A Demon's Rubicon
By Chris Brecheen
In the dreams I am back at Canyon High School, though it might be more accurate to say that I’ve never left. I am always alone. Behind the G building, I do not find my geeky cadre of friends in an animated discussion about why the “clearly superior” Wall of Fire is a fourth level spell, but Wall of Iron is a sixth.
“A wall of fire does damage! A wall of iron just sits there.”
“You can walk right through a wall of fire. Right through it!”
“Sure, if you’re an unmitigated badass. A wall of iron doesn’t do damage. What’s going to deter you from trying to get past it more...some kind of metal or a wall of FIRE?”
“Let me drop a wall of iron on your head and you tell me how you feel.”
“Yeah, like I’m just going to stand there while you do tip it over on me. It's not a weapon. You don't get a strike roll. If I want to move, I just step out of the way.”
“A wall of iron is permanent. ‘Hey, we’re out of iron. What ever will we do?’ ‘Here you go.’ Try doing that with fire. You just end up with a blacksmith looking for a cleric to heal his third degree burns.”
But this conversation is the echo of a memory. My friends are not here. The locker alcove is empty and silent. Everyone has moved on.
Everyone but me.
I wander the halls between building complexes and the portable classrooms (which ended up being permanent) and the other portable classrooms (which also ended up being permanent). The sunlight shines off the tinted windows, gleams across the many athletic fields, and then casts the school in a surreal saturation of technicolor green grass, red bricks, and splashes of orange, yellow, and royal blue.
However, even though it is the middle of the day, the campus is deathly still. No students. No teachers. No patrols of administration saluting each other with a closed fist over their heart and the words “Aeterna vigilantia!” I can smell the lawn clippings of the freshly-mowed fields, but the sound of the riding mower driving its endless vigil is conspicuously absent. Not even the hot, dry Santa Ana winds rustle the trees or bushes. The only sounds at all are the echo of my own footsteps against the rusting lockers behind the math building or the swish-swish of my sneakers on the the bright green grass of the quad.
Clip clop. Swish swish. Clip clop. Swish swish.
Sometimes I know I am completely alone. Other times I know the buildings around me teem with desperate students taking horrific finals and somewhere is one that I’m late for. But always the campus is an unending labyrinth. There is no half-doughnut drop off for busses and cars to the north. There are no stairs down to the street on the west end. If I struck out across the field toward White’s Canyon, I will just see the same buildings ahead of me I just left behind. The doors are all locked, as well. I can wander endlessly, but I will never get where I am going.
And I will never leave.
The reason I am there is always different. Sometimes I’ve returned to the band to finish out that final semester that I never took. I had to choose band or choir due to a scheduling conflict with college prep government class. Mr. Gilpin has decided to let me redeem myself for my eighth semester betrayal...but I haven’t practiced. Sometimes I need to take trigonometry the way I was supposed to when I started high school--before I began to fail math classes with a tenacious predictability. Sometimes I am trying to find James to apologize for stealing his father’s Penthouse magazines and blaming his little brother. Sometimes I know (the way you just know things in a dream) that somewhere I am missing the most important final of my high school career...but I don’t know where it is. Sometimes I cannot remember which locker is mine or its combination, but I know that if I do not return the book trapped inside, I will never graduate. Sometimes I am in some sit-com’s desperate fourth season plot device: I must complete one last obscure class for my graduation to stand, but for some reason I have not attended it all year.
But always these dreams have three things in common: one, there is something yet undone, and I must finish it if I am ever to escape, two, I am utterly unprepared for the encounter, and three, the reason I am there is real.
Oh the reasons are not really real. Not really really real. I haven’t once been called to come back to Mrs. Milne to retake biology in order to have my graduation stand or had to face a disappointed Mr. Burrell that I aced his algebra classes and then went on to bomb geometry. But they have enough of a ring of truth to keep me trapped inside. If gooshy purple aliens had landed in the senior quad, the administration had been turned into Cybermen, or even if I’d been failing English, I would have laughed, realized I was asleep, and tried to lucid dream up a kinetic ion pulse rifle--not to fight the aliens or Cybermen, mind you, but just to use on Mrs. Franklin’s face.
Mrs. Franklin was a horrible teacher and I have every reason to suspect a horrible human being as well. My freshmen year, right in front of Candice (sweet Candice), she leaned down to check my homework one Tuesday morning, and I shook my head (the way I always did) to tell her it wasn't done. Her face split into the grin of a field commander who has vanquished an enemy with a flanking and feint of pure genius. “Well, this is good news for me,” she smiled. “You are now mathematically incapable of passing this class. No matter what you do, I get to have the supreme pleasure of giving you an F. I’ve been waiting for this moment, and I just want to thank you. You made my day.” I watched Candice (sweet Candice) as she watched me. Her face curled into one of those weak smiles of pity. Mrs. Franklin's glee, her timing, her obviously rehearsed speech--they would put her on the business end of my dream ion pulse rifles for decades to come (though it would not be until I started teaching that I realized just how unprofessional she had been to delight in the failure a student and even glut her appetite for sadism at their expense).
No, in these dreams, the reasons I am trapped ring true--true enough to trick me. True enough that I never start to wonder how I got to Santa Clarita Valley in the first place, think to try reading, or end up learning to fly. I really did feel like I betrayed Mr. Gilpin to leave band after seven semesters. I really did lose a book and my locker combination. I really did blow off math classes, lose friends to my dishonesty, and graduate more as the punctuation on the end of a sentence than as some kind of accomplishment. I really did give up, fail, and not really try for four years, and they patted me on the back anyway for successfully running out the clock. I really did leave that campus crawling with personal demons.
And like most demons, they weren’t going to just let me walk away.
In my twenties, and even into my thirties, the dreams came often. Once or twice a month, I woke tangled up in a tight knot of bedcovers, feeling small and introspective, trying to remind myself that I really did finish high school. I really did. I really did. I really did.
But seriously, I really did. I graduated in early summer of 1993 amidst a plume of gold and green squares. I tossed my cap into the air because.....well, because that’s what you did. (Though I did not toss it too high, and I watched its arc carefully. The tassels made for popular rear-view mirror adornment, and they had a tendency to wander off if left unattended). The band played Pomp And Circumstance. The principal told us he was proud. And the parents cheered.
I was pretty sure my mom was going to make a joke about being surprised I’d made it. That was the sort of sarcastic quip she loved.
“How the hell did you only have one cavity? I’m fairly certain you don’t even know what a toothbrush looks like.”
“How did you get an A in that class, kiddo? You spent less time doing homework than the dog.”
“Hey Chris, do you think you might go to swim practice this month, or do you just imagine I enjoy giving my money away because your swim coach is cute?”
“You’re getting to march with the band? You only practiced like twice. You sure your instructor didn’t ask you to just hold your trombone and not play?”
So I was ready for it when I walked up to her after it was all over. She stood next to my girlfriend, Heather and just pressed her lips into a tight, flat line. “I am so proud of you,” she said. “I am just so proud of you.”
My decision to leave band, my difficulties in math, my lackluster performance in any class but English….my noodle limp loyalty to friends.....none of these things stopped me from getting my very own dangly 93 rear view mirror charm. But when I wake from the dreams where twisted mockeries of my alma matter’s halls twisted and stretched in labyrinthine horrors it would take me long minutes of replaying my own graduation to remember that I had left.
It would be years--decades really--before I realized why I went back to high school so often in the dead of night. And it would be Lenore the Anthropology Instructor that finally showed me.
She was in her mid sixties with a frizzy shock of hair that drifted up from her head in apparent defiance of gravity and somehow achieved a color directly between barn red and hot pink. She was one of those radical types who decried any form of ethnocentrism or cultural elitism and then the next class talked about how backwards FGM, machismo, and Arab misogyny are. She would drift off on feminist tirades about how any sex initiated by a man in our society was essentially an act of rape. And her main point about race relations in this country boiled down to the fact that there has been no meaningful progress of any kind--socially or politically--since the antebellum south and that saying there is means that you have been fooled by the illusions.
“Well, I see you got a double helping of the Kool-aid,” she said to me when I brought up Civil Rights and the Thirteenth Amendment.
Lenore also loved David Carradine. I mean this woman had a serious clit boner for the guy. That’s the only way I can explain what went on in that class. When she wasn’t on one of her tangents about how she “wouldn’t be surprised” if HIV/AIDS was engineered by the U.S. government to kill black people, she would play us anthropology videos narrated by David Carradine.
It wasn’t like she just liked one particular series that he happened to narrate. She had multiple shows from multiple different sources that all involved his dulcet tones doing the voice over. I mean maybe he was just the “go to” guy when you wanted your anthropology documentary narrated, but I always imagined that she collected his works the way some people collect old Beatles albums or rare stamps.
This particular day we were listening to David voice over the coming of age rituals of many cultures. From the crocodile hunt of the Dassaanech tribe to the Quinceanera of the Spanish speaking world to the Bar Mitzvah of the Jews, most cultures have a way of marking and celebrating the moment when a child becomes an adult.
“It is an idea lost in western culture,” David said (or something similar). “We scoff the meaning of an arbitrary age or event, and yet in our bones we have lost a sense of our own maturity. Extended childhoods and an increased sense of aimlessness plague our young adults who don't know when they should be grown up.”
I can’t remember exactly what David said, but I seem to recall it involved some pretty unflattering things about twenty-somethings who still didn’t feel like adults. If only we could have dodged the draft and studied music theory like he did we would all have hair on our chests and be able to walk proudly if someone did the five finger death punch on us.
But there, in crazy Lenore’s class, listening to the twenty-fifth or so David Carradine voice over video, I realized why my dreams were plagued with desolate images of Canyon High School.
I could look back on so many moments where I changed, grew, maybe even grew up. They exist in my mind as a cavalcade of trivialities. The one moment that perhaps should have been significant, wasn’t. I had those dreams because I hadn’t won. I had those dreams for the same reason I assumed that my mother was going to be sarcastic and yet, she caught me off guard with her pride.
She was proud of me, but I was not particularly proud of myself. Instead of a coming of age ritual, I had only a cluttered pile of moments in which I think I wasn't quite the same at the end of them as I had been at the beginning.
Continue to Part 2
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