On the first day of freshman football, I measured in at four-feet, 11-inches tall. On as full of a stomach as I could muster, I weighed in at a staggering 98 pounds. With physical presence like that, and zero previous football experience, you can imagine I wasn’t a star athlete. Even use of the word athlete to describe me was a stretch. Perhaps for giggles but more likely because there just weren’t that many boys on the freshman team at Geneva High School in Illinois, the coach would have me practice at offensive tackle some days. I would line up across from the true stud defensive lineman on the team. At double my weight, he would either pound me into the turf milliseconds after the snap or, every once in a while, I would succeed in chopping at his knees. On the occasions my chop block worked, he would get back up and then pound me into the turf angry that I cut his legs again. “Block like a man, you wuss,” he would bark.
After many weeks of this beating, I met the varsity team physician/dealer. He wasn’t actually a doctor or trainer or anything close: just a varsity player with spare time to acquire and distribute pain-reduction therapies. By the end of the season, I was inhaling an occasional dose of weed therapy. As bad as I was at football to start the season, I was even worse by the end. I don’t blame the coaches in any way for my pot and hash use. I would have found a reason to start regardless. It seemed the cool thing to do and I was eager to erase one of few sources of developmental delay I thought I controlled compared to some of my Catholic elementary school classmates.
By the time the next summer came around, after my freshman year, I had been getting high for a stretch already, though I was doing most of my smoking in the back alley behind a restaurant where I bussed tables or stopped off somewhere on the way home from work. I’d started wearing cowboy boots under wide-flare jeans to school, providing a convenient place inside each boot to store some of my stash for far less common mid-day use. I slowed down on the weed a bit during tennis season that freshman year. Having recently crossed the five-foot threshold, I played first doubles on the sophomore tennis team with a sophomore partner who would turn to me at crucial points in almost every match and spout his words of motivational wisdom: “You better not f*#k this up.” I’m sorry for the language, but that’s what he said.
Having finished a painful first year transitioning from Catholic elementary school to even more mind-numbing public high school boredom, I was just days away from turning 15 in the summer after freshman year when the water tower incident happened.
I remember it because I remember all of my failures with an overabundance of precision. Every girl I said no too (I was so lacking in confidence at various points, I figured they must be asking as a joke), treated poorly (there are one or two college girlfriends who rightly should still hate me) or disappointed (I have to guess at this list, but I’m sure there were several). I remember every person I angered, or at least a long enough list that it seems like everyone. The Lutheran preacher I mistreated in the high school newspaper because I didn’t do my job as a reporter properly. The disabled boyhood friends I only visited twice as an adult because I was too busy with my priorities, convincing myself I would see them more when I retired even though they had already far surpassed their life expectancy. People I fired to meet cost-savings targets without what I considered reasonable warning. Far too often, the person I disappointed most was myself, like when I rushed through a last paper while working on my masters. The poor result cost me a level of recognition I badly wanted because I was simply too tired or too lazy to put in the last bit of work. There’s plenty more where these came from, and, believe me, far worse.
If I remembered the highlights in my life as easily, the brief moments we should all live to savor, life would bring more pleasure. But my failures take a disproportionate amount of my memory capacity, even to this day. The only difference is I’m conscious of this now, and combat it by purposely thinking about reasons I have to be grateful. I’ve read that most people’s memory helps them remember events with a more positive spin than how they actually occurred. I wish my mind did a better job of recasting my failures.
I remember the water tower incident, at least after the drug and alcohol-induced unconsciousness passed, because it was the first time I considered killing myself. I wasn’t yet in the depths of depression, but I’d already started a steep downhill slide. From that height, my chances of immediate death if I jumped were high. It might not even hurt that bad since I was still at least eight to 10 hours away from sobriety, but death wasn’t certain. With my luck, I’d leave myself paralyzed from the neck down and lose total control of my life – and death. I decided not to risk it. I was pretty sure I wanted to die, but clearly not yet certain. I’d already learned in football and too many childhood fights that I wasn’t a big fan of physical pain. I didn’t even know whether I hated pain more than I hated myself for hating pain.
So when I spotted what turned out to be Clarissa high up on a mountain north of Flagstaff in June of 2041, I thought again about that day, and many others, even as most of my focus turned to an awkward, gangly girl all alone and off trail, acting strangely not far below the tree line beneath Humphrey’s Peak.
As I walked close to her, my mind turned to questions:
Is she the reason I’m alive?
Is this one of the moments that makes the days, months and sometimes years of struggle worthwhile, or will this encounter be another addition to life’s miseries?
Then I realized that the tall, thin-hipped body bent over a wood stick with ass pointed skyward belonged to a young girl, a teenager in all likelihood. Despite her baggy sweats, it was hard to turn my eyes away until it was clear that this rangy body belonged to a face so young. Even at a distance, something about her was captivating my attention. I didn’t know why. When Clarissa looked toward me, though, I knew she needed me in her life. I couldn’t let her down.
Already on that day, Clarissa had the makings of a beautiful woman. She might not have been a head-turner in high school terms, mind you, where beauty is defined as too much make-up, overly tight clothes, the right weight, perfect hair and other telling signs to a high school boy that a girl might gain portions of her self-worth or her own pleasure from satisfying his spear-motivated desires. Beautiful nonetheless. A pleasant, disarming face highlighted by high cheekbones. The rest of Clarissa was hidden under a baseball cap and overly loose clothing covered in a desert camouflage pattern.
Clarissa’s body didn’t appear to have filled in all of the parts boys seem to care about in tremendous disproportion to their long-term relationship satisfaction value. That, combined with being six-feet tall at an age when she likely looked down at most classmates, meant Clarissa didn’t get noticed the way girls who were perky, busty or smiling happily and frequently were noticed.
It was clear she must be overly thin from the taut appearance of her visible cheek. Still, she was clearly athletic enough to have hiked up here, so can’t be too devoid of physical strength. But anyone could see past Clarissa’s effort to hide inside her own skin that she isn’t too many years away from catching more than her share of attention.
My seconds of evaluation as I ambled toward Clarissa reached conclusions about her solely based on physical appearance, even though this is the least important part of a soul’s worth in this world. Appearance was all I could see at this point. It was all I could initially judge.
When she looked again toward me as I drew near, I spotted more fear and pain in the eye I could see. That eye exposed a despair I fully recognized. Then I saw why she was bent over. It wasn’t a wood stick wedged into the ground. It was a rifle. Her mouth remained over the barrel as her head turned partially so she could look at me with one eye.
Clarissa was reaching for the trigger.