Creative Nonfiction

Soothing Fires

First Place
Arbuckle Award

With fingers pulled by the gravitational force of a dark emotion, my right arm reaches over a cluttered, wet vanity to touch the fiery image behind a toothpaste-splattered mirror. Three white-knuckled fingers and a thumb fold inward with fright, only the brave pointer stays out to make contact. Fear, pain, and disbelief grab hold of my arm and try to shake it from this mission. As my hand gets closer I notice the fiery bird has folded its golden, orange, and green wing tips into the same pointing manner. It seems as curious and fearful as I am about the strange crossing of worlds. The brave leader of my hand decides it is time to feel the creature that is aflame yet does not burn. A drop of water falls from the faucet into a small puddle gathered around the drain. A gentle breeze meanders through the window screen and teases the curtain with a tickle. I sense no warmth, no fire. Only smooth, cold glass rests against my fingertip. A red and pink end of a finger pushes flat against a continuously dancing flame that outlines the tip of a feather. The bird and I draw our arms slowly from the mirror. The blood returns to my arm, sending tiny daggers through my veins and brings my thoughts back to the solid world. I know why it is here staring at me, why it has come. Clearing away the combs filled with blond hair, the shavings of a beard, and earrings without their partners, I crawl onto the counter still holding the letter.

The lost and lonely letter came to me from a dream world. It was a message from my birth mom pulled out of a dusty, forgotten folder. I knew that thin and fragile piece of her was coming to me, yet I had no expectations. How should one prepare to hear from an image only assumed in daydreams? No memory exists about the details of the day it came, except that it was not raining. The sky could have been blue with the sun warming my cheeks, or gray with wind cutting my stance. I can assume I walked to the mailbox and reached into the plastic-encased darkness and felt paper. I received a letter written twenty-three years ago by the woman who was my savior. Then the details become all too clear after that point.

I pulled out a hand-addressed envelope from Gladney, the center that handled my adoption. The small envelope, light at first, became a hot block of lead. It dragged me to the ground and slammed me hard against the bumpy pavement. With rocks pushed into my flesh I tried to hold the letter as it burned my hands. My soul knew what happened twenty-three years ago, even if my mind didn’t.

After the pain of twisted legs and bruised skin registered, I brought the letter into my house. I felt the need to find the perfect place to sit and read that note. The living room was scattered with too many school books and half-assed note cards; the kitchen was passed over because it screamed of meals throughout the previous week. Having stalled long enough, I snuggled onto my larger-than-king-sized bed. The overstuffed, black comforter covered me, shielding me from the outer-world so I might be alone with my letter. With the surroundings settled, it was time for the opening of this piece of my history. My hands shook like they were trying to close Pandora’s Box. I reached across twenty-three years and tore open the thin envelope with the pretty cursive of a Gladney receptionist.

I peeked into the envelope with the mixed anticipation of a child on Christmas and of a driver passing a motorcycle accident. The edge of folded papers showed through the tear. I pulled the letter out and realized—she held this, she folded this, this is how she folds. The letter was thick.  In my heart, it felt as thick as a fog that keeps ships away from the shore. With timid fingers I unfolded the letter. I saw words. At first it didn’t register what they were stating, just that they belonged to a woman who gave me everything. My lungs filled with all the hope and strength that was available to me, and then I focused.

She said “Hello.” It was a simple and nice hello. I couldn’t figure out how her voice would sound, yet I knew I had heard that greeting from her before. An image bubbled into my brain, breaking through walls of impossibility, of here and I. Without a real understanding of what she looked like, the image was faint, but my soul could picture her warmth. I saw a mother and child, staring, breathing, a-washed in the same blood. I heard a simple hello. I felt my birth and the connection with my mother.

I continued through the letter. I found her handwriting to be perfect, the kind printed in textbooks dedicated to penmanship. She wrote of her love for me and of the hardships she endured to give me up. I was enthralled. Nothing existed except for me and that letter. Then I turned the page, and what I am was revealed.

On September 26, 1981, a young girl was raped while on a family skiing vacation to Colorado and became pregnant. My birth mother was raped, and I was a product of rape. All the experiences of my life— the joy, pain, laughter, tears, playing with a childhood dog, and the excitement of my first love— all left with the last breath I thought I would ever take. I became hollow. I became nothing but loose skin draped over bones that were waiting to be crushed by the unbearable weight of the once comforting blanket. I fought the heaviness, but without any muscles left to push it off I had to succumb. A deep burning fire began to replace all that I had just lost, and soon the comforter was ashes in a still wind. The fire demanded oxygen.

I tried to align my bones so I could sit upright. I was able to lean my back against a melting wall at the head of the bed. With an opened mouth, I let the flames lick my lips as they greedily pulled all the oxygen from the room. Just as the fire had its fill, muscles veins, organs, and nerves returned and found there was no air for me to breathe. Gasping, I clenched a pillow and tried to suck some hidden air that might be left between the fluffy cotton. Having found the precious oxygen, my lungs expanded, and pushed hard against the fragile rib cage. The room filled with air.

An image of a cooling, saving kiss came to me and placed itself on my forehead. I felt the first tender touch ever put on my skin, and I knew that she was with me. The feeling embraced my weakened body and told me it would be okay to feel. Just as waters burst through a levee, hate and love poured out of my eyes, and I began to feel.

I felt my mother’s fear, like she was an antelope trying to flee from a starved lion. I felt his anger and selfishness, as he was taking what was not his. The smell of his salty sweat, sticky semen and rancid breath choked me. The smell of her metallic blood, young sex, and heavy tears broke me. I heard the man’s frustrated and pleased grunts, mixed with her quiet crying and desperate pleas. It was too real, and yet, too distant. I couldn’t believe how I was brought into the world. I am half hate, and half saint. The fires started to rage again, and I tried to hold onto my flesh. Small flames poked through my skin without burning it. I should have been in unbearable physical pain, yet it only tickled as layers of pink slumped off. The emotions of a bottomless sadness were the only source of pain. I tried to embrace my mother, but couldn’t reach her without also finding the hand of the man who made her suffer. Fighting the fire only provided it with fuel and made it rip faster into my bones. I was scared. I wished for anything else to be happening. I wished to be in the moment when my adoptive parents told me they were getting a divorce, or to stare through the watery eyes at the lifeless body of the possum I had run over years before.

Needing to put out the flames, I got up from the snot- and tear-soaked bed in search of the bathroom’s offerings of water. I ran the few short steps to the bathroom sink, leaned in and turned on the faucet. Hands, thirsty for relief, plunged into the stream from the faucet as a fish would upon escaping a fisherman’s deck. It was there that I first saw it. I turned the water off, and like the Hunchback trying to stand straight, slowly faced the image in the mirror. My arm, fueled by curiosity, fear, and pain, started to journey across space toward the mirror.

The pain from a deep-digging towel rack returns my thoughts to the present. Curled upon a dirty sink vanity, I start to understand. The image in the mirror is me. I feel why this symbol has been brought to me. I need to let my wings take me high into the sky and burst as if flying straight into the sun. It is frightening, and I wish instead to crawl into the shower and put out these flames. A sweet breeze sneaks through the window again and brushes my hair from my wet face. My mother is with me. I feel her mingle with the fires, adding a sea-blue tone to the already magnificent palate. I feel less afraid now.

I am part demon, because of a man who would rape a sixteen-year old girl. I am part angel, because of a young girl who carried an ill-gotten child and gave her to a loving family. I see why the flames didn’t burn me; she is with me. I have become the Phoenix, bird of duality and rebirth, because of these two people. I am ready. I plant my feet onto the tan, matted-down carpet and spread my wings. I will let myself die and blow around as only thoughts and ashes. My mother will let me feel the darkness of what she told me. She will gather every last bit of my dust and place it all back together. I will be reborn from this death and continue to live, to grow, to be thankful for the woman who has and always will save me.

You know that smell of old leather combined with a rusty engine that accumulates in an old car? (Old, as in a classic car, a 1955 Chevy Bellaire, to be more specific.)  I remember that smell vividly. My dad had one, a 1955 Chevy I mean, and he loved it.  I remember the steering wheel of that car, round as the sun, and the shifter that was attached to the steering column; if I had reached out, my arm would not have been long enough to touch it.  The odometer was broken and the speedometer never told the speed, although I imagine that the pace was measured by the roar of the homemade engine (made of junkyard pieces) and the speed determined by how fast the trees whizzed by.  The floor of the car seemed to create a valley of darkness: if I had dropped a penny and waited for a sound, I would hear nothing.  I couldn’t touch the base of the car with my feet when sitting in the blue and white seats, for I was only six years old, and the height of the back, like a throne, turned me into a princess that my father had always imagined me to be.  My father built that car and at one point in his life, it was his favorite man toy that not only brought pride and meaning to his manner, but also a sense of belonging.  

Being the smallest in the car, I sat up front in between my dad and my uncle Mark.  In the rear, sat, luxuriously (the seat was the original to the Chevy, wide and long), my two older brothers and my two cousins, both of whom are close in age to me.  We were on our way to the Putt-Putt course in Lima, Ohio, for a summer retreat, and our eagerness made all of us kids anxious but patient for “we would be there soon enough.” My dad had lived in that town for the entirety of his existence but always seemed to take a route which was mostly accurate but never fast.  Our destination included Woodlawn Avenue, and it merged onto another road  that I have only traveled once in my life and I hope to never venture down it again.

 “Hey! That’s my bike!”

My bike was awesome.  I preferred not the 10 speed Huffy bikes, with the gray and pink stripes, but rather to the sportier bikes that had class (just as my dad preferred in cars).  My bike had white tires, a white seat, a purple and white crotch protector (I don’t know what you call those things for certain, but man it looked cool), pegs, and a bell.  With the help of my imagination, that bike took me to places that I had never seen before: lands with no boundaries where horses ran free, where dogs ran in packs, and I myself was Queen of the world with the wind blowing through my golden hair.

Two weeks prior to the sighting at Woodlawn Avenue, my sacred bike was taken from my garage.  “What happened to it?” you ask.  I had no idea, for I was only 6 years old, but everyone around me came to the conclusion that it had been stolen.  It didn’t make any sense to me.  The neighborhood had always given me a place to call home, a comfort that only home can give someone, and the thought of a person invading that space and stealing my stallion did not add up!  But it was true. It had been stolen.

There I was, minding my own business in my dad’s mechanical love, kneeling on the hot sticky leather seat that left stitching marks in my kneecaps, kneeling so that I could see out of the windshield and gaze at the nature and the beauty that someone or something had created for me and BOOM!  There it was with a fat, freckled, red-haired kid on its back!  My bike, the one that took me away to far off spaces and allowed me to be one with nature, was under that lump of a boy.  I imagine that he used my bike not to travel or visit fairytale lands, but to pedal with one foot over the other in a monotonous pattern.  He would show it off to his friends, who had stolen their bikes from other innocent little girls, and they would discuss the right and wrongs of crime so that when they got older they could say to their new criminal friends, “Hey, I think I know what I am doing. I have been stealing since I was like ten, dude!”  

 “Hey that’s my bike!” I shouted.  

 “What?” my dad screeched. His tone had that same pitch to it that I had heard only once before: when I had broken my grandmother’s antique bed by jumping on its bouncy mattress.

ERRRRRRR!  (Or however the sound would be spelled when four rubber tires carrying two tons of steel come to an immediate halt.)  My dad slammed the car in reverse, stomped on the accelerator and zoomed down the road to confront the fat thief.  Once down the road, he quickly threw the car into park and opened the car door as if he had no commitment to his 1955 Chevy and their relationship did not mean as much to him as it, the car, had thought.  The way he got out of the car was cat-like and his focus and determination to catch his prey was lion-esque.  My dad chased the fat kid around a bush, through some gravel, and under a tree, but in the end the prey got away by foot.  The beast had utilized all of his energy on the chase and in one big huff he pronounced, “What the hell do you think you were doing?”  With that, my dad turned towards my dreams transportation and smiled.  He gently picked up my bike, carefully, as if carrying a wounded soldier, laid it in the trunk and drove it back to its home.  We left for Putt-Putt again soon after.  

I don’t know what my dad would have done if he had caught the thief with his hands that day.  I imagine that he would have just stopped him, shook him a little, told him to stay away from my bike forever—that it was “my little girl’s bike” and that he couldn’t have it.  My dad was just like his 1955 Chevy: cool, tough, and collected.

What a night! Chad and I had been out for most of the evening. We had just returned to my dad’s house after a grandiose time toilet papering Nikki’s, along with many other unsuspecting saps’ homes. We had waged toiletry war on trees, cars, yard ornaments, and houses that night. I think we would have mummified the family cat that night if we had been lucky enough to find the furry enemy scout. Our only weapons of war that we brandished were el-cheapo rolls of toilet paper and soap. We both carried a duffle bag on our backs to transport our ordnance as we rode my two, three-wheeled assault machines. I recall that we carried close to one hundred rolls of substandard Charmin, and it was not for anyone’s roaring diarrhea! Additionally, I carried my new contact cleaning case and saline solution in my bag for my brand new set of invisible war goggles. I had been having problems with them clouding up and needed to be sure that I could clear any jammed weaponry in the field of battle if the need should arise. I must mention here that it was the contact cleaning case that would prove that I had had a part in holding the smoking gun. Somehow, I had managed to drop it in Nikki’s driveway while reloading my artillery cannons. She later told me at our fifth-year class reunion that I was the primary suspect in the home-i-cide. I confessed, via sarcastic denial and several facial shades of red. I managed to implicate my platoon sergeant, Chad, in our war crime.  Needless to say, we are on the lam to this day.

Anyway, we both dismounted our war stallions and retired them to my dad’s over-sized shed. Sometimes I think that we could have housed the entire brigade in there and still had room for a platoon of furry, four-legged ninja scouts camouflaged in toilet paper. I could never test that theory because those sneaky felines always eluded me. I guess they were highly trained in the art of escape and evasion.

I think we were approaching 0300 hours, or 3:00 a.m. for all you civilians out there. The adrenaline that still surged through our war-torn bodies had us aching for more excitement. However, our ammunition cache was exhausted, and the enemy lay in ruins throughout the countryside. There was no need for apprehension because no one would dare confront our forces ever again! We knew it was finally time to retire to our well-deserved R & R.

As we strolled around to the front of the house, a new conquest began to emerge. The street light which towered over our front yard was laughing at our quickly-fatiguing bodies. See, the walk from the back yard to the front yard was only a mere sixty or seventy feet, but each step grounded out our hardwired circuits and each exhale diluted the wild blend of a thirteen-year-old's hormones and the now dwindling supply of adrenaline. How dare its halogen brilliance taunt us from its twenty-foot-high sniper's nest! Chad and I took immediate action to avoid being picked off like a couple of fish in a barrel. We knew that our defensive position was inferior to our enemy’s, and we had no time to dig a fighting hole. We evasively ran across the street to our newest neighbor’s yard, which had been strategically landscaped by bulldozers into mountainous dirt hills and fortified battle trenches. My neighbors had just moved into the comforts of their luxurious new home, and we assumed they were sound asleep. Meanwhile, Chad and I were about to fight valiantly to defend their precious homeland from the tyrannical rule of the Street Light Sniper Warlord. We knew that we could find a limitless supply of dirt cannons and clod bazookas right in their front yard. The challenge had been made, and the line had been drawn in the sand. We were the few good men who would rise to the occasion.

Our battle strategy was simple. We were to fire only warning shots at our enemy to try and deter him. In other words, dirt only and do not shoot to kill! We were locked and loaded. The Street Light Sniper engaged us first. He tried to use his secret weapon from the start. Its electro-magnetic ray hit us both hard. We were blinded for an instant and knew that the end was near. But I knew that if it was my time, I would die standing – not without a fight. I shot my rifle first, and then Chad put his on full automatic. Of course, these were warning shots. Nothing hit the obstinate sniper. We both agreed to increase the rules of engagement when we were hit again by his lethal light. Could we just stun him with a glancing blow, or maybe a slight wound that would allow him to retreat in utter disgrace? That was now the mission.

We began to fire our next volley. It was a suppressive fire that kept his head down. I was running low on ammo as Chad emptied his magazine. I knew that the sniper would take his best shot at us as we retreated back to the supply lines for replenishment. I took aim with my last round in the chamber. There! He was making his move. I held my breath and began to ease the trigger back, all the while waiting for the surprising recoil. I did not even feel my rifle move. I heard his death cry as glass shattered and fell to the ground. Some imbecile had loaded a rock into my dirt clod at the factory where it was made. Now my enemy lies dead when all I wanted to do was warn him with a harmless dirt clod. No, this could not be true! I was sure to stand before a court martial now.

I was right! The new neighbor whom we were trying to defend had called in the brass while Chad and I were doing battle. The lone town police officer was about ready to turn down the road leading into our subdivision. We had to make a break for it immediately. Chad and I ran back to the massive, Quonset-hut sized shed. We both dove onto our stomachs behind the large propane tank as the officer’s searchlight panned the battlefield for us. My heart was beating hard enough to cause the ground to shake. It would surely give us away. I had to control it immediately. Just as I thought we would not be spotted, I spotted my arch nemesis – the four-legged feline ninja scout. Had this warrior followed us all the way back from the toilet paper battlefield at Nikki’s house? Of course, it was here to give away our location! The officer and his floodlight had a clear view of the cat, but not us. However, the sneaky scout was looking right at us. It might as well have raised a flag that said, “Here they are, tough guy! Come and get 'em!” The cruiser had stopped momentarily. My heart began to stampede again. Over my bodily sounds I thought I could hear Chad’s teeth chattering. Great! He should just strike up seventy-five trombones and dance around like a drum major! I thought we were had.

Then, as if time began to move again, the officer turned his death ray off and slowly drove down the road. He was going to go to the end of the cul-de-sac to turn around for a better look. I knew that this was our chance. I shot a look at the now-cowering cat. I am sure my look said, “If I had the time, I would shove you in the shed to begin testing my hypothesis, but once again, you have lucked out.” I grabbed Chad’s leg and told him to follow me. We ran around the back of the shed, which was connected to the wooden privacy fence around our pool. Chad quickly boosted me to the top of the fence. The boost was inadequate. Only one of my legs made it over the pointed top of the fence. The Private’s privates heard the fading sound of Taps. I could not see straight, but I could not leave my friend behind, for it would be the end of us both. I stood up with all my might and pulled him over the fence. However, I spared his soldiers. He bolted for my back door into the house as I stammered behind him in a most peculiar fashion. We made it into our living room as the x-ray power of the floodlight passed by our windows. We had made it home from our covert war as highly-decorated idiots—and I had my own battle wound to worry about.

It's so dark that for awhile—just how long I don't know—I  think I'm still asleep.  It's that sudden realization that gives way to my delusions and disillusions.  Alone seems to have some kind of welcoming sense about it.  Here there is no judgment or persecution.  Here there is only me, and that raises the question: Do I like me?  A simple question with such a complex answer.  Can anyone really like oneself?  My mind starts to spin.  I say no because then it leaves no room for improvement; something my mother taught me when I was young; there is always room for improvement.  Memories of my family flood back to me, almost as if I can hear their voices now.  They say things like "we love you" and "you can do this," but I have no idea what they are talking about.  It makes no sense.

This dark cell beckons me to stay, but the bright white beacon of light keeps calling my name. The choices are clear: dark or light, but the decision is still blurred.  Which way is better for me?  I was taught by teachers and family, my grandmother mainly, that light was always better.  I don't know though.  This inconsistent thought process becomes a nuisance on my mind; never letting go of the past but dragging it up at the most inopportune of times—the most untimely of occasions.  Is this coma or is this the way which my life will lead?  I can hear a dark, deep voice; hear a high-pitched noise.  Sounds like a constant beep which is slowing with every second.  Beep, beep, beep; kind of annoying actually, I almost welcome it to stop.  In here, all things are possible and my mind can bleed through this instrument of frustration.  I hold in my hand my own destiny—my own future, but it is a façade.

The darkness consumes again and I am alone once more.  Alone again like the owl at dawn, screeching its lullabies to no one for everyone has awakened already. They fall on dead ears just as I do.  In this black, my temperament decreases and anger ensues.  These falsehoods take me and break me in two.  So now there is a little for both worlds I guess: dark and light. The question is which part will go dark, which will be illuminated?  Will it be anger to dark and happiness to light, or vice versa?  The beeping is slowing still; beep - - - beep - - - - beep -----. Then I hear a strange sound: a high-pitched hum, no break in the sound.  I can hear people rush around, yelling medical jargon to one another but I understand none of it. I feel a strange sensation, like I'm floating.  And then, I see it, or them I should say: my legs.  I think to myself, why can I see my legs? I'm lying down. I grow panicked, trying to understand what is happening.  Then, as I finally reach the cornerstone of my thought process, I see it: my body.  So this is it, huh?  I then hear someone yell numbers, a large one, something about volts.

BAM; cardioverted back to reality: nothing.  Cardioverted once more: still nothing. One more time, and I awake with nothing but sleep in my eyes and a stale taste in my mouth. A nauseating feeling arises in my stomach, and I can smell something burning.  I look down at my chest to see my flesh burnt in weird oblong shapes. The doctor leans in and asks me some questions: Do I know where I am? Can I feel everything?  Do I remember what happened? I answer them correctly, evidently, because they send me into a room with my family waiting.  I can see my mother, tears in her eyes. I feel disappointed, though. Those nine hours of serenity were the best thing for me.  Now I feel disabled as this cell phone symphony rings silently to my ears; of course she won't answer.  I try to speak but only ramblings occur.  At least I know what I am saying.  That phrase repeats in my head: "What you save is what you lose out in the end.  Cold Contagious."  Now surrender once again to the weight of the world.  I am once again a prisoner.  Life goes on as it always has.

In high school we were self-professed punks. We convinced ourselves that we didn’t care about primping, who was cheating on whom, or the score of Friday‘s football game. We believed we were bigger than that. We were going to end inhumane treatment of animals, stop apartheid, and save the earth. We were most proud of our alleged non-judgmental attitude, which meant we didn’t discriminate when it came to choosing friends. We thought this set us apart from all the various cliques clogging up the cafeteria at lunchtime. We were fooling ourselves. Over time, I realized that punks were only nondiscriminatory toward punks.

Of course, to be a credible punk, you had to listen to punk rock, but not just any punk rock would do. A band needed either a very high or extremely low-pitched vocalist who screamed in an effort to make all the lyrics indecipherable. Another essential quality was a repetitive drum beat. This beat needed to be played on an over-tuned snare drum that sounded like it was on the verge of breaking. The guitar needed to play no more than three notes and always in the same pattern. Basically to qualify as a worthy band, you needed to sound like Agnostic Front, Misery, Civil Disobedience, and all the other punk rock bands.  It didn’t matter if you were too horrible to get signed by Universal and make some money, because to be a sincere punk rock band you weren’t supposed to make money.  We called concerts “shows” and charged three dollars for admission to ensure that the bands were only making enough for gas, beer, and cigarettes.

Another even more important aspect of the required music was what label they were recorded on. To be a rule-abiding punk, you were not supposed to buy a record that had been released by Universal or Warner Brothers. Only records released by underground labels like Lookout or Profane Existence were acceptable to buy, because all the other labels were sell-outs.

This could get confusing when bands went from one label to another. One of the bands that everyone liked was Green Day, which is surprising because they had a vocalist who could actually sing.  I liked them because I could understand some words to the songs, and they didn’t sound like everyone else.  Apparently normal people liked them, too, and they left Lookout Records when they were signed by Warner Brothers Records.  When their new album, Dookie, was released, I was one of the first to buy it. I was listening to it in my car when I picked up some friends.

 “Is that Green Day” Travis asked.

 “Yeah, you like it?” I replied

 “I can’t believe you bought that.  How much did you contribute to greedy corporations?”

 “What are you talking about? It’s Green Day. Everybody bought their last record.”

 “They were on Lookout then. They’re sellouts now. I wouldn’t be caught playing that if I was you. You should turn it off.”  

The music would have been treasured if it were released by Lookout, but now everyone was acting like it was appalling. I complied with the request to turn it off, but by the end of the day everyone knew I had bought the new Green Day album.  I was receiving glares and head shakes from everyone.  I couldn’t believe my friends would act that way. I thought we were accepting of everyone.  I thought the album was great and a welcome change in pace from the typical ear-piercing punk. I would hide in my bedroom at home and listen to it at a low volume, so I could hear the doorbell in time to hide it. If the phone rang, I muted the stereo before anyone could answer it. I couldn’t bear the thought of someone discovering I was still listening to the banned music. When I bought anything from the music store, I checked to make sure it was on an indie label. If it was a major recording label, I hid it from my friends and only listened to it when I was sure I wouldn’t be caught.

To be a true punk, you were supposed to avoid not only major recording labels but expensive clothing labels as well. I had a pair of Nike tennis shoes when I found out about the label rule.  One label that I was told was all right and, in fact, almost mandatory, was Converse.  So I traded in my Nikes for a pair of black canvas Chuck Taylor All-Stars in an attempt to be more punk and less like the mainstream herd.  I was informed that, other than Converse, I should have no other names on my clothing if I wanted to be punk.  So I ditched the mall and threw away my Gap clothes.  K-mart won me over and I began to dress in off-brand shirts and jeans.  

Most punks wanted people to believe they didn’t care about their appearance; however, this was one of the most valued criteria used to determine if someone was punk. I spent hours perfecting my punk rock appearance every day, and thought I was beginning to look like all my friends and less like the rest of my classmates. We thought they were so ignorant and conceited that they didn‘t care how many cows died for their coat, or how much the greedy clothing company was making off the thirty dollar shirt on their back that some poor child in India had labored fifteen hours a day to make.

We thought we were better than the typical teenager because we believed in causes.  Any cause would do as long as there was something to complain about.  Environmental and animal causes were the most talked about.  I was told to trade in my filtered Marlboro cigarettes for Basics with no filter, because a filter takes a long time to break down in a landfill. Marlboro was just another greedy corporation I was feeding. Who cares about taste? You should always go for the cheapest.  So I went around puffing and coughing on my unfiltered Basic non-menthol cigarette, but as long as I wasn’t putting filters in the ground, I could tough it out.

It wasn’t long after the filter crisis that I learned we were all becoming vegetarians. The expert punks decided that too many animals were dying just for us to eat them, and our bodies weren’t even designed to digest animal products. They realized that it would be hard to become completely vegan and give up dairy, so they thought we could get by just quitting meat. After all, it was only meat the animals were dying for. So I informed my mom that she was to stop forcing her baked carcasses on me and learned to hate meat.  We harassed anyone who was not conforming to vegetarianism, until they acted like they had stopped eating meat. I thought they were all at home with mouthwash, secretly trying to get the meat off their breath before coming out.

We sat in the cafeteria at lunchtime making fun of all the other cliques we thought were beneath us. We sat there with our cheap Wal-Mart clothes that were falling apart at the seams. Our black Converse high tops with the star emblem on the ankle and white trim around the bottom were perched on our chairs. Our hair was all the colors of the rainbow from the Manic Panic hair dye we had so painstakingly applied, after we had bleached out our natural hair color. We wore patches depicting the art work of various underground bands, or one of our mantras like “Meat=Death” or “End Apartheid Now.” We sat there looking as outlandish and unapproachable as possible, and criticized the rest of the student body for thinking they were too good to speak to us.

We had nothing to talk about except everyone else in the room. We talked about how they were sitting with their preppy cliques, gnawing on cow carcasses and chicken parts. We talked about their cookie-cutter-fashion laden with animal skin. We talked about their feeding of corporate America by their uninformed choice of music and clothing labels. We talked about the fact that they didn’t care about the important things like we did. We discussed their obsession with trivial things, and we talked about how they didn’t have anything better to do than gossip. We sat there talking about everyone else and feeling intellectually superior.

Soon my friends were becoming straight edge punks, which in their minds only elevated their social status. They didn’t drink alcohol or do drugs. According to them, only stupid peons participated in such worthless activities. Not only did they abstain from these vices, but they despised anyone who continued to use them. People who were still drinking or drugging were harassed and ridiculed for being weak minded. Anyone who did not remain sober was ostracized. People would just glare at them or roll their eyes without speaking a word. Soon the majority of people showing up to shows were sober. People altered by substances were made to feel unwelcome, and they eventually stopped coming.

After I had been a punk for about a year, I looked around at a concert and was disheartened by what I saw.  The smoky room was filled with purple, pink, blue, green, orange, and red colored hair. Everyone had on cheap pleather jackets littered with shiny metal studs and spikes. Patches hung from every living body advertising ear splitting bands or slogans from the various causes. There was not one person who did not encase his or her feet with black Converse All-Stars. Chains and spiked jewelry dripped from every single person in the room. We all had the same concentrated while mindless expression plastered across our teenage faces. People were all moving in one of two ways. Walking people were going at a slow nowhere-to-go pace with slouched shoulders and a bobbing head. Then there was the group in front of the stage where they claimed to be dancing. Every dancer was merely hopping up and down, and it was the same for every song the band played. We were not individuals at all.

I needed a break from the punk mentality and thought of David, a friend who was anything but punk. He didn’t like punk rock, because it hurt his ears. He listened to a ‘60s radio station and Jimi Hendrix. He had a flannel shirt with a plain white Hanes T-shirt underneath. For pants he wore plain jeans with no rips, patches, or chains. Sometimes he wore a baseball cap advertising the Detroit Tigers, one of the greedy baseball corporations. He drank Blatz Beer, smoked weed, and loved Big Macs and Whoppers. On his feet he proudly displayed a pair of Nikes.

I started hanging out with David every day and my friends from the punk cult couldn‘t stand it. I continued to hold on to my punk ethics, kept my green hair, couldn’t stomach meat, adorned my feet with the precious All-stars, and continued to wear the cheapest clothes I could find. I still went to the shows, but I took David along. Even though I was head-to-toe punk, my new friend wasn’t, and I received heart-piercing glares. They all knew he wasn’t sober, and just looking at him in his school-boy garb told them he wasn’t a real punk. Apparently I was less than punk for having such poor judgment in selecting this friend.

It was clear that the person I had brought to punk land wasn’t misfit enough to be there. Most of my friends acted as if they didn’t see me, and were afraid to be seen talking to me. My complete lack of respect for the punk way of life was too much for them to handle, and I was ousted. They had decided I was too much like everyone else and didn’t want me around anymore.