape. He took note of the time on the microwave and timed how long it took him to run to Daniel's house. He always ran faster with it on. They played in the backyard by the lake. The small blue fishnet was perfect for catching tadpoles. When they got bored of that they trapped red ants in red plastic cups. The Florida skies a were light bright blue. The clouds were clean cotton white.

7

    "Bye Mario!" His dad's voice was metallic and loud from the speakers of the police car. The siren WHOOPED and the blue and red lights flashed.

     Mario turned around smiling, jumping and waving and yelling goodbye as dad drove away with one last WHOOP.

     In school that day he wrote in his journal and turned it in to his teacher. She called his parents that night.

     Next morning he sat in the cafeteria and scooped a sporkful of Apple Jacks into his mouth. Not soggy enough yet. He poked the floating cereal for a bit, and when he looked up he smiled.

     "Hi Dad!" he said, waving.

     There he was, standing tall with his silver badge shining on his heart.

     "Mario, who's the kid who's been bothering you?"

     He looked around and pointed to a boy with his head hiding in his lunch-box.

     "Oooooh you're in trouble!" the boy's friend said.

     The bully never bothered him again.

     Wednesday night he was in his yellow jersey chasing the soccer ball. The team's name was The Bombers and he was on defense. A boy in a blue jersey was about to kick the ball at the goal. Raul ran straight towards him. The boy kicked the ball, hitting Raul hard on his left thigh. He got to the ball before the other boy and started dribbling upfield before passing to his teammate.

     "Good play! Good D!" Dad yelled.

     The whistle blew. The little kids stopped running and looked around at each other.

     "Penalty kick for yellow," said the ref. The kids all ran to their spots on the white box. The ref put the ball in the middle of the box as the kids stared. Raul was rubbing his thigh, frowning with his eyebrows furrowed.

     "Mario, you take the kick!" yelled coach from the sidelines.

     His eyes lit up and he got in the box. He looked at the goalie, then down at the ball and backed up. He ran and kicked the ball as hard as he could. The ball rolled to right of the goalie and into the net. The Bombers jumped and hugged each other. They ended up winning the game. Afterwards at McDonald's dad bought him extra chicken nuggets and gave him a dollar for scoring. It was his first goal. He was happy back at home when he told mom. Dad laughed and rubbed his head.

     Dad never missed a game.

8

     He rode his bike to and from school. This time he saw Andres walking as he entered the neighborhood. Andres was holding a magnifying glass. Raul got off his bike and they walked together.

     "Want to light some ants on fire?" Andres asked.

     "OK." He had never lit ants on fire before. An hour later he got on his bike and rode home.

     He opened the door and saw Mom standing above the stairs leading to the second floor. She was sobbing.

     "Why didn't you come back home!" she yelled at him, tears pouring down her face. "Don't do that again!"

     He started crying and ran up the stairs and hugged her tight.

18

     He almost threw up when they remembered his report card. "Where is it?" Mom shouted. He was caught. He was shaking as he grabbed the crumpled report card from his closet. A D in American history, and mom screamed at him until dad sent him to his room. He lied down and hugged his pillow, thinking about the knife in the kitchen. He fantasized about Dad slamming himself against the door and busting it open a moment too late, and of the both of them crying over his body. Maybe when he died they'd realize how much they love him. He slept and the next day no one talked.

     Two months later he asked his parents for $600 for the field-trip to Boston. They said yes, like always, and gave him money in case he wanted to buy anything. He brought them back a silver tea spoon with the Boston "B" on it, and a deck of playing cards.

     "Thank you, Mario," said dad, smiling.

     "That's all you brought back?" asked Mom.

     Sitting on the long brown lunch tables at school a few weeks later he laughed when his friend Chris told him that he made his mom cry the last time they fought. Good for him, he thought. She probably deserved it.

15

     It was a hot summer day, light blue skies and white clouds. Raul and five other friends were smoking weed in the patio.

    "Ima get us some hotpockets," Raul said. He went inside, grabbed ten hotpockets out of the freezer and put them in the microwave. As they were heating up he called Mom to make sure when Dad was coming home. "He's coming home early."

     His gut sank. "Ok Mom." He hung up and sprinted to the patio. "Break out!"

     But there he was, six-foot-three and sweating in his brown uniform, gun hanging by his waist.

     "What the fuck is this?" Dad yelled, grabbing the bong and hurling it into the lake. "Get the fuck out." All his friends left.

     "Wait until your mother hears about this," he smirked.

     Raul went to his room and fell asleep. He woke up when mom came home. She was screaming and crying as she hit his face, and made him take off his shoes.

     "You don't deserve them."

     She told him to leave. A day later he was home. Laying in bed he thought about the knife in the kitchen. His door opened and he saw Marie standing there. "I'm glad you're home," she said. No one had ever told him that before.

     It was a quiet summer.

     He was grateful when school started, happy to be back in newspaper class. Mrs. Culpepper told him he was good, and wanted him to compete in states. It was a weekend-long event a few hours north in a nice hotel. He asked his parents if he could go. They said yes.

     Mrs. Culpepper signed him up for the news feature contest. He'd only ever covered sports. It was time to start. He sat down, leg shaking as the instructor went over the rules. The competition began and he was lost in his words. Time flew and before he knew it there were five minutes left. His heart pounded and his chest and breath were tight. His eyes darted all over the paper, his hand slashing words and rewriting sentences with zealous intent. Playing soccer tournaments never made him feel this alive.

     Later that night he sat with his class in the hotel's dining room, looking down, his leg still shaking. It was time to announce the winners. He didn't think he could win, but maybe he was as good as Mrs. Culpepper said he was.

     "Third place, from Lee County High School, Alejandra Bonisse."

     His throat was tight.

     "Second place, from Coral Gates High School, Peter Moreno."

     His chest was wrapped tight around his jackhammer heart.

      "And first place, from South Plantation High School, Mario Stone." He heart leaped to the sky and he jumped after it, eyes alive and shining. You couldn't cut the smile from his face. It was the first prize he'd ever won on his own. The first thing he did was call mom and dad. Maybe they would be proud of him. He never believed in himself.

17

      "What's it like?" he asked Alex. He'd never taken LSD. "Man, just make sure you're at peace with the universe, because if there's something wrong with you... you're gonna figure it out," Alex told him, taking another swig of the 32 oz Old English.

     "Pass that back," Mario said, taking the bottle. Summer was coming and he had no worries. He was already accepted into college with a full-ride scholarship, and in the honors program to boot. Life was too easy. 

18

     He crushed the Xanax bars and snorted a line. It was bitter on the back of his tongue and made his nose drip. The rest of it went into red plastic cups filled with beer. The last thing he remembered was covering the weed with the crushed bars and taking a hit.

     "He's not breathing," Ren said.

     "Shut up, he is," Turner said, walking over to Mario and shaking him. Mario's head lolled like a puppet's.

     "We should call 911."

     "Fuck that," said Turner, and shook him harder. No response. Turner reached back and slapped Raul hard across the face, multiple times.

     "What the fuck?" Mario mumbled, blinking his eyes. "Let me sleep."

     The next day Mario laughed at Ren. "You were really gonna call the ambulance, huh?"

21

     Latin night at Adobo. He wore his favorite faded jeans, and his purple shirt was unbuttoned to the chest, sleeves rolled up to just below the elbows. He grabbed another drink, he'd ask the girls to dance after just one more. One more, again and again.

     He woke up on impact. A bright white light hovered over him.

     "I need you to take a breathalyzer," said a voice beside the light.

     "No I dun wanna."

     "You have to."

     "Promise it's gon be ok?"

     "Yes, I promise."

     He was too hurt to blow hard, so the paramedics took his blood. The next day mom told him she had cancer. The next day he told her about the accident. They found him a good lawyer, and he promised not to drink anymore.

22

     New Year's Eve with Victora at Cafe Iguana. Latin night. They took shots before leaving, and at the club he took many more. The last thing he remembered was tripping over his feet as they danced.

     He came to sitting down with his hands behind him, wrists aching. Ahead of him was a counter. The officers behind the counter were looking his way, talking to each other.

     "That him?"

     "Yeah, that's him."

     His stomach churned, and he took a deep breath to hold it down. After a few breaths he stood up, the handcuffs tight and scratching his wrists, and walked over to the officer nearest him.

     "Sir," he said, looking down, "what happened?"

     "You hit a woman," one of the men said. "You punched her face and fought the officers who went to help her. No. Stop that shit. Stop crying."

     The jail cell was empty when he woke up. The handcuffs were off, and he was dressed in baggy blue inmate clothes. He sat down on the bed and stared at the ground. Many minutes later he looked at his wrists. They were red from the cuffs. He looked around, finding nothing, then held his left wrist to his mouth and sucked. He caught the skin with his teeth. He started to bite when he remembered Michelle.

     "I'm glad you're home."

     He lied down and tried to fall back asleep.

24

     It was June 12 when the five small white tabs came in the mail, taped to the back of a CD case. He thought of what Alex had told him years back. "If there's something wrong with you..." He slid two under his tongue and waited to find out. Fifteen minutes later anxiety crept into his arms and nausea buzzed throughout his body. Ropes carved into the carpet and flowed like a river of snakes. He closed his eyes and in the darkness became aware of silence. No thoughts to fill his head, no words or order to give meaning to, just silence and awareness of the vastness behind his eyes.

     Images form and he sees himself with his sister. He's pushing the drink towards Marie as she tries to turn away. He keeps pushing and she looks down and finally accepts, drinking it all. He hands her more and she But this never drinks them happened. He's giving her the keys. She shakes her head no, swaying a little, and he puts another drink in her hands. She looks worried, scared. He yells at her and she drinks it, and he grabs her I'd never hand and puts the car keys in them do that to her and walks her to the car.                

     The two vanish and a young man appears, his face blurry. He's wearing faded jeans and a purple shirt rolled up to just below the elbows. He's drunk and stumbling. There's a car behind him, front end smashed. The young man's jeans Then why did I do that are bloody and torn to myself? The image faded and Mario fell to his knees, shaking as tears streamed down his face.

     "It's ok," said a voice in his head. "It's ok. It's ok," She repeated. "Today is a new day," She said to him, and he knew it was true.

26

    "Don't be afraid," She told him. "I'm always with you." The walls inside the police wagon were moving and he could see armies forming in them. He looked out the window and saw generals holding dollar signs in their fists, drunken kings with greed in their eyes, and a mass of slaves with muzzles like gas-masks over their mouths.

     At the mental hospital he smiled at the guards as he read their thoughts, written freely across their bodies. He turned away and stared at the evolving patterns on the wall. "I'm not high," he said, telling them the truth. The next day the psychiatrist called for him. Raul sat down with legs crossed in front of the psychiatrist and answered all the questions. I'll see you again he read on the doctor's face, and he was dismissed from the hospital.

    A week later his mom came to visit him. For a week they stayed together, and she asked him to get help, to go to rehab. The week was up and she dropped him off at home. Within an hour he was arrested. Possession of paraphernalia.

     In jail the walls were moving again, and made a promise. A few hours later he was back home. He picked up his cell phone.

     "Mom, I need help."     

5 years old

     Grandpa sat with him and told him to put his palms together. Every night they prayed together in Spanish.

     "Ahora repite, 'Padre nuestro"

     "Padre nuestro"

     "-que estás en los cielos,'"

     "-que estás en los cielos,"

     "santificado sea tu nombre"

     "santificado sea tu nombre..."

27

     "Thank you God for another day sober."

     He hugs his pillow, closes his eyes, and sleeps soundly.

My First Night in the Mental Hospital

     So it was near midnight in the mental hospital. It was my first night there, and I was dressed in only a thin robe and socks, which I thought was appropriate. I probably looked a lot like I 2000 years ago the last time I was jesus, what with my long hair down and simple garb. I met the first nurse, a large black lady with a ponytail, with patience and calmly filled out the questionnaire she gave me. Self harm? No check. Use of drugs? Not recently, no check. Son of God? Bless you, ma’am, but I just remembered it’s lent and I can’t use your pen anymore. Jesus has given up technology for 40 days. I will grapple the Devil barehanded. Though she was put off by this, the second nurse was far more kind, and sat me down as she did her clinical review.

     Her questions were open-ended. How was I feeling? I’m feeling peaceful and cold, but that’s ok, it too shall pass. As she asked me more questions I held her in my eye. She was white, her light skin pale against her black curly hair. There was no product in it, and whatever make up she might have on had worn off by now. Her small mouth and thin lips smiled politely as I answered, and when she looked at me in the eyes the full site of her face brought sunlight to my eyes and my mouth beamed wide, so kind was she. She led me to my room, and before saying goodbye I noticed I was a step too close, and the silence of the night was prominent as I saw her face and noticed the mole she had below and to the left of her lips. I didn’t stare, I held her eyes with mine, but some part of her reacted to my seeing her blemish, and her shoulders shrank a little as she lowered her gaze and looked down to the left, shielding her blemish. She left without another word.

     The next day I met my roommate, a young man about twenty years of age who walked in shuffled steps with his head slightly down and shoulders hunched. He looked like a younger, happier Gargamel, but we’ll call him Charlie. He sure wasn’t a Matthew or Paul. Charlie’s side of the room filled with books on string theory and quantum mechanics. Why, I too know a thing or two about the laws of the universe, and so I engaged him in friendly conversation.

“I’m going to walk home once they let me out.”

“It’s like 30 degrees with snow outside.”

“It’s ok, I have flip-flops.”

“You’re crazy.”

    Obviously this was a man of little faith. I kept my silence and probably blessed his heart. He simply didn’t know that my father, God Almighty, would provide me whatever it is I needed, like that time a few days back when he made Homer Simpson appear on my ceiling when I was very, very sad. Shortly after my brief exchange with Charlie, we met with the rest of the mental cases and sat in a circle for a discussion with one of the counselors. I sat on the floor Indian style because chairs are technology, and the devil ain’t gon’ get this ass. Before the group going the psychiatrist summoned me to analyze my brain. He was a balding man in his late forties with a pair of black-rimmed glasses. He sat on his chair with his clipboard in hand and pen in the other, and with that smile doctors give he asked how my day was and told me to have a seat. I sat on my ass. I explained, told him about lent and my IQ, and he lowered his voice made a comment about eccentricity and intelligence. Across his body I saw ‘jealousy’ slither like a snake, and I knew immediately he had a hard-on for me. He was going to try to keep my ass in here. Luckily, though, I had read the Tao, so I just smiled and answered honestly, knowing my life was in God’s hands. Yeah, my iPod talked to me when I was high (I didn’t tell him it also talked to me when I was sober), and no, I didn’t have any plans to hurt myself. I didn’t tell him I was Jesus, though, partly because he didn’t ask, but also because he looked like a Roman. He asked me if I thought I was ok to leave. Again the words appeared all over his body. “I know you’ll be back, so I’ll let you go now.” Turns out Roman thought he was a cat and I his mental mouse. Well, he let me leave and I made it home in a cab provided by the hospital.

     I never saw Roman again. And on the ride back my flip-flops stayed nice and dry. In fact, I wasn’t cold at all. In your face, Quantum Charlie.

Charlie and I rip off Hobo


Charlie and I were staring at each other laughing hysterically. We were high off of salvia and weed, and weren't capable of uttering even a single word. Goofy faces and lots of "pfs, pfffss" were all we could muster. We didn't have the cash to buy the concentrated salvia, a potent psychedelic, until the night before. Poor hobo. He was left waiting til dawn for a hooker that never showed.
It was his last $40, saved just for a hooker, making it a grand total of $140 given to two punk highschool kids in exchange for bringing him cocaine and ass. We were surprised he trusted us with that last $40. We were surprised he believed the 8-ball of flour we gave him was a buck's worth of cocaine. I thought the charade was up when he asked to try a line. Charlie and I were worried he'd catch on to the scam, but fuck it, he was mad fucked-up as it was. Maybe we could pull it off.
We gave him some flour. A loud wet snort later the hobo wasn't fully duped. "Give me some to put on my gums!" he demanded. We gave him more flour, and this time he rubbed it into his gums and lips with zeal. "This is the good shit!" he shouted, his mouth a white circle, like he was facefucked by powdered donut dick. Hobo was just getting started. "I want pussy."

I didn't plan on ripping hobo off that night. I was at home probably reading a book or contemplating the meaning of life or something when I heard a knock on my window. I moved the blinds and Charlie's big round face greeted me. He looked like the Pringle's guy, only shaved and skeevy. I opened the window and heard Charlie's ambition.
"Dude! This hobo by the gas station wanted me to get him drugs. I saw him put a hundred dollar bill into his fanny pack! He wants some coke!" Charlie was glowing. "Do you have any white stuff?"
"No'" I said regretfully, "I do not... But!"
Charlie's eyes lit up. "But what?!"
"I can get us some flour!" God, I felt so proud.
"Good! Get an 8-balls worth."
I was an innocent kid, I had no clue what an 8-ball looked like.
"How much is that?" I asked.
"I don't know, man, just put some in a ziplock, he seemed pretty fucked up."
Moments later we were off to find the hobo.