Now What, Asshole?
It is during my drive home, on that monotonous stretch of the 405 where brain waves get fried into paralysis, just three weeks from graduation and my exit from a comfortable collegiate cocoon, that the most painful epiphany I can imagine hits me like Mike Tyson might hit a mouthy hooker.
As epiphanies go, that’s not exactly earth shattering. It may shatter MY earth, but who hasn’t squared up against those two words at one time or another in life? Most people eventually come face to face with a pugnacious, pissed-off primate representing fate. The ensuing fight goes a long way toward defining us. No matter how many times it happens. No one has only one true defining moment. Building character is a series of battles, involving triumphs and defeats, and acceptance of both.
My beef, and it is a relatively new one, is that upon graduating from the four most intense years of my life, the last thing I need is to climb off my little stool again, bare my fists, and plod toward the center of the ring to fight the good fight. I need a fucking break.
I am wracked with doubt about my choice of degree, which I will soon have in hand. I chose early, half way through my freshman year, to study Philosophy. I was still idealistic and, yes, naïve. I thought it noble to directly pursue my passion for thought, intellectual ethics and this unique discipline that, at its core, pursues the perfect marriage of pragmatism and logic.
I was 18, full of hope, full of the energy created from my joyous escape from the confines of a stultifying high school atmosphere. Once propelled onto the gorgeous, pristinely bucolic campus of UCLA, like a pair of dice cavalierly tossed onto a hot craps table, I was the veritable kid in a candy store.
And this hope, this burst of freedom-inspired adrenaline, brought me so immediately into the moment, more present and accounted for than at any time in my life, that it clouded my usually sagacious sense of vision. The road I was committing to, by choosing Philosophy, would end up determining my fate four years hence.
And that ‘hence’ is sitting in front of me now like a burping, wart-covered, halitosis-spouting horned toad, watching me. I can see the evil, ironic grin on its face. He has two more painful words for me to absorb: “Now what, asshole?”
I guess that’s three words. The first two simply resonate more than the profane moniker.
At twenty two, what the hell can I do with a degree in philosophy? Sure, graduate school, pursuit of a PhD, is the most common ‘next road taken’, but mom and dad are already in hock after my four years at UCLA and my sisters’ upcoming stretch of college. Grad school is simply not viable, financially. Student loans will be coming due in a matter of months and paying off my undergrad schooling will take years. Teaching would normally be a logical pursuit, but not in this economy, when education budgets are being slashed. The number of grad-school candidates willing to work for $40,000 a year in a high school teaching position was at least equal to the, by comparison, under-educated undergrads in my demographic.
What could be a more frustrating, ridiculous and ultimately futile town in which to be an expert in ethical intellectuality, than Los Angeles? Hell? Shit, at least in hell, there is the pursuit of truth. Ugly truth, sure, but there is no room for BS in the heated world of fire and brimstone. In Hollywood, truth is considered anathema.
So, I’m about done with UCLA, my philosophy degree will hang from my belt like a useless scalp of academia, and the job market is an abomination, especially for recent college grads. If you aren’t massively overqualified, your resume gets barely a glance.
What is really frustrating me is that, upon graduation, I was hoping to change my focus to the big picture, to escape out from under the yoke of day-to-day concentration that succeeding in college requires, and take a longer prism out of my camera bag, maybe get a peak at what life might be like in ten years.
But no, with the bleakness of the landscape I am about to stumble out on to, eyes blinking once again at the brightness of reality, my nose is now forced to remain to the grindstone, and I hate it. I need the respite that comes with the luxury of contemplating abstract ideas, while the detailed banality of the minutia of everyday life floats past in someone else’s sky.
Instead, I’m going to have to get a job and probably a place to live and I don’t have two dimes to rub together.
Like I said, “I’m fucked.”
I pull off the 405 at Fountain Valley and head due west to Huntington Beach, the only home I’ve ever known. Mom and dad are expecting me. A couple of days chilling on the beach sound like heaven. Even that tiny escape, however, stirs the embers of guilt in my soul.
I pull into the driveway and park next to mom’s classic ’69 red Cougar XR-7, cherried to within an inch of its life. Mom never let her high school cruiser days quite recede, and I will admit, she looks hot in that machine, an aptly monikered automobile for an attractive, well-preserved 45 year old blonde.
I pop the hatch on my comparatively mundane Volkswagen Jetta, over 140,000 miles into its life, yet still reliable and more than efficient.
I root around for the two bags I need to take inside when my mom appears suddenly at the rear of my car.
We hug wordlessly.
She knows of the existential angst and despair my impending graduation has lain at my doorstep. She has always been easier to confide in then dad. No fault of the old man. His generation simply never learned to talk about things that had historically been defined as ‘personal’. At least in part, his intellectual reticence probably influenced my decision to study Philosophy.
Mom steps back slightly, hands on top of my shoulders. She is my height.
“How are you, Tyler?”
I sigh and cross my arms on my chest so as to put my hands on top of hers. “I’ve been better, but it feels great to be home.”
She lifts one of the pieces of luggage out of the hatchback and nods for me to follow her inside.
The air conditioning is lovely. It’s a hot day for mid May, especially this close to the Pacific Ocean. Through the rear sliding glass door, I see the shimmering surface of the swimming pool and notice my sister Cathy prone beside it on a chaise lounge, brown as a walnut, baking in the unrelenting southern California sun.
The whole scene looks enticing. She graduated from high school last weekend and is clearly getting a head start on the most important summer of her young life.
I feel a grim grin crease my face as I realize the same can be said for me.
Have I mentioned that I’m fucked?
Mom disappears down the hall with my two bags. I sit at the bar that looks into the kitchen and out the window to the back yard and pool.
Mom returns and runs her hand across my back gently and asks, “Would you like a beer?”
I nod. “Only if you’ll join me.”
“Of course. Let’s go poolside so you can say hi to your sister.”
Cold bottles in hand, she slides the door and we silently step out onto the hot pavement.
Two tiny buds inhabit the ears of my sister; a long cord trails off to the other side of her lounge, ostensibly to her MP3 player. Her eyes hide behind dark Ray Bans. She has inherited our mom’s figure and good looks, and she wears her bikini with the confidence of a girl who knows the affect she has on boys, and likes it.
Mom leans down and touches her knee. Cathy turns her head, sees me, smiles and pulls the tiny speakers out of her ears. Even from where I stand I can still hear Adele rolling into the deep as the little buds rest on her towel which is folded on the ground.
Cathy pivots on her butt and gets to her feet like a gymnast, rushes to me and hugs me.
We are close. We have been raised by parents who love each other, and I remain convinced that, if you want to distill what is THE most important aspect of raising a happy family, it begins and ends with parents who like and love each other. Everything spills forth from that.
I hug her back, holding her for an extra moment. She kisses my cheek. We genuinely like and respect each other. Many kids our age are united by their dismissal and indifference to their parents. Since we never felt compelled to do that, we got to know and like each other based on our character and personality, not a universal distrust of all things adult. She will be my friend to the grave, and I hers. And we both know it.
“Hey graduate,” I say to her.
“Hey graduate,” she retorts.
Then, based on an agreement we made a week ago over the phone, we reply in unison, “We’re fucked.”
Even mom laughs.
“Yeah, you two have it so rough. Give me a break.”
I turn back to face her, still holding my sister. “Mom, we’re talking about from this day forward. You and dad never left us wanting.”
Cathy disengages from our embrace, reaches down and picks up her towel. “What part of studying Philosophy covered ‘ass kissing’?”
I slap her on the ass and laugh. So does mom.
We suddenly are in a group hug, initiated almost simultaneously by all three of us.
What could be awkward is anything but. I feel chunks of tension cleave and fall off my shoulders.
With our arms around our shoulders like a trio of Rockettes, we face the pool and goose step right on into it, mom and me fully clothed.
That’s the family I grew up in.
Maybe I’m not so fucked.
From the bar in the kitchen, I watch my dad light the barbecue coals by streaming a four foot long squirt of lighter fluid down onto the unseen coals, then scratch a wooden match on the wood trim of the barbecue and toss it in after the fluid. Instant conflagration. He leans back, grinning. I’ve seen him do this hundreds of times and it never grows old.
Being home, and thus away from the increasingly stagnant scene school had become, made me think of how appreciative I’d grown over the years of the rituals that make up my family and its history. I have grown to find great comfort in the little things that when added up, create this wonderful nurturing environment. So many of my friends come from dysfunctional tribes that blithely spew screwed up kids out into society. I did not take my good fortune for granted.
Though usually relegated to the background due to the often bombastic personality of my mom, my dad Arthur is no shrinking violet. He runs his own construction business, and though work is becoming scarce and his options are flagging,
he remains upbeat. And rightfully so. As he wisely points out, construction, or more specifically, home building, may be vulnerable to economic fluctuations, but as long as people are being born, houses will need to be built. Dad was born with more than his share of common sense. I am grateful he’s passed it along to Cathy and me.
His love for my mom remains unflinching, devoted, and void of doubt. They are both good looking, and though dad is ten years older than mom, they both are in great shape. They present a perfect example of healthy adults for their children, and that isn’t lost on either of us.
What I think has happened for me and Cathy, ironically, is that because there are no obvious broken branches or sap-leaking holes in our family tree, my sister and I go looking for issues to wrestle and struggle with. Hence our common embracing of existential angst, every youth’s fall-back option for teeth gnashing and pointless worrying.
No concrete demons present themselves in our family life, so once granted independence, we both have shifted naturally to the vexing, anxiety-filled world that our friends inhabit. We manage to stay above the wallowing fray, for the most part. It probably is more experimental for us than anything else. We aren’t seeking out strife. We don’t want to be unhappy.
It isn’t familiar.
The Next Day – Lunch with Cathy
We’re in our favorite Taqueria four blocks from home, facing the beach. Its noon, the place is crowded, and our table has an unobstructed view of the placid surf quietly lapping the sandy beach.
My sister and I have always been close, but in this current phase, where we literally are two ships about to pass in the night, with me leaving the college bubble while she is poised to burst it, we are struggling to redefine where we are as brother and sister.
Her burrito sits before her, untouched. My taco plate also sits soaking up the sunshine. We sip cool Margaritas.
“Well, I’m about to do what you’ve already done. Do you think I need advice or guidance?”
“Come on Cathy. You know me. I want you to choose your own path. Don’t follow my footsteps. Look where four years at UCLA got me. I’m probably gonna have to move back home. No way to look at that as anything but a lateral move.”
She sips her drink. It is the only alcoholic beverage she likes.
“I’m not advocating following you. I just think since you’ve walked this walk, you could maybe point of the land mines.”
I shake my head. “First of all, you’re going to college, not occupying a war torn country. College is really nothing more than a gussied up attempt to prolong your teen years, to keep adulthood at bay. Sure, it’s cloaked in the shroud of “learning”, and yeah, it would be a good idea to do that, but college guarantees you shit. Especially in this age. Don’t make getting an education a means to an end. Make it only about getting smarter and wiser.”
She nodded. We watch as two guys and two girls walk hand in hand from the little patio we are on to the beach and down to the surf.
“Ah, young love,” she says, sounding like a 75 year old cynic.
I grin at her and pat her hand. “Speaking of which, what’s going on with this Bruce dude you were seeing last time I was home.”
My sister is one of those good looking young women who either have no idea they are attractive, or simply choose not to think about it. Both approaches make her, ironically, even more approachable. She spends a lot of time fending off guys. I love that she seems unwilling to compromise her mind in order to have a piece of guy-candy to hang on to.
“Bruce was, is, just a friend. We’re still friends. Just no longer enjoying the benefits.”
“You guys fucked?” I am incredulous. I look at Cathy as the last virgin, taking an almost father-like role in preserving her purity. She often laughs at my feckless attempts to keep guys away from her.
“Nope. Still a virgin, big bro.”
“And the benefits?”
“You don’t want to know,” she says, winking at me.
I change gears, quickly.
“Back to college. Mom says you have decided against UCLA. “
“I have indeed. I’ve got two more offers on the table, USC and San Diego State. Gotta let them know by next Wednesday. The pressure is on. What do you think?”
“Seriously? My two favorite schools are UCLA and whoever happens to be playing USC that day.”
She laughed. She is very aware of the rivalry between the two Southern California institutions. Mom went to SC.
“I think I remember you watching the USC cheerleaders through binoculars on more than one occasion.”
“Guilty. But that stops well short of treason. What draws you to San Diego State?”
She puts her empty Margarita glass down and waves her hand to the west, across the scene of sun-splashed beach and the soft, metronomic licking of the shore by the Pacific waves.
“You’re ok with merely repeating the scenery you’ve known your whole life?”
“If it ain’t broke…”
“Well, that makes sense, I guess. I know my going to UCLA didn’t exactly turn my life upside down. I mean, I could have lived at home if I wanted. I was hardly Magellan.”
“Can I ask you a question?”
“The job market sucks. Aren’t you scared?”
In my best Paul Newman voice, I channel The Sting: “Right down to my socks, buster”.
She laughs and hands me her glass. “Una mas, por favor, Senor.”
I comply. When I come back, we both pull the umbrellas out of our drink and touch the tips, our own original little toast.
I love my sister more than anyone on earth. It is one of my better triumphs in life that she knows this. She is a life raft thus far unsullied by ambiguity, and I adore her, without reservations.
My appreciation and affection for her are almost parental in nature. I don’t care. I was raised to look after my younger sister and I have done just that.
We begin to eat; the California sun has kept our lunches warm.
I want to put her fears about my future to rest. This weekend is about her.
“You know, Cathy. Even though the prospect of moving back home is unsavory, the other side of the coin would be a lot worse. At least I can, you know.”
“Grad school would be perfect for you now, Tyler.”
I nod grimly. “We both know I can’t afford it.”
“But you could ride out this shitty economy behind the secluded walls of academia.”
“You mean like I have these last four years?”
She grinned and raised her glass toward me. I tipped mine in response and we both drank.
“And, I guess, like I am about do for the next four years of my life.”
“If you go to San Diego State, those four years just might pass in a heartbeat.”
“I know it’s a party school, but it’s also the third largest school in the state.”
“Which is apropos of nothing. What does that have to do with anything?”
“I’m kind of looking forward to some anonymity. High school, especially this senior year, has been spent under the microscope with all my extra-curricular shit.”
“You mean mom and dad’s microscope?”
“Well, sort of. With cheerleading, and volleyball, and applying to all the colleges, I haven’t had much time to sit and figure things out.”
“Like, do I even WANT to go to college?”
I am stunned. This hits me out of left field, right field, shit, The Killing Fields.
“What would you do instead?”
“Well, to answer first your obvious un-asked question, dad doesn’t know this, but mom does. We’ve talked about my options other than college. There aren’t many.”
“I’d like to travel and write.”
“That’s the problem.”
”No shit. Last summer, you mentioned that writing for the school newspaper had opened a door for you. What did you mean?”
“I meant I was catching the writing bug. Before that, just stupid journal and diary shit. But the newspaper opened my mind to the bigger picture. And I liked it.”
“What was mom’s reaction when you told her this?”
“At first, she shit her pants. Then, I could almost sense a vicarious thing developing. She’s chosen, as you know, the more traditional path through life. Her generation encouraged that a lot more than mine does now. But she tells me she’s always had a wild hair up her ass. An itch she never scratched. She started to brain storm about how maybe I could do it.”
“That would explain her muscle car fetish.”
“It all comes back to fucking money, doesn’t it? For both of us.”
“Yeah,” she acknowledges. “If only grandpa would die.”
We both laugh out loud. My dad’s dad is a cranky rich old Palm Desert-dwelling bastard with more money than Shaq and Kobe combined, but he isn’t parting with it, at least not while he's alive. Dad has hinted we’ll probably see some of it after he dies. We are his only grandchildren, and we always get along well with the curmudgeon when he visits.
Cathy leans toward me and asks in an almost conspiratorial whisper, “Don’t you have any iconoclastic desires?”
“You mean beyond maybe teaching or writing?”
“Yeah. Way beyond those. Don’t you think big?”
“I guess I’ve never quite let go of my Dick Enberg fantasy.” For years, growing up on Enberg’s Padre’s broadcasts had made me want to be a sportscaster. It became a running joke for a while, but college had drowned the dream. Or so I thought.
“Do you know Enberg’s 77 years old, and still doing the Padres games on TV?”
”Of course. Again, apropos of nothing.”
“What, is that your new favorite phrase? Lose it. What IS ‘apropos’, Emerson, is that he can’t go on forever. The Padres will need a replacement. Maybe soon.”
“Other than that stuff with the baseball team during my sophomore year, I have no experience.”
”You made a demo tape, didn’t you?”
”Send it to them. What the hell could it hurt?”
We went silent for a while, mulling over possible futures as, respectively, wandering writer, and sportscaster in waiting.
Dreaming is fun, but so often dreams end up in the unrequited bin, dusty and relegated to the sidelines of life. Dreams need to be forced on life; there is never a welcome mat.
Last Night at Home Before Graduation
Dad is working late on a 12,000 square foot home in Brentwood, so mom, Cathy and I are sitting in the kitchen talking while mom begins dinner preparations.
She puts chicken thighs in a casserole dish on one layer, skin side up, salt and peppers them, drizzles some olive oil over the top and adds some paprika. She earlier had chopped a yellow onion into ½ inch rings, and spreads them now out over the thighs. She covers with foil and leaves to marinate on the counter.
I’m drinking a beer, Cathy is sipping iced tea, and mom works on her second glass of red wine.
She pulls a large bowl of cole slaw out of the fridge, peels the clear plastic wrap off the top and dresses the salad with her home made slaw dressing, which includes a delicious hint of garlic and orange zest.
She finishes, re-covers and then returns the bowl to the fridge. She picks up her glass of wine and leans on the counter facing us while we sit on the other side of the bar.
“Well, this is a familiar tableau, isn’t it?”
It is indeed. We’ve watched mom cook in this kitchen for most of our lives. We are both adept in the culinary arts for kids our age, polished and confident with a knife in our hands, comfortable and trusting of our food instincts to know when to stray from a recipe, to experiment, to be bold. Mom taught us well, and she knows it.
Cathy raises her glass and says, “One down, one to go.”
Mom nods and tips her glass towards us. My beer bottle gently touches my sister’s glass. Two graduations. One a triumphant next step of her journey, the other an anxiety-inducing return to the scene of the crime.
My mom’s cell phone begins to vibrate itself across the marble kitchen counter, a living, breathing representation of how technology now intrudes in our life, to the point of taking on human characteristics. It was almost eerie to see it move, as if being dragged along a pebbly surface.
Mom debates whether to answer it, frowns, peeks at the screen and picks it up.
We hear the uneven crackling of my dad’s voice on the other end. As mom listens, her brow furrows, then a wave of apparent concern washes over her pretty face. Dad’s voice is going non-stop. It’s almost 5pm.
“Ok. Ok. We’ll wait right here. No, we’ll stay here till we hear from you. I love you honey.”
We hear the connection break and mom sets her phone down. It now lays inert, lifeless and unobtrusive.
We sit in silence. Something is wrong.
Mom sips her wine, reaches over and pours some more into her glass from the open bottle of Zinfandel.
Cathy and I are motionless, waiting.
When Good Luck Happens to Good People
Later, Cathy and I retreat to her room to give mom and dad some private time. We can’t help but grin at each other as we walk down the hall.
In the other room there is no grinning. Dad has lost his father, and mom has lost a father-in-law who shattered all stereotypes. Her husband’s father worshiped her, adored her and repeatedly told his son what a treasure she was. Mom and dad always joked about that, as the famous grouch of the family rarely had anything good to say about anyone else. To salute mom so regularly, a non-blood member of the clan, always had the family scratching its head. Maybe that was mom’s allure. She wasn’t a Greenwich by birth. Grandpa’s self loathing was always apparent and on display, and he generously spread it around. Mom somehow escaped his wrath. I always thought it was simply because grandpa liked her ass.
Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
As Cathy closes her bedroom door, I sit in the wicker rocking chair in the corner by the open window. The cool spring breeze is soft and inviting as it flows through the window. Cathy lies on her stomach on her unmade bed, facing me, her legs up behind her and crossed at the ankles. She definitely inherited her mom’s shapely rear end.
We both know what ugly, slimy animal sits on the floor between us now, grinning like The Prince of fucking Darkness, sated and secure in his ubiquitousness.
From the moment we grinned at each other in the hall, guilt immediately wiped the smiles off our faces.
Money. The root of all evil. Timothy wrote about it in the New Testament. Greed, one of the seven deadly sins. Man has done little to dispute it or prove it false.
Grandpa’s death will provide the financial freedom both Cathy and I talked wistfully about yesterday. The freedom to pursue dreams. To veer off the beaten path. To forge in unexpected directions. To explore our individuality and live the life we choose, not that which is laid out for us like clothes on the bed before church on a Sunday morning.
Our 68 year old grandfather’s heart has given out on him, suddenly and without warning. Harboring all that negativity and vitriol has caught up to him, apparently. When the soul rots, I once read at school, it often does not restrain itself from infecting other more potentially lethal organs.
It is this thought I share with Cathy, who simply nods in agreement.
After some silence, our eyes meet and again we grin. Big, infectious grins that this time don’t fade away, even as guilt is creeping into our own souls with its fetid breath and pernicious, poisonous influence. We are used to good fortune, Cathy and I. Our parents have ensured that we feel a sense of accomplishment and are able to acknowledge that we have earned our lot in life.
Mom and dad’s efforts toward keeping guilt at bay as their children grew up, unencumbered by the intellectual stigma of contrition, allowed them to raise a pair of children who would grin at, and not question, their good fortune, even when it came as a direct result of their grandfather’s death.
Grandpa once told me, late one night, surrounded by a patio table filled with empty martini glasses, “Life is messy, son. Wear a fucking helmet.”
Thanks Grandpa. For everything.
Now, it’s time to Google an update on Dick Enberg’s health status.
© Copyright 2016 Bill Rayburn. All rights reserved.