I don’t remember exactly what I was doing on January 11, 2007, because everything from that time blends together when I think of it now. I remember snow. A lot of snow. A storm driving back to Ohio from California, which stranded me at a La Quinta in Wyoming. I’d run out of money. Maybe the last paycheck from the bakery in San Francisco hadn't cleared yet. That’s probably what I told my parents when I called to ask them for enough money to make it back to Cleveland. I remember waiting in the mall across from the hotel for the transfer to come through at the Western Union. The mall was mostly empty but it had a military recruiting office. The wall outside was filled with portraits of men and women, many of them much younger than I was, who were serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
There was snow when I got back to Ohio too, so maybe I was already there by January 11. It was gray and dire as it always is there in winter. I was broke, unemployed, and living at home in my childhood bedroom at age 29. I knew I should get a job. I’d told people I would. But I didn’t. I filled out some applications. I slept late. Ate too much. Smoked too much. Snapped at my parents. Wondered why I felt so listless and irritable.
The only thing that gave any structure to my life was my nightly reading session at the coffee shop across town. I’d burn through half a pack of cigarettes and down cup after cup of coffee as I worked on my dissertation, stack of books sat on the counter, writing broken paragraphs and footnotes on a legal pad. Drive home through the dirty snow. Stop at the 24-hour diner on the way for a ridiculous amount of food. A Reuben and fries with a quesadilla. Some pierogies and potato pancakes with sour cream and applesauce. A milkshake to wash it down. I would come home in the middle of the night and eat in front of the TV. Then head upstairs to type up what I’d written, trying to put some order and sense to it. Wondering if it would ever resemble a book. Sometimes I said good morning to my father as he went off to work and I went to bed.
So January 11, 2007 might have been a night like that. It would have been one of the first nights in a long series of indistinguishable nights. I got fatter and more depressed. Angrier. In the end I got up to 283 pounds. I went to an out-of-town wedding in the spring and couldn’t recognize myself in the Facebook pictures. I remember thinking I looked like a bear in a suit. I met with an ex while I was there. She was seeing someone. The night I came home from the trip, I lay awake in bed. It was hot and still that night. I heard the doleful honking of some Canada geese overflying the house, and my body began to burn the way it used to, and I was terrified because I was sure that the really black depression from a few years before was back.
I talked to an old friend one morning soon after. Someone I’d rudely dodged for months. I was afraid of what he’d say about how I was living. He could be brutally honest. That morning he said, “Life gives and gives and gives to you. And you just shit it out.”
After he hung up on me, I picked up a newspaper. A young policeman had been killed in my city. He was, by all accounts, just what a police officer should be. He’d genuinely wanted to help people. To use his life to serve others. The man who had shot him was mentally ill. When he was off his meds, he was prone to violent rages. His mother had tried to warn the state but they wouldn’t listen. He was abandoned to his broken mind, consumed by his anger. He wanted to hurt someone. He talked about killing a cop. Then he did.
The story seemed like a message. I saw two possible trajectories for my life. I could try to take responsibility for myself. Do the slow, hard work of fixing what was broken. Try to be of help. Or I could continue on the way I was going. Surrender to the worst parts of myself. Bring a little more suffering and darkness into the world.
I walked down the street I grew up on in the sunny May morning, tears pouring down my face. I felt free for the first time in a long time.
Nick finished his degree that summer and went on to get the first in a series of unlikely jobs in restaurants, non-profits, and the corporate world before moving to Asia. He quit smoking and lost a bunch of weight. He teaches at a university in Bangkok and sometimes misses the snow. He is husband to Ann, father to Isabel, with one more on the way. See you in 2027.
Nick recommends you check out Boys & Girls Clubs of Cleveland, a nonprofit organization providing safe, fun places for the kids in need. Please consider making a donation at clevekids.org.