Who Are You?
I sat at the kitchen table back in early September. Jerri, my mom, sat across from me. She studied a giant accounting book. She wore this business suit because she'd decided not to be in love with anyone but herself, to go back to college, to be a student and learn accounting, and then get a real job and a real career, which I thought was a pretty good idea because she's always seemed a little pathetic. (Working an hour a day as a crossing guard isn't a great career.) She sighed and read. Meanwhile, I studied a bunch of brochures from colleges who were recruiting me to play football.
My brain hurt. All these college brochures listed different majors I could take: agriculture, biology, French, engineering, English, journalism, badminton, bowling, urban geography, female studies, anthropology, ball cell anatomy, the bugle, bun steeling, cat sexuality, business, marketing, mass media, ass scratchology, etc. What? Ass what? My eyes hurt.
All the brochures had pictures of students sitting in classrooms smiling and listening to bearded professor dudes who were clearly, energetically imparting some kind of giant, important life lesson about how the world really works. How? I wondered. What? My head swam.
"Jerri," I said, "I'd like to know how the world really works."
"Shh," Jerri said. "I'm studying."
"But I can't decide. Too many colleges. Too many freaking majors. I can't think."
"Don't think so hard," she said.
"Good one. Thanks."
"Yeah." She didn't look up from her book. "Don't think."
I stared across the table at her. She used to look like a hippie with little jangling bells sewn into her skirts. No more. "Okay. Why'd you go to college here?" I asked. "Back when you decided? Did Bluffton have some good programs?"
Jerri looked up from her book. She squinted. She shook her head, then she talked fast. "My dad was a jerk and I couldn't go anyplace else because he wanted me to stay in town, so I'd keep bartending at his bar on the weekends so he could get drunk."
"Oh," I said.
"Yeah." She nodded. Her face turned red. "Stop, Felton."
"So..." I said, even though I knew I should stop talking. "At least you didn't have to make any big choices that might totally destroy your future if you screwed them up, right?"
"Felton," Jerri said. "Be quiet."
"I'm sorry. I know. You're studying."
"No. Just shut the hell up," Jerri spat. "Okay?" Her face was very red by that point. "I made no choices and then your father and now I'm almost forty and I'm still stuck here."
"Yeah," I said. "You're stuck. With me."
Jerri nodded. Then she looked back down at her accounting book.
I got up, kicked my chair back, and left the table. I went downstairs and out the door into the garage and got on my speedy-ass bike and biked the hell away from my terrible house and my mom, Jerri, who has often made me hate the whole world.
Hi, my name is Felton Reinstein. It's true: I'm stupid fast. It's true: I'm blessed. It's true: I have big problems. It's just true.
I rode through the warm fall night. I buzzed it. Gravel flew when I cranked through the curves. This wasn't a pleasure ride. I felt like I might get sick. Freaking Jerri.
Eventually, I went over to Gus's house.
Gus has always been my best friend. His dad and my dad were actually good friends way back in the day. We have a giant history filled with lots of sitting around and talking about The Avengers and Muppets and also girls, and we also spent time planning for revenge against our enemies at school who were so mean to us. (We never enacted any of our plans. They were pretty elaborate though, like breaking into Ken Johnson's house during summer vacation and crapping in all his socks, which would've been gross and also kind of impossible.)
My absolute earliest memory of Gus is from when we were still crawling. I remember this open-mouthed, drooling kid. (I've remembered lots of weird stuff in the last year.) He drooled a bunch and hugged my head and put his mouth over my nose. I remember his wet little baby tongue licking my face. This is not a memory I've shared with him.
In the fall, Gus still had his punk hair wad, which he'd had since middle school (except for a while, after his grandma made him cut it), which covered his eyes and made him look like an excellent sheepdog.
Later that same night in September, the two of us sat in his kitchen eating Pizza Rolls. He was freaking out about applying to all these prestigious little liberal arts colleges. He was leaning over the table chewing a hot Pizza Roll, so his mouth didn't stay closed. He jabbered fast.
"They all want this personal essay from me saying who the hell I think I am. Who am I to actually believe I'm cool enough to go their school? Grades aren't enough! Forensics, National Honor Society, student government...not enough! I have to write out my philosophy! Tell them what I really think. Jesus! It takes hours. And I can't write the same essay for all the schools because they all word the question a little differently, so my focus has to be on something a little different, and, dude, it's not like I don't have homework!
"You think I'm going to let Abby Sauter be the valedictorian? Hell no! Abby? Not a chance, man. Victory will be mine. So I can't take a damn break from studying. Plus essays! I'm going crazy!"
"Hmm. Tough," I said, my mouth packed with a Pizza Roll.
"You don't have to do any of this, do you?"
"This? What's this?" I asked.
"You just get by on your fat legs."
"I don't have fat legs."
"Giant man football thighs. I can't believe how easy it is for you. College recruiters busting down your door. Filling out your paperwork."
"What paperwork?" I asked.
"That's what I mean!" Gus shouted.
"Wait. You don't know my pain," I said.
Gus's dad walked into the kitchen carrying a big leather notebook where he keeps lecture notes for teaching. (He's a professor.) He stroked his beard and nodded at me. "What schools are you considering, Felton? Hope you're paying attention to academics and not just athletics," he said.
"I don't know," I said. "There are too many. They call all the time. I just got a text from UNLV."
"Las Vegas?" Gus's dad asked.
"Yeah. I guess."
"I hope Jerri is giving you some advice," he said.
"Uh...sure. Tons," I said.
Gus's dad furrowed his brow. He breathed in and stared down at me. "Well, if you narrow down a list of schools, you can bring it over and I'll tell you what I know about their programs. Would that help?" he asked.
"Yeah. Yes," I said. "Please."
"I don't know anything about football," he said. "But remember. This is a great time in your life."
"The hell it is!" Gus shouted.
"Calm down, boy. My God." Gus's dad laughed and left the kitchen with a banana.
"I'm in crisis here and Dad's eating a banana," Gus said. He held up his hair wad so I could see his giant, freaked-out eyeballs.
"Calm down, boy," I said. "Your dad is awesome."
"What would you write if you had to justify your whole existence?" he asked.
I put on my best redneck accent. "I play football real good."
"Yeah, funny," Gus said.
I thought it was funny. A few minutes later, I biked home. Jerri was already asleep. The recruiters weren't though. I got a text message about Iowa football at 11:45 on a Saturday night.
Justify your existence, I thought.
Yes, I'm stupid fast. But I can also be pretty stupid. We all have that ability, I think.
Oh no. You are not alone.
Also this: I have big problems. Seriously.
At 1 a.m., I texted my girlfriend, Aleah. She had a recital that night in Chicago, where she lived at the time. She's a big-time pianist. The New York Times called her the best young African-American pianist in the country. I'm not kidding. Then a whole bunch of people wrote in to tell the New York Times that couching their compliment with "African-American" was racist. She's the best young pianist of any race or color or whatever in America. That's what the commenters online said. The New York Times apologized. Aleah's so good we never get to see each other.
Go well? I texted.
She didn't answer until the next afternoon.
I wasn't tired. I texted Andrew, my little brother, who had moved to Florida over the summer to be with our grandpa Stan, to play in a Beach Boys cover band with a bunch of old farts who wear Hawaiian shirts, and to go to a private school for very smart kids. (Andrew is, in fact, a very smart kid.)
You awake? I texted.
No, he responded.
What's happening? I asked.
I sat there in bed, waiting for a reply, but I got no reply. Apparently, Andrew really wasn't awake.
Jerri. Aleah. Andrew. Gus freaking out, so all he could do was talk about college applications? I was lonely a lot in the fall.
And I carried this twist in my stomach, this tweak, ever since the summer when I'd met my grandpa (I guess I knew him when I was a little kid, but he hadn't talked to me and Andrew for over a decade and I didn't remember him), which never went away. It was like I had a hole in my gut and I felt lonely even when I was with people. This hole scared me. I lay in bed feeling lonely.
Focus on the good stuff, I told myself. Focus on the good stuff. The great stuff. Football is great stuff! Grandpa told you to love the game. Football! It's great! It's the best! It's awesome! Think about Cody throwing the ball to you or Karpinski catching a screen and you knocking the shit out of some kid who wants to tackle him or Reese, that sweet fat ass, hitting a linebacker and you cut and you see daylight and you explode and the crowd goes wild and you fly down the field in this blur of stadium light and light speed and the end zone comes rushing up so fast in a blur that it doesn't seem possible you run so fast...
I think I fell asleep.
Playing football last fall was great. For real. I was ESPN's third-ranked running back in the whole damn nation. Might've been number one, except they said I played against weak competition because Bluffton, Wisconsin, is small and the schools we played were small.
Football is great. When I play football, everything makes sense. There's a goal. Score a touchdown! There are rules. Don't crush anyone after the whistle blows! There are quarters and halves and time-outs, and at the end of the game, you know if you've won or lost.
Last fall, Bluffton High School never lost. Me and my football pals Cody, Karpinski, and Reese? That was a hell of a way to end a senior year of football, right? State title.
It was perfect.
I woke up that Sunday morning in September and rolled out of bed worried I'd forgotten something. I've always been pretty good at school for reasons unknown. (I'm naturally sort of distracted.) I opened my school email to see if I'd brought home everything I needed to do my English homework for Monday. There was a message from the guidance counselor. It said:
Seniors invited to be senior mentors. Help a freshman acclimate to high school. Great for college application!
I stared at the email. Justify your existence, I thought.
Right then, Andrew texted back.
I'm awake now. Why do you insist on sending messages in the middle of the night? Florida IS an hour later, my brother.
I squinted at the phone. I thought. I wrote.
You ever feel a need to justify your existence?
I am a whole human being. I need to justify nothing.
I read. I nodded. I wrote.
Then I emailed the guidance counselor and said I'd like to be a senior mentor.
Mr. Childers was ecstatic that I volunteered.
FELTON? REALLY? THAT'S FANTASTIC!
"I just want to give back to the community. I've been blessed, you know?" I said to the mirror while I combed my hair.
Tommy Bode, freshman schlub.
The next morning, Monday, we met. My mentee walked into the classroom in this stumblebum sort of way that made me know he'd been picked on his whole dipshit life. (I understand this-before football, I was a dipshit much like him, except skinny and squirrely instead of chubby and pork faced.) His eyes were nervous and shifty. He had fat, red cheeks. He wore a giant T-shirt with a Bakugan warrior on it.
"Hey there, buddy!" I said. "Nice to meet you!"
"I know you," he said.
He nodded. His eyes watered. "You're Andrew Reinstein's brother," he said.
Most people in my hometown don't know me as Andrew's brother. Most know me as a football player.
I nodded. I said, "Yeah. That's right. Andrew!"
"I heard Andrew moved. Why didn't you move?" he asked.
"I don't know," I said. I paused and stared at his face. I smiled too big. "I like it here, I guess!"
"Oh. Weird," Tommy said.
We stared at each other for a few seconds.
"What are we supposed to do?" he asked.
"Talk about what it's like to be a student, that kind of thing," I said.
"Do we have to?" he asked.
"I don't know," I said. "Maybe not?" I felt my ears heat up. "Do you want to talk about something else?" I asked.
He sat down at the desk next to me. "Not really," he said. He started doodling in his notebook. He drew a pig with an arrow stuck in its head.
"Whoa," I said. "That's a fine-looking pig!"
"Thanks," he said.
Then I watched him draw for twenty minutes until the bell rang. I felt a cloud of doom around us. I understood Tommy Bode in a weird way, okay?