I was straddling puberty in the summer of 1993. I went with my best friend Luke Hemphill and his family to Wing Point Country Club. His dad was a member there. The pool was brimming with activity when we arrived. Kids could barely wait to jump into the pool and moms could barely wait to lie in the sun and forget about their children.
A lifeguard sat on high, watching, keeping the order. Every now and again they’d blow their whistle and wag their finger at someone who was not obeying the rules.
When it came time to leave we went to the men’s locker room to wash the chlorine off our skin. The men’s locker room was filled with all sorts of oddities we, as young boys, found fascinating. Combs soaked in blue barbicide, talcum powder, and aftershave that could wilt your nose hairs with one whiff.
“Dad’s waiting for us in the van,” Luke announced.
I turned off the shower head, wrapped a towel around my waist and sauntered into the locker room. Luke and his brothers, Wes and Tim, were gathered around the bench, bashfully changing under their towels. I jumped up on the bench, pulled off my towel, and wrapped it around my neck like a cape.
“Batman without no clothes!” I shouted, then jumped off the bench.
Luke and his brothers laughed until they were red in the face. They’d never seen such audacity. They were good Christian boys, all of them home schooled, sheltered from the world.
I still shake my head when I think this. I have many regrets. This is one of them. I regret that I used such terrible grammar. Why I didn’t say ‘Batman without clothes’ or ‘Batman with no clothes’ I’ll never know.
Now we’re older. We’re men. We have families of our own. Luke has three impressionable children. Two boys and a girl. His boys, Levi and Ben, are complete opposites. Ben is 4 years old. He’s reserved and quiet, and very attached to his blanket, doesn’t go anywhere without it. Levi is 6. He’s loud and expressive, and has no problem speaking his mind. What they have in common is they both love hearing the stories of our youth. A few I’m surprised Luke has told them, given that they have a PG-13 rating.
One of their favorite stories was when I tumbled into the water at Cannon Beach, Oregon. I was a bit accident prone when I was young. One moment we were walking, talking about girls, the next I was in water. I came out, sopping wet, and cried “That was my last clean pair of underwear!”
Levi loved this story so much he wrote a series of short stories based on it. Each ended with me ruining my last clean pair underwear.
Their other favorite story is Batman without no clothes. Ben especially.
It’s flattering to know I’ve brought laughter to two generations Hemphill’s. One day Luke sent me a video of Levi and Ben saying, “Batman without no clothes!” It was cute and harmless until Halloween night 2015. I was with my wife. We were trick-or-treating on Carol Street with our daughters when I received this text message from Luke:
“While I was giving some candy to some tween girls at the front door they looked behind me and started giggling. Ben, who had just got out of the bath, was standing at the top of the stairs with his towel on. And then he opened it wide and said, ‘Batman without no clothes!’”
We, as adults, thought the story was harmless. Never did we think it would lead a young boy to become the world’s youngest exhibitionist. Only now do we realize the story of Batman without no clothes should have stayed in the men’s locker room.
Kids. They’re like the NSA. Always listening, always watching—especially when you’re unaware. Do they remember the pearls of wisdom you so graciously cast to them? No. What they remember are things you wish they’d forget.
We didn’t have a lot of extravagant family vacations growing up. My mom stayed at home, while my Dad went to work. Mom would take odd jobs here and there to help bring in supplemental income, but we didn’t have a large surplus for frivolities. Usually our vacations consisted of places within driving distance. Places like the SeaTac airport where we’d spend hours riding the tram and watching planes gallop down the runway. This was back before security was tighter than the eye of a needle.
While we lived on a shoe string budget my parents still provided some great adventures. One of our greatest ones was that of the Steam Boat Twinkie, an inflatable yellow raft barely big enough for two full-grown adults, let alone one full-grown adult and his two unsuspecting children. Dad had found it on sale at the Pay & Pack hardware store, a business that has long since gone the way of the Dodo.
Our merry adventure began at Steamboat Lake, just east of the Cascade Mountains in Washington. In the middle of the lake was a Pygmy Island. I asked Dad if we could paddle out to it. He said “sure,” then went back to furiously pumping up yellow Twinkie with the bicycle pump he’d brought. Mom unfolded her puke colored lawn chair. She set it next to the lake, sat down and burrowed into her book.
I asked her if she was going to go with us.
“No, but I’ll sit here and wave to you from shore,” she said, without looking up from her book.
At last the hour had come, Dad declared. He hoisted the raft above his head and marched it down to shore. It made a wet plopping noise as it landed on the water. He held it steady for us while we climbed in before he got in. Using the plastic paddle Dad pushed us away from shore.
We glided out onto the water and set a course for Pygmy Island. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, nor a tear in the eye, when we left. There were nothing but smiles and the feeling that all was right in the world, if only for a brief tender moment. Mom gave us a warm wave and smile before nestling back into her book.
Dad started a slow steady rhythm with the paddle. Droplets of water hit the sides of the raft and occasionally my bare legs. I tried to adjust, which made the boat rock back and forth. Dad told me to keep still, something I was never good at as a boy. I was always fidgeting.
“But you keep dripping water on me,” I whined.
“I don’t care. Sit still,” he barked.
As we approached the island Dad looked for a safe place to land. It was surrounded by jagged rocks. We sat for a bit enjoying the bucolic view. It was tranquil. Serene. The smell of fresh air. The sound of nature…and bubbles. Dad glanced over the side of our ship. A steady stream of bubbles was erupting from our back-side.
Dad began swinging the paddle side to side like a samurai sword. Water flew about us.
“I’m getting wet,” I complained. Water crept over the stern of our vessel and went down the back of my pants. I shot up out of my seat. “My bottom’s soggy!”
“Sit down,” Dad yelled, quickly pushing me down.
My sister Rose didn’t appear too concerned. She sat with a blank expression in the bow of the farting Twinkie while I kept standing up and Dad kept pushing me down, a game of whack-a-mole on the high seas.
Out of nowhere the sky turned black. We all looked up. The sky opened up and sheets of water began to fall down on us. There was no way my Dad could swim to shore with one child on each arm. He had no other choice but to paddle to shore like a mad dog.
By the time we reached shore the raft was nearly deflated, our cockpit was filled with water, and no one was smiling. Mom waded out into the water to help bring us in.
While mom helped pack us into the car Dad strangled the air out of Steam Boat Twinkie with his cold, shaking, blistered hands.
The ride home was a long wet one. Not much was said. Mom would snicker every once in a while. Dad would shake his head, still steamed. As I gazed out the window of the car I wondered what other families vacations were like. Did anyone ever get that Disney ideal, or does this same crazy Griswold family vacation shit happen to every family?
Cars swerved out of the way of an unforeseen object in the middle of the road on Temple street. At first glance it looked like a piece of trash. Until I saw it moving. In the middle of the two lanes was a pigeon glued to the cement, either unsure of what to do, or unable to move. I wasn’t sure which. Cars plunged ahead. Behind us other drivers became increasingly agitated seeing that the light was green, and the line was hardly moving. Horns blared. Engine hopped into overdrive as they barreled through the signal.
From the library parking lot I strained my eyes, trying to see. Nothing. Maybe it flew away. Maybe someone picked it up out of the street. Or maybe it was in between the teeth of someone’s car grill. It was just a bird, yet I felt torn. I fidgeted with the library books in my hand that needed to be returned. It was out there somewhere. Suffering. Alone. What could I do? It was gone.
After returning my books, and picking up the book I had on hold, I found myself standing in the parking lot, staring out into the street. The wind had picked up. The sky was ashy. The weather in Los Angeles never seems to fit the season. There on the other side of the street it sat underneath the crosswalk signal, as if it was planning on crossing the street once the light changed. My fingers rapped the spine of my book, caught in decision paralysis. It was just a bird.
I stood there on the other side of the crosswalk, looking down on the pigeon. It cocked its head and looked up at me. There appeared to be nothing wrong with it until it tried to fly away. It flapped fitfully, its wings scrapping the pavement, flailing like a spinning top going out of control, unable to understand why it couldn’t fly anymore. The sight was horrifying.
“It’s ok, be calm,” I said as I gently approached. I removed my jacket and wrapped it into my arms. Its entire body was trembling. I carried it away from the noisy city street to a patch of dead grass, the best place I could find.
We sat there for a while. I stroked its head with my thumb. This seemed to calm it. I’m sure it was covered in germs. Compassion seemed to trump that fact. When it began writhing I wished I had a gun. The painful truth about life is living things suffer, and often we are voyeurs. There was a heap of asphalt chunks behind me. As I got up to go grab one the pigeon tumbled out of my jacket and got tangled in a web of weeds. I looked at the bird then the slab of asphalt in my hand. I could picture it in my head. All I had to do was hold the pigeon down, crush its head with one swift brutal motion, and all its suffering would cease. I held it down and poised the rock. I looked into its eyes. It could be over in a second. That’s all it would take…
I couldn’t. I couldn’t do it. So I did what I’ve done on many occasions, at dinner tables, in the car, in the privacy of my own home or head, I prayed. I prayed for death to come quickly. Within one minute the pigeon went into convulsions. With a final lurch it fell onto its side. I laid my hand on the bird. I could still feel its warmth, its heart beat.
In an instant clouds came into its eyes. I felt again to find a heartbeat. It was gone. Snap. Just like that.
“Rest now, little soul,” I said. As I picked it up to lay it back down on the bed of grass a fly landed on it. I shooed it away in disgust. “You couldn’t wait one minute?” I asked, incredulous.
I felt slightly numb as I walked back to my car.
I scrubbed my hands with soap like a surgeon in the library bathroom. It was a bird, I kept thinking. It was just a bird.
In my mind I kept seeing it there in the middle of the road as I drove away.
“Death is the ultimate equalizer,” a friend once told me. The chilling reality hit me. One day Death is going to come for me like it did for that bird. In fact it’s already on its way, like a train, far off in the distance. Am I ready? Am I prepared?
My mind went to a dark place. I saw those who didn’t stop stopped, who didn’t care. I saw faces long forgotten of people who I saw who needed help, who I pretended to not see because I feared rejection, or didn’t know what to do, or thought were trying to scam me. How could I feel compassion for a bird, and at times feel nothing for my fellow man?
I once believed that the world was a cruel place. Now I realize it is what we make it. We have the ability to change it. For better or for worse.
When I came out of the ether, I found myself somewhere on Sunset blvd, waiting at a red light. On the sidewalk I saw two pigeons doing their mating dance, the male trying to woo the female who was pecking the ground. That must hurt their heads, I thought. Around them were people waiting for the bus to come. I smiled. The clouds were gone. The sun was out. It warmed my face. I became acutely aware of the fragility of life at that moment, and I resolved to do what I could to make the world a “for better” place.
It started out small. That’s how these things begin. No addiction starts out full-blown. It’s a ladder. Soon you need to climb higher to feel the same rush you felt initially.
I remember the first time I held it in my hands. It was as if I was possessed. Just the smell of it aroused me. I held it up and gazed at its beauty, admiring its shape, and color, before sliding the head of the match along the side of the strike anywhere box. There was a poof then a hiss. A plume of smoke wafted up into my nasal cavity, bringing a slight sting to my sinuses and a watering of my eyes. I beheld what was before me, bewitched.
It was intoxicating. It was hypnotizing. It was fire. It was my first love.
At first I was content with lighting matches. I would gleefully watch the flame do the mambo on the tip of the toothpick thin stick, and the white gold colored teardrop inchworm down to my fingertips before blowing it out.
Next I’d plug up the sink and pour rubbing alcohol in the sink and set fire to it, and watch the mini lake of sulfur burn. Soon the thrill was gone, and I went in search of a bigger rush. I didn’t have to look for long. In fact I hardly had to look at all because It found me when one day a friend told me that if you combine fire with an aerosol can you can make a flame thrower…or a bomb if the flame happens to get sucked into the can, but the chances of that happening were minuscule.
There was a moment of hesitation as my forefinger hovered over the trigger of the can of my mother’s hairspray she used to tease her hair. In my other hand I held a lit match with a pair of tweezers. Even though my frontal lobes had not yet fully developed I wasn’t a Neanderthal. Some precautions had been taken. I was in the bathroom. At least if it became bomb it would be contained, although I would have to explain to my family why the bathroom had been converted into an outhouse if things went south.
A foot long flame erupted from the nozzle head.
“Whoa!” I paused and perked up my ears to see if my mother had heard me. I opened the bathroom door and heard only the distant chatter of her keyboard in her upstairs office.
From the corner of my eye I spied a spider. My eyes narrowed to slits. Spiders and I have history. Dark history. I loathe the furry little molesters. Ceiling corner creepers.
Growing up we’d often find spiders in our house. It’s what happens when you live in the woods. One time I was lying in my bed late at night listening to Lights Out with Delilah on 92.5 FM, dreaming of the day when I would fall in love when a spider fell from the ceiling onto my face. I shot out of bed, flipped on the light, and pancaked that sucker with a sneaker within five seconds flat.
As I was saying, from the corner of my eye I spied a spider. I turned to the spider. I could see the flame reflecting in its beady black eyes. I stifled a sinister snicker. The spider shifted uncomfortably, unaware of what was about to happen. I pulled the trigger. A foot long flame shot forth from the nozzle head. “You fiend!” I yelled as the spider burst into flames, and squealed before dropping like a meteorite into the bathtub. From then on this became my preferred method of killing spiders.
One day my friend, Carl from Captain Wilkes Elementary School, came over to play. I suggested we go play in the woods, and beat bushes with sticks. I decided to bring all the makings for a bonfire, minus the wood. I figured that would be easy enough to find since it was everywhere. Carl didn’t have much to say as I wrapped rocks in paper, lit them on fire and threw them randomly into the woods while I saying, “I’m Mario!”
We stumbled upon the remains of what was once a towering cedar tree. The stump was approximately ten feet high by four feet wide. It had huckleberry hair, crooked eyes, and a gaping mouth which may have been a wild animal’s home at one time. It looked like some ancient pagan god, begging to be fed.
Together Carl and I stuffed its mouth with the funny pages, and lit them on fire. We watched it burn. It slowly started to catch fire. I fed it some more, and the fire grew in girth. I looked at Carl who had this look on his face I’ve seen on an animal’s face right before they’re about to be brained by a car bumper or roller pinned by a tire.
“I think I hear my mom calling,” Carl said.
“Dude, your house is like a mile away,” I said as Carl tripped on vines, brambles, and fern’s in his haste.
I shrugged and returned to feeding the pagan god, Humpty Stumpy. I sat on my haunches in reverence, watching the flames rise higher, until Humpty Stumpy had become a pillar of fire. That’s when it hit. The Fear. I looked above me and saw that the fire was spreading to the surrounding branches. I didn’t know what to do so I hurried back to the house, figuring if I couldn’t see the problem it didn’t exist. My father was in the process of dividing a felled tree in preparation for the coming winter.
“What’s up buddy?” He asked. He smelled of woodchips, sweat, and chainsaw fuel.
“Nothing.” I could hear a crackle and pop in the yonder. We stared at each other for a moment. It’s funny how when you’ve done something terrible you feel like the whole world knows what you just did. The weight of guilt can be smothering. “What’s that sound?” I asked nervously, secretly wishing to be found out so I could be saved.
“Probably pine cones.”
“Pine cones?” This bewildered me.
“The summer heat can sometimes cause their nuts pop.” For most of my childhood I had been playing under pine trees that were busting their nuts in summer heat. Horrible.
In the distance came the howling of a siren. Each second it was getting louder until it was practically in our backyard. These are the final moments of my life, I thought as I stood there overcome with dread, watching the fire truck roll down the next-door neighbor’s gravel road. A neighbor had seen the woods were on fire, and called the fire department in a panic. I ran to my room to find my fig leaf, you know because avoidance solves everything.
When the firemen came to our door I caved. I tearfully confessed to my mother I was the one responsible for setting our woods on fire.
“They’re going to take you to jail,” my sister told me with much regret.
“Mother, don’t let them take me,” I pleaded. “I’m too young to go to jail,” I bawled.
I was informed that the fire chief wanted to have a word with me. I expected to see him standing there, waiting for me, brandished fire ax, ready to split my head like a log.
I went to face my fate. I walked outside and approached the fire chief. I squinted as I looked up at him with my tear stained eyes. I cringed when he opened his mouth, but instead of barking at me he let me off with a warning, told me not to do it again, and if I did then there would be consequences.
“Yes, sir,” I said.
He gave me a lighthearted smile and turned to walk back to the fire truck. Maybe he had a son about my age back home. Or maybe he was a reformed pyromaniac. Or maybe he understood that we all make mistakes and need a little grace from time to time.
The first few years of my life feel like a fog without any sort of clear timeline. Much of it seems like tiny Polaroid pictures. Like the time my sister told me a mud puddle was really chocolate milk and I believed her. Or the time when I gave my cat a haircut, or when I poked her in the anus because I thought it was some sort of button and I wondered what would happen if I pressed it. Then there were the times I’d sneak shots out of the bottle of Pepto-Bismol from my parent’s medicine cabinet. Or the time another kid and I at Camelot Elementary, or Camel Snot as we called it, thought it would be fun to fire our shoes into the air to see how high we could kick them. When I came back in to class and the teacher saw me standing there with a shoe on one foot and a dirty baggy sock on the other she asked me where my other shoe was. I told her it was on the roof of the school. The janitor had to be called to fetch it. When he came back down with my shoe he gave it to me and said through gritted teeth, “Keep it on your foot where it belongs.”
Over the years I’ve been able to fill in the gaps. Something I didn’t remember was how my father and I used to wrestle. My mother told me when I was young the first thing my father would do every night when he got home from work was wrestle with me. One night he didn’t get home until long after I was in bed. I remember opening my eyes and seeing my father’s silhouette sitting on the side of my bed. The silhouette asked me if I wanted to wrestle.
Once I became a teenager my mother warned my father that I was getting too big for wrestling. By the age of seventeen I had become a beautiful 170lb 6’ tall butterfly. I was no longer that little boy he used to wrestle with. I had become a man. I had lost my innocence and learned about things like wedgies.
For those of you who don’t know what a wedgie is allow me to take your innocence.
Wikipedia defines a wedgie as when “a person’s nether underwear or other garments are wedged between the buttocks.“
High school was a time of great tension. You had to be on guard at all times. You didn’t know where or when someone was going to give you a wedgie or pants you. For those who don’t know what getting pantsed is, it’s when someone yanks down your pants, leaving you there standing in your underwear.
The last time this happened to me I was in a van with a bunch of people from my church youth group. Someone asked me to adjust the volume on the television in the van. When I got up to adjust the volume knob someone yanked down my pants. Usually people laugh when this happens. No one was laughing. Everyone went silent. I had decided to go commando on that particular day. I pulled my pants back up, rather embarrassed.
Finally one of the girls said, “Nice tan.”
Before I came along my father had never heard of a wedgie. It soon became common place during our wrestling matches. One day we were wrestling in the living room.
He danced around the room while saying “Float like a butterfly! Sting like a bee!”
Mother was busy in the kitchen preparing dinner, keeping a disapproving eye on us.
“Robert, he’s getting too big for that. You’re going to get hurt,” my mother warned him. He disregarded her, as men usually do when women tell them what to do.
(It seems like mothers are always trying to spoil your fun, like it’s their job. They don’t want you to do anything that involves any sort of risk. And it seems no sooner than when they say “Don’t do that. You’re going to hurt yourself,” and we tell them “Trust me. I know what I’m doing,” then BLAM! We end up hurting ourselves, and then we have to hear them say “I told you so.”)
We both danced around the room like boxers often do before they clobber each other’s faces. I tap danced, ran in place, did jumping jacks, all while feigning punches.
“You want some of this?”
“Yeah, but put the sauce on the side.”
“I hope you left room in your stomach because I’m going to ram my fist into it!”
Neither of us really knew how to box or wrestle so we looked like a couple of spaz’s.
I went to jab my father in the ribs. He deflected by raising his left knee. The knuckles in my right hand all popped at once.
“Yeeeeow,” I hollered. He laughed and asked me how that felt.
I tackled him and we went into the clinch, and then I put him in a headlock, digging my bicep into his neck. With Jack be nimble and quick speed and I grabbed the back of my father’s fruit of the looms and yanked them up almost to his shoulder blades, nearly ripping the band clean off. My father danced on his tip toes and howled a High C. He tried desperately to free himself. He clawed around to find my waistband. He accidentally stepped on my foot, and when I tried to take it back I lost half my sock and my balance. We tumbled backward toward the couch. I still had my father in a headlock and inadvertently used his head as a battering ram against the wall, while I landed safely on the couch cushions.
For a while my father lay there like a dead accordion, his head resting against the wall, his severed underwear hanging out of the back of his sweat pants while he breathed heavily.
“Robert, I told you,” my mother said.
“Yes, dear,” my father said with winded voice. “We’re done wrestling.” Shortly thereafter his tattered fruit of the looms became a dust rag and our days of wrestling became a thing of that past.
When I think of Mexico the first thing that comes to mind is a stray dog with fleas crawling all over his testicles. This deserves some explanation. When I was fourteen I went to Tijuana Mexico for a mission’s trip with my church. It was the first time I had ever been outside of the US. It was a shock to see how other parts of the world lived. Houses looked more like treehouses, put together with random pieces of lumber. It was dusty. Trash scattered everywhere, and many people didn’t seem to have a dental plan. Dogs were ubiquitous. They weren’t deified or pampered, or dressed in clothes, or taken to doggy daycare or doggy therapists. Most were strays, and skittish. One stray in particular stands out in my mind. He had white fur but was covered in dust. I could see fleas all over his body. He paused for a moment to lick his genitals before looking up and smiling at me as if he was saying, “Welcome to Mexico!”
“You have something stuck between your teeth. And I think it’s moving…”
Aside from the shock I had pleasant memories of Mexico. It was the first time I ever had a mango in all of its amazing and messy wonder. It was also the first time I had rattlesnake. None of us expected to have rattlesnake but it just so happened one night some of us decided to go for a walk. On the way back to our cabin we crossed paths with a rattlesnake. It shook its tail at us, and hissed. We lost our minds like girls at an Elvis concert. Our knee jerk reaction was to stone it to death. Seconds later we stood there with our heaving chests, staring down at its crushed carcass. No one really knew what to do. Finally someone suggested we roast it over an open fire. It was an experience. The meat was tasty, and tender…probably because it had been tenderized with stones.
18 years later I find myself living in Los Angeles, with the border being only a three hour drive away, depending on traffic. Some friends of mine wanted to go to Ensenada for the weekend. Most people, when I told them about it, became concerned. They thought we would either be kidnapped, or killed, or thrown into prison to rot. Most of these people were white, and probably watch Fox News. The only thing I was afraid of was being raped. If I had to choose between being raped or having Hannibal Lector open my cranium like a can of beans, sauté my brains, and feed it to me with fava beans, and nice bottle of Chianti, then kill me I would always choose the latter.
We went in two groups. Group 1 wanted to leave early in the day before traffic got hot and heavy. Not too long after Group 1 left I got a text from one of the girls who realized she had left her passport in her apartment.
“Could you do me a huge favor?” she asked.
“What is it?” Always my first response. I’ve learned over the years that you never agree to do anyone a huge favor until you first know what it is.
“Can you break into my apartment, and find my passport?” Getting thrown in the tank for B and E was not how I wanted to spend my weekend. I’d be a human pincushion for sure. I was still trying to figure out how to respond to her text when she said never mind. They were turning around to fetch her passport.
Group 2 left at seven. Around midnight we crossed the border. It only took a couple minutes to cross the border into Mexico. There was no border patrol. Nothing to declare. No one asked us if we were bringing any fruit into the country. No one cared that we were entering Mexico. Within 15 minutes our iPhones were reduced to iPods. Officially off the grid.
We all saw a sign for Walmart.
“Walmart what are you doing here?” Natalii asked.
I gazed at the milky moonlit water and all of the houses lining the Coast of Playas de Tijuana. There wasn’t a single light on in any of them. Not even a porch light was left on. There weren’t even highway lights. It was eerie.
“Oh my God!” Natalii screeched. Great, I thought. We’ve also entered a horror movie.
“What?” I asked. Daniel, the only other man in the car, and I looked around, puzzled.
“There was a man walking on the highway.”
“It was creepy,” she complained.
Before too long we passed another lonely soul walking down the deserted, unlit highway.
As we entered the Rosarito we went from deserted, dark, and deathly quiet highway to a small town percolating with night life. It was like any other Friday night anywhere else. Bustling bars blasting music, coupled with the cacophony of human conversations. Oddly enough, even though we were now in a Spanish speaking country it sounded like any other strip, Sunset Blvd, West Hollywood, East Village in New York, the North End in Boston. Bar noise seems to be universal.
There were droves of people. Traffic had slowed to a crawl. It was madness. I watched two men dressed as Roman Centurions walk into a bar, and thought, when and where am I?
“What is going on?” Someone asked. Later we found out Papas and Beer, one of the largest and most famous beach clubs on the West Coast, was having their 31st Aniversario. Everything was full up for the weekend.
Our friend Isai had managed to find the last two available rooms in Rosarito at Hotel Castillos del Mar. It was a humble hotel on the water, off the strip. It was strikingly quiet. No barking neighborhood dogs. No Rusty. No Icky or Nasty. No Maggie, or any of the other fifty neighborhood dogs howling at all hours of the night. A quiet, calm, cool breeze drifted in through the hotel room window. The smell of the sea air had a therapeutic effect. There were two rooms, each with two beds. The three men were in one room, the women in the other. The women shared beds. We men looked at the beds. Isai was already spread out on one of them. Daniel and I looked at each other. Some time passed before I said, “I don’t mind sharing a bed, but I talk in my sleep and usually always have morning wood,” I warned.
“I’m going to sleep on the floor,” Daniel said. He had brought a sleeping bag. Usually men never share beds, even if it means one of them has to sleep on a cement floor, and wake up with scoliosis. The last time I shared a bed with a man was when I first moved to LA. My roommates and I were crashing in their parent’s pool bungalow, which, I know, sounds glamorous, but let me tell you it was not. You had to walk through the garden, which was more like an overgrown jungle to get to the bungalow, and there was an ant problem. And these ants had no respect for personal boundaries. One of the brothers and I shared a bed. I felt nervous lying on either side. If I slept on my right side I was the big spoon. If slept on my left side I was the little spoon. Both made me uncomfortable. Usually I would choose my back, and cup my privates. One night I rolled over and accidentally hammer fisted his face. He looked at me with crossed eyes, wondering what had happened. “Sorry,” I said. I quickly assumed the little spoon position, and began fake snoring.
Selfishly I was glad to have the bed to myself. We surfed the TV channels. Black Swan caught our collective interest…probably because it had Natalie Portman. Isai passed out first. Daniel and I struggled to stay awake, and make sense of the movie. When we got to the part where Natalie Portman’s character has her first sexual awakening and begins to ride her pillow like a horsey I asked Daniel if he was ready to go to sleep.
“Yes,” he said immediately. I switched off the TV as quick as possible, both of us flustered. I hoped I wouldn’t have dreams of swan sex. I hoped instead to dream of Natalie Portman BUT in a puritanical sort of way. My mind began to wander. What if I woke up in the morning and Natalie Portman was lying next to me? I whimpered at the thoughts.
“Are you crying?”
Within seconds the sound of the surf pulled me into the ether. In the morning my back itched like mad. It could have been one of three things. Bed bugs, fleas, or whoever had slept in the bed last had been eating saltine crackers.
There wasn’t much on the itinerary for the day other than to eat until we all had bubble-gut.
By daylight, the landscape looked much different. Houses and fences looked like they had been built out of random pieces of lumber and scrap metal. It was dry, and dusty everywhere we went.
Isai and I spent a majority of the day trying to find a place for our party of seven to sleep for the night. Every place he called had no vacancy. I had contacted several people through Airbnb with no response. It was a bit unnerving. Finally I found a place—the only place available, really. The Young Dudes Hostel, a blueberry colored three story house with Slimer green trim. Only $17 per person for the night!
When the front door swung open I realized why. The smell of damp dog blasted us in the face. The floor was gritty. The bathrooms horrifying. I looked nervously at the women. If it were just us men I wouldn’t give a fudge pop.
“Well we don’t have to stay here if you don’t want to,” I told the ladies. “But I really don’t know where else we would sleep.”
“This is what doggy day care smells like,” said Isai.
Ian, the owner, a ginger from Cape Town South Africa, sauntered down the stairs to greet us. He was tall, and slender, and had a thick English accent. There were two rooms on the first floor. One had a full size. The other had what looked like three little mangers; makeshift beds built out of 2×4’s. The shower looked dungeonesque. The shower curtain was hanging on for dear life from a rusty rod. The tiles were dingy. One towel lay crumpled on the floor. Another was passed out over the back of the toilet. Our stoned host explained to us that the septic system wasn’t like it was in the states. You couldn’t flush it down the toilet. Instead it had to be put in the wastebasket.
The common area was on the second floor, as was the stripper pole. I couldn’t resist taking a twirl and saying “woo!” for the laughs…and the tips.
“Yes, that’s featured both women and men,” Ian told me. To which I immediately got as far away from the pole as possible. Once upon a time I was seeing this girl I had met on Ok Cupid, or as I liked to call it, Ok Stupid. She had a stripper pole in the middle of her living room. I asked her why. She claimed that she used it for exercise, and empowerment. I had come over to her place for a Friday the 13th double feature, Killer Clowns from Outer Space, followed by Ticked Off Trannies with Knives, followed by several Jameson and Ginger’s, followed by her giving me a live demonstration on her stripper pole, followed by her twirling once, ending with her eating floor. It was certainly a night to remember.
On the kitchen counter was a half rolled joint, which our host had been in the process of rolling when we arrived. This man was in no hurry, and was probably stoned most days. In fact he didn’t even know what day it was.
As we were getting settled in one of the girls went through all of the rooms, dosing them with a bottle of fragrance spray in an effort to chase away the damp dog smell.
In the morning Natalii burst into our room singing “Wake up! Wake up!” Natalii is the happiest person I know. I don’t know how she does it but she wakes up happy every morning. There was a collective groan from us three men in our mangers.
“A loud and cheerful greeting early in the morning will be taken as a curse,” I told Natailii.
“That’s not in the Bible,” she said.
“It is,” I insisted.
“Show me,” she demanded. I pulled up the verse on my phone, and stuck it in her happy face.
“Rebuked!” Isai said.
“Whatever,” she said and went to disturb everyone else’s slumber.
Later I cried in the shower. I had never been in such a filthy shower. I closed my eyes and pretended to be in my shower at home. If it weren’t for the smell I would have believed it.
Once we had finished packing up the cars I went in search of Ian. All I found was a young surfer dude passed out on the deck with half of his wet suit on. The bottom half thankfully.
It took three hours to get through customs. Three hours to get home. And the first thing I did once I got home was take a shower.
Every couple of hours a nurse would come in to check my vitals. I still had a fever but it was receding.
I had sent a text to my sister the day before letting her know I was driving myself to the ER. She left a message on my parent’s answering machine which was waiting for them when they returned home from my mother’s final cancer treatment. Not the most idyllic homecoming.
They were trying to get me on the slab as soon as possible. Everyone was eager to know when, especially my mother who kept calling. At one point my novia and I were in my hospital room, and we could hear the nurse talking to someone on the phone outside the room.
“I bet that’s your mother,” she said. I smiled. We soon found out it was. My parents lived a couple states away. It’s hard to watch someone be in pain and not being able anything about it. Even worse when it’s from afar.
Though the time of my surgery was still unknown what was certain was it would be before the end of the day. I looked at the clock. It was already past 6pm.
Together we waited. Neither had much to say. There wasn’t much to say. Only sprinkles of small talk. We sat holding hands. She hadn’t slept much the night before. What sleep she had gotten was fitful. I invited her to crawl up beside me in the hospital bed. We lay there together in our microcosm. Far from this unkind world. For a little while time stood still. Together we breathed. Together we exhaled.
When they came to take me away it was without warning. There was no gurney as I had expected. Instead they wheeled me out in my hospital bed. My novia followed closely behind. She barely spoke a word. It was all she could do to follow behind as I was wheeled to the operating room. I tried to assuage her fear by letting her know it would be ok. I can’t recall if I did this verbally or telepathically. Oddly I had no fear. No worry. No anxiety. I felt very much alive. Such a curious thing. When you’re going through the daily monotony of life you feel like the walking dead, yet when you’re faced with your own mortality it’s like an electric shock bringing you back to life. Worry is a leech. It sucks away any enjoyment of life. It’s been one of the greatest plights of my life. We are the only creatures on earth who think about tomorrow. Birds don’t. What would our lives be like if we weren’t weighed down by the pervading thought I wonder how this is going to work out? I decided not to. I wanted to be a bird and have no thought of tomorrow. What’s the worst that could happen? I die. Frack it. Whatever. My only regret would be that I didn’t use the turkey baster.
The three of us, my novia, my driver, and I ventured through a labyrinth of twists and turns. The man driving my bed expertly maneuvered past areas with seemingly impossible clearance. When we arrived at pre-op I was greeted by the anesthesiologist. He was wearing his team uniform: blue scrubs. His voice was like a drug. He went into a cool, and well-rehearsed speech about how he was going to sedate me. He hadn’t even done anything yet, and already I felt sedated by the golden tones of his voice. There was a brief aside about how with any surgery there is the possibility of death due to unforeseen complications.
“But the possibility of that happening today is next to nothing. You’re going to be fine. You’re young and fit,” he assured me.
As if on cue Dr. Staffer, the surgeon, came right after him. He was large like a football player. His voice was deep like Barry White. He shook my hand with a firm calloused lumberjack handshake. While he was explaining what was going to be happening while I was under the ether, the anesthesiologist slipped the first dose of drugs into my IV. I felt the frigid liquid crawl into my vein. Within seconds I could feel its wonderful warm arms about me. My face went from keen interest to euphoric fondue. Oh my God, this is wonderful. I feel amazing. This is the best cocktail I’ve ever had in my life. Keep my tab open. Dr. Staffer’s mouth was moving. I heard nothing. I just stared up at him. This is guy is big. His grand stature is making me dizzy. My head flopped back down on my pillow. I was salivating. I felt a sudden urge to ask him to sing me some Barry White, and bring me another cocktail. Wow, I feel a-maze-balls. I was trying not to laugh.
The procedure itself would take an hour, 30 minutes for prep, and 30 minutes to vacuum out my appendix.
“Like Jell-O?” I turned to my novia, giggling. She was not entertained. “Oh, Jell-O. That’s the first thing I want to eat when I wake up,” I told her. The doctor went to get prepped, as did my novia.
Suddenly my bed floated into the operating room. One of the surgeon’s was finishing setting up. He was also wearing his team uniform. All I could see were his eyes which were eclipsed by surgeon goggles.
“Hi! I’m here for the party!” I said and waved at him. “Just got my birthday suit back from the dry cleaners.” He looked both ways, trying to figure out if I was waving to him or somebody else before tentatively waving back. I saw the metal slab where I would be placed. The operating room was frigid and I was going to be naked. My prevailing concern was that my penis was going to be no bigger than a thimble, and they were all going to laugh at me. This concern lasted but a moment as the anesthesiologist brought me my second cocktail, and after that I was somewhere over the rainbow. He asked me to count to ten. I barely made it to three before I was unconscious.
About three hours later I crash-landed back into my body, as if I had fallen from the sky into a war zone. Everything was amped, as if someone had cranked up the gain on my mental mixing board. I was panicked and disoriented, trying to remove my IV, and the oxygen tube that had been stuffed up my nose, and get out of my hospital bed.
“This is a recovery room, why are they shouting?” I asked no one in particular. I didn’t realize I was also shouting. I felt hands on me, my novia, trying to calm me. “Why can’t the recovery room be a library with quiet soft music playing in the background, not with gossiping nurses?” I boomed. Shortly thereafter the nurses went mute. My filter had temporary stopped working. Substances have a tendency to do that.
It was worse than the CT scan revealed, I was told. What should have only taken an hour took over two. Meanwhile my novia was in the one of the worst places on earth, The Waiting Room, with no one bringing her any word, good or bad. I felt terrible when I learned of this. I can’t imagine what it was like for her, waiting in the balance, steeping in her own thoughts. I probably would have had worry leeches all over me.
I looked around. I was back in my room, no recollection of how I had gotten there, as if I had been teleported. Damn opiates.
My novia bent over to kiss my forehead. She told me she’d be back tomorrow after work. Seconds later my room was vacant. The ghostly tendrils of her fragrance still hovered about me. The heart rate monitor chirped softly in the background. The hallway was bustling with life, and I felt another something I had never felt before in my life.
As if for a moment my soul had been dislodged from my body, and was floating above me. I was a bird. With no thought of tomorrow. I felt honored to have another day, to be on Earth a little longer.
I wanted to savor the moment, but I could feel the ether pulling me back under.
I was awake long enough to have one last thought.
“Goodnight,” I said to the man in the moon, and with that the curtains of my soul were drawn.
To be continued…