THE GRAY AREA: AN EXCERPT
I first met Jordan Gallagher when I was in the sixth grade—we were in the same ‘home-room’ class, where we would sit, read, and talk about our motivations in life. Back then, we were young, naive and silly. That kid, Jordan, he had a way with words that hit me somewhere that I liked, he was different. He was like me. The demeanor in which he laughed and joked, even though sometimes the jokes were occasionally turned serious—in the name of teenage angst. I’ve kept in touch with him to this day.
It was only seven years ago that I first started feeling this way, when I was in the seventh grade and out of ‘home-room’ with the golden Gallagher boy. He, that wonderful piece of history, helped me deal with the strange bouts of distance and hysteria that’ve been the poison in my life. But, surprisingly, he was not the one who pointed my swings out to me. Jordan was constructively the catalyst that made me realize, made me wonder, just what exactly was happening to me.
Jackson was the first to bring it up to me. Jackson Shaw, that short brunette who used to come over and listen to Nirvana, he was the one who brought it up. Amidst his musical talent, he performed better than any of us in class. But down the road he realized his passion was overwhelmingly clear for music and not mathematics, although he saw both as art. Man, that kid was my own personal Bob Dylan. Hit me where it hurt—everywhere. Tears swell in my eyes as I think about him, I haven’t said a word to the kid in over a year. Whatever, though, I’m sure he doesn’t mind. I hear he’s making a name for himself somewhere in Los Angeles. He was always a deep, somewhat disturbed guy when I knew him, though initially I was slow to realize that.
An abusive father sure will shut a kid up. So it wasn’t until a few years into our friendship that I truly got to know him.
It was the six of us: myself, Jackson, Jordan, Russ, Jeffrey, and Brennen, each one closer to the other than the last. Brennen, the little devil, had been my best friend since we were at our neighborhood pre-school. Jeff moved to our sorry dirt town of Temecula when we were in the fourth grade, he instantly attached to Brennen and I and hasn’t left since. Russ is quite the story, met him in third grade, didn’t see him for a couple of years and then he showed up at our middle school and again started our friendship— he even skipped the eighth grade so that he could graduate with us (he was a grade below us)—now he’s a biologist at USC, but he doesn’t talk to Jackson either.
Eight years ago we were all introducing ourselves in the sixth grade, except for Russ of course, we waited a year for him. Other than Jackson, I talk to them all each week.
It may seem cliché or ordinary to introduce one’s friends to start a story, but why should I care. These guys embody fame. When fame enters a room you pay quick and sharp attention to it, but then you quickly lose interest. I wish I could say the same about my condition, but for myself and those closely around me, there was no interest to be lost.
Jackson was the first to notice. It was odd, though, he discovered it from calling my name. The conversation rings in my ears like it was yesterday. It’s strange, right, the things that we remember. Jackson ran up behind me while I was walking to lunch. We—Brennen, Jackson, and I—had just got out of our English class with Mr. Breglio, hands down the worst teacher I’ve ever had, by the way.
“So do you just have really shitty hearing, or what?” Jackson questioned the second he caught up. I guess I hadn’t realized I walked so far ahead of him, I was talking to Brennen. I guess that’s what prompted the question.
“What?” I asked.
“Dude, I called your name like five times just now.”
I looked at him, kind of smiled, and said “I’m sorry man, I just didn’t hear you.” I was lying, though.
“I used to think you were some kind of dick, or something,” he explained, “but I just realized that maybe this kid just can’t hear anything.” His hypothesis was flattering, nonetheless. I know, and even at the time I was suspicious, that it wasn’t just my hearing.
We had a quick laugh, and went to lunch.
The whole thing ate away at my brain for years before I decided to tell anybody. Not the conversation, no. But the reason the conversation happened. I wasn’t, and still am not, embarrassed by what happens to me—otherwise this wouldn’t exist. I’d just rather keep it a secret. But, as teenagers go, it’s hard to keep secrets. And it’s hard to stop rumors, though, this rumor was true.
It was a Friday in the spring, a glorious start to a teenagers long awaited weekend. Friday, for us, meant hanging out at my house. A big, one-story house with an entire acre of grass and palm trees for us to run free on. Before the trip home, though, we would grab lunch, and go hangout and play innocent games in the meadow just behind my backyard. Dead wheat, tumbleweeds, dirt, mud, sand—it had it all. Those are the days we’ll never forget. Where decisions weren’t between what beer to drink, but between who would be ‘it’ first, or who would drink out of the horse corral’s water (usually Jeff, yeah). We’d run around with thorns in our feet through horse stalls and riverbeds, bushes and rocks—it felt how living is supposed to feel. We felt alive. They were all so goddamn happy.
Yeah they were.
Running through the slush and slop, I couldn’t help but think that perhaps this isn’t what happiness was. I couldn’t help but feel like maybe I didn’t deserve this feeling, that it was meant for someone else but not for me. It was within these trances of thought that I started to die, that I started to wonder why everyone around me seemed so intrinsically happy, while I merely had fun only when they did. Contemplating what it may be like to not have any problems can crush a man’s soul. It’s unrealistic yet in the faces of others it seems so possible. Why are my friends so happy, why are they so careless?
That feeling, the emotional isolation that pushes the tears out because nobody will understand, confused me. These waves of dread and depression crushed my innocence, sent me home without any ‘good-byes,’ put me to bed without any prayers, these waves ruined me. Too often was I letting the outside world—the faces of happiness that seemed to elude me, the beautiful leaves on the trees that lighted the days up with life that I would turn away from—influence the way I felt. The happy outside world was what was crushing the sad inside me.
“Why, though, should I feel so bad for myself when there are soldiers on the battlefield risking their lives,” I thought. They left their families. They left their houses, their homes. They left their wives and daughters, their husbands and sons, their fathers and mothers. For me? For country? Selflessly? I felt as though I could feel a pain similar to leaving the things one cares about. For a while, I didn’t care about anything.
Too true is it that it takes as much courage to examine the dark corners of one’s mind as it does a soldier to fight in war. Fear, uncertainty, anxiety, all of it. All of it consumes those who have courage to fight the war in their minds. A war that was lost, for me.
I just sat down and watched as they all ran around with smiles on their faces, dirt on their feet, and sweat on their chests. They were always singing songs by The Who and The Beatles—happy passionate songs about life and love, and all that I could make from it was hat my life was not what I wanted it to be, and that. I wasn’t even sure I could feel love. Girlfriends came and girlfriends went, I was always trying to feel what they called love, I thought that’s what girlfriends were for. Relationships kept me from being alone at most, though.
But nothing kept me from being lonely.
I tried and tried again to peg somebody for this. Somebody other than myself was the reason I was so happy-impaired. Jackson, right? Blame him, he was the one who brought this up to you, who led the Trojan horse into your castle. It’s his fault. Even then, in all my hate and anger, I knew he couldn’t have done that on purpose. I knew it was my fault. Jackson would never try to change me for the worse.
It was the voices I heard that tried to change me. Voices that I heard when nobody was around, the ones that crept up on me in middle of trying to sleep and kept me awake. Wicked whispers and sharp shrieks that told me things about myself and my friends that I hated. Things that I tried hard not to believe. The voices, they rattled my brain and sent chills down my spine, coercing me to believe them.
For quite some time I was stuck in the first stage of grief—although I was not grieving—I was in denial. Denial that I heard anything at all. Denial that I felt anything at all. Denial that I was grieving.
Denial that I was changing.
Sure, now, looking back, it’s somewhat comical that I didn’t accept it all right away. For kids, though, it’s hard to understand emotional or psychological changes. But even so, my parents were getting divorced, they were in the initial stages back then. I wasn’t naive enough to ignore that fact. Justin, my oldest brother and closest friend, was moving away. He was going to be a huge success at Berkeley. To no avail, he was. Top of his class with a patent under his name and the title for “Best Electrical Engineering Device of 2013—" he’s always been like that. Meanwhile I lived not only in his shadow but also my own. My shadow was named ‘change,’ and I refused to turn around and see it. My life was changing rapidly, and like most teenagers and even those less experienced adults, change was not healthy for my angst.
Back then, I just didn’t want to believe that I had any kind of ‘issues.’ A kid has trouble coming to terms with the things he can’t understand, and that he can’t control. Especially when these ambiguous changes are happening to him—in him. It was tough not only for me, but for my friends and family also. Although my family was focused more on their own problems.
My problem is one that needs to be delved into. It’s not something I can casually slip out my lips and pretend it’s not something strange for others to hear. Well, at least nowadays that’s the situation. Seven years ago I couldn’t even say it to myself, let alone explain it to somebody.
So, that Friday, in midst of all the smiling, sweating, sloppy fun, I felt sad. I felt alone, as if it were Times Square and everybody was walking right through my ghost of a body. Right through my soul. My body hurt from the twisting and turning, the torsion and tugging that made my heart sink to my stomach and my stomach cramp to the size of a lime whose acids operated on the open wounds that covered my insides. I was lost, zoned out into a world that had rejected me unknowingly. The tacit acceptance of pain, fear, loneliness, depression, it all burned like the melting candles on a 9 -branch menorah—for the fire and flame of a 7-branch replica would be laughable in comparison. My best friends and their elation surrounded me, but I couldn’t hear them, I couldn’t relate. Something was eating away at the part of me that tried to be happy like them. It was ghosts, it was the voices. They destroyed the fun that took place around me. I had a problem.
At least that’s when it occurred to me that I did.
MICHAEL KAY grew up in San Diego, where he lived with his father and brothers. He has spent two years at Drexel, playing lacrosse and pursuing Environmental Studies but never really having a set major. After this year, he’ll be attending the University of California, Santa Barbara. He was a member of Rachel Wenrick’s Fall 2015 Creative Nonfiction