Always I have felt a step behind. Not in a rushed way, as though I were trying to catch up, but intrinsically behind. Let me explain.
Everything before the age of, say, 14 is a past life. It’s something a part of me, but to see it, I have to peer through a dense fog. Fourteen was the age, I think, I became self-aware. When I started thinking with assertion and confusion, “Here I am. What does this mean?”
It seemed, as I walked the halls and went from class to class — all of us bustling around like busy little bees as was expected of us — that everyone else had it figured out. At least more than I did. They had friends! What a glorious possession. They had these groups of people they would see all the time and they’d just kinda fart around together and talk about each other and their folks. It looked like real good fun, but I didn’t know how to do. This isn’t to say I spent my lunches in the bathroom. Quite the opposite – in my sudden ravenous thirst for “friends” I talked to everybody. From top to bottom and back up again. Lunches were, in fact, a time of slight stress. I felt that I had to talk to everybody. That I couldn’t miss a single group or I’d lose my seniority if they ever needed a new friend.
So, I’d spend the time buzzing around, keeping my face in circulation so that people wouldn’t forget. “Oh, that’s Tarrin,” they’d say. “I know him.”
But no one really knew me, of course. See, this is where I honed my talents as social mimic. If I were with the stoners, I was a stoner. If I were with the baseball boys, sure I’d caught a game or two. If I were with the musicians, yes, I had heard the latest Pitchfork-toted album. And yes, if I were with the theatre kids, of course I’ve seen Rocky Horror Picture show a thousand times. And so on.
These weren’t lies. After a period of rounds, I began to know my various audiences. I learned how to phrase my thoughts in a way they’d receive them as though I was one of their own. I could say the same thing to every group of people and have a different diction and inflection every single time. It’s like I had to learn ten different English dialects. This I did. Everyone else was sorta living and farting around with their friends, and I was one step behind trying to learn the living and farting around.
Time passed and I grew accustomed to my roles and actually got to feeling a little at home, even with the Mexican soccer players with whom, in my naivete, I felt I had very little in common beyond the basic human experience.
Then I noticed a lot of kids were talking about college. College! Where to go, what to study. My mom went to UCLA for two years and dropped out because she got a cushy accounting job. I knew nothing of colleges. I knew, though, that there were at least six: UCLA, USC, Yale, Harvard, Columbia, and Oxford. But apparently there were more! There was an entire system of California universities! And Cal States! And Penn State, and NYU, and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, and where you were applying actually meant something about who you were! It was a whole new world!
So, with the diligence I had until then reserved for learning the weapon placements on a Halo level, or the ratio of trap cards to magic cards, I dove into a world of universities. And man! There are so many things you can study! So many places to go! While I was busy learning, people were busy deciding.
“I’m going to San Luis Obispo to be a veterinarian.”
“I’m going to Berkeley to be a business major.”
“NYU for theatre and communications.”
My admiration was deep, and I’d stare with a sort of wide-eyed wonder. They were so sure. And what you wanted to study said something about you. A counselor asked me after I expressed my dismay at not knowing what to do or where to go, “Well, what are your interests?”
Oh! I was supposed to have interests! Specific ones. At that point in my life, I read anything I found, from fine print on the back of plane tickets to histories of cybernetics to German constitutions. I even tried to draft my own constitution at one point with a friend. I did anything and everything with anyone. I said yes because yes felt good and yes led to stories and stories meant life. So, with everyone knowing what their interests were, I had to set about figuring mine out.
“Engineering. No, psychology! Wait, wait, what about physics? Or neuroscience? Political science! No, BUSINESS! Oh, come on, don’t forget all about biology.” Such was my internal dialogue. I couldn’t decide. There was so much and I was interested in it all. See, what I have is curiosity. If I don’t know something, I’ll be interested to know more. Hence my inability to decide. “I’d love to figure out the principles of human engineering. But I don’t know nearly enough about neurotransmitters. If I’m gonna learn about those, I might as well study genetics..” I was really stumped. I took to asking other people what they were doing and why and they always said the most unhelpful things.
“Because it seems cool.”
“I like it.”
“I wanna make money.”
All answers I could do nothing with. It all seems cool, and I could grow to like it all, and money has never been my goal in life. What I was facing was a problem, and I wouldn’t have it figured out for another few years. The problem is, I’ve found, that my ambitions are personal, not career-oriented. I want, I told a man who asked me on the bus once, a family and a home, and a comfortable means of support. That’s it! No great big mansion or sixteen cars or to see my name in lights – I just wanted some people to fart around with. To that end, any career would work.
Eventually, I began to look at what I did a lot: talked to people. I felt that I had grown comfortable with it, that perhaps it was a veritable hobby. Psychology? Therapy? Talk show host? PR? Unable to settle, I would sort of tweak my answer anytime someone asked. “Political science,” I would say, thinking longingly of a computer engineering degree. But, I discovered that I had bigger fish to fry, much bigger, because you needed money to go to college..
Let me tell you how broke I was: there was one particularly difficult summer where everyday I walked to Wendy’s and got a chicken sandwich, baked potato and a free cup of water. That would cost me a little over $2. My mother had Section 8 and lived, understandably, on government assistance, with an income around $15,000 per year. Sorta just enough to keep the lights on and buy a few things to forget the fact that the situation was inescapable just about.
Now I was looking down the barrel of a four-year education. I withered.
But there were scholarships, I was told, especially for inner city black kids. Especially for poor people. You just had to kinda go out and beg — I mean, apply for them all. “Excuse me, stranger, let me tell you a brief story of my disenfranchised life and why I should be given a measly fraction of my tuition so I can begin to hope to get the fuck out of the ghetto — forget trying to fix it. Will ya listen? Oh, you’re so generous.” I’ve never applied for a scholarship, save FAFSA, and I’m not sure I ever will. I only applied for that one because it was easy and the government should be paying for everyone’s education in full, as far as I’m concerned.
So, with everyone applying for everything all over the place, and me still polishing up the farting around, I resigned myself to community college, that loudly ridiculed high school extension program.
Behind again, I felt. Here I thought I was catching up.