Dread soaked excitement woke him up way too early. Still dark and too restless to fall back asleep he quietly rolls out of bed. He’s tossed and turned all night long. “I might as well take a shower and get ready,” he thought to himself. Having stared at his alarm clock for the past hour hoping the monotony would quiet his million-mile-per-hour brain he knew sleep would not return. Resolved, he carefully pulled off the covers and slid to the right so as to not shake the bed too much and wake his baby brother.
Last night, he’d rolled his eyes at his grandmothers warnings as he went to bed. “Butterflies in my stomach? Really? I’m 15… not 4. What does she know?” Butterflies were too dainty for what he felt all night. More like a hornets nest in his chest from the moment he slithered between the mishmash of sheets and scratchy wool blankets.
He clenched his jaw so tightly at the pain of kicking the end of his bed that stars flashed before his eyes in the brilliant darkness. The little toe. Why is it always the little toe? He slowly exhales– releasing the pain silently under his breath. A few seconds of stretching out his foot and he’s ready to move forward, again. As he fumbled around the strange room he wonders if this is what it is like to be blind. The wandering continues as he tries to imagine where the door handle is while trying to remain silent enough to hear the deep breathing of the toddler in his still-warm bed.
Finally his hand bumps the doorknob and he is free. More confident, and with a little light sneaking into the hallway from the street light outside, he feels along the wall until he finds the bathroom.
As he closes and locks the door behind him he lets out the first noise of his day. “Crap.” Turning on the light he sees himself in the mirror and instantly realizes he’s forgotten everything he needs for a shower.
The light goes off and the process reverses. Down the narrow hallway to the bedroom door. Slowly opening the squeaky door, ever so softly, so the steady breathing brother doesn’t change. Waking him up right now would be a whole new level of problem he wants to avoid at all cost. Even at the cost of his still throbbing little toe.
Leaving the door open for a little light and good luck he reaches into a laundry basket and searches for something to wear. It’s almost pointless trying to think if things match as its so dark he couldn’t tell a yellow shirt from a black one. “Just get the parts and fix it later,” he thinks to himself as he looks for a pair of shorts, a shirt, and underwear.
5:28 AM. “How is that even possible? 11 minutes to walk to the bathroom and back? What is wrong with me?”
Back in the hallway he sees the shadow of his grandmother. “Honey, I’ve put out a towel. I’ll start some hot water for you so you can have breakfast. OK?”
“Sure.” He says as he quickly closes the door and locks it. He can’t decide which is more embarrassing, that he somehow woke her up or that she just saw him in his underwear. “Thanks grandma.” She’s probably in the kitchen and never heard it. But he said it anyway.
The hot water made his body feel as awake as his mind had been all night. Present in the moment but trying to hide from his reality at the same time. On the one hand it was too early to think too much, which, in his circumstances was all he wanted to do… to stop thinking.
Thinking too much wasn’t helping. Time to turn it off and just be for a while.
Yeah, right. Focus on today.
He had laid in bed all night running through the day to come. It was horrible and fantastic. He missed home. He missed his mom. He missed his friends. But he was ready for a new start. At least that is what he tried to convince himself all night. Over and over again he rehearsed his schedule in his mind. He knew the room numbers for each hour and had memorized the school map the counselor put in his folder when he registered.
A month ago he’d give his right arm for the anonymity he’ll have today.
But getting lost was still a big worry. “I’d better write everything down when no one is looking, just to be sure.”
Drying off he ran through the checklist one more time.
“Fresh start. New day. Start over. New everything.”
These were the words he’d heard from all of his relatives over Christmas. He couldn’t come up with the word for it, but in his mind he didn’t like the way they were saying it. Later he’d learn the word– patronizing. That would sum up the anger he felt towards their coy and meaningless words of encouragement. What did they know? It wasn’t them.
“Get a bowl. There’s hot water on the stove. There’s some oatmeal packets in the drawer. What were you doing up so early, anyway? The bus doesn’t come for an hour.”
“An hour? What time is it?”
“It’s 6:20. You were in the bathroom forever. What were you doing in there? It’s not like you shave or anything.”
6:21 AM. That’s what the microwave said, anyway.
“I don’t know. I guess I just lost track of time or something.”
He sat down at the little metal table in the corner of the kitchen, mixing his oatmeal. That’s when the quietness ended and his new daily chaos resumed.
“I hungry. Cheerios.” He looked down as his little brother was standing there, holding his blanket and rubbing his eyes. “Go ask grandma. I’m eating.”
It was mean. But he was busy. His tone was a little off, quite a bit more harsh than he wanted because as the little guy wandered away and started to cry.
Then the front door slammed closed. The apartment shook, not at just at the kerthunk of the door but also at the volume it brought to their relative peace.
“Jesus– I can’t stand my job anymore. I’m up all night and the first thing the supervisor says to me when he gets in is, ‘That’s all you did?’ He’s an idiot. I swear to God, I hate that place.”
Grandma met uncle Pete at the door.
“Watch your mouth. Everyone in the world doesn’t need to hear you. I’ve got problems of my own. Why do you have to… never mind. Just keep your voice down. We’re just waking up.”
“Have you been crying, mom? Your eyes are all puffy.”
“Why don’t you mind your own business.” Grandma said, cutting him off. “Can you make the baby some cereal. He wants Cheerios.”
She bent down and picked up the crying boy and stuffed him into his uncles arms before walking back into her bedroom and slamming the door.
His grandma was incredible at changing the subject. When he first saw her, as she left the bathroom as he made his way down the hall this morning, she was sniffling. But he thought she just had a cold or something. Maybe she’d been crying? But when you are in your underwear and your grandma is telling you meaningless information about hot water you don’t stick around too much to wonder if she’d been crying or not. You just shut the door and handle your business.
She was good at changing the subject. It’s how she handled everything complicated. He remembered how quickly she’d changed the subject at the school with the counselor. Any time they had questions she just changed the subject.
“Maybe that’ll help me today?” He said out loud into his oatmeal.
The next 45 minutes were a blur of chaos-filled activity. First his uncle yelled at his grandma. Then his brother started crying because his uncle’s loud mouth scared him. Then he’d helped his brother get dressed. Then his brother pooped his pants because he didn’t listen when he told him to go to the bathroom and he didn’t make it there on time. Then he’d gone through the nastiness of cleaning that up and resisting the need to take another shower by bathing himself in another layer of Axe.
Then he looked up at the clock in the bedroom and it was 7:18.
“Hurry up! I told you the bus will be outside at 7:20. You can’t miss it on the first day.”
Adrenaline took over. He grabbed his bag and a hoodie, closing the door behind him… wait, could he have a bag at school? He couldn’t remember. Down the stairs he went and out the front door. As he glided down three flights of steps he somehow managed to slip on the hoodie and keep track of his back back while not breaking his neck.
The crispness of the January air brought him back to reality. Looking down the block to see the silhouettes of others waiting for the bus, his feet froze to the sidewalk. His legs locked up and he felt a little woozy. He pulled his hood up, fished in his backpack for his MP3 player, put his earphones in, and turned the volume up as loud as it would go.
A pile of high school students waited at the end of the block. He kept his head down as he approached the crowd. He didn’t want to say a word. He was going to pretend he didn’t hear anything. “Just get through the first day. Don’t get lost. Don’t talk to nobody.”
No matter what. He wasn’t going to talk to a soul on the bus. It was just transportation and not some sort of invitation to friendship and all the questions that would follow.
The bus pulled up and he pushed his way into the pack. He sat down in the middle of the bus next to some kid. The kid looked a little younger than him. Maybe he was a freshmen? He smelled. Swinging his bag off his back and onto his lap he collapsed into the seat. Staring straight ahead. With a prophet blaring words he wanted to hear into his brain, he was in his own world. Starting fresh. Trying to not think about anything.
The new day starts now.
“Fresh start. New beginning. New everything.” He thought to himself as he closed his eyes in protest to the headlights of oncoming cars shining through the school bus window and into his eyes.
“Hey, what’s your name? Who are you?” That’s what he assumed the smelly kid said to him as he poked his shoulder.