1. When I was eight, my mother would praise every piece of art I brought home. It didn’t matter whether I spent hours gluing macaroni on cardboard tubes or seconds slashing paint across construction paper.
My mother proudly attached each to the fridge. By the age of nine, it must have been clear even to her that I was half-assing it. On some pieces, the macaroni and glitter were so poorly glued that it would fall off on the school bus, leaving behind a plain milk jug. But she displayed each artwork as if it were proof that I was special, perhaps one day hoping I’d live up to the praise.
2. In college, I had relations with a young woman from Nepal. She lived on the same floor and asked for my address so we could write letters to each other during the summer. The internet had just been invented, so no one had email.
She returned to her exotic mountain homeland and wrote me letters once a week. When I didn’t reply, her letters grew sadder and more plaintive.
I told myself I was too busy, although I wasn’t. I made the time to read each letter, sometimes more than once. Even in August, they arrived each week, like clockwork.
I still keep them in a shoebox, as a reminder. I know these aren’t the worst things I’ve done, but these tiny ghosts won’t go away.
3. When I was in eighth grade, I took Spanish because the class supposedly took a trip to Chili’s. We were from a small town and were drawn in by the promise of neon lights and exotic Tex-Mex food. A few months into the class, we asked about it and the teacher, Señor Argento, became evasive. Despite the bait-and-switch, we liked him. Señor had an earnestness for his subject that somehow felt noble. He cared.
Despite this, one day, feeling embittered about Chili’s and lazy, I made a cheat sheet for a vocabulary test.
He didn’t say anything and I passed, but I never cheated again.
4. After grad school, I moved into a basement apartment in Pittsburgh. The walls were thin and my room was freezing. You had to walk down an alley filled with trashcans to get to the entrance.
Since I didn’t plan on staying there long, I didn’t buy a mattress. I was younger then, and while sleeping on towels on the floor wasn’t comfortable, it was bearable.
Then there were the flies. They weren’t flies, really—more like gnats. I didn’t know where they came from. All I knew was that they were attracted to moisture. During that winter, I recall lying shivering on my towels, staring into space and thinking about karma and when enough would be enough—and then a bumbling little gnat would alight onto my warm moist eyeball.
It wasn’t all bad. I brought a few dates home. An optimist might say this is proof of generosity—that a woman was willing see something redeemable in me, enough to risk a walk down a dark trash alley. A pessimist might say this is more of a reflection on the caliber of women I was dating at the time.
“Where’s your bed?” she asked. I gestured to the towels on the floor and she shook her head, as if to say “This does not compute.” She carefully nudged the towels with her toe.
Trying to kindle the romance, I said, “Think of this as an opportunity: we can do it standing up!” I was an optimist.
5. Mr. K was my high school gym teacher. He was a ruddy, pink-faced bastard with watery blue eyes. A couple years before he had me as a student, his son committed suicide. Keeping his job meant that he had to teach cruel, healthy children his son’s age, doing things his son never would.
I should have more empathy, but even now, I can’t conjure enough (another small haunt). I dreaded Mr. K’s class because all he did open the supply room and retreat to watch us with his million-yard-stare as we played dodgeball. Back then, dodgeballs were red and made of hard, weaponized rubber. They had ridged lines for a better grip.
Calling it “dodge ball” is generous. Mostly, the athletic kids would try to give the smaller ones concussions. They’d actually herd us and try to knock our heads into the bleachers, or off walls. Every day. The whole time, Mr. K just stared. I hated that the only things we learned in that class were was the worst lessons about power and cruelty. Which is why, one day, when he wasn’t looking, I hurled one of those red balls with all my strength at Mr K’s head.
Even as I write this, I’m watching and urging the ball off its perfect path—if the small shitty things I’ve done in life don’t have weight and dimension, that must mean all the small moments of kindness are equally meaningless: my mother’s patience and unconditional faith. Señor’s dedication to teaching. The fact that my Pittsburgh girlfriend waited a week, until after my birthday, to break up with me.
I want change. I’m recalling my awful teenage hope as that ball arcs and he turns to look directly at me and then tilts his head at a perfect, safe angle. The sound of rubber striking tile, that unmistakable hollow sound, must have rung in his ears, but he never showed it.