Every journey requires a first step. We don’t like to think of the luck needed for the path to be a sturdy and righteous one; we just like to think back on that first step. The one we took.
I began working at a factory after leaving an accounting firm for a better job that never materialized. That Summer I became adept at collecting cans and bottles, started working out again, and hoped that in reading a book a week, I’d find some answers.
My little league baseball coach owned it. He heard I wasn’t working and asked if I’d like to talk. He interviewed me at his office. Driving away from the interview, I saw an open bag of trash in the road,pulled over, and picked up a totally sweet score of 6 Monster Energy Drink cans. It seemed that this new journey was paying off already.
I showed up from 7:00 am to 5:30 pm, my duty was to put small boxes into bigger ones and carry bricks 10 hours a day. Shortly after, I was in my own office. What I often wondered was "Were some people more deserving?" I think so. Or "Were any more qualified via the path on which they were born?" No.
Back to this step.
“Last year,” I told boss-coach, “I took a few courses toward an MBA. Does it mean anything to you if I finish?”
“Not really. What you want to do is study Industrial Management,” he said.
After a little searching, then filling an application, and I was in Stony Brook’s Science and Technology program. That first day was a bad one. It started in the morning when I had an appointment at the VA Hospital. I hated going there, and I also hated that I’m poor, so I can’t go anywhere else. Leaving the hospital I tried to call K, but she didn’t answer, and the sad feeling began to sink as I started my old truck and headed to the factory. Leaving work for class I doubted if any of this would matter. All college had done for me so far was make me a better person, and that didn’t equate to anything I could hold on to.
Parking seemed impossible. I worried I’d be late until I finally pulled into a lot, but it was a paid one, and I had no cash – not on me or elsewhere. The factory job had saved me because with the first paycheck I was kept from having to pick winners and losers of the bills, but 6 months later I was still just barely getting by. I took a chance that the base cops wouldn’t check, or, if they did, would only stick me with a warning for this 1st offense, and started walking like everything was okay – like it wasn’t that literally everything was riding on this; that my 4 daughters at home, and the wife I’d made promises to, weren't hanging in the balance of whatever equity my manhood could provide.
Walking, I had a general sense of where I was going and came upon a central area busy with people.
“Are you lost?” a young student asked me.
“Very much so.”
“I can help you,” she offered.
And we walked.
“I’m Amy,” she said, shaking my hand. She was either the nicest girl in the world, or her sorority rush involved various benign community service activities for the poor and mislaid.
“I’m over in the freshman dorms. How about you? Are you a transfer?
Her brown hair hung long and looked perfect from what I now know to be a professional blowout. Her smile was unassuming, and open to just getting to know each other. We hit the 4th floor on the elevator, parted ways, and with the distraction of Amy gone I began to feel bad again as I passed two fat guys in trendy clothes, just talking like there’s not a problem to be had as one of them sported a four-inch Afro and the other an atrociously disgusting beard. But regardless of whatever was living in that thing on his face I was positive he was getting laid more than me. After that, I passed a group of Asian kids; they were all taller than me, leading my sense of insecurity to be one of complete doom.
Reaching the classroom I was one of maybe 4 Americans. Everyone else was from China, Korea and Taiwan. My only hope of out-Asian-ing these Asian kids was to sit front-row-center, so that’s what I did. My phone alerted me to an email. It was from Stacey Asher, the president of a charity I was the CFO for – a Madison Avenue outfit with a bunch of millionaires and me. And there was another from my buddy, NiceGuy Jones, an accountant with top credentials, but a hatred for the job. Stacey needed me to review the corporate documents created for the board to sign at the next meeting. NiceGuy said to forward them and he’d see if there was anything misaligned.
I was split – like so many of us – between the person I was, and the one I wished I could be.
And then class began: Systems in a Man-Machine Environment
Leaving class I was lost inside the building. It was getting late, and few people were around.
“Sorry,” I said to two students, “but how do I get out of here?”
“Just follow us,” one said.
So I did. They took me to a very secluded stairwell, blonde hair swaying, no books in their hands, while I pondered the work of Donella Meadows, and then we emerged into the night.
“Okay,” I said, “where am I?”
“What dorm do you live in?”
“Is this your first day on campus?”
It was, but if they could tell me how to get to the entrance of the bookstore I’d have my bearings.
“Do you want to come to our dorm room with us?”
“I can’t,” I said, and was directed to walk that way.
Walking, I was seeing the sprawling grass, the rec area, a sign directing me to the fitness center, and thought back on how I could have had all of this, and once did, but tossed it away. The campus, and everything it could be, was like a sensory overload, and I went from lost and unsure about myself and my life to depressed and positive that I had completely fucked everything up by joining the Marine Corps instead of staying in school.
With firm footing in place, I headed toward the paid parking lot, wondering if I’d have to pay a ticket I couldn’t afford at a time of day I didn’t have sick time for. As I did I kept thinking these thoughts (imagining the conversation with various people who knew me) about these happenings and revelations – that had I just stayed in school, I, too, could have gotten seven strains of chlamydia and whatever else from strange young girls with no sense of danger or safety, but then the conversation in my mind went to them having told me so and I was enraged, because fuck them, that’s why. Sure, I’d made mistakes. But they were my mistakes. While I went out and actually did some shit and got messy, they stayed home latched to their Momma’s tit and just did what they were told. In the end, we were all in the same place – stupid, lost and poor, so what’d it matter?
I reached my truck – a white Ford Explorer older than my oldest child with a fifth-of-a-million miles on it. Standing before it I wanted to crush my fists, my feet, my face – every square inch of me – into every square inch of it until one of us – the car, my body, the façade of my hopes and dreams – were finally destroyed so we could have this settled for once and for all, finally.
But I needed that old truck to get my kids to school. And to the doctor. And wherever else this life took us.
So I didn’t do any of those things. I just lived.
Christopher is an accountant from Long Island and the author of War Poems: A Marine’s Tour 2003-2008, which can be checked out at your local library, or purchased wherever books are sold. He is currently working on his next book.