When you move you have the luxury of being able to reinvent yourself. Because I had a terrible speech impediment, I was not afforded this gift. You cannot get away with wearing a new identity if you sound like a tea kettle. You cannot get away with pretending to be tough and fearless when you get beat up for your lisp and your whistle.
You can, however, take some speech therapy and then try your best to learn how to fight, which is much better than a mask.
When I was a teen and girls became the only thing I wanted to touch or think about or know or explore or even be the fuck around, I was terrified. I was the dipshit kid who would end up on the phone with some other dude’s girlfriend when she was mad at him for something stupid and they would talk and talk and talk and I would smoke and smoke and listen and pine and pine and pine. The girls would always tell me how sweet I was. The girls would always ask me why I didn’t have a girlfriend. I would sit there with the receiver to my ear and my heart in my throat and I wouldn’t say anything at all, but I would secretly in my blood wish they would ask me to come over to their house, to sneak in through their window, to sneak into them.
I once tried to kiss a friend’s girl at a party when she was crying because he had said something mean to her. She was furious at me—both of her balled-up fists hit me right in the sternum as she yelled at me—and threatened to tell my friend what I had done. Instead of facing up to it, I just stopped hanging around them, making myself a ghost.
I was always a ghost.
I was always good at living in secret.
Sometimes when I look at my hands—and this is something I do often, this looking at the hands thing—I can see where they have been. Faces they have touched. Work they have done, on cars, printing presses, grills, drywall, roofs, pulling weeds, choking assailants.
Are they my hands, or are they my teeth?
Are they my hands, or are they my father’s hands?
I was seventeen when I lost my virginity. I was seventeen and terrified and had no idea what I was doing and left everything up to my more experienced partner. She was a classmate. We had flirted for two years prior—science class and the backseats of Novas, coupled with marijuana and Alice Cooper led to lots of making out and frustrated grabbing and pawing through clothing—but I got kicked out of school and she called me and said she wanted to come over on an early Summer day. A friend rode his scooter over to her house and picked her up, bringing her back to my house. He shook my hand and palmed three condoms into my grip, then left.
I remember everything that happened that afternoon like it just happened ten minutes ago. The way the pot we smoked just hung in the air in my room, the way my waterbed sloshed back and forth, the way it felt the very moment she put me into herself, the dumb shit I mumbled out of my terrified mouth, the way she asked me, mid-stroke, if I was a virgin.
She smiled when I told her that I was.
After we had sex, we spent the rest of the afternoon in my room with her splayed across my bed, naked, while I read her Allen Ginsberg poems and we smoked more and more pot. She’d laugh at lines that she could tell I was uncomfortable reading aloud. She’d reach out with her hand and pull me back down to her to kiss me, to touch me, to slip me back inside. She’d smile at me as we romped and smile at me as I shuddered and smile at me as I crushed up stolen amphetamines for us to snort.
She had to leave around dusk because her folks were coming home and she wasn’t supposed to be out anywhere after getting busted with some hash on her. I called my friend and he came back and picked her up on his scooter to take her home. He winked at me as they rode off.
When I was in my early twenties I worked at a record store. My coworkers and I used to chomp at the bit for shoplifters—store policy was such that we could apprehend them, chase them down if they ran from the store. More often than not, because I was ex-military, as soon as another employee suspected someone of trying to jack a used cassette tape they would alert me. I would station myself in the area of the store closest to the doors, acting like a customer or acting as though I was doing some mundane task, just waiting for that moment when the ‘lifter would attempt to flee.
Once, a gang member tried to push his way through me and a wall of other employees. His neck a series of stringy veins trying to pop and guttural sounds meant to intimidate. I was the closest to him, and with every push he made forward, I pushed back into him. He was so strong, so focused. He tried to rake my eyes with a free hand and then that is when I snapped—I reached out with my right hand, closing it across his throat and leaving my feet. We lurched toward the floor and by the time we had hit it, he had pulled a small knife free from his waist and was digging it into my thigh. My hand closed tighter and tighter. His face crimson and tears.
When the rest of my coworkers pried us apart, he had carved a decent chunk of meat free from my leg. They searched his pockets. All that violence over a used Jodeci cassette going for a paltry $2.99.
I felt nothing as it was happening. They were not my hands.
She and I never had sex again—that one afternoon was basically it other than phone calls and plans that would never come together—and I thought I would never see her again, but one early morning I was standing in a grocery store with a girl I was dating and there she was, working in the bakery. When she saw me she tried to hide. When I saw her I tried to die. The girl I was dating dropped my hand and started asking me a storm of questions about who she was and what happened between us and raising her voice and all I could do was stand there like a dumb oaf and try to look around the bakery equipment to see her eyes, to see her face, to see if she would smile.
The girl I was dating dragged me out of the store. I never saw her—S, my first–again.
The ghost got ghosted.
POSTCARD FROM THE DESERT, 1988: Thrown from the back of a moving pick-up in the middle of the desert only to come around near a huge fire surrounded by a bunch of teens dancing and drinking and a bottle of cheap tequila in my lap and on my lips.
I tried to burn Black Flag bars into my upper arm when I was sixteen, using a piece of a coat hanger, a lighter, and some wire cutters. They were not my favorite band but I wanted all the kids at my school to see how punk rock I was—it was a really important thing at that part of my life—because I was getting tired of being lumped in with the heshers and the rockers. I did the first strike-brand and then chickened out on the rest. I never even showed the one burn to anyone. I told my mother I burned my arm getting something out of the oven. She told me to keep rubbing vinegar into it and that the scar would fade away.
After I lost my virginity and a little time had passed, I had a girlfriend who was very sexual and demanding. She was older than me—I was still seventeen but she was twenty, from Minnesota, and way more punk rock than I could ever have been—and liked to boss me around all the time. I didn’t care because I was a seventeen year old kid having sex with a twenty year old that everyone was afraid of and that made me feel kind of different. She was mean and funny and mean and mean. She liked to belittle me in front of her friends and make fun of me for not knowing how to drive. She taught me a lot, though.
At the end of our short relationship I got very sick. She came over to my house one day when nobody was around and pretended like she cared about my well-being—she made me some soup and sat with me in my room while I coughed and hacked, going through my records and telling me which ones weren’t punk enough—until she decided she needed to have sex with me, even in my sickly state.
She put me in her mouth but I didn’t stir. She got angry and bit down hard. Then she slipped a condom on me and tried to put me inside of her but that wasn’t working. She started to yell at me and punch me in the head and face.
“You’re gonna have to learn some day that you have a lot to learn, you sad piece of shit.”
She pulled on her pants and stomped on a few of my records before storming out. I never saw her again but I hear her all the time.
The first band I was ever in did a terrible cover of The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven.” We tried so very hard to punk it up, but that is not the worst part. The worst part is that when we were in a recording studio recording a bunch of our songs we did that song but instead of singing the original lyrics, we turned it into some kind of homophobic sing-along. I remember going home early that day—we recorded overnight because it was way cheaper and we were punks and didn’t have any fucking money, man—and popping the cassette master into my headphones, listening to our original songs and feeling great and thinking the future was a big river and then that song came on and I heard all of the terrible things the four of us were yelling into microphones and I felt so very sick inside. I kept on thinking about what idiots we were, and about how even if anyone liked our other songs, that one dumb thing we did would follow us forever. I never said anything to the rest of the band about how I felt because I felt so gross and stupid.
I am pretty sure those recordings are nowhere to be found in the world.
Wearing a uniform is something everyone does, especially those who claim they will never do such a thing.
One of the last nights I was a drinker I wandered up and down Ave A begging people to punch me in the face. At one point I was wagging around one hundred dollars and screaming that I would give it to anyone that would knock me out. Maybe it was because of how insane I looked and sounded, but nobody would do it. I ended up somehow finding my way into Koreatown and a massage parlor and that money was gone as quick as I was because the woman who massaged me was beautiful and kind and she worked it all out—the anger and the shame and the Sean that needed to die, the Sean that no longer needed to be a ghost.
Sometimes I find it kind of funny that I have seen so much blood in my life and here I am, a man with something wrong in his blood.
The body betrays.
“All souls must undergo transmigration and the souls of men revolve like a stone which is thrown from a sling, so many turns before the final release…Only those who have not completed their perfection must suffer the wheel of rebirth by being reborn into another human body.” — Zohar