[ONE DAY REMAINS]
When the black line that separates the mountain ridge from the sky disappears, that’s when the dragons come out. They’re huge, sleek, white serpents — four stories tall. During the day they disguise themselves as the mills in the wind farm on the Tehachapi mountains. But my brother Giani and I know better. At dusk, we drive out to the desert lot speckled with Joshua trees behind our parents’ house and wait for them to wake up. In the darkness, you can see almost nothing but their red and blinking thousand eyes.
As we sit, dragongazing in Franz the German Whip, we talk. Normally, there would be more people with us but Justin and Garrett left Lancaster that morning after resting from the baptism and birthdays the day before. So, Giani and I talked about how I quit and I told him about Enki. In a weird way, it felt like Enki was there with us in the car. Giani is the newest addition of our family to the lifeguard clan and for the past two summers we’ve worked together.
“You know, you worked so much harder this summer than you did last year,” he tells me. “And that was cool to see. I’m really proud of you buddy.”
Hearing him say that felt good, but it also felt…complicated. It made me think of the intense depression that’s been following me around for years. How this past summer I finally decided to kick its ass by working as hard as I could, and in a way, that worked. It made me feel guilty for not doing it sooner, for all the years I’d spent frozen on my bedroom floor in a web of my own thoughts, crying my eyes out and asking myself “why am I like this?”
In the past, my depression had felt insurmountable. It felt like all the darkness in my mind had turned into one scaly white claw that was pressing its talon into my chest and pinning me to the dirt. But I’d recently learned that this wasn’t true and that my mind was much stronger than I could have ever imagined. And that I could do incredible things with it. But this made me think back on the summer he was referring to, and it felt all the more shameful to me. I know that guilting myself for the past would only make me feel worse. I tried to snip that feeling in the bud. But I couldn’t quite do it.
I also knew that comparing myself to other people would not help, but I couldn’t stop myself from doing that either. I was listening to my younger brother say how proud he was of me for working hard and immediately I felt like it should be the other way around. But he seemed so much more put together than I was at twenty-four years old. In three days, he would turn 19.
I thought back to all the lectures I’d gotten from various adults about being messy, about being disorganized, being lazy, about constantly overthinking and needing to calm down and I really started to hate myself. All of those moments compounded over years and years of my life flashed through my head in just a few instants and I think Giani could tell because he said “Gio! Look! I think one of them is flying off!”
“What? Really? Where?”
“I think you missed it. Shouldn’t have been staring off into space like you do, fuckhead.”
[EARLIER THAT DAY]
I woke up sick. I could feel it coming on the second I left the church after the baptism. It was as if my immune system had mustered all its strength to get me through the week and at that moment and finally said “OK, I quit,” and dropped dead.
I woke up with cold sweats, and a throat so swollen I could barely breathe. It may have been exhaustion. Or maybe it was the fact that two days earlier I’d invited Ava over. She’d told me that even though this was the last time I might ever see her, that I probably still shouldn’t kiss her because of her cold. That just didn’t seem right to me, so I kissed her. And maybe that’s why I fell so ill. But I’d also heard of people’s subconscious making them sick to stop them from following through on a really important decision, and this being my final day in California, I felt it might be that.
I got up early anyway because I told Garrett that I would help him look for a suit. The fact that he would ask me felt incredibly kind because I’ve always been complimented on my talent for fashion, and for some reason, I was feeling incredibly untalented that day.
Garrett needed the suit for his new job. I can’t say much about it except that it involves the military and his math degree that he hadn’t yet completed at the time. That was what got to me. The fact that I’d just finished my own degree and was about to drive across the country, jobless. I wasn’t shocked that it’d been difficult to find a job with a creative writing degree but it was hard to stand next to him while he tried his suit on nonetheless. He’d done it, he hadn’t become a letdown, and I was so proud of him for that. Myself, on the other hand, I wasn’t so sure.
I’d decided to be the most helpful I could be to him. So, when we walked into the store I found a salesman, introduced him to my brother and told him that we needed to make him look hot. Even hotter than he already is, if that’s even possible. We discussed different color combinations, different fits, everything we could to make him look his best. And when I saw him standing there in that triple mirror that engulfed him like a seashell, I had a realization. I had no idea what my brother’s face looked like at all.
I thought I did. But looking at him dead center, first at the left slice of his face, and then the right, the pieces didn’t seem to add up. How can you put that one side, (with that sad and wise smile of his) with the right side (which held his staunch determination and discipline to make himself a master at almost anything he puts his mind to) together and get my brother? I found myself looking at three completely separate people.
That made me think of something I’d read somewhere; our eyes can’t take a picture of an entire face. So what they do instead is piece together a million little slivers of face back into one whole image, like a paper collage of magazine cutouts. So the way he looked to me, versus the way he looked to his girlfriend, or even to himself were completely different. There was no objective face, just a bunch of random components floating above his neck. A potential face, waiting for a pair of eyes to piece them together. Even subatomic particles apparently don’t exist until someone is there to observe them.
After Giani and I get back from watching the dragons, I’m lying on my bed, still sick, doing nothing. That’s when Chacha walks in and I’m so glad that she does because I know I can convince her to force me to clean my room up and maybe start packing. I’m meant to leave tomorrow and I haven’t packed a single sock yet. I’m not proud of that fact, but it fits my pattern nicely and it makes a grim kind of sense to me.
I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve used Chacha to boss me around since she was a little girl. I’d be lying on the floor and call her into my room. “Chacha, I have to clean my room but I don’t know where to start. I just feel so overwhelmed.”
“OK, get up! It’s simple. Let’s start by throwing everything on your floor onto your bed. Then we’ll just put things away one at a time.”
This was a useful tactic and it always got my room clean and I got to hang out with my baby sister, but it also made me feel even more inadequate. If I can’t even do things a simple child can do, how am I ever going to beat this? I know it’s in my head but if I should have figured out how to clean my room by now, then isn’t it just too late? Shouldn’t I just give up? If I have to use my kid sister to force me to clean my room then how am I ever going to write a story or travel the world or pay my bills? Am I just trapped? Those thoughts would play on ad-infinitum in my head, never letting me rest.
Although, there were times when I’d pushed Chacha out of her comfort zone as well. I remember a few years back, when I got her to climb all the way to the top of Vazquez Rock with me. She was crying all the way up, but she did it, and she was so proud of herself after the fact. Just one month earlier I took her to Huntington Beach on a surf trip and we both swam out in waves that were far too big for either of us — and breaking way to close to shore. We both swallowed a lot of water and almost had to ditch the boards. She came swimming out just a few minutes after me, puking up seawater and crying her eyes out. It was stupid of me to have taken her, I hardly knew what I was doing myself.
She kept crying until she caught her breath and I looked at her and said, “Dude … we almost died.” Then we both burst into laughter and I bought her some ice cream.
Now, as that sixteen-year-old helped me sort through what I would be taking on this next chapter of my life and what I would leave behind, I thought about how put-together she is. How if I was sixteen, I probably could not have helped myself with the same problem.
[THE DAY OF DEPARTURE]
I’m eating my signature breakfast at Karen’s Kitchen 2 with my parents: Vegetarian eggs Benedict and avo. I don’t know it then, but this one of the last vegetarian meals I’ll have in a long time.
“That’s the last meal on the daddy train,” my father says when the food arrives. When he says this, he is trying to say that he loves me and will miss me, but I don’t hear it. What I hear is “You’ve spent too long on the daddy train, you’re too old and too smart to be this lost. Get a grip.”
Some knights fight dragons. And if I am a knight, then my dragon is that voice inside my head that twists and mangles things into their worst possible permutation. But I’ve seen the source of this voice, and it doesn’t come from a dragon, but a strange demon. The cross between a sloth and an anteater. He digs his claws into my back and exhausts me. He wraps his tongue around my neck and sticks it in my ear and shoots his whispers directly into my brain.
I don’t know how to defeat him. I just know that he doesn’t like movement. Even seeing him at all is a victory in itself. When I was 14 and covered in ice, he had his claws so deep into my spine I almost died, but he was invisible to me then.
I’ve learned that noticing him is half the battle and that even if I don’t win, it is far, far better to fight. And although it may not have looked like much at that breakfast table I was fighting him off as much as I could.
I tried my best to look my parents in the eyes while we ate, but I couldn’t do it as much as I would have liked. I kept thinking about how I got to that point. That maybe, if I hadn’t been so damn terrified of life after graduating, then I would have figured something out instead of running off to Spain. Or maybe, if I had taken the time while I was in Spain, to find some friends to live with when I got back, then I wouldn’t feel the need to run away again. And then, I thought about how my whole life had been shrouded by indecision and fear. All this to say, I was feeling sorry for myself.
I had forgotten that the sloth had attached himself to me. That’s where his power lies. In his invisibility. In his ability to be easily forgotten. How long had he been sucking the joy out of me this time? Since the morning before, or longer than that? Was he the reason I was sick?
I excused myself and went to the restroom where I took out Justin’s knife that he had left at the house. I severed the leech’s tongue, freeing it from my brain. The long clawed monster fell to the floor shrieking pain. It sounded like a thousand dying cats. The blood dripping from its mouth was a liquid charcoal black. In the corner of the bathroom, I could see 14. A boy made entirely of ice.
“Stab him again. Please, you need to stab him again!” he said. But the demon had already regrown his tongue.
“Why exhaust yourself fighting me? You know you can’t win. You know that everything I whisper to you is the truth. You are worthless and without talent. Out of six children, the odds that one of them would be completely incompetent, invaluable, and an outright drain on human society, were very high. You did nothing wrong, my child, it’s just the luck of the draw.”
14 threw his icy crown over his ear to block out those whispers that were louder than car crashes. “Oh my god, kill it. Kill it. Kill it. Please, you have no idea what it’s like to have to listen to him all the time.”
But the monster had already bought himself enough time. I didn’t notice his long tongue sliver behind me and inject itself back into my ear. And when it did, everything he was saying made perfect sense. I was pathetic. If I wasn’t, why was I always running away? I couldn’t for the life of me think of a single moment when I stood up for myself or when I had done anything that was good or even meritable. I looked at 14 and asked him: “I can’t kill him. Why even try?”
The icy ghost of my fourteen-year-old self looked at me with heartbroken eyes. “Oh no, not you too. You’re supposed to be the best of us. Look, you have Justin’s magic knife in your hand! Stab him in the skull and don’t stop stabbing until we’ve made a sloth smoothie of this mother-fucker.”
I looked at 14. He looked just like me, although his hair was shorter and he was a blackish blue of frozen tap water. Through the ice, I could see half a bottle of Advil floating and frozen in his stomach. I thought about the ten years that had passed since I had been him, and how he had haunted me all the while. I’d be walking through downtown Santa Cruz in the sun, having a great time, and suddenly he’d be there. Staring me down. Reminding me of the terrible person I’d been.
“Why would I listen to you, 14?” And the grey monster regained his perch and dug his long sloth claws into my spine once more. “I fucking hate your guts.”
[A QUICK WORD ON JUSTIN’S MAGIC KNIFE.]
You may or may not know that the Goya (my grandfather’s Spanish Guitar, and the same kind played by Julie Andrews in the Sound of Music) is haunted by his ghost. In the same way, the Swiss army knife called Grampa Jim is haunted by the energies of its namesake.
My grandfather would play the Goya, trying but never quite mastering many flamenco songs. Flamenco was important to mi abuelo because he was “a Spaniard and NOT a Mexican, like your Nana.” For his obsession with the Spanish culture, and the fact that he (like myself) was a terrible daydreamer, my mother always called him Don Quixote. For his 70th birthday my mother made him a helmet and a lance. I played him “Blood on the Saddle,” one of the old cowboy ballads he would sing to my mother when she was a child.
You should also know that for many years of his young life, Justin believed his grandfather to be Don Quixote himself. He would call the figurine of the caballero at his grandmother’s house “the statue of grampa.” It wasn’t until years later while he was in the car with his mother and she was explaining how the windmills on the side of the road were so important to the story of Don Quixote that he realized they were two separate beings. She got so wrapped up in the story that she didn’t realize she was speeding until they were pulled over. The story of Don Quixote tends to do that to people. Or so I hear.
I do not know the rules of the spirit realm. I can only guess that what happened next had something to do with my link to the knife through the story of the great Spanish knight.
I had given up. I was about to return to the breakfast table and let that beast bring me into an even grey-er state of existence. I dropped the knife, already forgetting its importance to me. I was reaching for the door when I felt a searing cold on my shoulder. The ice boy was actually touching me.
I didn’t know this was possible. Although I didn’t care that much about it at the time because his hand was so cold that all I could think of was how much I wanted him to let me go. But when I grabbed his forearm, the ice burned my hands and I had to let go.
14 seemed shocked, too. He had a look on his face as if to say “I can’t believe this is happening,” but he did his best to keep calm and keep the momentum on his side. Even more shocking to us both than the fact that he was actually touching me was what was in his left hand. He had picked up Grampa Jim. With his right hand, he slapped me across the face.
“Listen, you motherfucker. I seriously fucked your life up. And your family’s. You’re still cleaning up after me, and you might never get to rest from that your entire life. But I need you to forgive me.”
“Look at how pathetic you were. You haven’t changed much since. Always looking for excuses. Always — ” And he slapped me across the face again, and looked me in the eyes.
“I am so — so, sorry for what I did.”
I looked at the block of ice in front of me and thought about all the years I’d hated and hated and hated him. How I forced myself to be better, to leave that part of my life behind. Not realizing he’d been trying to say he’s sorry for 10 years now. And I realized I was tired of being angry. I told him I forgave him.
The small Swiss army knife that had opened more beer bottles than anything else, began to glow. It changed into a Spanish rapier in 14’s hand, and he began to smile. “All right then. Don’t move, I think you have something on your back.”
And he stabbed the Demon through its open mouth so hard that the blade exited through the back of its skull. He flicked the blade up so quickly that the creature dislodged itself from my brain and my spine and fell to the bathroom floor. Then it charged at my younger self, screaming its pet cemetery scream. But he didn’t stand a chance as 14 unleashed ten years of rage at being a slave to this monster.
First, he sliced at its feet to immobilize it. This part of the attack was eloquent. But after so much slicing and stabbing, the assault eventually devolved into a fit of pure violence. He started screaming. He dropped the sword (which immediately turned back into the small knife) and began punching and stomping the remains of broken skull and spine until the bathroom was covered entirely in black blood.
Catching his breath, 14 picked up the most corporeal parts and dropped them in the toilet to flush them away.
“So is that it?” I asked.
“Oh no, he’ll come back. He’ll never stop coming back. But next time I can’t do it for you.”
I left the bathroom covered in the dark ick. Although I knew nobody could see it, to me I looked like a bloody mess. My fingers felt sticky and the dried liquid made it hard to feel my face. I felt so much better. “Sorry I took so long,” I told my parents. “I fell in.” And that made them laugh.
[ONE HOUR LATER.]
Through my coughing and wheezing, I’d thrown everything I wanted to take with me into the car. Although it looked like a bomb had gone off, technically I was packed. The Goya was the last thing I placed in the car. Making sure it was in reach, should I need it on the road.
I jumped in the shower to wash all of the blood off of me. I felt very tired. I had a headache that felt like 14’s rapier was jabbing into my skull. Snot kept running out of my nose. This is what I get for trying to be romantic, I thought.
And through the drain I could hear the whisper of the demon, slowly piecing himself together again. “Just stay another day. Rest. You can always just leave tomorrow.” And I knew then, that if I stayed, I might never leave. That I might spend my entire life doubting what to do next. Feeling sorry for myself. Never leaving the town I had sworn for 10 years to escape from.
So I put my clothes on and said goodbye. My family gave me lots of hugs and I felt lucky that I had all these wonderful people to go back to. Then they went inside when I got in my car. All except my mother, who like all of my tia’s will stay outside waving and blowing kisses until you are far past the horizon. I wasn’t raised as a Mexican. But I was raised with a cariño that stems straight from the family of a baker crossing the border just before the turn of the century. And that counts for something, I thought.
On the road, I called my uncle and told him I was headed to him, 3,000 miles out.
“This is going to be great. You are going to love it here. You have never seen this many hot bitches in one place. You are going to have so many adventures in your year here, and when you’re done you’re going to put it in your book and we’ll get it published. I already have a title for you.”
“Alright. Let’s hear it.”
“‘This Was a Terrible Idea’.”
“Ehh, that’s a little on the nose, but I’ll think it over.”
It was sunset when I finally left the Mojave. I looked back on my desert town through the mirror. Even my uncle, who has an outspoken hatred for this place, has admitted to its stunning sunsets. The air was dry. The Joshua trees reached their spiring hands towards the cotton candy sky. The black ridge of the mountain began to twinkle with red eyes. The dragons were waking up, and this time I didn’t miss them.