After spending three weeks studying John Sutter, Levi Jeans, and the disappointment of disillusioned dreams, the fourth grade class at Lakeside Farms Elementary School would partner up, receive a piece of twine, and mine the field for pieces of gold. Alec — who helped me get through the Forest Temple in the Legend of Zelda on N64 in third grade — had been my friend since before we knew how to swing without someone pushing us. We’d been waiting for the Gold Rush since we saw Sean and Scott buy three candy bars and a multi-colored pen set with their riches two years earlier. That the day we would set the stakes in a plot of our own had finally come was unbelievable.
Mrs. Dittomaso went over the rules in our classroom before opening the door and losing us: you could pick any patch of grass, but once you had laid your twine down you could only take pieces of gold from within its boundaries; you couldn’t take gold from someone else’s claim; you had to split the gold you found evenly with your partner; you could use the loot to shop at the General Store, located across campus in the Kindergarten building; you had to be done in fifteen minutes before recess started.
“Be. Careful.” She insisted. We promised, all twenty-one of us, and she turned the door’s handle. Like an undammed river, hundreds of fourth graders from a dozen rooms flooded the field. By the time Alec and I had forced the wooden stakes into the corners of our claim, my hair was sticking to the sweat on my forehead and we were both smiling. Our fingers started searching — frantically — for flecks and chunks and promise.
The panic didn’t set in for a couple minutes, not until we had finished our initial sweep of the blades and held only three, measly pieces in our soil-covered hands. We both started to breathe heavily and pretended like everything was going to be fine, like you do when someone’s tattling and you’re waiting for his parent to come in the room. Twenty minutes later, our heads hung heavily as we walked across the asphalt, our twine trailing behind us, testament to our failure. We could only afford one Crunch bar, which we split like we were supposed to.
When my dad picked me up, I explained the disappointment of the day: the years of anticipation, the unrealized dreams, the dirt under my fingernails. He listened, like he always did, and told me we were having tacos for dinner, which he knew I loved. The next day, I went to school, still frustrated. Alec and I lamented the Rush of ’98 over Lunchables, and used our same pens and pencils that we’d had all year since our nuggets didn’t stretch as far as we’d hoped. When my dad picked me up that second day, he handed me a brown paper bag as we pulled into the driveway.
“Go check the backyard,” he said.
I tore past the piano to the right of our front door and past the china hutch I hit my head against when I was five. The glass sliding door that lead to the backyard was always hard to unlock, but once I managed I slow-walked around the side of our pool. I wasn’t allowed to run near the water ever since I pushed the neighbor boy in three years earlier.
“What the,” I whispered. The grass was shining. Hundreds of gold rocks littered the lawn. I dropped to my knees and started filling my bag. By the end, I had to start putting them in my pockets. I looked over my shoulder, and my dad was standing behind me, leaning against the yellow stucco wall of our home.
“Dad,” I stammered, exasperated, “where’d you find all these?” He just smiled.
Twelve years later, I was lying on my bed, staring at my pale, hollow face in the mirror that hung on the wall across from me. Now in my own home, my first since graduating college, I was afraid, depressed, and alone. I picked up my phone and dialed.
“Dad,” the tears immediately rushed down my cheeks; my voice was nearly inaudible. “Dad, I’m back.”
“I’m depressed, dad. The darkness is back and I’m scared.” I explained how I never thought I’d be depressed like this again, how I thought coming out was the nail in the coffin of my self-loathing. I explained how the week before I’d had sex for the first time, and how it wasn’t as easy as I thought it’d be, and how terrifying it was to think I’d never be able to do it well. “I’m not really sleeping, dad, and eating’s hard. I thought I cut the wings of this beast when I came out. I thought he’d never be back. But last week he flew in my face, laughing, and I don’t know what to do. I can’t do it alone this time, this depression thing. I’ve done it too many times before. I’m afraid I’ll never be able to have healthy sex, and that I’ll be alone forever, and that this damn dragon is never going to go away.”
I told him I should go to counseling, but that my health insurance wouldn’t cover it, and that I didn’t have enough money to go to a restaurant for dinner, let alone pay a therapist.
“We’ll make it work, Todd. You’re not going to do this by yourself.” I cried into the phone for minutes. He listened, like he always does.
For the next month, my dad would go to garage sales in his hometown and, like searching for nuggets of gold amidst coats and kitsch and lampshades, find antiques and articles that he could re-sell: a French wash basin from the 1800s, an old Singer sewing machine, an engineer’s hat from 1940, tents, stoves, a laptop, an Epiphone guitar.
“I found a Vintage Lionell train set on Saturday,” he said one morning. “We can get at least two sessions out of this one, I think.”
I’d eventually see the therapist in her dimmed, Point Loma office. She’d hug me every week and tell me I was normal, and promise that I’d have good sex someday.
“Your dad is amazing,” she said after one of our sessions. I was standing up from the brown leather chair that I’d been in for the last hour and a half.
“I know,” I responded.