30 Years In: Vulnerable and Shameless

I’m sitting on the fourth floor of an almost empty study area at George Mason’s remodeled Fenwick Library. It’s me and one other student in the large room with tables and chairs that could seat more than a hundred people. She’s most likely preparing for her Summer finals, and I’m reflecting on where my life is heading after almost 30 years.

I enjoy the quiet. The floor to ceiling view of the trees outside is relaxing. The view from atop allows me to think. With one month left of summer, I’m here on campus — again — preparing for the first day of Fall classes when I will return to finish my undergraduate degree once and for all. I’ve been inspired recently by an episode of Shameless (the US version) where the fictional character: Lip Gallagher, struggles to assimilate to college life and wants to throw in the towel. I don’t quite remember the dialogue, but essentially Kevin Ball played by Steve Howey tells him that he should finish his education, take that piece of paper, and shove it up their ass (I assume he’s talking about the administration, and the society that tells him he needs it.) — at least that’s how I remember the scene because it gave me a good laugh.

It could be said that my twenties were something of a pre-pre-midlife crisis. I achieved my childhood dream of serving my country way too early. College seemed like the logical next step, but school has always been a struggle for me. I remember parent-teacher conferences in which mom was told that I’m a smart student but lazy. Mom never understood why. She’d sit me down to have these long conversations about how she didn’t want me to end up cleaning toilets in the same way she did to have food on the table. “I didn’t raise you to be lazy, son.” I’d joke that it was never going to happen because I’d employ servants to help me clean. I’d even recruit some of my cousins to work for me too. I often fantasized about having a chauffeur and a police escort to drive me around town. I don’t know where all these notions of grandeur originated — especially since mom only wanted me to be able to fend for myself. Mom, of course, would laugh and call me a foolish boy. She’d say: “Estás loco, pendejo!” Your crazy stupid.

Truth is, I’m a dreamer. I’m sure my friends are tired of hearing me talk about wanting to be a writer. The fact that I’m writing this piece makes me a writer. I don’t know what the next 30 years will hold — although I’ve been dubbed: “The Great Planner.” I’ve planned everything from leaving my employer to taking acting lessons in New York to pursuing a certificate in computer programming only to stop the whole process after the first week or two. I just wasn’t happy doing any of it. I kept coming back to my dream of being a writer and finishing my education. Everything else has been a distraction and fodder for my stories.

Personal Reflections and Fodder

The time up until I was about 10 years old was a period of fear for me. Dad was murdered, mom was a victim of domestic violence, and I was hated by my step-father for looking like dad. I didn’t know how to help mom but, as the oldest of four kids, I encouraged her to leave the horrible situation. I had to be strong despite my fear. Mom finally divorced my step-father when I was 11. She, of course, had found the courage to separate from him two years prior while on the brink of committing suicide. She chose to stay alive for her kids.

I consider the time between the ages of 11 and 17 to be my most self-defining years. It was interesting because I never had a male role model. Sure, I had my uncles and male cousins, but we weren’t close. My idea of a man had been this alpha male that my step-father portrayed by exerting his dominance over mom. He also tried to roughen me up, which isn’t necessarily bad for boys, but he often took it to an extreme like the time when he broke my leg or would crush my hands and tell me not to cry. Mom sensed a lot of anger had built up inside me and, while I don’t remember, she says I would take it out on my younger brother by hitting him to show him who´s boss and sometimes yelling at my sisters. I never went to counseling, but I eventually found peace by going to church. I became interested in wanting to know God after discovering that I needed to do my communion if I wanted to get married in a Catholic church. Of course, I never went to a Catholic church. Instead, mom took me to a non-denominational church that she once attended. It all came crashing down when her live-in girlfriend became displeased with the idea of us going to church. Mom had sworn off men for a while after leaving my step-father and started dating a woman. Her girlfriend was intimately involved in all our lives up until I was 16 by helping to support us. Turmoil ensued and divided my family. It was like watching cockroaches scatter when you turn on the lights.

At seventeen, I enlisted in the Marine Corps. I was ready to see the world or at least get out of San Antonio. The time between 18 and 20 was fittingly: the crossover. I became a Marine and a man. I think my desire to serve my country stemmed from wanting to help people, especially after 9/11. I also talked a lot about wanting to enlist growing up. Everyone in my family kind of knew I wasn’t going to stick around. I never applied to colleges right out of high school because mom wanted me to get a job and move out. She couldn’t afford to pay for me to go to college or to support me a minute after I turned 18.

Looking back, my twenties have been a bit of a whirlwind. I’m not sure where all the time has gone. I was never one of those twenty-something year olds that couldn’t wait to get out and drink and live it up. I spent most my twenties trying to figure out my next move. I mean even as I write this piece I’m still uncertain. My brother — who is seven years younger than me — once told me: “Joe, I look at you, and I think you’ve never really lived. You’ve been completely focused on your career and what you’re going to do with your life that you don’t even have a girlfriend.” He, then, went on to ask if I’d ever been laid. I didn’t tell him that I had one shot and missed my target. I just said yes, but he knows me better than I know myself. Back in the Marine Corps, this girl — whose name I forgot — wanted to sleep in my bunk. I was completely oblivious to her advances — which is ironic since the Marine Corps trained us to be aware of our surroundings or get shot. You could say I got shot. She was beautiful and weird. The perfect combination. Some other jarhead ended up marrying her, though.

I’ve always been a bit of an introvert. It’s probably no surprise, then, that I’d find it easier to express my thoughts in writing. I’d rather listen than do all the talking — although, if you get me talking, I might never stop and may seem self-centered. For that reason, making friends and dating has never been easy. There’s also so much pressure to perform. I’m often asked, especially upon meeting someone for the first time, where I went to school, where I work, and what I’m doing now. My responses are either dull or overawing. Online dating is even more superficial. I created a profile recently and have yet to receive any matches. It makes dating or just trying to meet people a tedious process that I would rather not be bothered with — which is kind of unfortunate because no one wants to be alone.

So, I don’t know what the next 30 years will hold — much less the next 10 — but I’m going to keep writing and finish my education, so I can shove the certificate and novel up all the naysayers asses. Seriously, though, I’m doing it for me.