CHAPTER 1: Asleep or Awake
It didn't matter. If I'd managed to fall asleep, invariably I'd be awakened by a nightmare, often the same one: getting hopelessly, endlessly lost somewhere. (I'm still trying to figure that one out.) Once awake—usually well ahead of the alarm clock—I was faced with the nightmare of getting through another day. Thus sleep rarely afforded any respite.
High school. A rough spot for many. A living nightmare for me that began each school day at the bus stop: if I made it to school with all of my books, food and clothing intact, it was an unusually good day. Even better when I got to sit on a bus seat instead of crouch in the corner because I'd get shoved or kicked wherever I attempted to sit.
A typical day at school involved multiple verbal assaults, almost always profane. Physical assaults—random punches, kicks and trips—were weekly occurrences. But I couldn't make it through a month without at least one for the books, the kind few believe happened.
Let's see... It's a special event in the gymnasium. I'm sitting shoulder-height in the bleachers, unfortunately in the very end seat near the doors. A bunch of "hard guys" (our name for bullies) congregated right next to me. One of them decided to see how much pain I could endure: he punched me in the crotch as hard as he possibly could. Light-headed from the blast of agony, I was just able to hear the cackling that arose from his peers, amidst remarks that I must not have had balls since I was still conscious. Then suddenly I had no shoes. One of the bunch had yanked them of my feet and left them in the hall for me to find later.
Gym class was always a nightmare—and to think I could have been legitimately excused from it all four years had my mother allowed me to get a note from the doctor about my chronic nosebleed problem. It was touch football day, and some witless lard-ass thought it would be most amusing if he tackled me—for no reason other than I was crouched directly across from him. When bodies were set in motion, I was driven into the ground, hands first, by three hundred pounds of useless protoplasm. Both of my wrists were badly sprained, an injury that later gave rise to arthritis. Imagine the frustration of an aspiring graphic artist in college unable to hold a pencil because of that waste of skin.
Gym class, again. Softball day. I was wisely trying to stay at the end of the batting line because I knew I'd just strike out, which would only make matters worse. The batter swung and let loose of the bat prematurely; it spun through the air and smacked me square on one shin. With a softball-sized bruise emerging on my leg, I limped away and asked to be excused. "Meat" (the nickname given to the sadistic, pea-brained gym teacher by the hard guys, which only the hard guys were allowed to use) ordered me to return to the batting line... by which time the same batter was again at bat. And, almost unbelievably, the same thing happened again: his freewheeling bat struck the same leg in precisely the same spot. This time my leg was bleeding, and the pain was such that I could barely stand, let alone walk. Meat reluctantly allowed me to see the nurse. No help getting there, of course.
Random day outside. I sat down on the steps at one of the school back doors to tie my shoe. A bunch of hard guys in gym clothes were approaching, and one of them thought it would be great fun to make it appear as though I was homosexual (more on that later). He grabbed me by the shoulders and ground his stinking, sweaty crotch hard against my face, to the delirious enjoyment of his friends and the revulsion of nearby girls.
Gym class, once again. I thought it was going to be a good day for a change: Meat gave us a choice to either play touch football or run laps. Guess which I chose. And so there I was merrily running laps all by myself—or so I thought. Suddenly I realized there were multiple footfalls rapidly approaching from behind, and before I even had a chance to glance backward, a bunch of rabid hard guys picked me up off my feet, tore off my clothes, and hurled me into the middle of a girls' field hockey game.
Time to take a breather. That's a lot of heavy shit right there, and it's just a sampling. But what made matters worse—if that could be believed—was that the nightmare didn't end once I stepped off the bus in the afternoon. Waiting at home was a whole other form of emotional torture.
Evidently, in my pre-teen years, I demonstrated the earmarks of a "wunderkind," and yet there I was very nearly flunking out of high school. My mother, who had a Masters in child psychology, was clueless; she regarded my treatment in school with skepticism, and could not see the signs of acute chronic depression playing out right under her nose (and there's a reason for that, as I'll reveal later). Every lousy grade I earned just earned me more harassment, threats and punishment. Naturally I revealed less and less of what was going on, lied about my performance, and did everything I could to retreat from my family. When letters arrived from school reporting that I was at risk of failing, all holy hell would break loose.
Thus I could find no solace anywhere. The world as a whole was a horrible, cruel place. Well, in truth there was one safe place for me: we had a summer home in the woods of New Hampshire. For a couple of precious months each year, all I had to endure was my parents. A few hours a day, I could venture off into the forest and pretend the rest of the world didn't exist. But then, as it always did, September arrived, and I'd quietly melt down at the thought of returning to school. I strongly suspect if it weren't for those summer vacations, I'd have been dead long ago.
But there was another reason I made it through high school alive. His name was Charles. When he decided to get into the sign painting business, he placed an inquiry with the local high school asking for budding artists to help him. I came across the ad in my junior year, and somehow found the balls to apply—hey, it was time away from both school and home. And I didn't have to lie about it.
Charles was an extraordinary—and extraordinarily strange—man. In addition to being a former race car driver, he was a former therapist. He quit racing because he didn't like the statistics of his survival. And he quit being a therapist because he found it very difficult to avoid becoming emotionally involved with his patients. And there I was, heavily damaged goods who also happened to be about the same age as a son he lost in a divorce. So I became a patient and a surrogate son. He was the one who remarked, "I'm surprised you're still alive." He convinced me I was worth keeping alive. He helped me confront many a demon—and later also had an affair with my mother. (I knew that would get your attention. More on that at another time.)
Yet even with Charles' help, life progressively deteriorated. When I got my license and a car, I felt only a small degree of "freedom." I could go out driving and be away from everyone and everything, but it was never enough, since I always had to return home. Eventually I saw my car as a different form of escape. One day I parked in a remote spot, stuffed a vacuum cleaner hose up the tailpipe, threaded it into the trunk, and sat in the driver's seat awaiting my ultimate escape. Why am I still here? I didn't lock the door. After I thought I'd passed out, I came to on the ground beside the car. In a semi-conscious state, I was able to open the door and fall out.
Amazingly, despite all of this badness, I had girlfriends in the last year and a half of high school. However, the experience of kissing, cuddling, etcetera, failed to improve my emotional state. I was unable to articulate my problems to them, and they weren't mature enough to deal with them anyway. And then there was my mother... she didn't just hate, she loathed with every fiber of her soul any girl I dated, the reasons for which were numerous and complex, and subjects for another time. It's enough to know that I had to lie regularly to see a girlfriend (suddenly I had a lot of extracurricular activities at school). Plus, my mother had me so wound up with fear that nothing ever happened—second base was it until halfway through college.
It's all so terribly sad, because I now look back on those first two relationships with melancholy fondness, and a perspective I was never afforded then. Cheryl, my first kiss. Every time those pillow-lips of hers came in contact with mine, I was transported to another galaxy far, far away. She wanted to marry me in the worst way—and have kids! I knew from a relatively early age I'd never have kids, so that was the end of that. Then there was Jessica, my first quasi-sexual contact. We parked in a remote spot one night and were just about to touch each other's junk when the police arrived and scared the living shit out of us. So that was the end of that.
High school did afford me one tiny bit of sweet revenge against my mother. For the very first time, my school offered the option of not attending graduation. And I knew it would hurt her terribly to not see me graduate (my father was just there to supply the sperm). The house shook with her wrath—and it was totally worth it, because it was my decision and mine alone; she could not force me to participate, no matter how much she screamed at me, or how many times she hit me. I'd signed the paperwork, and it was set in stone. Weeks of blessed silence followed.
High school was ending at long, long last. My final day was the strangest mix of high and low. On the high end, in a complete surprise to me, my artistic skills were featured on the cover of the yearbook (right)—and to think, in my indifference, I never bothered to buy one. Then, as I was making my way down a hall, I saw a clutch of tough-looking kids I didn't recognize, and I got an uneasy feeling from the way they stared at me. Sure enough, as I approached, they suddenly pinned me to the wall and took turns punching me in the stomach until I nearly passed out. Not a word was said. They disappeared; I crawled up the hall to the office, whereupon I was reprimanded for starting a fight.
And that final twist, dear reader, serves as the story of my life in a nutshell.
Copyright © 2020 by David K. Smith. All Rights Reserved