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Our Boys Speak

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About The Author

John Nikkah

John Nikkah is a graduate student in clinical psychology at the New School for Social Research in New York City. His clinical and research experience includes working with adolescents as an assistant recreational therapist at the New York Hospital/Cornell Medical Center.

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Our Boys Speak
Part I
Our Inner Circle
In You We Trust
MANY OF YOU are going to be shocked by what I'm about to say, just because it is an extremely uncommon sentiment, but here it goes: I cannot think of one bad thing to say about my parents.
Now don't get me wrong, it's not as if there's never been any discord between us. Sure, we've had our share of disagreements, times when I would have gladly stomped out of the house or thrown a vase at the TV. But I never did do that. Why? Simply because I always knew that no matter what the subject of contention, my parents were always arguing from the viewpoint of what they thought was best for me. This made it very difficult ever to stay mad at them for too long.
The truth is that in their relationship with me, my parents have always behaved in the most unselfish manner. For as far back as I can remember, whenever I needed anything, whether it was a ride to soccer practice, help with my schoolwork, or advice on a relationship I was in, they were there for me. Forever putting my needs before their own, my parents acted as if they couldn't truly be happy unless I was.
However, having parents who fit the above profile does haveone main drawback. In a word, guilt. We're talking capital G guilt, colossal with a capital C guilt. No two ways about it, since I had the ideal parents, I had to be the ideal son. That meant never getting into trouble at school, never hanging out with the wrong crowd, and always striving to achieve the best grades.
On the rare occasion that I did transgress the boundaries defining my self-imposed perfection, I suffered great anxiety. The only way to relieve myself of these feelings was to push myself harder and make my parents proud. In essence, the avoidance of guilt acted as the main motivation for my academic and social successes. Anytime I would find myself in circumstances that involved making an important decision, whether it was to take drugs, get into a car with someone who had been drinking, or simply procrastinate when I had to study for finals, I always thought of my parents. What would they want me to do? How would they feel if something harmful happened to me?
Answering these questions was never too difficult; the hard part was actually conforming my behavior to them. Although I've been known to stray from the path that bore my parents' seal of approval, most of the time my course of action has been in tune with their wishes. Frankly, I could not bear to think of the heartache my parents would experience if one of my decisions had had ill-fated consequences. The notion that constantly haunted me when presented with a risky proposition was "My parents have always done their best for me, and this is how I repay them."
My parents were not strict disciplinarians; my choices never reflected a fear of punishment. It has always been the guilt. I tried to think of their well-being over my normal coming-of-age impulses. When contemplating my adolescent years I realized the great influence my parents had on me as well as my attempts to model their own behavior. Our relationship had become wholly symbiotic--it was as if I couldn't truly be happy unless they were.
The bottom line is that no matter how flawless our relationships with our parents are, the absence of conflict can be a problem in its own right. Take the essay "Dysfunctional Mediocrity" from Chey Pesko, for example. The writer sets up the story as he would a movie. His poker buddies are the ones with the "real" problems. Chey is just an observer, watching the action from a safe distance. In his poker game, good families are as rare as good hands, and Chey feels as guilty as if he'd cheated misfortune at his friends' expense.
The next story, "The Game," by Joel Ashcraft, also depicts a happy childhood. Joel talks about how his relationship with his father has enriched his upbringing, instead of focusing on the ways in which this bond might have alienated him from some of his less fortunate peers. In fact, while there is indeed a downside to growing up without any major family turmoil, the stability and joy that a solid family provides are priceless treasures that Joel, much like myself, wouldn't trade for the world.
In writing the pieces that appear in this book, many of the boys were very open about the problems afflicting their homes. Of course, such uncensored self-expression is the exception rather than the rule when it comes to our behavior in the real world. Whether our home life is "satisfying" or "dysfunctional," we all see our own families as somehow abnormal, and live in fear lest someone discover our dreadful secret. After requesting that his last name be kept anonymous, Jason describes a typical scene at his besieged household in "America the Beautiful." While the chaotic scene should strike a chord with anyone whose house is ruled by pain, anger, and resentment, it's Jason's ability to see past his own selfish needs and empathize with the rest of his family that makes this story so excruciatingly heart-wrenching.
The poem "Junkyard," by Mike Grohsman, picks up where the preceding selection leaves off. As his childhood lies dying a painful death, the speaker explores issues of abandomentand loss. He is unable to save himself, and has long since given up any hope of his family coming to his rescue. Unwilling to blame his father, Mike gives him credit for trying his best. But in the end, he believes that both of his parents turn a deaf ear to his distressing cries for help.
The next story probes beneath the surface of a family home to find a morass of secrets and lies. Dave Langley's essay "My Dad's Trippy Psychedelic Room" probes into the dark corners of the family basement, where he discovers his father, a war veteran, reenacting a scene from his days in the service. Scared and confused at what he finds, Dave runs away from the sight of his father's pain. While Dave is unable to understand his father's experiences during the war, what is particularly sad is how father and son deal with the aftermath. Unable to discuss the occurrence openly, the grown man and the little kid both choose to pretend as if nothing had happened and go about playing the part of a "normal" family.
Of course, all families have their share of problems, but the next stories dealing with divorce and single-family households reveal issues specific to children of broken homes. Jeffrey Dussich's "13 to 40" is one of the most insightful and painful accounts of divorce that I have ever heard. As it chronicles how he was forced to grow up too fast and adopt the role of "referee," Jeffrey's tale of struggle reveals the ravaging effects that an acrimonious divorce can have on kids of any age.
The next memoir, "The Hard Side of Life," also provides a rare look into the life of a troubled family. Shuffled between his biological mother and various foster homes, the writer is the victim of senseless abuse and perpetual loneliness. His quest to find a real home has yet to end, but we pray that he will one day find the love and support he deserves.
The last essay comes from Robert. It is through his eyes and painful experience that we can finally come to understand that he is not unique. Millions of young boys like him are left to fend for themselves. And without the proper parental figuresto guide their way, they end up dealing drugs, abusing illegal substances, committing crimes, and landing up in jail. Fortunately, Robert's story has a happy ending--the perfect ending for this chapter.
Chey Pesko, 18, Wantage, New Jersey
What a shot this would be--I mean, if anyone I knew ever saw me where I am now, I would be categorized as some prime-time junky from some life beyond reproach. I mean, this is a scene right out of some cheap mobster movie. First, the slow circular pan of the apartment, which reveals scattered garments and an occasional beer stain on the carpet, not to mention accumulated dust in hard-to-reach places. A table made of finished oak comes into focus.
Ambient movement interrupts the silence of the large room, as the pan continues from each tightly situated chair to the next, revealing one new face after another until completing the journey, coming into focus on the five individuals chattering like angry penguins. The dim, depressing lights leave grim shadows on each figure's face, leaving specific features like eye color and complexion just out of visual reach. The familiar stench of multi-brand tobaccos, ranging from the trendy GPC brand cigarettes to the wooden-tipped Jewel brand cigars, completes the mood for the attendees of this gathering. Zooming in on the blackened ashtray, there is still physical evidence of a previous encounter of sloth and ill demeanor with the carcasses of old, half-smoked butts, each with its own unique past.
The jagged cut to the next shot imparts meaning to the whole tomfoolery of the scene. A single pack of Juggler playingcards rests on the table, sitting vertically, as if attentive and listening to every word pouring from the flamboyant table. A pair of eyes fixate on the anxious deck of cards and, as if in slow motion, a clammy hand crawls its way over to retrieve them. The stage was set, the effects were right on, and, as if a quiet voice whispered into my subconscious, "ACTION," the table exploded into a lawsuit waiting to happen.
"Five card poker, jokers wild," announced the dealer as he looked blankly in front of him.
"I think we all already knew that, Jim," a voice answered back from across the table, in megaphone format. "We've only been playing the same game, every Saturday, every month, for the past year!"
Jim looked across the smoky table and eyed the dim face staring back. It was Matt, a tall, lanky teen who lived in this apartment with his father.
"It's expected of the dealer to announce the game before any cards are dealt," Jim barked back in defense. "It's the cardinal rule of the Dealer Guild."
I couldn't help but chuckle at that remark.
Jim quickly glanced at me, before turning his eyes back on Matt. The remaining two individuals at the table, who to this point had stayed out of the ordeal, both let out strange half-laughs.
"What's so funny?" Jim said immediately. He looked like he was getting agitated. His eyes darted about the table, looking each of us in the eyes. He began to breathe heavier, like an old vacuum cleaner. His face was turning a tinted pink.
I immediately ceased my amused behavior and slowly leaned back into a relaxed position in my chair. Jim was about to blow.
"Well, I'm a member of the Bullshit Guild, and I say you're full of shit," Matt barked back like a junkyard dog. He started smiling and leaned back on the rear legs of his chair.
Jim jumped to his feet. What happened next occurred in a matter of seconds, but the events seemed to unfold in slowmotion, with each movement enhanced and magnified to the smallest detail.
I watched as Matt's facial expression morphed from one of glee to puzzlement. His eyes squinted and his jaw seemed to drop to a level. Jim clasped the nearest inanimate object, the Juggler card deck. I was amazed at his form when he wound up his arm like a real-time major league baseball pitcher. His long arm extended and the force of fifty-four tightly packed cards shot from his sleeve like a cannon. His wrist added a sick twist to the aerodynamics of the rectangular deck, sending it spinning wildly like a Chinese star. The deck homed in on Matt's noggin, striking him in the center portion of his forehead. Still practicing his chair-balancing technique, Matt fell victim to gravity as the force of the deck sent him reeling back, arms and legs flailing wildly. I stood up just in time to see Matt's impact with the red carpeted floor. The room went silent and the scene then seemed to be put on pause.
Jim quickly attempted to compensate for the outburst by walking around the table to where Matt was lying totally sprawled out and looking at the ceiling. I also inched my way over to the crime scene.
"Why ... did you do that?" Matt asked the air in front of him. There was a red blemish on his head, which appeared to be the extent of the physical damage. I reached for the deck of cards, which had landed a few feet away after it ricocheted off Matt's cranium.
Jim grasped Matt's arm, raising him to his feet. "I'm ... I'm sorry. I just ..."
He was quickly but politely interrupted. "I know you're sorry, but that's not what I asked. I'm looking for a 'why.'" There was a pause. "We've always joked like this."
Matt picked up his chair and sat down. Jim stood in front of him, like a criminal being questioned in court. Without answering, he turned and slunk his way back to his chair at the table. I mimicked his actions, and sat down myself. Lifting thecover of the deck, I removed the set of cards from within. A joker was on top.
Finally, Jim sighed and began to speak. "Man, when everyone was laughing at me I felt like a damn idiot. And there you were, the ringleader, orchestrating the whole thing."
I watched them closely. They were looking at each other, and the other two were busy talking about some freshmen girls, and how it "just wasn't right" for seniors to hook up with them. We were all seniors at the table, but they were speaking for themselves. I dropped the joker into my lap and began shuffling the cards on the table.
"I get enough of it at home. You know the way my dad is. Whenever anyone is over, he makes a damn fool of me."
"'You're lying out yer' ass,'" Matt mimicked, trying to portray the sound of Jim's father. "I got ya. I guess it's me who should be saying sorry. Let's play some cards."
"What game?" I asked, smiling sinisterly.
Matt shook his head at me, and smiled a little. Jim actually smiled, too. Jack and Drew, who had been engulfed in their own conversation, both looked up. Jack pulled out a pack of cigarettes, took one, and threw the crinkled soft pack at Matt. Helping himself, he then threw the pack to me. I pulled a thin body from the near empty pack and continued the rotation. I pulled a Zippo from my pocket, lit the cigarette, and put it on the table.
"Bets," I announced. I fondled the lighter and studied it closely. It was black and well worn in. It had been through a lot; it had been with me when I moved, it had been lost between the tightest of car seats, and was even in the ocean at one point, when I was in the Bahamas on vacation with my family. Written on it in big red letters outlined in yellow was "POW," like in the old Batman series when the villains were socked in the face. To me, this antique was a symbol of power.
"I don't even feel like going home tonight. I think my dad's home. Can I bunk here tonight?" Jim asked, as he threw a gold-platedmoney clip on the table. It had the initials "J. R." on it. Joe Richards, I thought to myself, "'Jim's dad!'"
"Yeah, why not. You know the way it is here," Matt responded in a restrained voice. The smoke from his cigarette was getting in his eyes and they began to tear. I stood the lighter up straight in the center of the table. As my hand retreated back to the deck everyone began digging in coat pockets like pack rats. Drew pulled out a small vodka bottle and rolled it to the center of the table.
I cackled and asked, "Where'd you get that, a hotel mini bar?"
"I stole it from my parents' liquor cabinet," he answered hoarsely.
"I wish to veto your bet, under the cheapness clause," I retorted.
"What's that supposed to mean?" he questioned.
"He means your bet blows. It's worthless," Jack cut in. "I think we're all in agreement here."
Looking around, Drew saw that everyone was nodding. He grabbed his bet and put five silver dollars, which seemed to be pretty old, in its place. He looked at Jack, who seemed amused. "Well, what do you have?"
"I'll find something," Jack responded.
He pulled out a long silver necklace and held it dangling in the light. We were mesmerized. The light danced all over its surface, blinding me when it caught the right angle. I took the last drag of my cigarette and buried it with the rest of the butts in the ashtray.
"What is this?" I yelled with my arms spread wide. "We come here to play some poker every Saturday, and every Saturday you guys use it as a reason to raid jewelry boxes, wallets, and liquor cabinets? What do you have, Matt, your mom's wedding ring?"
Realizing what I was saying, I calmed myself down and smiled like it was a joke. Buying it, they looked at Matt, eagerly,awaiting his bet. He looked at me and got to his feet. He made his way over to his jacket hanging on a hook at the front door and began rummaging in the pockets.
"You could have been a little more prepared," Drew quickly added, as he blew a smoke ring into the smog-filled room. The halo of smoke quickly dissipated into the existing cloud that seemed to hover above his head like a bad conscience.
Matt found what he was looking for and yelled over his shoulder, "Hold on!" He made his way back to the table holding a small black bag with a drawstring, sat down, and started to untie it.
The bag seemed full enough to supply Matt for fifty hands of poker. I was getting frustrated with the slow pace of things. I looked at the alarm clock sitting a few feet from me. It was blinking 12:00 midnight. What? These people have no sense of time here?
"C'mon, the suspense is killing me," I laughed. By then his hand was in the bag and he was feeling around. I looked around the table and saw that my friends were experiencing the same anguish as I was. Matt's hand stopped moving and it started to make its way to the brim of the bag.
"I saw this in the front seat of a parked car at the Getty station," he said. "I just had to have it."
I watched Jack's eyes widen, for he was closest to the mysterious bag. In Matt's hand was a small gun, black with a chrome-like grip. I eyed the petite weapon of destruction, and realized that this gadget wouldn't suit a midget, if anyone at all. He put it in the pot, where the rest of the bets were.
"That's no gun!" I exclaimed, grabbing the pistol to further examine it. I caressed the gun's cold grip and took notice of its light weight. I aimed it across the table at a picture on the wall. With the crosshair on a photo of Matt's family at Disney World I pulled the trigger and, as if by magic, a blue and red flame emitted from the barrel. A smile came over my face.
"Now this is a power lighter," I thought out loud, but quiet enough not to attract attention.
I laid it back on the table with the rest of the bets. Although stolen merchandise, the gun lighter captured my undivided attention. Groping the joker in my lap with my left hand I realized that the gun would be mine before the night was over.
The cards flew from my fingertips to each awaiting set of hands. Even I was amazed at my precision. First one, then two, faster and faster until five cards had been distributed to each of us.
"You thought the gun was real?" Matt laughed. He took a stealthy peek at his dealt hand.
"At first," I began, "but only at first." I, too, took a look at my cards. What a hand: a two of diamonds, a queen of hearts, a jack of hearts, a seven of hearts, and a six of hearts. I threw my hand down in disgust.
In all our history of playing, nobody had ever had a decent hand. No royal flush, never five of a kind or full house, merely pairs and triples. We really don't even know the complete rules of poker. We just enjoy the betting.
"I'm out next weekend," Jim said, while signaling me for two cards. I grazed the surface of the deck, sending two cards flying in his direction.
"Watch it. Someone might see 'em," he blurted.
"What's going on next weekend?" Drew said, while raising three fingers. I carefully removed three cards from the deck and placed them in the middle of the table. He snatched them and put his "losers" in a separate pile.
"I've got to go see my mom in Connecticut. She just got engaged."
"It's no big deal," Jack said gruffly, "My dad is remarried and I haven't even met his new little wife."
"You mean your step-mom," Matt added.
"Not the way I see it," Jack said sloppily, launching salivaacross in my direction. Those damn S's always get him, and we have to suffer because of it. He signaled for three and I quickly exchanged them for his discarded cards. The last thing I wanted was for him to speak to me in close quarters and bathe me in his lethal ooze.
"Matt, what do you need?" I asked.
Matt looked up and shook his head.
"I'm good," he responded.
He looked down at his hand and a small discreet smile came over his face. What could he possibly have? I was not about to lose my lighter and that gun in one worthless hand of poker. I quickly discarded my two, six, and seven. I usually stick with royalty, hoping to double or triple up. I grabbed three new cards but didn't look at them.
"I raise," I said bravely, throwing a dollar on the table.
That's the way we usually work. Start out with the big guns and work our way down with smaller bets. I turned to Jim, who seemed a bit bewildered by his own hand.
"Call," he droned, also putting a dollar on the table.
He was obviously out. He was a bad bluffer and everyone knew it. We all smiled at him. I gave him the "cut throat" signal and he snapped.
"I'm dead," he said sheepishly, grabbing his dollar from the pile.
I leaned back in my chair comfortably, knowing that I had one less threat to worry about.
"Raise," Drew said, taking out the vodka bottle again, rolling it back onto the table.
I looked at Jack's face, but his mind was elsewhere.
"You know what's funny. My mom drove my dad and me nuts. And when he left, he didn't even offer to take me," Jack started. "By the way, I fold," he announced as he threw his hand down in front of him.
I stayed silent. I mean, what could I possibly have to say? I couldn't relate. I couldn't relate to any of them. My parentshad been married from the dawn of time. I began to feel a little uncomfortable. I glanced at Matt, who was midway through a yawn.
"Parents are unpredictable," Matt said, as he tossed a fiver onto the pile. "I think they're all crazy. They get together, have kids, and then fight about what to do about them."
He paused and looked down at my hand, which was still clutching my three new cards, still facedown.
"I'm not ever getting married!" he added.
"I hear you," Jim said agreeably.
By this time I was feeling a little nauseated. I made it appear as if I was shifting out of an uncomfortable position, causing my mysterious left hand with the joker to join my right. But just as I was proudly smiling at my own discretion, I looked across the table to see Drew staring at me. Was I busted? I studied every detail on his suspicious face. His thick unibrow slowly turned into a V and a couple of rolls appeared above his nose.
"My dad cheated on my mom," he began, "Isn't that the lowest of lows?"
Was it my imagination or did he put some emphasis on "cheated"? How could he have seen me? I was so smooth! I looked over at Matt, who was smiling at his hand. His bluffs were hard to call.
"Cheaters never prosper. Right, Drew? Your dad was eventually busted, right?" Matt asked.
"Yup," he responded.
Sweat began to bead on my forehead. A drop of perspiration actually rolled off my brow and down to the end of my nose, where it gathered, increased in size, and started to stretch and bob up and down. What would happen if I was caught cheating? It would be the end of poker and trust! The disturbingly large drop broke free finally, falling in front of my face. It homed in on my hand of cards, striking the smiling joker in his little hat. I watched the droplet stream down its face.
"How's your family life?" a voice boomed.
I looked up out of my daze at Drew.
"Who, me?" I asked innocently.
His eyes answered my question and so much more. I felt the sting of resentment on my conscience. I didn't answer. I lowered my hand and dropped a ten of spades in my lap. He was not on to my joker scheme at all, but I began to wish that he was. After all this time, after all the looks and comments, it became apparent why. Every Saturday, every week, we would meet and it was the same thing: home-life horror stories. There I was, the only "normal" one. My parents had a successful marriage, and had successfully raised three children. Family feuding was scarce and there was no hitting or cheating. On weekdays, we would all actually sit down and talk at dinner, the old "how was school?" and "what's new?"
I put my hand of cards down on the table. As I laid them out in a special order, I felt my body go tingly, as if judging eyes were piercing my skin. The cards read, ace of hearts, joker, queen of hearts, jack of hearts, joker.
"Royal flush," I announced barely above a whisper.
As I watched the remaining players at the table hide their cards in embarrassment, I never felt more alone. I felt naked and out of place. I reached out and clasped the pile of weaseled goods with one hand and dragged it in front of me. As I transported the loot bit by bit into my pocket, I heard incoherent voices all around me, like the adults on those Charlie Brown specials. I paid no attention to them. I actually started to wish my family was a little dysfunctional; I wanted a gruesome father to hit me after he drank too much or maybe a cheating mother to resent; perhaps just the acknowledgment that I was a mistake that shouldn't have happened. Then I would have something to talk about with my friends, and then I would be able to relate and talk with them on the same level. Otherwise, I'm the outcast with the irregular family and I'm the one who doesn't fit. Silently contemplating these ideas, Ilook at my friends, one by one, and I come to accept the fact that dysfunctional is now orthodox.
Joel Ashcraft, 17, Congers, New York
My father and I have been playing each other in basketball for as long as I can remember. Growing up, when I was smaller and had basically no skills, he taught me and guided me through the game. Even though he usually beat me, except for the times when he felt sorry for me and would let me win, just so that I would feel better, it was all right, because I was learning. The more and more we played the closer I became with him. Through this game of basketball we grew to be more than father and son, and rather more like friends.
I remember one special day as we were playing out in my driveway, in the quiet suburbs of New York City, when I was about fourteen years old. It was a sunny, spring day, with a slight breeze that made it the perfect temperature to run around. My father and I had been warming up for about fifteen minutes, and were finally ready to play ball. It started as most of our games did with a little trash talking that was all in good fun. I would say something along the lines of, "Come on, old man, you can't keep up with my young legs." And he would come back with, "Yeah, well you wish you could have inherited my great basketball abilities, not to mention my stunning looks," this last remark getting chuckles from both of us. As the game progressed, we started to talk about life in general. The deeper we got into the game and the higher the score climbed, the more serious the talk became. He told me of his experiences as a teenager growing up, and of all the problems that he'd gone through. And I, in turn, told him about whatwas going through my mind and what I had to deal with. Nothing was left out on this day.
On that little driveway that we called a court, I told him everything. I revealed my secrets and had no regrets about it. He was now on the same page as me, and our relationship was the stronger for it. We had come to a mutual understanding, and talked for about an hour afterward. He changed my life that day, showing me that I could be honest with him and that I had nothing to fear if I put my trust in him. Within a matter of two hours, our relationship grew substantially more honest than the average father-son relationship.
In case you're wondering about the outcome of the game, I won. And at that age, this meant a lot. More important, the game marked one of the first times that I really connected with my dad. It wasn't the last. In the two years since that particular game, I've safely confided in him on countless occasions. Whatever conflicts may come my way in my life. I know he'll be there for me through every step of the way.
Jason, 15, California
It's October 29, Friday, and I'm at home because I didn't want to go to school today. Last night, my sister and my father got into a huge fight and my dad threw my sister out of the car. I hate being in the middle of things because there isn't a right or wrong, just some ugly gray shit. We just came back from watching American Beauty and me and my dad were having a discussion about our interpretations of it. My father kept insisting that I couldn't understand all of it because I hadn't lived enough to have the experience to perceive what they were talking about. And I realized he was right, and I told him that hewas. I guess that ticked my sister off, because she's at that age where she believes that we as youth are always right and adults are always wrong. My sister has so much hatred inside of her. Because my mom used to hit her a lot when we were younger, because my father's never been there for her, and because it seems as though my mother pampers me more. She has so much hatred inside of her, all she wants is to rebel, to hurt others like she's been hurt. And she couldn't take it that I was admitting that my father was right. So she started yelling at him, telling him to shut up. My father tried to sweet-talk her into calming down, and telling her that we all had a right to free speech. My sister went off telling my dad how his opinions aren't valid, and how he's stupid and should shut up, and they just went off on each other. Then all of a sudden my dad pulled to the side of the road and kicked her out of the car on the big hill by my house. I dunno who was to blame. My dad has never raised a kid. He's never had the experience of raising a child, and my sister's never known what it's like to have a father. Both of them have their reasons, and there is no right or wrong. My dad and I went back home to the apartment, and I talked to my mom and we went back to look for her. I just assumed that she wouldn't go back home because she was so angry. I'm so stupid and arrogant. Everything I do is because I assume that people would do the same thing as I would. I'm such an arrogant asshole. So my mom kept on looking while all I could do was sit in the car and read my book because I'm a heartless asshole. After a while, my mom couldn't find her, so we went back to the apartment so I could do my homework and my mom could get gas and try to look for her. I'm such an asshole. I walked into the apartment and found my dad yelling at my sister. I walked into my room, sat down and started reading. I just couldn't take it. Then my mom came in the apartment and my sister rushed to her, talking about how my dad kept on hitting her over and over again. I couldn't take it. I couldn't take it. It turns out that my sister walked homeand was about to say sorry to my dad and he hit her. Then she rushed into her room. My dad barged into her room and started to yell at her, and she told him to "get the fuck out." Then my dad just went at her and kept on hitting her. And all the while my sister was explaining to my mom, I just sat there reading. And then I started shaking, all over my body. I couldn't stop it. I put the book down and curled into a ball to try to stop it. Then I burst out crying, because I couldn't take it anymore. I just couldn't hold on to it anymore. It blew up inside of me. And everything rushed back to me, how crappy my life was, everything. The bulimia--yes, I was bulimic for a while--the thoughts of suicide, the depression deep down inside, the suffering, and the sadness of knowing that life is pointless. Then my sister came into my room to go online because she didn't care anymore. My dad just proved to her that her hatred was justified, and she didn't care, she didn't care anymore. All I could do was cry, I felt so naked. So I yelled at her to get out. And I cried for my sister, who doesn't understand my father's suffering and can only feel hatred. I cried for my dad, who lives the loneliest life by himself knowing that he'll never be a success in life, and then comes home to a daughter that can't sympathize with him. I cried for my mother, who has given up on all of her happiness for me, who is consumed by sadness, and my sister, who is consumed by hatred.
Mike Grohsman, 17, Lodi, New Jersey
All of my dreams and smiles Are buried in piles of junk. Nobody tries to clean it up. They just watch it rot.
Every minute that passes by Helps my memories spoil. Dying with each fight, each scream, My childhood fades away.
Mother tried to clean the yard, In the days that passed. Now she doesn't have the time, To keep her family alive.
Father still tries to help out, Despite my mother's torment. He is dumb, but he is kind, Breathing life into what is dead.
A family is a cornerstone, To every sane individual. Where there is no family, There is no happiness.
I am just a battered doll, Thrown around by ignorant kids. When new and clean, I was their love, And now I am a mess.
So here I lie in this junkyard, Decaying and suffering, There's nobody to pick me up, And clean off all the dirt.
The dirt from screams, the scars from tears, They'll always be right here. Even when my family leaves, They will still remain with me.
Dave Langley, 17, Mt. Prospect, Illinois
I first came into this world to join my family in Niles, Illinois, on a street called Ebinger Drive. We didn't stay there very long, but even the short time spent in that house provided me with scores of half-memories. Many of these partial memories relate to specific places in the home, which seemed, at the time, to be an exotic and mysterious place. However, there was one area of the house that brings back the most memories, the basement. It wasn't an especially extravagant room, it had no furnishings, and it was very uninviting, but it fascinated me nonetheless. Basically, it was a dank, empty dungeon, and I found myself intimidated by it.
The strangest part of the basement would have to have been the small, doorless room in the far, dark corner. In place of a door, a cacophony of beads hung menacingly over the frame, swaying gently in the flat, mellow breeze. The beads were enough to keep me away from the room, but sometimes I raised enough courage to push them aside and look inside. Behind the love beads sat a haven for every prog-rock loving, Vietnam veteran American man. My father just so happened to be one of those men. Back in those days, I didn't really know much about Vietnam, but now I have grown to understand it a bit better.
There is one day in particular that I understand now much more than I did back then. It was a cozy, rainy Saturday morning, which meant that my dad would be home all day. After lunch, I began running around the house searching for him, desperately in need of a good game of Mr. Tough Guy. This, of course, is the game where children violently attack their burly father, knowing that they have no chance of hurting him, or even knocking him over. However, on this particular Saturday,I was going to see a side of Mr. Tough Guy that I had never seen before.
After searching through every room on the upper levels of the house, I decided to descend into the depths of Hell. The darkness enveloped the basement in a dark sheath of black, and a strange, radiating, colorful light echoed out of "the room." I slowly shuffled my moccasin-clad feet across the cold concrete floor, until my back pressed gently against the dusty brick wall. Very carefully, I peered around the corner. Not surprisingly, the multicolored strands of hippie beads obstructed my view, so I painstakingly pushed them aside.
I could hardly believe my eyes when I looked inside the psychedelic room. Suddenly, my ears flooded with the sounds of the Moody Blues, and I saw my father wearing his army fatigues, engaged in a violent, jerking dance. Three lava lamps churned away in the corner of the room, as a few small black lights cast an eerie glow on my father's frightening exhibition. Needless to say, I was scared out of my impressionable little mind. Enraptured by my terror, I fell forward and rolled through the entrance of the room.
It took a second for my father to come out of his trance, and when he did, he was none too pleased to see his young son sitting on the green shag rug of his private place. The anger oozed out of his bearded mouth like steam from a boiling pot of water. "David! Get the hell out of here!!! Damn it! Who let you in here!"
His frenzied words brought tears to my eyes, and I scrambled out of the room as he clenched his mighty fist and lifted it into the stale air. I quickly escaped my father's wrath by hightailing it to my own secret place, the crawlspace.
I think I hid in that cramped, musty cave for a few hours. Eventually, I gained the strength to rejoin my family, and when I did, I found my father sitting in his favorite easy chair, wearing regular clothes, reading the sports page. Grabbing a handful of cookies from the kitchen, I stealthily slid down onto thecarpet next to the easy chair and silently read the comics, a restrained laugh held tightly against the back of my teeth.
Jeffrey A. Dussich, 18, Manhasset, New York
13 TO 40
Phone numbers, people's names, directions, or even specific dates are the kinds of things I rarely forget. October 23, 1994, will go down in my mind as undoubtedly the darkest day thus far in my life. I did not know it at the time, but that Sunday night was chapter 1, page 1, of a four-year-long and hurtful novel ironically entitled The Best Times of My Life. Obviously, the cliché used to describe the average teenager's high school experience never applied to me.
I can confidently say that no one enjoyed being a member of our family as much as I did. Although my parents' relationship seemed to be on edge from the beginning, I was more than satisfied with the facade that they created in order to tolerate each other for the most part. A fond memory is of playing football on the beach of our favorite hotel in Florida whenever we would go down there, which was as much as once each month. The teams were my younger brother and father, versus my older brother and me, and during these games my mom would sunbathe on a nearby lounge chair. During dinner in the evening, we would share thoughts and laughs about the day's activities, while showing off our recently tanned skin. This made me happy. Simple? Yes, but it was enough to make me feel secure in this crazy and often cruel world. I think it's easy to see why I enjoyed those football games so much. In a way, those memories are my main connection to the pre-breakdown era, and they have begun to represent true happiness in my life, or at least in my memory. I can smell the ocean and feelthe sand, and now and then I get that feeling in my stomach that occurs after excessive laughter, which was a common aspect of those times. It is now, though, just a memory.
I remember going to school in my brother's car the Monday following that climactic day in my family's life, and luckily his music was deafening or else there would have been some awkward conversation back and forth. I hadn't slept much the night before because I couldn't help but hear the screams of anger and hatred, no matter how hard I pulled the pillow around my head. I heard the accusation but I wasn't ready to accept it, nor was I ready to validate the explanation or excuse. Was it my fault that I found the extra airplane boarding pass? Or was it his fault for leaving it to be so easily found in his pants pocket? I didn't know what to think, nor did I know what to do. All I could do was act as if this whole mess would blow over. Besides, I was still busy trying to make a good, first impression on the new friends whom I met in middle school. Bite my lip and suck it up; I just wanted things to be normal.
It didn't take long, however, for me to realize that this wasn't like any of the other arguments I've witnessed between my parents. My home, which was once a place of comfort and relaxation, turned into an all-out war zone, and the dirtier the attack strategies, the better. The tension made for an unbearable environment, and the mudslinging prevented any sort of frivolity. During the first two of the four years of this dark and ugly period, I refused to stay home from school with an illness, until I was finally hospitalized with bacterial pneumonia.
I couldn't stand the way my parents spoke to each other, and it was even worse when they didn't speak at all. The disgusting behavior soon rubbed off on me. I became bitter and nasty to my younger brother, who was clueless as to what had happened and what the fate of our family was. I don't think I was blaming him, but I used him as an outlet. This situation was affecting every part of my life, from schoolwork to relationships, and I couldn't talk to my usual social shrinks, myparents, because they were the problem. I began to dislike them more and more, and by the end of my seventh-grade year, I didn't even like being around them. I found their method of solving this problem to be childish, as well as extremely selfish.
When my older brother, Joey, left for college in the fall of 1995, the only person I could talk to left with him. My younger brother, James, was still too innocent to understand the details of why Mommy and Daddy were yelling so much. I was thirteen years old at the time, and the next thing I knew, I was the single parent of two bickering children who chronically fought and could not speak to each other like human beings. Literally overnight, I went from thirteen to forty, and suddenly, it seemed as if my emotions didn't really matter.
For the next three years, my position as a mediator presented me with many responsibilities, one of which was to be the official messenger between the two warring generals. I was given letters and verbal "telegrams" by each party to bring to the other, and was expected to bring back a response. I refer to them as parties now because they were no longer parents--they had become merely figures. Don't shoot the messenger? Well I was shot plenty of times in the course of this war. The next responsibility, of course, was to make sure any and all phone conversations and random physical confrontations, (e.g., birthday parties) ran smoothly with little hostility. Unfortunately, this was a job that even I could not successfully complete every time.
The next few years following my metamorphosis from adolescence to middle age are kind of a painful blur. I am not sure, though, if the blur is caused by a subconscious or intentional mental block, or just a result of the many tears that could only be shed late at night when I was relieved of my duties for the evening. I couldn't let my emotional guard down until just recently, when I was positive I wasn't in an extremely vulnerable position. I had involuntarily grown up too quickly. For so long, I'd been putting on a fun-loving and laid-back social face:the kid that everybody liked. Inwardly, though, I was a mess--a wrecking ball of compressed anger.
October 15 of this year marks five years since I first lost my sense of true family. No one enjoyed being a member of my family as much as I did, because I took pride in the fact that we were together as a unit. Now that the divorce is finalized and the dust has settled, I reflect upon the experiences that have left me where I am today. During those especially tough times, I thought I would have surely crumbled, but it gives me a true sense of accomplishment knowing that I stood my ground in what has been characterized by the many overpaid lawyers as a "very ugly divorce." Five years later, I am left with a multitude of unanswered questions and plenty of unresoved issues with my parents and myself, but through all of the hurt and tears, I am proud to say I am still standing and going strong. I do realize, though, that the worst of the worst is behind me. So what if the best years of my life were spent as a referee? It's just a cliché anyway. I believe this was only a test of will, and that the best times are still to come.
Anonymous, 17, Ukiah, California
I never had a father. My biological father left my mother before I was even born. The next man in her life was an abusive drunk. He beat my mother and me often in his drunken rampages. In the end, he tried to shoot me. Luckily, it was with buckshot and only a piece of the shot hit me. A bigger piece hit my best friend. I was only three years old.
After the incident with my mother's boyfriend, I went to a foster home. I stayed there for about a year and then my mother regained custody over me. We had some good timesand she said she would never leave me again. The next thing I knew, she was hooked on heroin and was busted at a dealer's house. When the cops raided the house, they found me, an unconscious five-year-old.
I went to live with a foster family again. The parents of this household were Rhoda and Raymond. I ended up being adopted and living with them for eleven years. I came to love this family as my own. My brother Billy came and lived with us and things were great. Well, things were better than before. I still got beat up, but it was mild compared to the drunken beatings from before.
On December 28 things changed for the worse. My brother and I got into a confrontation with Raymond and his son, Ted. My brother Billy and I ended up leaving and staying with our sister Katherine. Ted threatened our lives and those of people that we cared for, so we left, not wanting to deal with a homicidal maniac.
We stayed with Katherine for about a year and then she got into trouble for having too many people in her house. So I left and stayed with my friend. It was only supposed to be for two weeks, but it's been a year now and I'm still here. My friend ran away but I stayed with his parents. I feel very out of place, but I stay and I wonder what will happen next.
Robert, 18, Redwood Valley, California
I was born August 1981, in Red Bluff, California. My parents moved to Sacramento when I was about one. I am the oldest in my family out of ten brothers and sisters. My family and I went through hard times, living mostly in apartments and some nights having very little to eat.
As a younger kid in elementary school, I shared clothes with my little brother. Even at that age I hung around with "thewrong crowd." My mom told me that, but somehow I felt I belonged in the wrong crowd. I have seen a lot and done a lot of immature things we would consider wrong in today's society. Selling drugs, stealing cars, fighting ... those are just a few of the worst.
As I look back I see that I didn't really accomplish much. Having to look after my younger brothers and sisters gave me a sense of how my mom felt and what she had to go through to raise me. I never again blamed her for the sad times I went through. I tried to make life good for my family, and to protect them from the things that I experienced.
To provide money for my family, I started dealing drugs at the age of sixteen. My father was lazy and didn't want to work and I hated him for it. I couldn't see how he could sit on his ass while his family went without food or clothing.
Around this time, my brothers and sisters got taken away from my parents. The courts decided that my brother and I were too old for a placement home, so he moved to my aunt's house in Covelo and I stayed with my mother and tried to support her during the hard times.
I moved to Covelo in the beginning of 1998. It was then that I got in trouble with the law and was placed in a group home in Redwood Valley. Now I live in a unique environment that supports and looks out for my well-being. The mutual respect that exists at this place has changed my way of thinking. Learning to create deeper relationships has changed my world. Before, my world was a three-block radius in Sacramento, and now I realize that I am capable of anything.
OUR BOYS SPEAK. Copyright © 2000 by John Nikkah. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y 10010.

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