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Going to Chicago

Thursday 1/23/20

Finished the piece on the Netflix Aaron Hernandez series and filed it with The American Interest. Now I am completing--proofing, fixing--the 7500 word essay on moving--or as I say the piece, relocating, which sounds like the more psychologically acute term. I am getting close to being finished. Then I will just do whatever is next here on my list written on a Starbucks napkin. One after another, each unique, each about something completely different than the last, each an entirely different form of writing. But I was struck by this reading it back just now and thought I'd put it up. There is a lot going on here, but largely it is about how my family moved from Connecticut to Chicago after my sophomore year of high school, my loneliness, a form of trauma, the end of my hockey career, and certain discoveries I made about myself and what was always my greatest talent, the direction in which my life would lead. Had always been leading, in a way. Had been leading from the very second of my birth--maybe before that, for all I know.


***


They had largely dissipated by this time, but in my earlier years I suffered from migraines that would leave me in bed for days—blocks of time when I would lose half a week, as if I had entered into a mini-coma. I’d be conscious, but not in the regular way where you note passage of hour, day, a meal missed. I lay in my parents bed, because in my memory, at least, these migraines transpired against a backdrop of warm weather, and they had an air conditioner unit, in those days before central air.


I tried to focus my mind, imagining that my forehead was comprised of a bony road that happened to be sheathed under skin; a good road that would take you where you wished to be, but now the road was clotted with these torturous tiles of ill-fitting sizes, and I required a cutting device, like a lawnmower, to pass over them, through them, sheer them away, restore that road of bone.


I called this mowing the tiles, and when I got older and learned more words, I realized how close my would-be migraine-thwarting technique sounded like the term “motility,” which I understood to be the quality of moving. The link made sense. The migraines may have been no more, but there was still the pain of mowing the tiles, which came with each move.

There had been dread in making the first move to Connecticut, but an adventuring theme—if slight—nonetheless. My dad and I had driven down to Ridgefield together, after my parents bought our house, so I could see it, see the town. Maybe the dry-run of a visit would make matters easier, less of a stunning plunge.


We had no furniture beyond a couple of step stools, only the empty house we’d all be in soon enough. We camped out in the living room, on green carpet, in sleeping bags. I felt like a settler, and the woods were contained within the safety of walls, such that you experienced whatever lurked in shadows, but you had protection, certainty, the relief of a light switch, the sanctuary of being next to someone who loved you and whom you thought looked funny in a sleeping bag. The woods outside—the environs of the town, as glimpsed through the windows of that empty house—felt vaguely master-able; whereas, Chicago felt like a raping.

We moved the summer after my sophomore year of high school. The plan to live with Schiller wasn’t a very whole-hearted one. More like talk as we drove around during our final days together, buds about about to say goodbye. The plan in Chicago was for me to go to an all-boys school, on account that the quality of hockey would be better. I was not an all-boys school kind of guy. Not that I was Mr. Popularity in public school. But there is an even higher clique quotient, it seems, and you’re hardly shocked when you attend such a school that at one time there was a literary sub-genre oriented around the various peer groups and their asinine pecking orders one finds within. Had you told me during my final high school hockey season in Connecticut—say, around Christmas—when I was tearing up the league, that by the next Yule my career as a hockey player would be over, I would have envisioned some horrific injury or grim medical diagnosis. Wasn’t what got me, in the end.


I didn’t have any friends at the school. In fact, in two years, I didn’t once eat lunch in the cafeteria. I never consumed a mouthful of food at the school. I was ostracized from the start. Initially I dominated at hockey. The team had this big-deal first line center—who would go on to play at UNH—and I took his spot. Competition, right? Good stuff. Not really. Popular kid, and he had these friendships that had been intact for years. I was an interloper. Teammates stopped passing me the puck. Parents wouldn’t go near my dad in the stands.


Something began to happen to my game. These kids weren’t as strong as players as the kids back East, but it was like I slowed down. Sometimes, years after, not that it really mattered, because this was not my calling, I’d look back, ask how the pack had caught me, had I put on weight, was it something along those lines? My drive was waning. Meanwhile, I was writing more than ever, reading more than ever, loading my head with knowledge. Studying books, music, films. My dad showed me how to drive to this one strip on Clark Street in downtown Chicago, where all of these record stores were. I strip-mined them for bootlegs LPs of the Beatles at the BBC, the Who tearing it up in America in 1970, the pre-fame Doors at some tiny ballroom in San Francisco.


Instead of eating at school, I’d sit in the library, working on my prose. I took two English classes at once, which no one did, because both had a heavy Shakespeare load, and I wanted to train my mind to leap from a work like Hamlet in fourth period to Cymbeline in fifth. I wanted to keep the lines straight, the works distinct, understand differences. The discipline of autonomy.


I envisioned making thousands of works of art when I was ready, when I was able, but I didn’t aim to be one of those artists who do the same thing, more or less, each time out. No one talked to me save this one kid who got a scholarship to Harvard to play football, a mediocre student. He thought he was doing me a favor by asserting to anyone in the vicinity that if you wanted to talk to someone smart, you should talk to the new kid, he was smarter than the teachers, too, which I’m sure the teachers loved to hear. He died in Mexico on spring break, touched a fence after getting out of a pool and was electrocuted. I’d come home and do six or seven hours of homework, but it went so far beyond what was assigned. A guidance counselor must have gotten word of something, because she told me to chill, essentially, to stop trying to learn so much. I could have spat. I didn’t. I has hanging on to all I had. I was so lonely. I also knew I had abilities unique to me, though I didn’t yet grasp their scope; but for the first time I was realizing that my greatest talents had nothing to do with playing a sport. I quit hockey.