I woke up sick this morning; sick in my mind, sick in my body, and sick in my spirit. I feel like I may be drawn to misery in the same way that insects of the night are drawn to streetlights. Even when things are well for me I always make room in my heart for pain. Or maybe I had too much to drink last night.
It’s always deeper than it is. Last night I sat across the table from an old friend who I have known for over half of my life. We probably see one another an average of once every two years so when we link up we are forced to cram everything that has happened in our lives into one conversation. How’s work, how is your daughter, who are you dating, what you been doing, who do you keep in touch with, how is your family, how is your cousin; and I then I tense up. I cover my ears and brace for the pain because the trigger has been pulled.
My cousin ain’t doing so good. He’s on the streets. He stole from my aunty. He has problems separating fantasy from reality. For him there is no real line between the past and the present. They say he’s schizophrenic. Sometimes he takes his medication but most of the time he doesn’t. But of course I don’t say all of this when she asks. “Awe you know, he’s out there doing his thing.” Then I look into my glass and take a sip. Next question please? And the small talk has just gotten a whole lot smaller.
My mother is the older sister of his father. When I was a young boy and my uncle was full of tall cans of Old English malt liquor, he used to break down in tears as he recounted the story of my mother picking him up out of the Arkansas snow because his other sister had kicked him out of the house for peeing in the bed. My mother then placed him in her bed and after he stopped shivering he slept through the night.
My cousin and I grew up really close. I signed up for football then he signed up for football. He ran track one year and the next year I did too. He was a lot larger and more athletic than me but I had a bigger personality. In essence I ran my mouth a lot but no one ever tried to fight me because they knew that he was my cousin. It worked out really well for me.
By our senior year in high school I had given up on sports while he excelled. I ended up going to college to pursue a career in writing and he got a full athletic scholarship at a division one school. It was a major accomplishment for him and everybody considered it to be a big deal. There was a banquet thrown for him and the other scholarship athletes on campus that was attended by my grandmother, his father, a few dozen other relatives, and various local media outlets that were itching to cover a positive story involving black youth. I considered the path that my life had taken to be pretty normal but his was extraordinary. After all, as young black boys growing up in the ghetto, naturally we wanted to one day become professional athletes. When we entered the 10th grade I was about 125 pounds soaking wet with Timberland’s and I knew then that I had no chance at all of going to the NFL, but he still did. He was about to make it, unfortunately for him however, he didn’t view things that way.
He wanted to go to another school, a school that was an NCAA powerhouse and a school that a few ballers who had graduated from our high school the year before we did were attending. They sent him on an official recruiting trip and he had a lot of fun. Too much fun. He committed before they offered. He told the coach he wanted to go there, no question about it. But as national signing day approached they gave his scholarship to another kid. He couldn’t understand it. It wasn’t fair. He cried about it, he told me in confidence. He cried about it a lot. He expressed to me that the whole thing was fixed. That old punk ass coach knew he wasn’t going to offer him a scholi in the first place. That it was all a game. That people were playing with him. Why were people always playing with him?
I was a little bit taken aback by his testimony but not too much. I figured it to be a very minor setback, something that he would get over as soon as he got situated in college. There was truth to my assessment but ultimately my reasoning was completely skewed by my on denial.
He was, for his freshman year, the big man on campus. He dominated on the football field taking a starting position from a senior less than halfway through the season. He even picked up a fumble and ran it back 60 yards for a touchdown at a game attended by our whole family. In they end, however, they lost that game. They lost nearly all of their games and my cousin was quickly losing focus.
He did a lot of partying and was getting into a lot of trouble. When he came back for Christmas breaks he had several fight stories that sounded like scenes from the old Patrick Swayze movie The Outsiders. By Spring break he had revealed that he had gotten a woman pregnant and was on academic probation and by the end of the school year he was asked not to return to the University.
He didn’t sweat it much. He figured he would get more scholarship opportunities, and he did (he actually got a couple more). He spent most of the summer bonding with his newborn son.
On one day in August we took the baby on a family tour. We went to our grandmother’s house in Bayview Hunter’s Point and we took him to see our aunty on Havenscourt, and then our cousins on 90th. The little guy slept peacefully and very rarely cried. When we took him out of his car seat and into the cold San Francisco night air he wasn’t tripping. Even when I, at the age of 19, drove way too fast over the Deep East Oakland speed bumps he wasn’t afraid. He was with men that would die for him and he knew it. He was chilling. He was good.
When we got him home his mother was exasperated. She snatched the baby and said very little to us because we didn’t matter. She was very displeased and it showed but one got the sense that she felt as though it wasn’t worth talking about. For all intents and purposes her relationship with my cousin was over anyway and when she went back to school a few weeks later she made it official. It was only then that he became truly unraveled.
As I made it through college and experienced my own fair share of drama and got my own girlfriend pregnant and was nearly ousted from school myself the women of the family began to whisper. “You know your cousin ain’t right in the head no more. He’s a little off, a little touched. Do you know what he said to me the other day…?” And this would always be followed by their laughter, a very disturbing defense mechanism that would piss me off. No one ever really wants to deal with pain so people force humor into things that aren’t funny.
Nevertheless I refuted their claims for years. I even argued with my uncle, his dad, about it. I would say he’s just a little down because his football dreams are finally over. It’s only natural. He’ll bounce back I said. All ya’ll are doing way too much.
As the years went by I managed to graduate from college but he didn’t. I established a very solid relationship with my daughter but he was asked by his son’s mother not to come around them due to his strange behavior. I was able to maintain a job— no matter how lame it was—but he wasn’t.
We were about 23 years old I when I got word that he was living in a shelter in Palo Alto so, of course, I went to go see him. By that time I could no longer deny the reality of it all. My cousin was gone.
As elementary school age children my cousin and I, along with all of the other neighborhood children, would play games of hide and go seek deep into the night. Sometimes one of us would fall and scrape our knees and elbows. In which case we would cry a little bit, go inside to get a band-aid, and come right back outside to play. When we ran track my cousin pulled a hamstring. He missed a few track meets but a few weeks later he was right back on the relay team. So when it was discovered that my cousin had a mental illness I couldn’t understand why he couldn’t bring it back. I can’t express the hopelessness that I felt knowing that he would never get better. That he would never fully recover and even worse, there was nothing that I could do to help him.
I tried very hard though. He was hungry so I bought him Round Table Pizza. I saw that he needed shoes so I bought him some. I literally gave him the coat off of my back because he was wearing a dusty old blazer with no hood and the October rain was going to start coming down soon. But giving him all of those material things ultimately didn’t matter because I couldn’t give him peace of mind.
As we walked down a street close to Stanford University he spoke to me in a strange kind of whisper that seemed very distant and very loud at the same time. And he talked to me slowly, reminiscent of Master Splinter in the Ninja Turtle movies. Like he was trying to sound very wise. We passed a bar and he asked to go in. I told him I wasn’t going to buy him alcohol. He then told me that he was trying to use alcohol to stop smoking weed in the same way that heroin addicts use methadone to quit their habit.
We walked into Walgreens to get him basic necessities and he asked me to buy him some painkillers. I told him that I was not going to buy him drugs and he became irritated but quickly got over it. He asked for some candy instead and I obliged.
A few hours later we were back at the shelter and I had to leave him. He said thanks. I said be cool and that was that. Every interaction I have had with him since then has been the same way. He oscillates between his former self and some dreamy voiced person whom I wish I had never met. He goes out of his way to try to get me to remember events that I did not attend and he asks me for money. I cannot help my cousin.
I miss my cousin and it sucks to know that although he is still alive he will never come back. So many memories from our childhood are dead because he can’t remember that he was there with me. And right now I want to call him up but he doesn’t have a phone number. I want to swoop him up but he doesn’t have an address, so I write about it. I write until I don’t feel sick anymore. I write about it because really, there isn’t much else that I can do.