by DCH Park
He looked around. He was at work. He remembered this job. It was from several years ago. He was wearing a suit and tie and talking with a friend from school. They were in grad school together. They were both working as part time consultants in one of the prestigious firms downtown. They both had the same title but he had been in the job longer and had more responsibility.
Keith, his friend, had just told him his hourly rate. It was almost double his own rate. He hadn’t asked for the information. Keith had just volunteered it.
At a loss for words, he thought back to the interview process. He had submitted his resume and gone through several interviews – all standard for graduate students looking for part time work. The company had made an offer which was a little better than the going rate. He’d accepted, thinking that he was doing well. Now Keith had told him that he had been offered almost twice as much to do the same job. It didn’t seem right.
“That much? Really?”
“Yeah. Their idea of ‘fair compensation’ is really whacked. I thought you should know.”
“Thanks,” his head was still reeling. He had heard of this sort of thing but he hadn’t knowingly encountered it before. Here it was in “white collar America.” The only thing that he could put his finger on to “account” for the difference was race. That didn’t seem germane but the difference was something to consider. He wondered what else they were hiding from him. Then a thought occurred to him. How well did he know Keith? Maybe Keith was lying to him so that he would say something and get into trouble.
On the other hand, if Keith hadn’t been lying, he didn’t want to say anything that might hurt his friend. He wondered if secrecy benefited anyone in the end. Wasn’t transparency better?
Keith asked, “What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know,” he responded.
The sense of injustice and indignity still burned in him. He remembered the incident clearly, feeling immersed in it all over again. At the same time, he watched it unfold as if it was happening to someone else. He was in it at the same time he was outside of it, watching the tableau unfold. Did his attachment to his emotions keep his memory alive somehow?
He wondered if there was anything else to remember. He opened himself to whatever else there might be. Suddenly the scene changed.
He found himself in a corridor on a bright day wearing different clothes. Instead of a suit, he wore jeans, a loose, cotton shirt open at the collar, and sneakers. He could also see straps and feel them digging into his shoulders. He was in high school. It was the end of the day and buses were lined up waiting for kids. There was shouting and energetic bustling and rushing about.
In contrast to the noise made by the kids, the buses stood in a silent row. He left the corridor and walked out to his bus. The books in his pack dug into his back, threatening to pull him over. The image of him bending backwards under the weight of his pack kept playing through his mind…
The books were dense and bulky and heavy – too heavy and bulky to carry them all under his arm but he needed them all for his homework. That was why he needed the backpack. Nevertheless there were kids who didn’t seem to have many books at all. How did they do it, he wondered.
He found his bus, climbed into it, went to a seat about three-quarters of the way back from which he could watch most of the activity, and sat down. He thought about putting his pack on the seat next to him but thought better of it and put it on the floor, between his feet, instead.
He surreptitiously looked at the floor before he lowered his pack the last inch. He always wondered if the floor was clean and what had been thrown on it. This one looked clean. The school bus always did. Nevertheless, he speculated on what might have been spilled or thrown on the floor and what might be in the grit that he always expected to find there and never did.
Thoughts about the floor left him almost as soon as he felt the nylon fabric of the backpack come to rest. He knew that although the bus would fill up to capacity before it left, many kids lived within a mile of the school and would be getting off soon. There would be plenty of free seats shortly.
He watched the other kids climbing onto the bus with a sense of uninvolved interest, the way an anthropologist might people-watch. He noted the fashions they wore and how what they wore and how much energy they put into their appearance seemed to be dictated by what they considered important. He idly mused about using those differences to bring people closer together rather than to define and vilify an out-group. This led him to feel into the nature of vilification. How does one vilify? What does it mean to vilify? Does it change things? Is there a difference between what someone else does to you and what you do to yourself?
Soon enough, the bus was filled, the doors were closed, and it rolled off with all the others. It kept its place in line to the edge of the school property and then turned left at the corner while the one behind it went in a different direction. The bus went down the main street for a short distance and then turned right to go to its first stop.
About halfway up the hill, it stopped on a quiet street to let several kids off. The leaves of trees from opposite sides of the street mingled overhead as their branches merged, making a dappled tunnel that the bus rolled down. It made several more stops as it wended its way through the neighborhood emerging on the other side of the hill. It turned right onto a major road and traveled a short distance before turning left into another neighborhood.
The bus was less than half full when it made the turn, making it easy to see everyone left. There was a girl sitting a few seats ahead of him and across the aisle. Her jet black hair bobbed and bounced with the bus and her head movements. He couldn’t see her face but he was sure it was her. She was sharing her seat with another girl. The two of them sat on a lone island in a sea of empty seats. She was chatting away with her friend, apparently oblivious to the bus and hadn’t noticed him or maybe she had and thought it wasn’t worth acknowledging him.
He gazed at her and imagined touching her hair. He remembered trying to begin a conversation with her many times. He had tried to be sincere and show her that he thought about things deeply and strove for original thoughts. He indicated that he appreciated originality and creativity and asked her what she thought but she didn’t appreciate that. It only seemed to make her laugh more.
Once he had worked up the courage to slip a poem of his into her locker between classes. Later he found her reading the poem aloud to her friends. She saw him and pointed him out, laughing. He melted back into the rushing hallway, feeling confused.
He stopped himself and felt into his memory again. It wasn’t shame, anger, fear, or numbness that he felt. It was confusion. This surprised him. Perhaps his emotion had changed, perhaps he felt something different in retrospect than what he did at the time, but this was the feeling he’d brought back. He decided to accept his feelings for what they were and continue his exploration of what came up.
He felt into why he was confused. He sought to feel the whole thing, not just the most poignant parts of what he felt. He realized that he couldn’t feel the whole thing as long as he was focused on part of the whole so he opened himself to all of the confusion. He watched himself feel one thing after another. It was curious to witness himself feeling it and feel it at the same time. But he was vast, even if he only thought about himself that way in jest.
His goal was to get beyond the emotion so he could see what else it brought up and the quickest, maybe the only, way to the other side was to go through it. Without getting beyond the emotion, he knew, anything that came up would probably be incomplete or misleading. Interestingly, witnessing himself feel was enough. It allowed him to feel the whole thing.
Once he got past the image of the dark-haired girl and what it brought up, he found himself walking through a mall with a different former girlfriend. It was long after grad school and they had been living together for several years. They had met in a different city and she had followed him when he moved. That had been several years earlier. Now, she was in the midst of breaking up with him.
“So on a scale from 1 to 10, how would you rate him?”
She protested, “I’m not very good with numbers!”
“I understand,” he pushed. “What would you say? What’s the first number that comes to mind when you think of him?”
“Eleven!” She smiled when she said it and a glowing warmth vibrated in her eyes and her voice.
Bearhug saw all this and felt the change in her energy. “What would you say I am?”
“I’m not good at numbers!”
“Just say it.”
He was expecting an eight, considering her obvious infatuation. Maybe she would rate him a seven, he thought, but rating him a six seemed cruel. He didn’t even think it was true. He guessed that she would have rated him higher when they first met or when she left her friends and home to be with him. They walked in silence for a while.
He remembered when they had first met. They were both tutors in their graduate programs, he in math, she in English and writing. She had seemed so poised and exotic, with her helmet of straight black hair and chocolate skin, that he had literally found it hard to breathe. He wooed her with flowers, books, and poetry. At one point, he left her a single red rose with a card that said, “For you, an American Beauty.”
Now she was characterizing him to be half as attractive as someone whom she had met in the remedial reading class she taught at the local college. His brain had been damaged chemically when he was a fetus and as an adult he was mildly retarded. This was the person whom she swooned over.
He let the tide of anger and rejection wash over him. Would he always be rejected and betrayed by the ones he loved? Was he missing something? Was there some clue or combination of hints that indicated that someone was trustworthy?
He took a deep breath as that emotion receded like the waves he used to dive under. He floated in the calm between waves. It was like the pause between breaths.
He suddenly recalled a scene in the middle of winter. There was a trace of snow on the ground and patches of ice were on the roadway. He was standing at the corner, waiting for his bus. He was in the first year of high school. There were several other kids at the bus stop, including the dark-haired girl, though he hadn’t spoken to her yet in this memory.
Most of the kids were known for smoking, drinking, having sex, and other forms of rebellion. Their clothing was either too revealing or tended toward the black leather and blue jean motorcycle-hood-look in spite of the relatively well-off suburban neighborhood they lived in. Each of the kids stood in the cold alone, apart from the others. They didn’t talk. They stuffed their hands into their pockets and instinctively tried to present as small an area as possible to the cold. The smokers puffed on their cigarettes to warm their faces. Each one suffered separately, waiting for the bus and its heat to arrive.
Bearhug looked at this scene and thought that it was silly and unnecessary. He gathered a small pile of wood chips and sticks from the occasional detritus that lined the road and chose his spot on the curving curb so that the slight wind blew through it but not too much. He leaned some of the smaller sticks against the curb. Ignoring the scoffing and laughter from the other kids, he produced a lighter from his pocket, turned the flame setting on high, and held the flame beneath the little lean-to.
As the smaller sticks caught and he fed gradually larger pieces to the fire, it gave off warmth in a cheery little circle. The scoffing ceased immediately and the other kids crowded around the fire, extending their hands to warm them. Several kids stood around the little fire while one crouched down to feed it. The fire cracked and danced, as fires do, warming them all against the winter’s cold reach.
When the bus finally came, the other kids vanished into its crowded warmth without any acknowledgment or word of thanks, leaving Bearhug alone with the fire. The bus driver waited silently and watched him through the open door. Bearhug stamped the fire out, trusting that any remaining embers would die on the cold asphalt, turned, and climbed up into the bus. The driver pulled a silver handle and the doors swung closed behind him, sealing him in with the dim shadows of the bus.
Bearhug found himself floating in darkness. The next image came almost immediately. It felt different. He was inside the house. He knew without looking that it was nighttime and it was cold outside. He was a young child of 6 or 7. He could smell the pine in the air. They had a huge Christmas tree and all sorts of decorations about the front of the house. The tree itself had lines of lights, bulbs, tinsel icicles, candy canes, and strings of popcorn on it. A big blanket was spread on the floor under the tree, though it was empty.
Food was plentiful, which wasn’t out of the ordinary, but the types of food were different. They had a bucket full of nuts which had a center stalk with holes for a nutcracker and several nut picks to stand up in. When the bucket came out over the holidays, it never seemed to empty no matter how many nuts he ate. Candies appeared in abundance. There were hard candies of various types and flavors, chocolate, and sesame candies made of honey and sesame seeds. He remembered sucking a candy cane down to a sharp point once. He poked himself on the tongue with that sharp point.
Generally it was a happy time but several times each year his mother roasted chestnuts in the oven. He remembered how the smell of them would permeate the whole house and linger. It was horrible. He remembered the sensation of being cut by the smell. It would lay him open, starting at his nose and cutting through flesh and bone relentlessly until he was a raw, twitching nerve. It cut over and over like a thin paper razor that didn’t cut deeply but didn’t stop cutting so that cut after cut penetrated deeper and deeper. It kept going until the constant annoyance was all that he could think of and then it would cut some more.
“Mom, I hate chestnuts!”
He couldn’t remember his mother ever saying anything in response but he could picture her smiling. She continued to roast chestnuts several times each holiday season and she ate them with relish. She didn’t care that he suffered. Perhaps she didn’t believe him. Perhaps she thought that he was lying to control her actions. At any rate, she didn’t change her behavior to eliminate the smell. It almost seemed like she did the opposite.
Eventually, he gave up saying anything or trying to let her know how much the smell of roasting chestnuts bothered him. It had always been a part of the holidays for him. He couldn’t remember a childhood holiday when he didn’t feel physically ill from the smell of chestnuts.
Eating them seemed like a minor pleasure for his mother while he felt as if the smell sliced through his head and drove nails through his brain. He accepted that his mother didn’t care how he felt or didn’t hear him of believe him and that he had to suffer. His protests had no effect on her. He couldn’t remember a time before his mother tortured him with the chestnut smell. There was no single memory but he had a constant feeling of frustration and not being loved or trusted or taken care of. There was a constant sense that he had been let down – not in every part of his life, but in some part of his life, perhaps a hidden part. It had become part of the background of his life. It was the chorus that framed everything else.
When he realized that, the feeling he experienced became himself. He was witnessing himself feel and what he felt was himself. His mother had undeniably done things but what they meant and what he accepted into his view of the world and of himself were up to him.
He had blamed her for victimizing him but maybe she was a victim, too. Based on various things that he had learned about her life after she’d died, he suspected that was true. She’d been deeply scarred by the war and events that preceded it. She’d been torn away from her own parents by the war. Perhaps the torture was her way of making him strong. Perhaps it was an act of love…
In seeing her as another wounded being rather than as a heartless victimizer, his view of her shifted. He saw the divine love in her and that inspired the divine in himself. He saw and responded to the divine person, not to her actions or his own expectations.
He brought the strength, courage, and understanding from his adult self into the pain and frustration perpetuated by his younger self. By honestly noting and acknowledging the pain and frustration, he accepted them. And by accepting them, by hearing them, they were transformed into what they were – wounds that cried out for acceptance and love. And he had that acceptance and love in abundance. That was the gift of his divine self. In this way, the pain and frustration were transcended but the energy and exuberance of youth were retained.
He returned to the clearing and saw that he was alone. He didn’t see his friend anywhere. He felt at peace. He sat in the clearing and enjoyed the forest and the feeling within him. The sense of frustration was gone. More importantly, the thing that had been hanging over his head didn’t seem to be there any longer. He hadn’t even noticed it was there until it was gone. He felt more complete than he had in a long time and knew that over time he would grow to feel even more complete. He stretched and yawned. He stood up and staggered a step or two noting with some surprise that he felt no tingling or tiredness. On the contrary, he felt energized. He felt lighter and more at ease.
He looked around and saw a path right in front of him that hadn’t been there before – at least he hadn’t seen it. He remembered his original intention to go into town. It looked like the new path was going in the right direction so he followed it. He walked with his eyes open. The fairy city was still present – he could see it whenever he closed his eyes – but it receded into the background. He didn’t know how long he had been in the forest and he wanted to get to the public library before it closed. He must have walked most of the way into town because he only had a little more to go. The weather turned cold again and he stopped to retrieve his warm outer clothing. He came out of the woods suddenly on a quiet side street he had never been down before but the familiar bustle of the town was visible a few blocks over. The sky had cleared and the sun shone brightly overhead.
He headed into town, thinking about his adventure as he walked, hands in his pockets. It was like a hall of mirrors. He remembered stepping between two mirrors once and becoming part of the infinite regress between them. There had been a slight bend to the line of reflections, as if they were sitting on a curve. He let that memory evaporate as he walked on and then recalled playing in the water at the beach as a child. He had swirled and tumbled with the rolling waves. He would let his body go limp and relaxed in the water as waves pushed him into shore.
Remarkably, by relaxing his muscles and letting go of his will, he always flowed with the water back to shore, though it probably looked pretty bad and he always got water and sand in his ears. He smiled remembering. Sometimes his neck or back would make a loud cracking noise like something was breaking as the water bent him into various shapes but he would always be unhurt and his muscles felt looser afterward. He never hit bottom, at least not hard enough to do any damage.
He knew that he wasn’t done. But he sensed that whatever emotions were next were still too tightly wound up – like tangles in a ball of string – but with time, patience, and witnessing awareness, he knew they would relax like a new flower opens in the spring or a seed softens in water.
© 2015, David Park. All Rights Reserved.
”Bearhug – Part 2″ by DCH Park is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.