My eighteenth birthday. The Army recruiters would begin calling as soon as my registration for Reagan’s draft was processed. The government wouldn’t trust me with beer for another three years, yet I had to go down to my local post office and sign up to be shot if Ronnie’s hawks decided to spread freedom at the end of a gun.
If not for the fact that the United States has wasted the last ten years mired in overseas conflict my eighteen year-old self’s fears would seem like the melodramatic ranting of a teenager. They weren’t, though. By 1985 The Gipper already had taken his fireworks show to Grenada, armed the Afghan rebels, and gotten himself in the middle of Iran-Contra, though we wouldn’t know that for a couple of years.
Within a year of submitting my Selective Service registration U.S. warplanes bombed Libya. Lee G. and I sat on a beach that night, wondering if this was the beginning of the next war and if we were going to be drafted.
“The heat from a nuclear blast is so intense this whole beach would turn to glass,” he said. We filled out cards at a post office, and now we were going to be carbon in Reagan’s glass beach.
What a terrible thing to do to young people, to burden them with the fear that on any given day they might pick up the phone and be told that it is their time to die. And it wasn’t just males of registration age, no — my entire generation lived beneath a nuclear cloud, too. At anytime those dirty Commies might attack, kids. Duck and cover!
The eighties were a decade of impending doom. If the bomb doesn’t kill you then the Selective Service will, and if you manage to avoid both of those then crack and AIDS are waiting in the wings, not to mention that awful slam dancing that the kids are doing. But I’m not telling you anything you don’t know. We’re still whipping people into an apocalyptic frenzy.
Maybe the eighties weren’t so heavy; maybe it was just me. My girl dumped me, my father hated me, and every goddamned time I stepped out of the house someone was hassling me. Now it was time to register to be cannon fodder. Happy fucking birthday.
Sherri came over, wound her way down to my basement bedroom with a gift beneath her arm.
“What are you doing here?”
“It’s your birthday.”
“Just because we’re not dating anymore doesn’t mean I don’t love you. Happy birthday,” she said, and she handed me the gift. I don’t remember what it was, but I sobbed like a baby.
That evening I hid in the back of a darkened movie theater. No on else in the place but I sat with my back to the wall anyway, the little window leading to the projection room directly overhead. On screen a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal paid Saturday morning penance in an empty high school.
I was all of them with exception to the princess, and even that was debatable. And that empty school, the hallways so quiet. No jeers, no threats of violence.
Film rattled through the projector’s gate and sparkly actors emoted and I couldn’t hear anything but the voice inside of me telling me that it was time to die. Pictures flickered through my head: me hanging in the woods behind my house, shorter ropes dangling my arms like the lifeless puppet that I was. My name wasn’t even my own, it was my father’s, and I failed miserably living up to that implicit standard.
Then I was climbing to the top of the skeletal trestle bridge where Lee G. and I wasted summer evenings, launching myself into the darkness in hopes what I would be sliced in two by one of the abandoned cars rumored to lurk beneath Mud Creek’s still surface.
A straight razor. Open the veins and let the red red kroovy flow.
That empty high school. For months images of my bright red and pink insides splashed across across the glossy white tiles of my school’s bathroom flashed intrusively through my mind. James as Pollock painting, porcelain squares the canvas.
The voice and I agreed that this last scenario made the most sense. Give the people what they want, and then let them mop it up. If you want blood, you got it. Tomorrow would be the day.
Spoiler alert: Tomorrow came and I didn’t follow through. The voice was not pleased. If it couldn’t kill me then it would dredge up all of the angry little voices lurking beneath my skin. You are not wanted. Nobody wanted you here, you invited yourself. You are weak. Your father won’t be seen in public with a faggot. You are worthless. You know you can’t sing, right? You are a failure. You ain’t going to amount to nothing, craphead. You are ugly, stupid. You are an asshole.
The process was complete. There was no longer any need for criticism from the outside world. I’d taken it all in, stitched it into my own Frankenstein monster capable of greater damage than any pitchfork-wielding villager could ever hope to cause. I was a fully self-contained criticism machine.
Fifteen years later two kids in trench coats much like the one I used to wear opened fire on their high school classmates. I happened to be visiting my parents when the news broke. “You kids never would’ve done something like that. We raised you right,” my father said.
I stared at him, unsure whether I was confused, frustrated or amused. He was right, but just barely.