Origin Story, or: Where I Started

1.

I hunched inside my filthy, smoke-laden 1983 Ford Escort in the parking lot of the corporate office. It had been a three hour drive in the early morning, from my home in Central Pennsylvania to where I was now in Pittsburgh. I had worked for the company for eight years, but this was the first time I was seeing the home office. Although my excitement and nervousness was palpable, I couldn’t deny some disappointment with the plainness of the building. It wasn’t in bustling downtown Pittsburgh like I expected, but in some suburban shopping village, and although it was not a small building, its common brick exterior and clean design was reminiscent more of an upscale middle school than what I had been expecting. But nonetheless, here I was nervous. I was preparing finally for an interview to get into management. I had been a dishwasher and then a cook while I struggled and slouched through my early twenties, and now that I had begun to straighten myself out, my boss was taking notice, and suggested I become an actual manager. It seemed ludicrous to me at first, the idea that people would let me be in charge of something. But more and more, the idea took hold within me. I had, after all, basically been running the kitchen in that restaurant for years. The more that my bosses told me I had a bright future with the company, the more comfortable I became with the idea that I was a leader, that I was already a leader. I didn’t know anything about doing it officially, but it did start to seem like a natural idea. I was nervous as heck though. I had no idea how to answer questions for a job that entailed real-world grownup things. And now that I had been thinking about it so long, it became something I wanted very much, so I did not know what I would do if I just bombed the whole thing. My manager had done the best he could to prepare me, but this was all uncharted territory for me. I was wearing a clip-on tie that I had stolen from my father’s closet. And pants that I had gotten from JCPenney just for the occasion. I swung open the Escort’s door, and, putting on a fake face of bravery and confidence as much as I possibly could muster, I walked toward the bland brick building. Once I swung open the big glass doors and walked inside, I ceased being unimpressed.

2.

I’m in high school.  I think I’m probably 17.  Maybe I’m 16.  Who can remember details like that all these years later?  Details like how old you were.  Those kinds of details or statistics rarely matter.  Anyway I was a kid still, a teenager, you know?  I don’t remember anything about the evening that lead up to this night I’m telling you about.  I know I was with three of my friends–or more accurately, two of my friends and one of their girlfriends.  I began the evening in the backseat of one of the friends’ cars.  We were going somewhere to drink, to get drunk.  But this was a special night, because I had never drank before, or at least, I had never been drunk.  Sure, I’d had a few glasses of watered-down wine at some family wedding when I was a tyke, but I’d never felt any effects.  My friends and I had never snuck or stolen any kind of alcohol yet. Tonight was our first.  One of my friends–the one with the car and the girlfriend–knew a grown man named something like Darius who lived in Carlisle, which was the bigger town closest to our smaller town. I have no idea how he knew this man.  We arrived at his house sometime after sundown.  I didn’t know Carlisle very well then but later I would end up having my first apartment by myself very close to this Darius’ place.  Life is cuckoo like that, no?  So I settle into a deep, plush chair in this guy’s apartment–he has a girlfriend there, too, and they’re so much older than us I assume they’re married.  Darius has procured us all “forties”, or malt liquor that comes in 40 oz bottles.  I crack open the cap with a high level of anticipation.  It tastes horrible.  Wretched.  Very, very hard to drink the whole thing.  But I want it.  I want the buzz, the feeling, whatever it is–I’ve seen other people have it and I want it.  We all sit there nursing our 40s for awhile–I can’t tell you how long, who can remember those details?–and it gets a little easier to get it down as the night goes on.  I feel slightly light-headed but nothing to write home about.  I was disappointed to slowly learn throughout the evening that there was no more alcohol, just one 40 for each of us.  At some point I said to Darius (or whatever his name was), “Hey, I’ll give you a few buck to go get me just one beer.”  Everyone laughed, because you can’t go buy just one beer to-go, but I didn’t know, I didn’t know.  We left then shortly thereafter and by the time I got home, even my light-headedness was gone.  I knew, as I lay there in my bed, that I was gonna chase that feeling, that I was gonna find it.

3.

It’s 5 AM. It is still very dark outside, and it’s cold. I’m taking my very inexpensive bicycle out of the back of my car. I’m in Presque Isle State Park, in Erie, Pennsylvania, way up in the upper left-hand corner of the state. Presque Isle is a forested peninsula that juts out into Lake Erie–Pennsylvania’s northernmost point and only seven miles from (still not-visible) Canada.  It’s about seven years since I started my management career, about 16 years since I took my first drink in that cushy chair with Darius, and about eight years since I had my last drink. I am putting a bicycle on a road that goes the length of Presque Isle, tracing the peninsula’s outer edge. I had set my alarm for 4:30. I wanted to be the very first person out on the peninsula this morning. It was awfully fun loading my car up in what seemed like the middle of the night, driving the 15 minutes through the city out to the lake, but when I got to the entrance to the park, there was a car already there waiting. But shortly after the gates opened, the car went a different direction, so I still felt like I had the entire peninsula all to myself. The crooning of the insects, the chirping of the birds, seems all for me. This solitary performance of nature is just another extension of my current life, the manner in which I am completely alone. Five hours from all my family and friends, when even a trip to the local Walmart poses zero possibility of running into anyone I know, it’s easy to begin to think that the birds and insects sing only for you. As I hoist myself onto my bike, I smile more broadly that I have in years. I recently discovered the joy of bicycling, and having this peninsula cutting into Lake Erie all to myself on this chilly but slowly brightening, slowly warming morning, somehow becomes the most delicious moment I could have possibly imagined for myself. As I pedal faster and faster, following the road that faces the outer limits of the peninsula, that happiness simply grows and grows. How did I come to live this life? How did I come to be so lucky? The birds and insects above increase in volume, as the lake reveals itself on my right, at this time of morning still a black mirror stretching out farther than I ever would’ve imagined, more vast than I want to ponder.

4.

I haven’t experienced as much death in my life as many folks have, but I have seen more than a few people I knew and loved shuffle off.  What a strange thing, too, when people die, right?  Suddenly they’re just not there anymore, like a phantom limb, or a dream you can’t shake.  What always rattles me most is how often the person truly fades from our lives.  Sure, we mourn them, we miss them, we still love them.  But usually we get rid of their stuff right away, clear out everything they spent their whole lives acquiring.  We loved them but not their stuff.  Then shortly after they die we consider it poor form to talk about them too much; why dwell on the past?  It might be considered obsessive to ask too many questions about what their life meant, what it meant to you or the universe, and what they might be experiencing now.  When I used to think about my death a lot–when I was sad, which isn’t now–I would imagine my loved ones saving the books and movies from my shelves, saying Oh Seth loved these, I will read them all as a tribute!  But I know now they won’t, and even that they shouldn’t.  I’ll just be gone, and this mountain I spent my whole journey climbing, crafting myself carefully out of nothing, will just fade, fade, fade.

5.

The boy had me in a headlock.  I’d never been in a headlock before—at least, not one that was meant to hurt—and so I was confused.  There’s not much worse than being confused, hurt, and restrained all at the same time.  Especially when you’re seven years old.

Really, I should have seen it coming.  Even though I was only seven and had never been in a fight in my life, I knew that the boy was bad news, and I had seen him in the church yard before I went in there myself.  And he’d been giving me awful, evil kid-signals for months.  I should have seen it coming.  But what do you want from me?  I was seven.

I walked into the church yard with a tennis ball and a baseball mitt, planning to throw my ball against the big wall on the south end of the church and catch the bounces; to this day, one of my favorite things to do.  But I saw him. The neighborhood’s resident bad kid.  The badass. His family lived in that gross house with all the trash in the back yard, and he never seemed clean; always had a brownish undercurrent to his skin, as if he’d just survived a house fire.  And the neighborhood was filled with the stories of the kids he’d beat up, spit on, ran his bike into.  I’d never been in his class at school but I’d seen him on the playground, and it seemed he lived up to his reputation.  But I must have assumed, for whatever reason, that I would somehow be safe from him.

And there he was, in the church yard on an otherwise abandoned afternoon.  Who knows what he was doing?  Probably breaking branches off of trees, throwing rocks into bushes.  Something pointless that seemed mildly primitive.  I chose to ignore him and walked around the church’s large beige utility shed toward the wall where I’d throw my ball.

(most of my life, this day at the church yard stood as my definition of terror.  Powerlessness.  Rigid cold fear.  What death might be like)

So I threw my ball.  Plunk, plop.  Plunk, plop.  Plunk, plop.  A joy in the mindlessness, in the solid feeling of the ball entering the glove’s sweet spot, in the lively reaction of tennis ball meeting brick wall.  And the emptiness of the church yard, the silence, the perfect echoes.  No cars, no distant sounds of grown-ups on telephone calls, just me, the ball, the mitt, and the echoes.

And then the boy was beside me.  I managed a weak “Hi” but I could see this wasn’t friendly.  The hairs on my neck stood up, my heart dropped to my knees.  He ran at me, but neither a fight nor a flight instinct kicked in.  I did not fully understand this development.  The moment before he struck me (with what the kids back then called a ‘clothesline’) I tried to speak, to say something, to reason him out of this, but it was too late, and I flew to the ground as though I’d been pulled by stage wires.

I stood up, not yet crying.  Bewildered and disoriented, trying to focus my vision,  trying to ask him why he did that.  I mean, I was just playing with my ball.  Had he mistaken me for someone else who had wronged him in the past?  Was he rabid, like the dogs my parents told me about?  Was he—

—and then I was hit again, with another clothesline, and was knocked down even harder than the first time.  I hadn’t even seen him coming, I simply felt the hit and went down without any warning.  But now I had wizened up just a little bit.  Still having no idea why the attack was occurring, I had at least figured out that it was occurring, and I got up immediately and began running.  I did not run toward home, as it was too far away and he would catch me for sure.  Instead I ran toward the swings and the slide.  Kids seem to figure out pretty early that playground slides are an excellent tactical position; once you’ve climbed the stairs of the slide and are safely perched atop it, others trying to get at you will have a tough time; if they try to come up the stairs, you can just slide down, then as they are coming down, you can go back up.  This is not a foolproof system, but it does buy time, and so it was to the slide that I presently ran.  And I made it to the landing at the top, swiveled around, scanning for the boy.  Sure enough, there he was, ten yards away, in front of the slide itself, as though I might be foolish enough of a child to just see a slide and go down it; as though I would have some Pavlovian play response.  He stood there grinning like the Devil himself, like he wanted to kill me.  And at that moment I believed he would.

As far as I knew, I was not just in some childhood tale of woe.  I was in a fight for my life, and I knew nothing about fighting.  I was a tiny kid by any standard.  Short, skinny.  I was also quiet, shy, a little withdrawn.  Nothing had prepared me for a moment like this.  I knew to go to the slide by watching other boys fight during recess.  It’s been largely my experience that contrary to what is portrayed in films and television, boys typically avoid beating up small boys.  It does little to advance their hierarchical positions and may even make them seem weak.  Up until this day in the church yard, I’d been left alone.

I held my ground on the slide fairly well.  He came up a few times, I escaped down the slide, and then I made it back up again after he came down after me.  A few times, as he lurked below, simply watching me atop the slide, I called down to him, asking him why he was doing this.  I imagine it must have sounded pathetic, pleading, like a man begging his executioner for his life when he knows he’s doomed.  I pleaded my innocence and the senselessness of what he was doing.  I did cry.  He was sinister.  Truly sinister.

After an interminable amount of time, he did a perplexing thing.  He sat on one of the swings that was directly beside the slide, and he started swinging.  I was, however, only perplexed for a short time.  I saw the ruse.  I would either think he was done with the attack and try to leave, whenupon he would murder me, or I’d actually go sit on the other swing to swing with him, whenupon he’d murder me.  I decided I could do neither, and so I simply continued to stand atop the slide, watching him swing.  It felt like days passed.  I wasn’t sure if maybe I could actually die atop the slide merely from the passage of time.  It seemed I probably could.  But leaving the safety of the slide also equaled death.  My young mind swam.

I finally made a run for it.  I wooshed down the slide steps, through the lawn of the playground area, onto the newly built, woodsmelling porch of the Newville Area Senior Center (an old house that stood and still stands on the church property), around the side of the Senior Center and into the bush-lined, circular sidewalk toward Big Spring Avenue.  Only about thirty more feet of church yard to go!  I could see Big Spring Avenue, and the houses that lined the street!  Civilization, and grown-ups, and policemen inhabited that street.  Certainly I couldn’t be killed within sight of the street!

But then he hit me from behind.  I catapulted through the bushes, off the Senior Center’s sidewalk, and out of sight of the street.  And then he was upon me.

He had me in a headlock.  I’d never been in a headlock before—at least, not one that was meant to hurt—and so I was confused.  There’s not much worse than being confused, hurt, and restrained all at the same time.  Especially when you’re seven years old.  But he was also seven—a thought that hasn’t occurred to me until just now.  How two boys can have such different breadths of experience with headlocks mystifies me.

I couldn’t breathe.  He had all his weight on me.  I was crying without breathing, the most alarming bout of terror I have ever experienced sweeping over me.  Here was death, here was the end.  I did not think of any of the cliché things dying folks supposedly think about.  I simply thought how horrible dying was going to be.  I was pretty sure nothing happened after you died—nothing at all.  Just an infinite blackness.  Why would he do this to me?  I had just been playing with my ball.

And then it was over.  He was off me.  I still don’t know how or why.  I never saw him get off me, or waited to speak to him.  When I felt him release me, I got up and ran as fast as I possibly could toward home, which was only one block away but to a seven year old it’s a decent little distance.  I was crying so hard I thought I’d throw up.  I was so mad, and sad, and confused.  Then, as now, being made helpless is about as bad as it gets.

I hated him for showing me that for the first time.  As I ran, I thought of the most horrible things a seven year old can conjure and wished they were at my command:  the light that shines on nothing, the mirror that reflects only another mirror, the fruit that ate itself.  These things were worse than helpless, they were hopeless, and I would engulf the world with them.

When I got home, Mom was working in the garden out back.  I hugged her so hard and cried so hard.  So much of my life has been about fear: about how much I had or how much I didn’t have.

6.

I was born on a frigid Friday in January of 1978.  There was a snowstorm, this much I know because the story is often told by my family.  It was snowing and maybe somewhat icy that day and it was a treacherous trip to the hospital.  Many of the finer details have been lost to time.  It seems as though maybe my father stayed home with my older sister–she also famously fell on some ice on the day of my birth, when she was home with Dad–but I have always got conflicting stories about when and how everyone arrived at the hospital.  It was cold.  It was snowy.  All these people that would become my family were probably very nervous and confused.  How challenging to think there was a day when you weren’t here, and the next day, you were.  Or: one hour you aren’t here, and the next hour, you are.  All crying and red and scrunched-up, a big ball of mushed-up senses.  You just…popped into existence.

7.

On this gloriously sunny and hot day just a little under a year ago, I found myself at a park about an hour from where I live, with the woman of my dreams and a delightful young boy. The boy is her son, who I am helping to raise, both of whom I found myself suddenly and joyfully living with. On this day, it’s a weekend that we all have off together, and my love has found this fantastic event for us to attend, a kind of history-themed craft and art fair. I have not been playing the role of family man for very long at this point, but already I know that this is what I want, what I need in order to become me, the real version of me. We walk together as a unit, commenting on the smell of the french fries, or the historical paintings made by local artisans. When our little man wanders away, I chase after him as he giggles, imploring him in a high-pitched comedic tone not to run too fast. My lady love buys me iced coffee, holds my hand tightly. We stop at the little kids’ events, little painting and craft tables, things where you spin wheels and automatically win tchotchkes. I love seeing his face light up, and I revel in taking pictures of her with him, as they are experiencing things together. In previous versions of my life, I would’ve come to this fair by myself, taking it in almost as a cultural anthropologist, loving the fact that I was able to be so alone amongst so many people. But here and now, I don’t miss that. I wonder who I was then, how was I like that? These two people are everything I could ever want. Eventually we make our way to one of the smaller event stages, where representatives from our local zoo will be bringing out animals to show kids. First there is a falcon, and the three of us, in the front row, are rightly impressed.  One after another more animals come out, and he shrieks, sits on her lap and then mine, and she leans into the crook of my neck, I can feel her smile against my skin, and when the zookeeper brings out the snake and walks just a few feet from us with it and the boy surprises us by saying snake, she squeezes my hand even tighter, we are so surprised together, and he squirms on my lap and coos at the animals, and I can feel myself, with such absolute astonishment, being born.

11 Responses to “Origin Story, or: Where I Started”

  1. Adrienne McGuire Says:

    Loved this. I hate that story about you getting beat up – did you ever find out why he decided to do it?

    • sethdellinger Says:

      Nope. He was just an asshole, I guess!

      • Wonderful Sunday morning read! I hesitate to make the following observations because you may, on your own come to them in your own time. Here goes:
        1. It is horrifying to think about what makes a seven year old boy into a vicious “asshole” of a bully. From personal and professional experience, I am 99.9% sure that the terror you experienced in the churchyard that day was only a glimpse into the experience that boy lived every day.
        I’m not trying to minimize the trauma of your experience in any way.
        Just mentioning that there is a difference between a boy who has a safe place to call home, and one who does not.
        The difference between a baby whose family finds joy in the retelling of the circumstances of his birth, and one who may have been told that he was a “mistake”. A difference between one who becomes a resilient, mindful, loving and responsible adult, waiting for maturity to venture into the joys parenthood, and one who becomes, without extreme intervention, a dysfunctional, violent, irresponsible “asshole” who perpetuates the cycle of child abuse.

        2. When my mother was getting ready to donate many of my father’s books, clothes and tchatchkes to Goodwill after his death, I rescued almost all of the books, and some other very cool retro stuff. I actually read all of the books I took, a little every day, which took me a couple years. It was a very comforting part of the grief process.

        Wow – I better stop before I get carried away and someone tells me to get my own blog! I guess you inspired me a little.

        • sethdellinger Says:

          You’re right, of course–my reply to my sister is clearly flippant and ill-conceived. Of course I have empathy for any kid undergoing a difficult childhood, and am obviously a little biased about such a formative experience of my own. However, it would be considerably easier to remove myself from the situation if he had just beaten me up and gotten on with it, but his prolonged terrorizing of me that day turns the screw a little bit.

  2. Kiwi Warch-ch-chia Says:

    You continue to floor me. Your writing is so enjoyable that it almost seems like it should be bad for me. Like, not crystal meth bad, but cheesecake bad.

    Side note- find out where that 7 year old boy is today. I’m not asking for any specific reason, and I totally don’t know how to make pipe bombs, if anyone asks.

    • sethdellinger Says:

      Thank you so much for your kind words! You know they fuel me :)

      As for the second comment…this being a publicly available document, I must inform you I in no way condone violence or the use of bombs.

  3. That was totally enjoyable!!!

  4. Kyle Sundgren Says:

    Blogs! They happen so rarely these days I forget how to do them.

    Why couldn’t you get one beer? Did you want another 40 or a single bottle? Call Darius (Rucker, no doubt) and ask why he dismissed you so easily.

    I remember your getting beat up story, but last time it was posted I think you stopped with your dilemma atop the slide and never let us readers know how you ended that terrible experience. I found myself losing my own oxygen as I read about the headlock in the bushes afterward.

    Zayden’s more brave then me if his reaction to seeing a snake is to merely say the animal type that it is. My reaction would be to quickly get up and head for the parking lot.

    • sethdellinger Says:

      Whatever dude–I still post at least SOMETHING at least once every two weeks; blogs aren’t dead! They’re just not huge like they were, but plenty of people are still keeping theirs alive and well :)

      Specific liquor laws vary state to state; here in PA you can’t just buy one can or bottle of beer and take it out of the bar with you. Naturally you can buy one beer IN the bar, but not “to go”. Having grown up in PA it now seems absurd to think you could do such a thing!

      Zayden is scared of ghosts and sometimes the dark, but literally nothing else. This is actually somewhat troubling haha

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