Memory/Character Essay: Thirteen Examples
I was a junior in high school, living in Germantown, TN, a rich suburb of Memphis, TN. My family landed in Germantown after my mother lost her parents and my step-dad lost his job. He found a new job in Memphis and decided to move us to Germantown so that I could be a part of the high school’s award-winning fine arts department.
Germantown High School was its own stereotype. The school had been around for well over a hundred years by the time I found myself in attendance there. It had been around so long that the mascot was the Red Devils, a mascot that few Christian organizations would ever stand for a high school choosing today.
This fine arts department has a three-million-dollar TV studio (from which I won day-time Emmy awards for producing), showcased $150k+ theater productions, and a reputation for being the best. I was a sophomore when I started at GHS and was full of angst and regret at having been uprooted after my first year in high school from my previous city. I tend to immerse myself in distraction, which is what I used the fine arts department for.
By the time I was a junior I was directing, producing, or anchoring the majority of the television programs produced at GHS-TV. I also held lead roles in every production the school put on. This entailed my arriving at the school at 6 a.m. to do a morning news program broadcast throughout the county, and leaving around 9 or 10 p.m. after rehearsals or set construction or whatever else needed to be done that day. I even had keys to the school. I loved anything that kept me away from home. My mom was a mess and it was the first time in my life that I didn’t have my older brother and sister with me. She had thrown my sister out of the house my freshman year for being a lesbian and did the same to my brother for getting his girlfriend pregnant that same year. That’s when we moved to Memphis.
My junior year was also a time when I decided to distract myself in other ways. I had met two beautiful girls that year, Angel and Layne. We bonded over our equal love of emo bands. We would wax poetically quoting Dashboard Confessional or Saves the Day lyrics to each other. The three of us were known for our taste in what was considered at the time “good music,” although looking back I understand why my step-father never wanted to drive me to school in the car with a cd player. Like all good music does, it eventually led us to begin smoking pot and drinking.
The thing with living in the suburbs is that you either play football or you do drugs. Drugs aren’t as readily available to a sixteen-year-old as you might think, so we found other things to supplement our thirst for escape—Coriciden Cough and Cold Pills (or as we referred to them Triple C’s). CCC were like nothing we had ever experienced and we were quickly hooked on them. Pop eight to twelve and you didn’t know whether you were stoned or drunk or hallucinating. We would write in our journals or cry listening to music together or talk about how we were better than our surroundings—my mom being an abusive drunk, Angel’s non-biological Uncle’s unwanted advances on her, and Layne’s knowledge of her mom’s secret affair.
We didn’t have much money so often we would go into a Wal-Mart or Wal-Greens or really anything beginning with “Wal” and steal these pills. Often hardly even waiting until we were in the car to start sucking on them, the sweetness overtaking our mouth as the red dye soaked our tongue. Next thing we knew we were in another universe. My parents gave me the family van as my first car, it was a giant Chevy conversion van that I named Geneva. The three of us would often hit up a Walgreens and then stay the night in my van, each telling our parents whatever they needed to hear to allow us to stay out all night.
On a Thursday school let out for the day and I was walking to the theater to help with set constructions for a children’s play we were putting on when Angel ran up to me in a huff.
“Anna Claire went crazy today and is in the principal’s office. No one knows what the fuck is going on with her. Can you give me a ride home real quick? I’m gonna try to call around and find out what’s up,” she said. Anna Claire was a friend of Angel’s who I would give rides home sometimes.
“Of course. Is she okay?” I responded.
“I have no idea. She needs to get her shit together. She’s been so weird lately,” Angel told me as we began walking into the parking lot. Upon opening the door to my van I realized the whole car was a mess. I had tons of clothes, blankets, books and CCC packets in the van (it looked like a homeless man lived there). While it was always a mess I could tell someone else had been in there and messing with my things.
“Fuck. Was Anna Claire in my van?” I asked Angel. She looked at me with a blank face. We were both confused. I drove her home and immediately knew that I needed to dispose of the booze bottles I kept in the back of the van before returning to school. Actually, instinct told me that I needed to clean the entire van but my laziness got the best of me. I simply threw the booze bottles out the window and drove back to school to start work on the set. Upon pulling up to the front of the school I was greeted by the principal, assistant principal, and a security guard. They asked to search my van and as I was on school property and had no choice, I allowed them.
They searched through the vehicle grabbing at all of the empty boxes of cough medicine what they were there for.
“My sister’s sick,” I remember muttering to them. My face drained of blood and shame filled my insides.
There was nothing in the car that was damning so they told me I was free to go about my business.
That night I went home and told my parents about what had transpired. My step-dad told me to go clean the car. I resisted. We were in a fight at the time. I had recently come out to my parents about liking men; they insisted I keep it to myself and my step-father went as far as to tell me I’d get AIDS if I decided to pursue a homosexual lifestyle. Not quite the “I love you” approach I was expecting.
I called Angel and found out that Anna Claire and two of her friends had skipped class, gone to Anna Claire’s where they took a plethora of CCCs and then, worried about being caught, returned to school so that they could be counted as present during final period. Upon returning to school they saw the security officer in the parking lot and jumped into my van to hide, utilizing the van’s blinds. While in my car they made themselves at home. Drinking my booze and even smoking pot that they had idiotically brought with them to school. Eventually they left my van and went to class where one girl threw up, the other was incoherent, and good ol’ Anna Claire ran up and down the hallways screaming.
The next day, Friday, coincidentally Friday the 13th, I went to school. I parked in the teachers’ parking lot because the student lot was full and I didn’t feel like driving to the annex parking lot. Foolish for a student whose car didn’t exactly blend in and had just been searched the day prior.
I want about my day as usual, and was called into the principal’s office during third period. They wanted to search my car again. Clearly they wanted to nail me with something. This seemed odd considering I was Junior Class Vice President, a member of National Honor Society, and an all around ideal student. (My outside school persona hadn’t yet caught up with my in school persona). I opened up the doors to my vehicle and four people went in the car to search it. The fourth yielded results. He produced a single stem of marijuana from one of the ashtrays. They sent me back to class.
After school that day I went to the studio and directed an idiotic television program called I Did it Myself, where a middle-aged divorcee taught DIY projects. After the show ended there was a knock on the studio door.
“Mr. Gomez, you’re gonna need to come with me,” the principal said. I followed him to the office where I was informed of my suspension.
“You have to be kidding me. Those girls told you the entire story. I was in class, the attendance record shows it. I had nothing to do with them smoking weed or being messed up at school. I only even know one of them,” I protested.
“Doesn’t matter, we have zero tolerance for drug possession and it was in your vehicle. We’re assigning you 180 days of suspension which you will complete at Shelby County Alternative School.”
“WHAT? This is fucking ridiculous!”
“Watch your language Mr. Gomez.”
“Um, are you kidding me? You just suspended me for 180 days for something that I had no part of and you want me to watch my language. You’re completely ruining my future. You do realize that, right? You’re completely ruining my future. Look at my record, I’ve never even been written up,” I screamed. The tears began pouring down my face as I imagined spending the next year away from my friends and away from the life that I had just become comfortable with after moving.
No amount of tears or protest would help. I was out. The girls each got eleven days suspension. They weren’t in possession of anything.
My parents were outraged. We were having a lot of problems at home and school was the only place where trouble hadn’t found me. While they fought the system on my behalf they decided that Alternative School wouldn’t be a good enough education for me having just come from all Advanced Placement classes. So they sent me to Daybreak. It’s a psychological school. We had group therapy in the morning, followed by an hour of class, followed by an hour of recreational therapy, followed by lunch, followed by thirty minutes of class, followed by an ending group therapy. The final group therapy entailed us having to give our weather reports. Were we feeling tropical, sunny, cloudy, partially cloudy, or stormy that day? I gathered my things from my cubby hole, went home and told my parents I would not be returning. Alternative School started the next week.
My mom drove me, crying the entire time. It’s a hard thing to see your mother cry. It’s even harder when you know you’re the reason for it. I wouldn’t see her cry like that again until three years later when I would be sentenced to serve ten days in Shelby County jail for repeated DUI arrests.
I met the principal of the Alternative School. I told him the whole story and he held his hands up to me and made a square with his two forefingers and thumbs and gently said, “If you’re not in the picture, you won’t get framed.” It was then I realized that my outside life had finally caught up with my school life. I wasn’t directly to blame for my suspension, those girls were, but I was involved indirectly. Through the friendships I had made and the decisions of my life I brought myself here.
My mom and I became really close after I was suspended. We needed each other. After the death of her parents she had completely fallen apart. She sank into alcohol and Klonopin infused depression that my stepfather refused to acknowledge. Now she had a distraction—someone who was going through as miserable a time as she was. I would fuck up and she would be the shoulder for me to cry on, the voice of reason telling me things will get better, all the while telling herself the same thing.
My parents eventually won against the school. They appealed all the way up to the Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Education. I spent in all twenty-two days out of Germantown. Despite the work my parents put into getting me back in school, I wasn’t reformed. I continued using drugs and getting drunk and shoplifting—I just did it a little bit smarter.
I was chosen for a leadership exchange program the summer after I graduated. I moved to Germany for the entire summer and worked in a TV studio in Frankfurt. The day I returned I was arrested for shoplifting at the mall.
“Why do you always have to self destruct?” my mom said to me.
After high school I took a year off and started using cocaine habitually and would drink at least a bottle of Vodka a day. To my parents’ relief I eventually moved to New York City and was accepted into an acting conservatory. The day before I left I got my first DUI as an adult. (During my suspension Angel, Layne, and myself were pulled over while I was driving on CCCs and after having our stomachs pumped I was arrested for DUI. I was sixteen and a minor.)
“Why do you always have to self destruct?” my mom asked me again.
I wasn’t much better for the first few years in NYC. My first year in NYC I came home to visit and my parents were out of town with my little brother and sister. I threw a party, took acid, and jumped through my little brother’s window completely naked and landed on concrete below. I had watched Smallville the whole week leading up to the party and apparently thought I was Superman. I even went so far as to throw my neck brace at the doctors and accuse them of putting kryptonite in my toenails. Miraculously I wasn’t injured in the slightest.
My mom had a stroke my second year in NYC and I left school for two weeks to go home and take care of her; my stepdad had found employment in Oklahoma and had to leave my mom in charge of taking care of my little brother and sister herself. The stroke was brought on by the constant mixture of alcohol and pills—her demons hadn’t been defeated yet either. My fourteen-year-old little sister told me she had to drive her to the hospital after she repeatedly told her to call Daddy Bob (our deceased grandfather).
During my time being the dutiful son taking care of his ailing mother I racked up another DUI, all while still going to court for the first one. My mom, still recovering from her stroke, was at the courthouse with me when the judge sentenced me. I turned around and she signed, “I Love You” to me, her head shaking and tears falling down her face. This was the last time I would disappoint my mom, and in a lot of ways it was the last time we would ever be this close.
Four years later it’s Christmas time and I’m in my Greenwich Village apartment packing to go visit my family in Memphis for the holiday. I only go back once a year now. I open up my Ben Sherman plaid carryall and begin carefully placing my clothes in the bag, making room for my dopp kit and running shoes. All that’s going through my head is whether or not I have enough money to take all seven members of my immediate family out to dinner for Christmas Eve. I don’t want my mom to cook. Her food is always something along the lines of frozen shrimp she calls hors d’oeuvres and a premade lasagna.
I now work a great job, I go to school full time, and I’ve fully committed myself to becoming a Manhattanite rather than a poor kid from Memphis. Trauma brings people closer and now the trauma is gone. We’re very different people and as a result we’re not as close. I feel like a snob. I feel guilty that when she tells me the same stories she told me last week, on the phone, with a few details changed, I will try to feign interest. I feel guilty that I’ll have to pretend to like the Men’s Wearhouse shirt she buys me for Christmas. I feel guilty that I’ve come a long way and along with that comes a feeling of superiority that I detest…but can’t resist. Mostly though I feel guilty that I don’t feel guilty enough. How is it possible that we worked through our troubles together, mother and son, and emerged better people, but aren’t as close as we were? The love is still there, but the dependence isn’t.
I’m proud of the steps we’ve made together, but I still miss the days of me needing my mom and her needing me to need her.
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