jerġa ‘jibda

I planned my suicide in the spring of 2008, after this happened. I was going to check out before checkout time; fuck the continental breakfast.

Canada’s handgun laws are inconvenient when you want to die. I could take care of this in 20 minutes back in Arizona, I thought, staring resentfully at the billboards looming outside the window of The Worst Apartment Ever (TWAW). Located in Toronto’s Little Malta, TWAE was a cross between a haunted office building and an over-lit dormitory. It was basically one long hallway with my terrifying cokehead roommate at one end and a steep set of stairs at the other. When I went down those stairs and opened the door, I was greeted with an Arctic blast of air, screaming sirens, and usually some guy throwing up behind the bus station. I also saw this:

TWAE had previously been home to several prostitutes, none of whom had informed their extensive clientele that they were relocating. Go figure. So, as I sat there trying to plan my death, I kept getting interrupted by the hopeful, staccato knocks of Little Malta johns. The language barrier meant I had a hard time running them off.

“L-onorevoli marru!” I’d say firmly (“The ladies went away.”) Then I’d trudge back up the stairs and root around in my pile of blankets, trying to get warm. I was working 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. security shifts, living my days backwards, so I’d watch the sunset thinking it was sunrise and vice-versa. I couldn’t tell the difference between beginning and ending; between the start of my days and their close.

I wanted a rest. I wanted not to feel ashamed and alone, and the only way to do that was to put a stop to everything. There’s a difference between wanting things to stop and wanting to die, but you can’t do one without the other unless you know someone willing to put you into a medically-induced coma. I only knew bartenders and freelance writers.

Then, one day, I opened up an e-mail that said my friend C. had gotten there first. It wasn’t a “cry for help,” either.  It was potassium cyanide gas off the Internet and a note: “It was not you; you were beautiful.”

I made a terrible sound. Not a scream, not a groan, but a noise like I’d been hit in the stomach. My cokehead roommate, who cared about no one but herself, came running.

You know when people say, “The world is poorer without him” when someone dies? I didn’t understand what that meant until C. died. Imagine the funniest, most complex and exhilarating and flavorful person you know. Now imagine that person gone.

I spent the rest of the day re-reading every e-mail C. ever sent:

All is well, though hectic, on the C. front. Will soon write a longer e-mail with sentences, unlike this one, that contain a defined subject. Will tell you about the nerdy girl with whom I had a whirlwind evening stretching into early morning involving both shoulder massages and Chrispy-administered ink tattoos (“Julio 4Ever”, a ring of retarded dolphins around her navel, an anchor). Will explain to you just how horribly a young man can botch sweet potatoes. All this and more. Coming soon to an in-box near you. 


I’ve got another 11 months’ tour of duty here, I surmise (gotta have me another go ’round of that fabulous summer, you betcha), but after that, it’s the LA Times, baby, all the way. At least that’s the dream I had last night. Well, also that I owned a pair of talking gay dogs. (They talked and were gay, not that they talked gay. Though one of them did have a sibilant S.) They fought crime on the gritty streets of east Mesa when not coming home for leftover spaghetti.

Besides “angry” and “sad” — the words don’t do the feelings justice — I was jealous: C. had made everything stop.

My jealousy told me I needed to leave Toronto; to let go of the dream I had of a life there. The city and the person I loved were one and the same: I wanted them, but they didn’t want me. They were present, yet inaccessible. They were a torment. They were tainted.

I thought, Yeah, C. isn’t in pain anymore, but he’ll also never know how the November election turns out. He’ll never get to touch an iPad, and he was such an early adopter of gadgetry. His connection with life stopped in May of 2008, and as the years ticked by, I realized, he’d become more and more anecdotal. The world would spin one way; he’d spin another. Soon, C. would belong to “a long time ago.” He occupied such a tiny slice of time. And, even though so many signs pointed to his death — only after he was gone did I see how many hints he’d left; how many trail-markers for us to find — only then did I think, Of course this is how it turned out — maybe something could have altered his trajectory. A great therapist? Backpacking through Asia? I don’t know.

And also I thought, What an ass pain, trying to get a body shipped from Toronto to Southern Arizona. I pictured my father, old and heartbroken, trying to navigate some horribly complex, bureaucratic Ontario phone tree, agreeing to fees and pickups; getting disconnected and having to go through the whole fucking thing again. I couldn’t stand it.

So, here’s what C’s death did for me: I packed up a U-Haul, came back to the arid, politically-backward land of my birth, and started graduate school.

I promised myself: You can still check out early if you want to. In a year. If you don’t feel any better. In the meantime, why don’t you try to do something useful? Teaching is useful. Maybe you could be useful and help somebody, doing that.

I unpacked that U-Haul in the early hours of an April morning. In Canada, April was winter, but in Arizona, it was spring. I locked the door of my new place and took off down the street, marveling at my ability to walk again; to run. I wanted to be on campus when the bookstore opened. For the first time in years, I wanted to be where people were. And, while that’s the beginning of another story, it’s the end of this one.

Boundaries. I has them.

This week, I honed my “No” skills on the following razor strops:

1. The most uncomfortable “team-building” exercise in the history of ever. Our roomful of adult professionals was asked to stand up, find a person we didn’t know well, and silently gaze into their eyes for two full minutes. Then — still silently gazing — we were to take each other’s hands and reveal one of our “deepest fears.” Then, we were supposed to hug. This unwanted intimacy resulted, of course, in people giggling, looking away, and putting their hands in their pockets in an attempt to recover some personal space. The team-building “leader” started yelling: “DON’T LOOK AWAY! LOOK AT YOUR PARTNER; DON’T LOOK AT ME! NO TALKING! GET YOUR HANDS OUT OF YOUR POCKETS! HOW DO YOU EXPECT TO CONNECT WITH YOUR STUDENTS IF YOU CAN’T CONNECT WITH EACH OTHER!”

I looked at the “leader,” a guy who, to me, represents $42,000 we AREN’T spending on books this year, and sat down. Forced emotional intimacy is an ugly thing, and part of our job as educators is to maintain APPROPRIATE BOUNDARIES with our students. It would be inappropriate (maybe even actionable) to try to connect with them in anything close to this way. “GET UP!” he exhorted those of us sitting down. “BE BRAVE!” I stayed in my chair, because no way. No fucking way. No matter how much he tried to dare or manipulate me, my answer was no. Saying no felt so good, I was ready for

2. Last night, I met a few family members for dinner. One relative, delighted with his new iPhone, kept insisting I watch a “funny video on the YouTube. This girl got her wisdom teeth taken out, and she’s crying! Heh heh! Look at all these videos of crying girls!”

I declined, because I don’t enjoy videos of women crying and uncomfortable, filmed and watched by men who think it’s funny. This was triggering on a deeper level, because while I love this relative very much; while he’s brilliant and sensitive and usually funny, he has a tendency to laugh at women’s discomfort and embarrassment. I don’t think he’s alone in this, and I know he wouldn’t laugh at  real pain, but but but. I got up, headed for the restroom, and came back 5 minutes later to a sulking relative. After awhile, he brightened up and felt social again — but dinner was kind of ruined. I felt punished for saying no, and the message I received was that everyone’s discomfort was my fault. I had ruined dinner with my humorless jerk ways.

But, you know? It was worth it. I’m still upset about last night, but I’d be more upset if I’d caved and watched the damn video. I’d rather someone hurt me for saying no than hate myself for not saying it.


One great thing about spending time with 17-18 year-olds: You realize that your own cluelessness and lack of judgement at that age was normal. You stop beating yourself up over getting a D in typing back in 1992 because, like, you didn’t believe in typing.

As a teacher, I know that adolescence is characterized by a lack of frontal lobe brain development, so I’m becoming more patient with these poor creatures who have to make life-altering decisions without all their cognitive ducks in a row. Know what the frontal lobe is all about? Long-range planning, risk assessment, motivation, memory, emotional regulation, and empathy. Know when the frontal lobe matures? Around age 25 — after you’ve had a full 7 years to fuck up your adult life with intemperate relationships; intermittent community-college attendance; unmoored professional flailing; and maybe some naked photos on the Internet. And the kids don’t know enough to be afraid. Late adolescence is like a toddlerhood redux: I can do it! I can do it all by myself! This is MY light socket and MY paper clip! Stop trying to run my life!

It feels odd to look at someone twice my size; someone legally able to marry and vote, and say: “What are you supposed to be doing right now?” “Why is your assignment late?” “I need you to stop talking, or there will be consequences.” I’ll ask myself, Damn, shouldn’t this be self-evident? and What’s wrong with you guys?

The answers are No, and Nothing. The 17-18 year-old brain simply doesn’t hold information very long, so they honest-to-God have forgotten the dozen times you mentioned the assignment due date; they really don’t know what they’re supposed to be doing right now. That information has fallen through the frontal lobe sieve, so the teacher must retrieve it and drop it back in again. Exacerbating this cognitive reality are the kids’ cell phones; their texts and tweets; their novelty ring tones and relentless status updates. It’s the perfect storm of high-pressure distraction and low-pressure slack, meeting in tropical confluence and razing the seaside village of Late Adolescence.

Anyway. The mature, goal-oriented high schooler is a rare bird, and knowing this makes me feel better about having been a twit. It’s healing.

But I still don’t know how to type.


A student got upset in class today, but I couldn’t grok why. Out in the hallway, he ranted weepily whilst pacing hither and yon. He was upset! about something!  but heck if I could discern the problem. I considered calling a monitor to haul him off, but instead decided to pretend he was a very butch drunk lesbian outside the bar where I used to work security. I imagined that this very butch drunk lesbian had just seen her girlfriend leave with someone else, and the bar was closing, and I wasn’t letting her set up for another round of pool. At this point, the scene became cozily familiar and my anxiety disappeared. The kid was back in class within five minutes. Score.