First Thing Last

by Brianna Zigler

When I was a kid my dad used to tell me that life is only what you make it, that if you want to grow up and be a surgeon or an actor or an ambassador for the United Nations then, god dammit, the only way you’ll get there is if you get off your ass and try. And if you want to be like me, sitting alone in your parents’ basement, pissing away every rotten minute of your rotten life staring at the television screen or the pages of an erotic novel, then he’d be damned if you couldn’t do that too. Because my dad always said that you are the captain of the vessel that is your life, you steer the wheel, you choose the course. I always thought those were good words to live by and I took them as literally as I could, because if I’m being honest, I never wanted to do anything with my life.

I was always very comfortable locking myself in my room with my graphic comic books and violently explicit video games while my algebra homework lay carelessly sprawled across the sheets of my bed, untouched and unwanted. But my mom keeps coming downstairs yelling, “Do something with your life!” and it does nothing more than echo through the empty space of my dank, dark room, rendered to imperceptible sound bites that fade into the concrete walls. And despite my dad’s philosophy on life, he’s never been very happy with the choices I’ve made.

My parents are “those” parents, you know, the ones that are all talk and no doing. They spew empty threats and promises at me as if I’m less a human and more a suggestion box, so much so that I don’t do much else other than take their criticisms with a grain of salt. Because I can’t count how many times I’ve heard “You’re 18 years old, get out of our house!,” or, “You’re a worthless piece of shit, what kind of son are you?” and yet here I am, still filling my time popping bubble wrap, sunk into the deep groove of my bean bag chair that my bony, out-of-shape ass has formed for the past God-knows-how-many years, and I feel myself going nowhere. But what no one considers when they hear how I spend my Friday nights, poisoned with a bottle of Pinnacle Whipped, sprawling toilet paper over tree branches and laughing about the stale vomit underneath some guy I’ve never met’s shoe, is that maybe for now, I want to live this way. I don’t want to spend my remaining years downing 40’s and rolling joints just to numb the pain of living, but while my body is fresh and lean and young, I want to abuse it in the best ways.

It’s Tuesday and I’m still going nowhere. In my sights, the square shape of a junky box that’s supposed to be a television or something, and on the screen, the usual broadcast of the Quentin Tarantino movie, Reservoir Dogs. I don’t know why, but it’s always on whenever I want to watch TV. In my right hand, a hand-blown glass bowl packed with marijuana that I’m too lazy of a piece of crap to light up with the lighter weakly held in my left hand. I’m lying like a bum in my comfy blue bean bag, my scrawny legs sprawled out in front of me, my head slung back upon the neck of the chair, so that my eyes are gazing blankly at the ceiling and my greasy black hair is cascading down from my scalp. I need a shower. But why do I even need a shower? Who am I freshening up for? No girls want to fuck me, I only see the faces of my friends when they’re blurred by alcohol and THC, my parents couldn’t give less of a shit if I walked through the front door covered head to toe in sewer water, so most of the time I don’t even bother to put on deodorant. I’m sort of an invisible freak these days, but that self-made label suited me better than “Hobo,” “Psycho,” or, “Bisexual,” names that followed me throughout high school.

Did I mention I finished? Well, I did, but just barely, even though that hardly means anything to me. I know without anyone having to tell me that I’m a smart guy, but my grades didn’t reflect that. And I couldn’t give less of a shit, because all school does is put the book-smart kids on a fucking pedestal and anyone lesser than that criteria is looked down on like some caged animal just because they don’t meet the standards of some goddamn educational plan . But if you sat me down in a room I could go off on tangents about the hypotheses of the origin of the universe, or explain to you how black holes are made, or tell you piece by piece why grades mean nothing when it comes to somebody’s true intelligence. All school does is measure you and test you and whip you into this image of what society deems as an intelligent person. I can tell you right now that that’s nothing but bullshit.

My teachers hated me because they could never get me to bend the way they wanted me to. “Start doing your homework,” they’d say. “Come after school and make up this assignment,” they’d say, but all I’d hear was noise. The only way I was able to pass every grade without repeating was because I fucking aced all my tests. I was, and still am, unmotivated, lazy, and apathetic, but what I lacked in total, if not all, interest in my education, I made up for in just being generally smart. My problem was I said “fuck you” to all other school work, but if I had a test put in front of me, I’d go to town. My teachers would hand me back my tests and quizzes, giving me the stink eye as if saying that even though I missed the day of the test and had to make it up out in the hall surrounded by no one, they still assumed that I’d cheated. Never did. I’m an honest person, and that’s the only thing I’ll ever give myself credit for; I’m one honest son of a bitch.

Rain drops are falling from the sky, tiny crystal bullets rapping against the basement windows trying to kill me. Not even the blaring of heads and other human appendages being lopped off in my video game could mute the sound of torrential downpour ensuing outside. I give up. I pull the idiot box’s brown extension cord from the wall socket that it’s plugged into, which shuts down the tv, and I look around my room. My room is a literal shit hole. There’s a pair of toenail clippers hanging from a string attached to the ceiling (don’t ask me how it got there). In one corner, a creepy, ceramic chicken that my grandma sent me for my birthday one year, and I had never bothered to ask her why, of all things, she thought that that would make a good birthday present.

Boxes of action figures, comic books, video games, and DVD’s cluttered into mountains at almost every inch of empty space inside the four walls, other than the small rectangular section that’s for my mattress. Yeah, that’s right, my mattress. I don’t even have a bed. I have a mattress covered in a few flimsy sheets. I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth. My family is what some would probably call dirt poor, been that way even before I was born. Don’t ask me how often we’ve been threatened to be evicted from our home, yet somehow we manage to escape it every single time. Maybe it’s a miracle, or maybe it’s just dumb luck. I’ve never been one to believe in anything.

Anyway, after what seems like a good six hours or so, I hoist myself up from my bean bag chair, arms and legs aching from misuse, float over to the cracked mirror that hangs from a piece of board on the wall closest to the television. I look at the pole-thin body that I see in the reflection, the shaggy black hair that hangs in front of two icy blue eyes, the thin lips that curl into a stagnant grimace and, altogether, I see this hideous, grungy thing that’s supposed to be me. I’m not comfortable in my skin. I think a lot of girls see me as considerably attractive, but I’m unapproachable, weird, and, to put it bluntly, pretty damn mean. I just have shit social skills. I don’t know how to interact well a with person I’m not used to and that’s just how I’ve been ever since I can remember. People either click with me or they don’t, but in retrospect it’s a nice way to wheedle out who’s worth sticking around and who isn’t.

I turn away from the mirror and start walking the stairs, one foot after another, and it feels like with each step I’m pulling down two 50-pound weights attached to either of my legs. I need to stop being so goddamn lazy, but with such a hyperactive metabolism as mine, I’ll probably just continue gorging myself with packages of Pop Tarts, chugging cans of Cherry Coke, and further deepening the groove in my bean bag chair until my metabolism finally decides to bite me in the ass, literally. But in all honesty, none of that is of any real importance to me anyway.

I enter the kitchen and make direct contact with the aboveground world. I see my mom sitting at the kitchen table, alone, drinking from a wine glass that’s probably filled with cheap scotch, making notes on a small pad of paper that I knew was her attempting to balance the check book. Next to her is a ball of blue yarn, a pair of knitting needles, and what looks like one quarter of a half-assed sweater, all a good representation of how my mom starts things but never finishes them. My dad’s nowhere to be found, but on a whim I guess that he’s out buying more cheap scotch. That’s where most of my parents’ income goes anyway; cheap scotch, coffee beans, coffee creamer, and cigarettes. I guess you could say that’s why we struggle to pay rent and bills every month.

My mom turns around and looks at me.

“Can you get me a cigarette from that box off the kitchen counter?” She points to it for me, as if I can’t figure it out for myself. Her voice is like one of those little gold bells some people use to teach their dog new tricks. Except I wasn’t a dog, and I didn’t feel like learning anything new.

“No. I’m going.”

“Going where?”

“I’m going.”

With that last syllable still hanging from my lips, I walk away from her. I walk out of the kitchen, through the living room. I walk onto the front porch. And after grabbing my tattered sweatshirt and sneakers, without knowing exactly where I’m heading, before my mom has time to finish the sentence she has yet to start, I walk out into the rain. I left.

I watch the clouds lighten into a color, something resembling my pallor when I throw up. I’m walking down South Avenue by myself and the air is frigid, though I feel just as numb as I do in any other setting on any other day of my life. The rain’s letting up, save for a few misfit droplets, my hands are tucked tightly away in my sweatshirt pockets, but the thin, shitty fabric does nothing to protect my dry skin from the sting of January. Don’t get me wrong, though, I love rainy winter days better than rainy days during any other season. When it rains in the spring, it’s just goddamn awful because spring is nothing but rain, so you can’t even enjoy it because it happens so frequently, like when you listen to a good song over and over but you get to a point where you know you’ve just ruined it for yourself.

When it rains in the summer, it’s too hot and muggy and unbearably humid all the time in the first place. When it rains in the fall, it’s not quite summer, but it’s not quite winter; it’s warm but it’s cold, warm enough to still be disgustingly humid, but not yet cold enough to be enjoyed. And then you have rainy winter days, when the trees are bare and threatening, the sky is a murky grey, and the world is silent except for the plip plop sound of water hitting the leaves of trees and the roofs of cars. The air is both wet and parched at the same time and when I look out the window, the world appears to me as a desolate, post-apocalyptic wonderland. It’s thick with a bittersweet emptiness that fills me with a twisted kind of joy.

Crazy beautiful things like that always seemed to temporarily seal the space in my chest where my soul should probably be. As I’m walking, I keep my head down, my expression emotionless; I keep my eyes fixated on the green tennis ball I’ve been bouncing back and forth to myself against the sidewalk pavement. I need this time to myself, to think and maybe give myself some semblance of direction. I don’t get time like this in my home, even in the so-called cave that is my room. I can still here my parents screaming at each other over shit like the house and alcohol and all the money they still owe their old drug dealer, or when my sister comes home from college to visit, they yell at her for “leaving her family in shambles.” To hell with that bullshit, I always say to her. She had the sense and the brains and the guts to find bigger and better things for herself, the least she could do was leave us behind in this shithole. Better that one of us in this directionless family gets somewhere in life than none of us at all.

But my sister, Daria, she had always been the bright one in the family, the one with promise, I’d seen it ever since memory served me. I had always looked up to my sister when I was a kid, but when I reached middle school I became angsty and rebellious and decided to start thinking for myself instead of relying on Daria to pave the way for me. And while I do believe that no one truly becomes an individual until they learn to live their own life, I sometimes wonder what I’d be doing with myself right now if I had chosen to tread in Daria’s footsteps instead.

I hear familiar voices and I stop walking for a moment. I turn to look across the street and my stomach lurches forward a little because I see the pasty pale faces of Damien Grey and Hunter Howard. I don’t think I can recall a day during my freshman year when I wasn’t harassed at least once by either of them when everyone found out that I played for both teams. Long story short, my first drunken experience as a teenager was also the one that led my suppressed, sinful feelings out of the depths of my mind, with nothing more than a bottle of Smirnoff and a cute, blonde-haired boy who had yet to accept the fact that he spent his afternoons at home watching guys get it on.

Needless to say, I never saw him again. I never knew his name either, which is sort of depressing when you think about it. And despite the fact that the life-changing realization of my sexual orientation had made me a social pariah of high school, at the time, it had relieved me to know who I really was, even if I had to pay the price on behalf of others who were probably even more insecure than I was. And now, there are small cries spaced out sporadically between the words of two bullies on the other side of the road. In this instant, my gut is telling me to mind my own damn business and leave whatever’s going on alone, to continue on my walk to find some peace of mind, but my head is telling me otherwise. My head is telling me to fuck the easy way out and take one for the underdog that I used to be, that I still am. So I decide that for once, I’ll fight off my demons and listen to my head. I cross the street.

“Well, well, well, if it isn’t the bisexual. What do you think you’re doing here, faggot? It’s been a while.” Hunter’s sneering and looking to his companion for approval. Damien makes a sound that’s practically a snarl, which I assume is his way of accepting Hunter’s insult to me.

“Fuck off leave that kid alone.” I say.

“Awh are you in love with him, faggot?” Damien says.

“Just leave him the fuck alone. Are you guys ever going to grow up? Seriously? And knowing the both of you, I’m betting he didn’t even do anything and you’re just being general assholes. Grow the fuck up.”

“Actually,” Hunter turns and looks at the kid, “He did do something. He’s actually a faggot, just like you. So we’re gonna beat it out of him.”

“And if you have any sense, you’ll get the fuck out of here too, or we’ll fuck you up just like this fucker over here.” Damien’s laughing and it reminds me of the hyenas in The Lion King.

My mind is racing and I panic. My mouth is moving but words aren’t coming out. I look ridiculous and they’re laughing, or maybe it’s all in my head. I don’t know, I don’t know anything anymore. Did I ever? But I look over at the kid they’ve been tormenting and it takes every bone in my body to keep my mouth from gaping wide open, because there, in front of me, I see the boy that opened my eyes to who I really was all those years ago, in 9th grade. The boy whose name I never knew, but I wish I did. It’s him they’re torturing. And I’m suddenly overcome with this powerful feeling that now courses through my veins and pulsates in my heart, straight into my left hand, which clenches into a fist, lifts and runs straight through into Hunter’s jaw.

And when Damien bolts over to me, cursing my name saying “Who the fuck do you think you are, you fucking queer?”

My right hand counters into his nose and he falls back onto the ground, straight on his ass.

They’re both screaming and crying at me like a couple of pussies and I realize I’ve never felt such a beautiful rage in me ever before. It’s thick and it’s sweet and it fills me like nothing has in what could possibly be my entire life. But I notice that while I’m reveling in the pure splendor of my victory, the jackasses manage to escape and hightail it to the nearest road leading anywhere but here. I hardly mind, I mean maybe it’ll teach them not to be so quick to mess with a couple of faggots. I walk over to the kid that’s sitting on the ground, huddled behind the dumpster, and I hold out my hand to help him up. He takes it, now standing straight, and he smiles at me.

“Hey, I know you.”

“I know you too. You actually remember me?” I look at him through the locks of thick black hair that fall in front of my eyes.

“How could I not? Do you remember my name?”

I laugh. “I don’t think I ever actually got your name that night. Do you remember mine?”

“It’s Jason. And yeah, I do.”

There’s an awkward silence and we both look to the ground, scuffing the dirt with the soles of our shoes. He breaks the silence.

“We should hang out sometime.”

“Yeah… Yeah we definitely should.”

“It’s Jason Westfield. Find me on Facebook ok?” He grins.

Returning the grin I say, “Yeah, of course.”

Quickly and nervously, I turn around and start walking away. He doesn’t appear to be following me, and I assume he’s walking in the other direction. I’m now aware that my heart is racing at what feels like a death-inducing rate and my cheeks are molten lava. I’m overcome with so many new feelings that warm me in a wonderful and unfamiliar way. My smile is still tattooed to my face and I have absolutely no idea where my legs are taking me.

At this point, I don’t really care. But I see that the nearest place in my sights is the train station, and I decide that that’s maybe where I should go. When I was little, I had loved sitting in train stations with my parents or my sister, watching all the different kinds of people walk on and off the trains. I would always wonder where they were headed and why; if they were running away, or coming back, or maybe they were visiting their parents, or going on a business trip. I had wanted to know their stories. Sometimes I would just look at someone and make up a story for them in my head and tell my mom or my sister and they’d laugh and I’d smile. One time, I saw a young woman sitting next to my mom and I on a bench, and she was staring at this funky, hand drawn picture that looked like it was from the 70’s, or at least, the guy drawn in the picture did. It was sloppy, but it had an edgy kind of vintage feel to it that I liked, and even still, in the back of my mind, I wonder who the young man in the picture was, and why that woman had been looking at it. I walk up to the train station and I look over at a seemingly harmless man in a clean suit, a brown suitcase sitting next to his feet. He’s waiting for his train and smoking a cigarette.

“Can I bum a cig off of you, man?” I ask him.

“Five bucks,” he replies.

I fish through my pockets and pull out a crisp, 5 dollar bill. He takes it and hands me a cigarette from the packet he’s holding in his left hand. I sit down on the bench next to him, grab from my pocket the lighter that I stole from my mom a couple weeks ago to try and curb my parents from smoking their own cigarettes. I guess you could say I’m a bit of a hypocrite now, but hey, who’s complaining? I stick the slender, white cylinder in between my dry lips and light it with the flame. I inhale, cough like I’m stricken with disease, exhale, and watch the long trail of grey smoke exit from my mouth. And as I sit on this bench in the train station, smoking the first cigarette to ever touch my skin, I think about the scene from Reservoir Dogs where Mr. Brown starts yelling about how he thinks he’s gone blind, and Mr. Orange looks at him and goes, “You’re not blind, you’ve just got blood in your eyes.”

And I’m thinking to myself, maybe that’s been me, you know?

Maybe I’ve just had blood in my eyes. Maybe today was the start of something better. But I don’t know, man. I could just be talking nonsense.