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Monday, August 11, 2014

A Demon's Rubicon (Part 5) By Chris Brecheen

A Demon's Rubicon
by Chris Brecheen 

Part 1 
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

The angriest I’ve ever seen an instructor was my chemistry teacher, Mr. Chaidez. I’ve seen kids threaten the teachers, melt down, end up being dragged off by security, but I never saw a teacher get angry the way he did. Mr. Chaidez was a lanky guy easing into the final lap of his run towards retirement. He had crinkles around his eyes that stretched and multiplied whenever he laughed or got angry and a shock of black hair that was just starting to go grey when I showed up to learn stoichiometry as a junior. He had a 50ml plastic baster thing with a sad face drawn on one side and a smiling face on the other. He would hold it up one way or the other depending on people’s answers. He was always saying things like, “It’s so easy, it’s cheesy” about thirty seven step problems that would constipate Einstein. He would tell me I was a lazy bum every time I didn’t turn in homework, and often recommended I memorize the menu at Burger King.

I saw the sad face side of his baster a lot.

Mr. Chaidez also let people turn in labs late for half credit right up until the last day of class—a policy that he would change the year after I took his class. He gave ten points each for the title page and the conclusion page, which could be written up with no other work. That meant that on the last day of class I was able to turn in just the first and last page of some ten or eleven labs that I’d never done.  My name, date, and a title on one sheet and a sentence saying the result of the experiment on another and I could squeeze out a hundred or so extra points.

“What the fuck is this?” he shouted at me before I had even gotten back to my desk.

The classroom froze. Teachers didn’t drop the F bomb in class.

“This is pathetic,” he screamed, standing with my labs clutched in his hand. “Brecheen, this is like going to take a shit and only farting. I can’t even believe you would waste my fucking time with this.”

I didn’t have anything to say. I just sat down and hoped it would end soon. The whole class shifted between sympathetic stares and nervous titters. Eyes were either glued on me, watching Mr. Chaidez in horror, or deliberately avoiding us both.

I lost track of the rant, but it went on for a couple of minutes. My integrity as a student and a human was questioned and there were lots of rhetorical demands that I explain myself. Finally I heard his voice pitch up and he stared at me expectantly.

“Well?” he asked.

I shrugged. “I dunno, I figured I’d get a few points. Try to pass. I don’t really want to be here next year.”

Chaidez didn’t soften, but he was clearly done talking. He stamped back to his desk with my labs and began to record them while he seethed. Occasionally his eyes flicked up to glare at me.

Then he started laughing. It was sudden, jerking, and sounded more like successive barking. He laughed and shook his head and his eyes slowly slid up to meet mine. “You just passed the class because of this…crap,” he said, holding up my labs. "I can't even believe how pathetic you are. Enjoy."

He just shook his head and laughed again. That was the last thing he ever said directly to me.

If there was a reason I walked out of high school without a sense that I had accomplished anything worth accomplishing, it was probably because of moments like those. Moments where I learned that it was absolutely possible to pass and fail at the same time.

I was never a saint. Moments where I stood up to bullies (when I did) were flecks of glitter in the grime-covered filth of my childhood. The rest was a cacophony of moral ambiguity and rationalized mischief bordering on the felonious–and sometimes crossing that border without pause.

Not only did I not always defend Jason, but sometimes I was the one putting my hand on my hip and mocking his voice: “I don’t appreciate that.” Sometimes I was the one snapping his headgear in a hotel on our band tour because he’d had the temerity to launch himself at me when I wouldn’t stop making fun of him to Chris G and Tim. Sometimes I led the charge on a round of fat jokes because at least they weren’t making fun of me. At least they weren’t making fun of me.

My loyalty had an elasticity that I hated, and each time alone with Jason, laughing until I couldn’t see straight about the vaginal hygiene of Cindy Portman or the absurdity of doing taekwondo forms to fight gang bangers. In those moments between the ticks when I realized Jason wasn’t just a friend of proximity, I would promise myself not to let him down again.

But I would. I always would.

Life doesn’t hand you too many wins. It’s greedy with them—stingy. It makes you work. They’re mixed in with character-building defeats, and frustrating stalemates. These stories were all moments where childhood flaked away like skin sloughing off after a sunburn, peeled by persistent greedy fingers as lips curl into a wince and eyes glitter with each discovery of a new patch. It hurts, but you just can’t stop.

Sometimes they were a crucible in which I became a better person than I was. Lined end to end like some Toastmaster speech, they paint a picture I can never deserve. In truth, they went off like flash grenades against the murky twilight of my childhood. In truth I failed almost every chance I got.

I stole—not just shoplifting, but anything that wasn’t nailed down. I stole from my parents, siphoning off a five here, a ten there, laundry quarters by the fistfuls, crawling into their room on hands and knees in the deep of night to rifle through their clothing while they slept—always meeting their accusations with wounded indignation. I stole from my friends as well. I ended one friendship by intercepting James’s mail and stealing his father’s adult magazines, and another by trying to break into J.P.’s house and take a BB gun. The only friends that stuck with me didn’t seem to care that their possessions would occasionally wind up in my room.

I snuck out at night and regularly committed what would probably be considered felony trespassing. Once I drove a caterpillar bulldozer that had had the keys left in it around a construction site until a weary graveyard security guard noticed me and a wild chase over the trenches and ridges of the construction site ensued. I broke into buildings, shattered fragile things I found there. Sometimes I broke into into empty homes, and once into a home that wasn’t empty at all.

I lit fires. Everywhere I could. I liked to watch things burn and change as the licks of orange and blue consumed them. I liked to destroy and feel the power of controlling the destruction. The brown chaparral of Calabasas would catch like tissue paper and become a high stakes game in seconds. I liked taking that risk. In that moment right before I started to panic, right when I wasn’t sure if I was going to get it under control this time, I felt risk and danger and control and out of control all at the same time.

The moments that calmed me were not the years of therapy I ended up in or some undefinable gradual transition. I remember them clearly, distinctly like pops of lucidity in the long twilight of a dream.

My junior crime spree ebbed when I came home in the arms of two police officers. I had shut off the power to a home and then gotten pinned behind a bush by a barking dog. I got out, but the owner had called the police who passed me half-way down the hill, where I moseyed along and tried to play it extra cool. I was good, but I wasn’t act-casual-at-three-in-the-morning-despite-being-thirteen good.

One, with a cliche mustache (which I’ve recently discovered is so cliche it’s called a copstache) mocked me for my tears and laughed heartily at the suggestion that there was no need to mention the whole affair to my parents. and the other told the first to give me a break. I was too young to care about much beyond how much trouble I was in, but I remember my mom’s face when she opened the door to their insistent knocks. She wasn’t angry. She wasn’t upset. (Those came later.) She was just so damned disappointed.

It’s not as if would never disappoint her again. I eloped. I came home Muslim and prayed for her atheist soul. I failed class after class in high school. I dropped out of college right before finals (upon receiving the news that she and my step-dad were divorcing, I simply shut down). That night in the arms of two police officers was far from the last horrible thing I did. It wasn’t even the last time I snuck out in the middle of the night. But it was the night I stopped feeling like I was out of control, even to myself. It was the last night I broke into buildings. It was the last night I randomly destroyed property. I stopped sneaking out two or three times a week. I stopped stealing just to see if I could. I never wanted to see my mother so chagrined again. I never again wanted to let her down so much.

I stopped lighting fires when I was fourteen. In Canyon Country, a blistering hot summer in August doesn’t just get up into triple digits, but can sometimes go over 110. My parent's first house had a little swamp cooler that tried its best, but there was no escaping the worst of the heat. I did anything I could to keep my mind off the fact that I was melting.

I had recently watched some movie where someone lit a trail of gasoline and the fire had lazily filled out the drawn symbol. So I decided to light up a gas line of my own because that looked pretty fucking awesome to see the blue slowly envelop the design.

My first experiment took place in the blazing hot garage of our little house. At somewhere upwards of 120 degrees, the smell of paint and turpentine cloyed at my nose. I decided my first experiment would be a line up the length of the garage that ended in a little splotch. I popped open the bright red gas can’s yellow top and drizzled out a line that ended in a splotch.

However, by the time I had finished up the splotchy part at the end, the line had already evaporated. Not wanting my awesome fire trail to be muted by failing to use enough—and noting that the show I’d watched had a gas line that was almost a standing puddle—I re-covered my lines, this time pouring liberally to make sure the line wouldn’t evaporate. Sloshing gas dribbled out over my hands and the gas can, but I wiped them down the legs of my thighs. I set the gas can down a few feet from the splotch and pulled out the strike anywhere match.

I knelt down a few centimeters from where the gas line started and dragged the match along the cement floor. It burst into a flame that just kept growing into a fireball.

Of course, now I know. How stupid the whole thing was. How dangerous it was. How the enclosed space and the other chemicals were working against me. How fumes are flammable. How wiping gasoline on my clothes before lighting a match was ridiculously foolhardy.

And how there’s nothing slow and meandering about gas igniting in real life.

I remember there was an orange flash across my retinas, a low WHUMP, and an instant smell of burning hair. Nothing “caught” fire. It was just that suddenly everything in the garage was burning. My hands, my jeans, one of the shelves with turpentine and paint on it, the cement floor in a pattern roughly like the one I’d drawn. But perhaps more alarming than all these things was that the fireball had jumped right back to the plastic gas can I’d left open, and it was burning around the edges of its bright yellow syphon.

To say that I panicked would be inaccurate. If anything my mind took hold of the moment with a strange sort of clarity. I was incredibly naive, foolishly worried more about getting into trouble than my own safety, and my decisions were abysmal, but I was calm, collected.

I walked quickly into the bathroom adjacent to the garage rubbing my hands along my thighs as I did so to put out the fires burning there. I could feel my skin reacting to the heat, starting to burn, but I gritted through the pain and kept moving quickly but deliberately.  I pulled a towel into the sink and turned the water on full blast. I rinsed my hands and patted off the last licking flames on my thighs. I filled my mouth before I left.  I walked back into the blaze of the garage to find that the cement had burned itself out and only the gas can and shelf were crackling away.

Between a mouth full of water and the wet towel, I got the fire out. First the gas can, and then the shelf. The calm clarity didn’t end with the fire being out, and I methodically set about removing evidence of what had happened. In the next few minutes I checked myself for anything worse than first degree burns, threw out the jeans I was wearing (wrapping them in a double layer of trash bags), and started to clean up the scorch mark. All with mechanical lack of emotion. It was only after the biggest of the blackened streaks had been removed that I realized how stupid I’d been not to just run and call for help.

I had walked back towards a burning gas can with nothing but a wet towel. I had stood over burning gasoline with a mouth full of water. There was no good reason I shouldn’t have come out of it horribly burned or worse. Instead a patch of slight numbness on my left leg is my only physical reminder.

Then I started to shake and the tears leapt into my eyes like white fire. I heard someone moaning and realized it was me.

That ended my fascination with fire. Whatever had happened in that garage, it was enough. I don’t know if I had won or lost—arguably neither; arguably both. It’s strange how many moments of such salient transition had that sort of ambiguity about them. I definitely found the limit of control and loss of control. Whatever itch I was trying to scratch, I had scratched it. My firebug days were over and except for a few camp fires and the like, I’ve never really lit one since.

My marriage really ended a month before I started slamming books and DVD’s into banker boxes with as much righteous indignation as I could muster. I decided I wasn’t going to live in a 900 square foot apartment “as just friends” in early December of 2005, but it was a cool night in November when it really ended. A few wayward crickets were singing, and an uncharacteristic calm gripped Oakland. We were coming home from a movie and having “big talks.” I was struggling to keep my marriage from falling apart, and my wife had developed an air of inevitable serenity about her.

“I will stay with you into the foreseeable future,” she said. “I’m just not foreseeing very far these days.”

Perhaps it would be more fair to say that my marriage ended in the months leading up to that night. The damage was done, the tumor inoperable; the injuries too extensive. The cool night in November was simply the opening act of our Kabuki theater where I struggled for a month like a fly in a web to keep everything from falling apart.

I had recently returned to college, and fall semester was a doozy. Sixteen units of algebra, spanish, English, and history as well as a tutoring job. Dishes piled up in the sink and the house fell into disarray while I struggled with papers, homework, reading and a part time work schedule. At first it was “I support you.” Then it was, “This won’t last forever.” By the end it was just a long sigh.

We were poly. It would be easy to blame being poly for why we broke up, but I have since been poly with a decade of success. It was much more complicated than that, yet it played a part. She was dating a guy named Mike. I was dating a woman named Lydia. Jealousy was like everything else: a force she denied exerted any gravitational pull on her at all—and resented the very sight of within me—until she broke down and admitted it was eating her alive, only to then deny that it was a real problem the next day when it threatened to validate some concern or another that she was moving awfully quickly with Mike.

On that November before a trip to Costco I asked her if anything was wrong and she got angry. “Do you think I wouldn’t tell you if something was wrong?” she said. “I need you to trust me. I can’t live under this suspicion.”

But something was wrong. As we left the check out line with a fresh supply of pot pies and microwavable taquitos, she paused. “So… I have a question,” she said.

By the time we pulled up to the curb outside our apartment, she was of the opinion that we could stay married for tax purposes if I wanted.

“So I was right?” I said.

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“That guilt trip about not trusting you. About how you’re just fine and my suspicion is unfounded. Christ you even got mad at me. What was that about?”

“Can we just drop it?”

I look back now across the gulf of more years than I was married and I know there were tender moments. I know I played my part. I know there were two sides. There are always two sides. But all I can remember is being told over and over again that nothing was wrong but then being right. My concerns repeatedly dismissed, sometimes with righteous indignation until she would break an awkward silence by confirming my suspicions. The memory of that duplicity (intended or unconscious) dominates my perception of the end of my marriage. It grows like gnarled vines over good times, my culpability, and reality alike. It chokes out the light and nothing can survive underneath its absolute canopy but the fetid mushrooms of my resentments.

I remember the way her eyes would roll and she would mock me. She would tell me my insecurity was making me unattractive. Then a few minutes later, “So…I have a question.”

That night, I had my own question.

“Is there anything I could do that might possibly save our marriage?” I asked that cool November night. It was thick and quiet. The moment was pregnant. She looked at me over a box of Costco provisions and licked her lips. A gentle breeze played with my hair and rustled the trees above our heads.

“I dunno. You could drop out of school and break up with Lydia, but let me go on seeing Mike.”

Only the crickets' song cut the still air. The freeway, a few miles from our apartment, sounded like the ocean from a distance–a soft hum, unnoticeable until everything else was absolutely silent.

My marriage ended. I tried to hold on, but like father and step-father she didn’t find me worth sticking around for. I couldn’t fix it, no matter how hard I tried. For a month, she acted out the role of a person who cared that her marriage was imploding, but she wasn’t very convincing, and nothing I did really mattered. In the end I stop trying. I stopped trying to avoid fights and instead jumped towards them. I let my anger consume me, I let it make me cold, and it settled low in my stomach, in an icy ball. I wrote nasty entries on Live Journal and hoped her friends would tell her about them. In the end I slammed books and DVD’s into boxes. She got the car, and I took everything else. I took things I didn’t even need. I was petty. Being petty felt good.

I did not like me very much during that time.

I stood up for myself. I stopped trying to make a relationship work that only I cared about. I stopped campaigning to be worthy of the office of her husband. I went right on studying algebra and English and Spanish and history. I went right on dating Lydia. Like the end of some Lifetime movie of the week (just with genders reversed), I would not let myself be a doormat. Despite the fact that I left a few days from finals—in a chilling echo of my parents own divorce and my first failed attempt at college—I sucked it up, nailed my finals and papers, and got straight A’s. I didn’t let the worst event of my life rattle my resolve. I was more than just a person not worth sticking around for. And for once I didn’t just stand up when someone else was in trouble. When someone will stand up for others but not themselves, it is the latter that feels heroic.

I was very proud of me.

It is absolutely possible to pass and fail at the same time. And not just Mr. Chaidez’s chemistry class.

[© 2014  All Rights Reserved]


  1. The ending of my marriage and the ending of yours, they echo. Passing and failing. Yes.

  2. It's an odd feeling to look back at a childhood memory and realize that if things had gone just a little bit differently, you'd probably have died.