The Man Who Stepped into Yesterday [December 28, 2018 – ???]
“The countdown is progressing,
And your spaceship is about to blast off on its voyage of discovery
Because of the incredible speed of your rocket,
Your trip is short”
The song dies down. A split second of silence after the final note is almost immediately replaced by the cheers of the audience. Which is then promptly interrupted by the dulcet voice of Laura Olsher.
“You’ve been selected as the first astronaut to explore the planet Mars…”
Martian Monster. Nice.
The stage fills with smoke and the lighting rigs are working overtime, alternating between purples and greens and blues and reds. I am entranced by the lights along the perimeter of the arena that seem to be circling the crowd and lighting up small clusters of people along its pathway. One of the many benefits of the band’s home field advantage when it comes to Madison Square Garden.
I close my eyes to focus on the music. I can still feel the colors pulsating on the other side of my closed eyelids. I bob to the steady beat, and the entire building bobs with me. If you stand still at MSG, you can feel the entire crowd’s movements reverberate on the floor. One of the cool perks about seeing a concert at Madison Square Garden.
I feel a gentle tug on the upper righthand corner of my field of vision. I try to pay no mind to it, assuming it was the after effects of the two mojitos I had at the Peruvian restaurant before – combined with the lights, smoke, music, and excitement. When I focus intently on the music, the feeling goes away. Still, it’s unsettling to feel as if your entire brain has been placed on the track of a rollercoaster that’s going up…up…up with every click on that track. And only towards the upper righthand corner. It’s a slow, but rhythmic click – the way water slowly drips from a leaky faucet.
You don’t hear or even feel the click. You just know it’s there. And it seems to tell you that something big is coming. The same way those clicks on a rollercoaster track foreshadow the impending drop. So naturally, it’s getting increasingly harder to just focus on the music.
I open my eyes to see what’s happening on stage. And to take my mind off of the fact that it was slowly being yanked at like a wisdom tooth that wouldn’t budge.
A large rhombus (well technically, a rhombohedron) was slowly descending from the scoreboard of the arena onto the unsuspecting crowd down below. I must have been the first person to catch sight of it, because no one else seemed to notice.
I nudge Gf on her arm and silently mouth to her, “Look up!” But she doesn’t even acknowledge me. She just continues dancing. So I start to dance too, figuring to just let whatever was going to happen happen.
I shift my focus back to the stage where the band is rocking out. I guess we’re getting “Divided Sky” or some Gamehendge song next. It seemed a little weird that they were jumping the gun a bit though. Usually their elaborate gag doesn’t come until the New Year’s Eve show.
With the lights in a frenzy and smoke now enveloping the entire stage, out of the corner of my eye I see the mysterious rhombus continue to descend. And everyone else continue to ignore its existence. Strange.
Suddenly and without warning, the jam is brought to a screeching halt with a note that sounds eerily familiar to the alert noise when you get discovered in the game Metal Gear Solid 2 from when I was a teenager.
And then, that’s when things got really weird.
I’ve had this paranoia/fantasy for a bulk of the time I’ve been going to Phish concerts. There are hundreds of lights, and each one has a mind of their own (though in actuality they’re all manned by the wizard and honorary fifth member of Phish, Chris Kuroda). The thought that I had was: imagine that – intoxicated by a wave of evil mischief – Kuroda and the band had synchronized to scare the living crap out of one random audience member. The band – while in the middle of a lengthy trippy jam – would play one cacophonous note. At the same time, the man in charge of the light board – Kuroda – would direct every single light in the venue to point at a random audience member. And then: complete silence.
Paranoia in the sense that it would be terrifying if this was to happen to me. Fantasy in the sense that it would be a real treat to see such a stunt in person, completely causing a poor soul in the audience – probably under the influence of alcohol or narcotics – to jump out of their own body in fright. It’s mean, but also really hilarious if you think about it. In a messed up way of course.
Well, after the Metal Gear Solid 2 alert noise was played (presumably by keyboardist, Page McConnell), as luck would have it, those hundreds of lights come to a brief pause. Then, in unison, they all swivel until they were all directed right…at…me.
I am completely frozen, illuminated by purples and greens and blues and reds. I could hardly see anything with every light in Madison Square Garden shining down upon me. Minutes seem to pass. I forget to swallow.
The band starts playing the “Game Over” music from Metal Gear Solid 2. Now I know something weird is going on. One Metal Gear Solid 2 tease during a jam is one thing. But two? A little overkill if you ask me.
The lights dim somewhat and before me is the giant rhombus (rhombohedron). I try to turn my head to look at Gf to ask her what the hell is going on, but my neck muscles won’t allow it. I am lifted into the air ever so gently and placed onto the floating rhombus. Slowly, it makes its way to the front of the stage.
There is no music. No noise at all. The entire arena is pin-drop silent. All I can hear is my own staggered, labored breathing.
Seriously, what the hell.
I am face to face now with the band. Guitarist, Trey Anastasio, pulls his microphone stand closer and starts mumbling incoherent words. The words don’t sound like any language I know. Or even of this earth for that matter. Yet, something was vaguely familiar to my ears. It had a warm quality to it. Warm and friendly. But ancient and alien all the same.
Must be some narration for “Harpua”, I think to myself.
And suddenly, he speaks. In English this time.
“No. This isn’t ‘Harpua.’ Or ‘Fly Famous Mockingbird’ or anything like that,” Trey chuckles.
“Wait, you just read my mind,” I nervously reply. As if that was the weirdest thing that had happened in the past minute.
“I can do a lot of things,” he says, as his Languedoc turns to liquid metal in his hands, oozes between his fingers, pools around his feet, and then travels to the edge of the stage – creating a bridge that connects the stage to the hovering rhombus.
He steps onto the bridge and saunters over, smiling the entire way. You gotta hand it to the guy. I’d never met him until this moment, but even in this weird set of circumstances, he’s just as friendly as I always imagined him to be.
“But what’s….where…Gf and the concert…I…”, I manage to stammer. I have so many questions, but right now the only thing on my mind is that this is probably as close as I am ever going to get to the stage at a Phish show. Certainly from the front at least.
“Don’t worry about all of them, they’re just fine. Gf too. I promise,” he assures me. He flashes me his patented warm smile and all of my fears melt away. It wasn’t just the fact that I liked his music in that moment. Something inside told me that I could trust him.
I regained color in my face and sensation in my limbs. The wave of uneasiness and confusion left me.
“Oh good, OK. So this is all in my head then. That makes sense. I mean, the Metal Gear Solid 2 teases were a bit much. This isn’t really happening?”
“Eh, yes and no. Tell me, Coach, you’ve had your fair share of psychedelic experiences. I mean you’re not alone here,” and he laughs and motions all around him – at the audience that now resembles the fake computer animated crowd in a sports video game. “Just because it’s all in your head, does that make what you experience any less valid? I don’t want to get too deep into psycho-babble here – you know better than most do – but what makes reality real? After all, we are all constantly constructing our own version of the truth.”
“Got it, touche. You don’t need to say another word. We’re on the same wavelength, Trey.” I called him Trey. I just had to throw that in there. He called me by my family nickname. That’s so cool. “So you’re saying I’m tripping basically.”
“If it helps you understand it better, sure. Then yes. Though technically speaking, you’re stone-cold sober. Those mojitos were pretty watered down.”
“So then I’m in control? That’s comforting.”
“Again, yes and no.” He pulls out a folded up piece of paper from the back pocket of his jeans. “Of course, in your typical controlling fashion, your subconscious already created an itinerary. We got a lot of places to get to, so we should better get moving”
I was slightly taken aback and offended, but he did have a point. That did sound like me. “And everyone else will be alright? I mean, aren’t they going to notice that you’re gone? It’s going to be kinda hard to slip out unnoticed when 20,000 pairs of eyeballs are expecting you on stage. I’m sure the band can play some of Mike’s bluegrass stuff and maybe Page can do a thirty minute “The Squirming Coil” piano solo or something. But still.”
“All good. They won’t even know we’re gone.”
“Yeah? How do you figure?”
“I put Mist over the entire crowd. It’ll make it seem like the whole thing lasted only about a second or so. And for that one second, they’ll be too transfixed by the lights or Mike’s outfit to notice anything fishy. No pun intended.”
“And this Mist won’t have any after effects or anything?” I was proud of myself for being so concerned about everyone else in the audience, but I was mostly concerned about Gf. Specifically, I didn’t know how much to divulge to her about this little sequence of events when it was over.
“Completely harmless. It’s the same stuff aliens use whenever someone sees one of their spaceships zipping about. Or NBA referees use whenever they’re in deep with some serious people and need to fix a game. Of course, it doesn’t work 100% of the time, and I’ve heard some people are immune to it. So let’s be quick, because for every couple of hours we’re gone, it’s another second in real time. And the last thing we want is those seconds piling up. Mike’s outfit is flashy, but not that flashy.”
“Roger that. So where are we off to first?”
“Uptown. But I know how you feel about the subway, so that’s where The Rhombus comes in. Riding it is a lot like paddleboarding. Just relax.”
The roof of the arena opens up. I wasn’t aware MSG had a retractable roof, but now probably wasn’t the time to get into architecture with the guy. We are lifted up by The Rhombus, and then we disappear into the brisk December night sky.
From high above Manhattan, it’s truly awe-inspiring taking it all in. It gives you a different appreciation for the city. I have to admit, from up here and not at ground level – with all of the hustle and bustle – it has a certain charm to it. It almost makes me like New York City. Almost.
I recognize a few landmarks – a much trickier task when you are above it all. I see the Empire State Building to one side of me. To the other, I see the procession of headlights – traffic heading into the Lincoln Tunnel. Even at this hour, there’s traffic. Unbelievable. I feel grateful that my own personal trip advisor was so thoughtful to avoid public transportation. Or worse: the horrors of traffic.
After gliding through Columbus Circle, we start cruising through the oasis in this urban jungle: Central Park. I start looking to see if I can find any of the familiar spots I know from all of the New York Road Runners races I ran in the park. But it was much tougher to discern in the dark. Plus, there weren’t many joggers or cyclists out to give it away.
Then, it dawned on me. Maybe this would be our first stop? It would make sense, considering the eight races I ran there the past year. And the big one I am running in 2019 that is supposed to finish there: the New York City Marathon.
I see Trey turn his head towards me from the bow (?) of The Rhombus (do rhombuses/rhombi even have bows?).
“It would make sense to stop here, but this isn’t our first stop. Some doors aren’t meant to be opened just yet.”
I had forgotten that he could read my mind.
“Come again?” I yell over the whooshing gusts of wind all around us.
“You know, like when you’re grilling a steak, and they say not to keep flipping it? Yeah, this steak isn’t ready to be flipped yet. That’ll be for another time. Further down the line.”
I wasn’t entirely catching his drift. But a part of me somehow understood entirely. Especially when I take into account that he basically knew me inside and out. My nickname, my thoughts, my meticulous nature.
The next “chapter” in my life, so to speak, would be the Pittsburgh Marathon and the topics in my life that I had attributed to it in my journal. The things I would contemplate while training, pieces of the puzzle I was trying to solve in the grand scheme of it. Pittsburgh represents certain aspects in my life that have loose ends. The New York City Marathon represents others. This would inform my journal entries and later on my blog posts. So basically, what I understood from him was: we were doing things labeled “Pittsburgh stuff” on this night then. Things labeled “New York City stuff” would have to wait for another time.
“You catch on quick,” Trey remarks. At first, I thought he was talking about balancing on The Rhombus (he was right – it was pretty similar to paddleboarding). But then he said, “I guess it also helps that you’re pretty obvious. Labeling things ‘Pittsburgh’ or ‘New York City’ in your journal and all. Seriously, don’t you think it’s a little on the nose?”
He did have a point. But if that was the case, then what were we still doing on this side of the Hudson?
“I guess not obvious enough, at least not to me. Because I still don’t know where we’re going first.”
“Patience, Coach. We’re almost there.”
I peer over an edge of The Rhombus as we start our slow descent and notice we are in Harlem. I know exactly where we’re going now.
“Oh crap, really? That’s just cruel. It’s Christmas vacation! This is the last thing I want to think about.”
“Hey, just remember. This is all really your idea. Besides, didn’t you say you were going to work on it during break?”
Once again, he was right. Let me clarify.
Previously, I had mentioned one of the things that I accomplished in 2018 was “finishing grad school.” That is probably the best way to put it. Because I had finished grad school.
But I purposefully did not use the word “graduate.” Because even though I completed all of the required credits (a full semester early and with a 4.0 GPA, thank you very much), I did not technically graduate from the City University of New York just yet. In fact, I postponed my own graduation date – after seeking counsel from my academic advisor who also doubled as one of the professors I had gotten closest to. Postponing my graduation allowed me extra time to complete one more requirement: the edTPA – a portfolio or thesis, if you will, where you’re supposed to reflect on your teaching practice.
If I graduated without completing the edTPA, I would be ineligible to teach during the upcoming 2018-2019 school year on my provisional teaching license. But if I postponed my graduation, I can teach on that provisional license until whenever I submitted and passed the edTPA.
The plan was to work on it during the summer. But I had rationalized that I needed the time off to decompress and not think about school.
Then, the plan became to work on it during the fall and submit it right before Christmas break. But then I started writing again and, well, then that became my weekends.
And now, Phish’s guitarist was going to rub it in my face I guess.
We landed on the lawn near Shepard Hall, where this journey first began. My first class was in this building. I remember how nervous and excited I was to be starting down this track. How hard I worked on each and every assignment. How I actually read all of the assigned readings from textbooks – something I had rarely done in undergrad. I was a man on a mission. And it was really puzzling as to why now – with the ball at the one yard line – I was unable to punch it in. I kept harping on the price of the test (I kid you not, this thing costs over $300), but there was a deeper reason I couldn’t quite put a finger on. With me, there always is.
“I know. Really, I know. You don’t have to say anything. I know I have to figure this…,” and I look around at all of the buildings on campus, “I have to figure this all out.”
“That’s what I like about you. I knew this was going to be a breeze. With other people, it’s like pulling teeth sometimes. We’re going to keep going, but just remember you can ask questions at anytime. Got it?” Trey stops to make sure that I understand, almost inviting me to ask something.
“Do you know how it ends?”
“I do, yes. And so do you. You didn’t come here, or to any of the places we’ll be visiting, to make any decisions. You already made the choice. Whether you know it or not. This whole thing – the race, the training, and every single up and down, twist and turn on that rollercoaster ride – is to help you understand that decision. There are forces at play here way beyond what you can even grasp.”
“My training? What does my training have anything to do with this?”
“Oh come on, that’s an easy one. You should know that. You already do. That’s why you write in your journal. Why you wrote those eight chapters. And why you are already planning what you will write about for Pittsburgh and New York. Running and training helps you understand the world around you and process the events in your life. It’s like you’ve been searching your entire life for the right pair of glasses so you can see everything around you clearly. Everyone has a different prescription and thus needs a different pair of glasses. You’ve found yours and now you’re running with it. Again, no pun intended.”
“No, yeah, I get that. I just mean, I guess that it’s weird that you’re basically saying I’m going to figure this all out by the time I go to Pittsburgh.”
“I think you’re underestimating how much exactly you’re going to figure out. Your list, yes. But this is only just the tip of the iceberg. I’m telling you, there are some factors that you aren’t even taking into account here. It’s going to be a wild ride. And I’m not just talking about tonight. But it’s all still very early and delicate.”
“So next place then?”
“Before we stop at the next place, let’s take a quick detour. We won’t even stop. I just want you to see something.”
We climb back onto The Rhombus, and it immediately starts its climb again. I can see Yankee Stadium to my right, we fly over Washington Heights, and once we continue past the congestion at the George Washington Bridge, I knew we were staying on this side of the river. Which means we can only be going to one place.
As we approach Van Courtlandt Park, I see the neighborhood in the Bronx that I am so familiar with. Shooting up into the sky – from apartments and houses down below – I see bright white beams of light. Everytime we fly close enough to one of the beams of light, I can hear children’s voices. Sometimes they are broken up or muffled by the booming voices of adults. The adult voices were loud and thunderous and sounded on edge. The children’s voices were happy and playful and innocent. But they weren’t speaking English. Even without understanding what they were saying, I immediately recognized it as the language that Trey was speaking back at The Garden.
In spite of the fact that they were speaking a completely alien tongue, I also was able to determine that those voices belonged to all of my students of the past three years.
As bleak and dark as the area looked at this time of night, approaching a beam of light gave me this warm, glowing feeling. It felt like a concentrated version of a feeling that doesn’t quite fall on the spectrum of typical feelings that we normally feel: hope.
The Rhombus veers left towards the Hudson River. Once we are clear of the noise and commotion of the Bronx and it’s much quieter, I tell Trey, “Thanks. For that.”
“Don’t mention it. It’s a pretty special feeling when I look out at the audience every night. I gotta hand it to y’all, I don’t know if I can do what you do. Teaching – and even writing for that matter. Completely thankless.”
We reach the other side of the river and head back south along the cliffs of The Palisades. Past Englewood Cliffs, past Fort Lee Historic Park, we’re now soaring above the bright lights of Edgewater along River Road. We veer inland near the incline at Bulls Ferry and head into North Bergen. We descend down Kennedy Boulevard – the cross streets read 80’s, then 70’s, then 60’s. And I know the exact path we’re taking.
We stop first at my grandparents’ house from my dad’s side: Vava and Wowo. We hover right outside their window at the end of their little dead end street . Their elegantly decorated Christmas tree takes up most of the window, but through the branches, I can make out their figures sitting at the table. Just talking. I had been a part of those conversations for many years as a teenager. And then later on as an adult when I lived with them for a short time.
No words needed to be said in that moment. No words could be said. I had this incredible yearning to be there, to be sitting with them. Just talking about anything and nothing. So many things that couldn’t be said. So many things unspoken. Regrets, but also this is how things were meant to be. I just hope there was some way that they can maybe understand that. See it. How I wish two souls could talk – communicate – without the human filter. Without this vessel getting in the way.
“Come on, we can’t stay here too long. That’ll be trouble,” Trey sighs. He sees the look on my face, but we continue up the hill and down Kennedy.
My other grandparents were next: Tata and Wowomas. Both sets live a short distance away from each other, having both set roots in Hudson County when they immigrated from Cuba. As so many others had done. We soar above their apartment building, and then slowly drop down onto their backyard, an asphalt area that serves as a driveway for the tenants. I used to ride my bike here, play Wiffle ball with my great grandpa here. Skateboard, football, you name it.
I hop off of The Rhombus. Since my grandparents live in the basement apartment, I have to crouch down to look into the window that oversees their living room. Walking over to it, I step onto their concrete patio. On it, an engraving that my great grandpa had left when he and a neighbor had worked on it: “Mucho trabajo, poco dinero.”
My grandparents are watching a novela – a Spanish soap opera. During baseball season, the novelas would be replaced by the YES Network and whatever Yankees game would be on. Past or present, it didn’t matter.
Once again, Trey broke the silence.
“Listen, I know it’s hard. But we really can’t stay. It says so here. Look. You even had written it down on the itinerary. I’ll take charge here a bit, because I know this is a complicated subject for you. But this is just supposed to be a quick reminder. Just a mental note. And then, BOOM we’re out. You can’t linger, it really won’t be good. Under ‘Pittsburgh’ you remember the first thing you wrote? Huh? ‘Family’? I know you didn’t fully grasp what you meant by that when you said it, but it set off a series of events. Appropriately enough, like dominoes. For better or worse, it set you on this path.
But this is just a reminder. Nothing else. Believe me, they really want to see you. And I know more than anything you wish you had more time in the day so you could work, commute, run, write, spend time with Gf and your cats, have a semblance of a social life, have some alone time for yourself, and also have time to see your family. I get it. But we really have to go. One more stop now.”
I’m not sure why he keeps insisting we have to go, but I follow his advice because he seems to understand what I was feeling. It was pretty obvious at this point that this wasn’t actually Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio. This was some sort of otherworldly figure. Or maybe just a figment of my subconscious. Or maybe both. But still, the reason I trusted him was because he appeared as Trey Anastasio. And I feel like the real Trey would’ve understood what I was feeling at the time. This was the guy who had written lyrics, like the ones that came to mind at this particular moment:
“If life were easy, and not so fast, I wouldn’t think about the past”
So I walk back to The Rhombus. And Trey follows.
Further down Kennedy we go until we get to Journal Square.
We’re going home.
We lower down into the courtyard between my apartment building and the one adjacent to it. The courtyard is the only thing the windows in my apartment overlook. So this was the only logical place to position ourselves.
We peek into my living room where my boys – my cats Carson and Taj – are sleeping, curled up next to each other. When we first adopted them from the shelter, they told us to take two so that when we weren’t home, they could keep each other company.
I smile widely, and my eyes begin to water. They’re the best kitties anyone can ask for. I love them with every fiber of my being.
I do a quick scan of the room to make sure everything is alright. Just old habits from when I was a kid, and my mom used to check to make sure the door was locked at least seven times whenever we left the house.
I see the teddy bear that sits on one of the shelves in our bookcase. The living room is filled with knick-knacks we’ve accumulated over the years, but the teddy bear – just a simple brown teddy bear – is the lone thing that is decidedly Gf’s. When she first moved into the apartment, she told me the teddy bear must go somewhere where the kitties wouldn’t ruin him. She had given her grandma this teddy bear when she was in the hospital before she passed away. It was special to her.
In that moment, I couldn’t quite explain it, but that teddy bear signified everything I was feeling. Everything that I was bottling up came gushing out. I was in hysterics, convulsing and sobbing. I grabbed onto the fire escape and seized it with all my might.
“Hey, it’s alright. Just calm down. Take deep breaths. It’ll pass.”
But I can’t, I’m hyperventilating. This is all just too much.
“I knew it, there are just too many of them around. I knew eventually something would trigger him,” Trey says as he tries to loosen my grip from the iron railings.
Suddenly, a cascade of colors flooded my field of vision, and I felt like I was tumbling down a kaleidoscope hole. I was no longer in the courtyard, but somewhere else entirely. It was as if I had left my body completely.
Every swath of color I see on the fall feels like it represents a different strand in my life. But when I take a closer look at it, it’s just a color. But I felt whatever it is that the color represented. Kindergarten or my first crush or how I feel about Paul Thomas Anderson movies. An infinite amount of colors to describe an infinite amount of things.
I hear Trey’s voice. He seems slightly annoyed.
“Damnit, that’s what I was scared might happen. Where are you? Are you alright?”
I try to speak, but the words don’t come out. I want to say that I don’t know. And that I don’t know.
“Am I going to get in trouble?” I manage to blurt out. The words sound clumsy as they leave my lips.
“What? No. Of course not. Just think of something. Something happy. The bear was a trigger. Similar to a Horcrux, like in Harry Potter. But it isn’t necessarily evil. It can be something happy. It’s just part of your soul, and it’s really concentrated. You have a lot of them around – it was practically a minefield. I knew we were flying too close to…”
I hear the unmistakable sound of a jet engine, but like a jet engine the size of an entire football stadium. The noise is enormous and completely engulfs me. And then just as quickly as it started up, it stops. All of it – the tumbling, the colors, the noise. Nothingness.
We are back on The Rhombus, cruising alongside an empty freeway. It is daytime now, and there isn’t a cloud in the entire sky. I somehow immediately recognize this as somewhere between Exit 5 and Exit 6 off of the New Jersey Turnpike. But I didn’t see any road signs. And what’s even weirder is that there are no trees along this highway.
We slowly approach the only car on the highway: a blue Nissan Pathfinder. The SUV seemed to be going exactly the speed limit, though it was impossible to tell without another car as a reference point. Regardless, we were going maybe five miles per hour faster than that, so we were slowly gaining ground.
As if he anticipated exactly what I was going to think in the exact moment before I even thought about thinking it, Trey announces his presence by exclaiming, “Don’t look at me. We’re not on the script anymore.”
We pull up alongside the car, and we both eagerly peek inside.
It was unmistakable. It was me in the driver’s seat. Gf in the passenger seat. And that’s…
“But we don’t have a kid,” I tell Trey.
But I also don’t have a full head of hair, which Pathfinder Me did have. And I’m also not clean shaven. But in that car, Pathfinder Me’s face was as smooth as when I was in grade school. To add insult to injury, Pathfinder Us were also about ten to fifteen pounds lighter than we are now.
In the rear of the SUV, what was presumably our child was sitting in a car seat laughing and kicking and holding that plain brown teddy bear. Pathfinder Gf turned around and tickled the baby’s foot. The baby cooed.
“Now remember, be a good boy when we see grandpa and grandma, OK?” Pathfinder Me says while looking into the rear view mirror. Pathfinder Me smiles. It is a happy scene, but one that leaves me with a bottomless pit in my stomach. Nothing was too out of place, but I knew this was just a mirage. An alternative reality maybe if things had gone differently. I knew this wasn’t a look into the future.
“Do you have any control here?” I ask Trey solemnly. He too is transfixed by what he sees in the car.
“I don’t know. This has never happened before. Quick, pick somewhere to go. Let’s test it,” he replies without even looking at me.
I take a look one more time inside the car. As happy as this mirage seems, there was something sinister and evil about it. Something dark loomed under the surface. Maybe dark magic of some sort had created this projection? Without concrete answers, it was impossible to speculate. Yet, the biggest tip-off was the look in Pathfinder Me’s eye that I detected for a split second. It might have gone unnoticed by anybody else. But I know myself. Something was definitely off.
“Take me to Pittsburgh,” I sigh despondently. “I want to be at the center of it all. I want to understand.” And then, I close my eyes.
When I open them again, we are standing at the Western Terminus of the Great Allegheny Passage – where the Ohio, Allegheny, and Monongahela meet. The Steel City. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
“Well, that’s a good sign,” Trey says as he walks over slowly to a nearby bench.
I follow and take a seat next to him. I put my head down and rest my elbows on my knees.
“I don’t even know where to start. I don’t know what to say. I guess…I’m sorry?” I tell him.
“Sorry for what? There’s nothing to be sorry about. Sometimes things happen, and we just have to accept it.”
“I’m just…it was a lot to process. And I don’t even know why.”
“That’s the thing. You’re not meant to. Not right now at least. All you can do is keep going forward. Para atras ni para coger impulso,” he says in perfect Spanish. It was a saying my great grandpa, Ofo, used to say. And here I was thinking that the extent of Trey’s Spanish was pronouncing the name “Marco Esquandolas.”
I sit still for a minute and absorb the weight of it all. Slowly, as if it was being poured all over my body, I was being overcome with profound compassion and lamentation. The limbs of my body sink down in despair, and my mouth dries up. My body trembles, and my hair bristles on end. My mind is reeling, and I am unable to stand. I see only evil omens in my future, but I feel apathetic. At that moment, I do not desire victory or happiness. I want to disappear completely.
“I can’t do this. This is so fucking stupid. All this – teaching, the marathons, my blog, social media. I don’t want it. I don’t want to do this anymore. What’s the use anyway?
I don’t want to run another race. The training, introspection. It causes more harm than good. I’m a failure, and I always will be. No participation trophy is ever going to convince me otherwise. I just want to start over. Be somewhere far away from here. Start a new life. I can’t do it anymore.” I manage to choke out one final plea through some ugly crying, “Yo no puedo.”
Trey looks down and takes a deep breath. He is lost in thought for a full five seconds. Then, he looks at me with equal parts anger, tenderness, and seriousness and says:
“I know the reason that you tell your friends that you signed up for the Pittsburgh Marathon is you can go to Primanti Brothers after and reward yourself with one of their signature sandwiches with cole slaw and French fries on top. I also know the reason that you tell the public that you signed up for the Pittsburgh Marathon is for some greater purpose, an altruistic gesture to the community of Pittsburgh. And I also know the reason that you tell yourself that you signed up for it is for the deeper internal struggle you have when it comes to your family. Like how sometimes in college you would play as your favorite football team, the Oakland Raiders, and go up against your dad’s favorite team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, on your Super Nintendo, as if maybe defeating this virtual foe would have real life ramifications.
But you and I both know that each of these is a lie. Even though you still convince yourself of the last one. You cling onto it like a lizard to the side of a cliff. And why? Because you like to delude yourself into a sense of purpose. That everything has to have meaning. It gets you through the day. The truth of it though is that the universe is random. And cold. And callous. And cruel. But also beautiful. We can only attribute meaning and purpose when we look backwards and connect the dots. But you can’t make sense of it all while you’re still treading water. This is nonsensical. Oh, and believe me, you will try to. But sometimes, you just need to let things be.
But every action – every intention you may have – produces a ripple effect. Without even knowing it, you have triggered a series of events too expansive and vast to even comprehend. Like this very spot that we are sitting on right now, you are at a confluence. A confluence of everything that flows in your life. On one hand, your duty as a partner, as a son, as a grandson. As a teacher and a role model and a citizen of this world. But also, your duty as a human being, and your struggle to honor your own divinity. The divinity each of us has inside of us. It burns brighter in some than in others. And some of these things may be in conflict with each other, like rivers flowing in opposite directions. Your passions, your anxieties, your fears, your doubts, your goals, your ambitions – you must balance all of these things to achieve your greatest possible life. But at what cost? That’s what you must ask yourself. How far are you willing to go?
Time and distractions are great foes to be feared certainly, but if you’re looking for the most dangerous enemy of all, you needn’t look further than yourself. And you think you understand this fact. But you have no idea how far down it goes. Even at the end of this journey, there will still be more to discover. To bring up a more tangible example, you have dreamed of running an ultramarathon for awhile now. Ever since you saw that bumper sticker that said ‘100’ on it this past June, you had been curious. It planted a seed that took root in your brain, and now the forest is overgrown. You want to sign up for one, but you don’t know when would be the right time. And you’re already signed up for Pittsburgh and New York City this year, which puts you in a precarious situation. But you question whether or not you even have what it takes. And if you do step through that door, what if there’s no going back? No way out? What if you’re in too deep? The climb is too great? As the saying goes, it’s a long way to the top if you want to rock and roll. No pun intended.”
He chuckles. Then continues.
“I’m rambling here a bit, which I tend to do on the rare occasions I talk on stage, but let me bring this back home. You can. What it is you can do is open ended. But you can. Will you is another matter altogether. Like I said, I know how this is supposed to end. But there are still too many variables at this point. As I mentioned, you are at a crossroads. A confluence. Pittsburgh represents that confluence. You already know the direction you are going to sail. Now, you just have to understand why.
As far as this whole “can’t” business, it is not about “can” or “can’t”. The fact of the matter is you must. And it’s not just the race. You have to put one foot in front of the other and just keep going. The river is constantly flowing. You cannot stop its direction. So give up this petty weakness of heart and RISE. Because what if you can do it? What if you can be the one to balance it all? What if you could find the key to unlock all of these doors? The Native Americans called the Hudson River the Mahicantuck or “the river that flows two ways.” What if you can be that?
What I also know is that you must tell your tale. You must sing your song from the highest of mountaintops. You must sound your barbaric YAWP over the roofs of the world. All of you have had it wrong all of these years. The Book is not written by the great and powerful Icculus. It is written by you. ALL of you. We are all strands in this beautiful interwoven tapestry. All the intricacies connected by a force almost unexplainable. We are a part of something so much bigger than ourselves. And we have the incredible power to either create or destroy.”
He pauses and adjusts his glasses. He looks up at the stars.
“Ball’s in your court, Coach. What will it be?”
It’s a lot to process. I force myself to swallow. The only thing I can think to respond with is a throwback phrase to my restaurant days – “Heard” – which I accompany with a knowing nod.
“And another thing,” he continues without missing a beat, “can you quit focusing on other works in your writing? Seriously, your first blog series was full of lyrics and quotes from movies or TV shows like if you’re some second rate Bill Simmons or Chuck Klosterman wannabe. You’re a decent enough writer in your own respect. You don’t need to use that stuff as a crutch. You have so much to offer, so much to provide. I want to hear you.”
I am completely touched by this backhanded compliment. One of my favorite songwriters ever said I was a “decent enough writer.” I don’t get much feedback on the things I write, other than when I share it with Gf to look for any obvious errors or mistakes. I see the hits on my website go up, but don’t receive much in the form of praise or even criticism for that matter. And I’m left to wonder if I am too vulnerable or personal that it scares people off. I yearn for human connection more than anything, and it would be nice if this opened up some sort of dialogue. Dialogue that we might be too scared to bring up ourselves.
“That’s…wow, thanks,” I reply, clearly just locked in on the minor praise bestowed upon me. “Listen, you’ve been a big help, and you’ve given me a lot to think about. I can’t thank you enough. I am truly indebted to you.”
I am overwhelmed with emotions, and my head is spinning. Even though I know this is only the beginning, I know I will need to hold on to these feelings and hark back to this experience in the future. “As tribute to you and everything you’ve done for me, is it OK with you if I lead off every chapter in this next series with lyrics from different Phish songs?” I am so overwhelmed apparently that what escaped my mouth in that instance didn’t register in my brain. Oops.
Trey rolls his eyes and sighs, “Sure, whatever floats your boat, kid. It’s about time we start heading back anyway. It’s been long enough. This has all been wonderful, but now we must be on our way.”
“Sounds like a plan. Again, thanks. And hey, Trey…” I make sure I am making direct eye contact with him. “I won’t let you down.”
“It’s not about me,” his smile is friendly again. “It’s all you, Coach. And remember, there is another…” he says as he goes to pat me on the shoulder.
His last message to me is cut off, because the moment his hand comes in contact with my shoulder, I find myself back in The Garden. It takes me a few seconds to reorient myself, but there was no mistaking it. I was back.
I look at the stage, and there they were. One…two…three. Yep, four band members. All four. And they were in the middle of an absolutely exquisite jam.
The song ends and the crowd cheers. Gf turns to me, still clapping and asks:
“Hey what took you so long? I get you needed to pee, but you usually wait to go during a song like ‘Ocelot’ or before the really good part of ‘Reba’”
“Eh, I just couldn’t wait any longer. Did I miss much?” I ask, trying to sneakily find out how much of the show I had missed on this little adventure without bringing too much attention to it.
“Just part of the ‘Your Trip is Short’ song. It was really good though, I can’t wait to see what’s next.”
You and I both.