Read Worlds Apart Online

Authors: Luke Loaghan

Tags: #Fiction & Literature

Worlds Apart (2 page)

 

 

Chapter 1

“A man without regret never looks back.”

In my hand was the small strip of paper from my fortune cookie. My eyes held its message; my mind held its meaning. I do not pay attention to fortune cookies. Who does, anyway? Why read too much into randomly generated wisdom? I am not and never have been superstitious, nor am I one to read into trivial, ancient Chinese secrets. My father is a different story. He glanced at the paper for some time, reading my fortune cookie as was his custom. My father searched deeper for its meaning, as if it was a message from the gods, fate, or the universe, and maybe all three at once. My father pointed out that there was an extra fortune cookie on the table. My brother laughed. I opened the superfluous fortune, ate the cookie, and read the message. It said, as the first one had, “A man without regret never looks back.”

One of our few traditions was to eat Chinese food the night before the first day of school. We ate at a low-priced Chinese restaurant called Ho Lee Kitchen in Astoria. My father considered eating out an unnecessary expense, as money was tight. Much was considered unnecessary by my father, who was frugal and firm.

The fortune cookie was not a big mystery, just a random message from thousands that made its way into my hands, albeit twice.

School began on a cold autumn week in September. I went with a new jacket – not too expensive, but a good, warm jacket. I looked really good in it, more sophisticated, and maybe even suave.

In front of the mirror in the boy’s bathroom, I remembered the classic Greek myth about a boy that fell in love with his own reflection. I knew students who thought too highly of their intelligence, too highly of their athletic abilities, and too highly of themselves. They were Narcissus by different means.

I placed my new jacket in my locker, secured the lock, and then went to each class on the schedule, obtained my books, and met all my teachers. This was the last time I saw my jacket; it mysteriously vanished before the end of the day. When I returned to my locker, a live snake had taken the place of my jacket. The snake hissed, I gasped, and jumped back. The snake fell to the floor and slithered out of my sight quickly. It was a calling card from the thief, a member of a street gang called the Deceptors. This was part of high school in Brooklyn. I should have known better and not left my jacket in my locker. Over the years I had lost so many things. It was frustrating and I was sick of it, but I was accustomed to vanishing possessions.

My English teacher, Mr. Zoose was drinking a Coke. He waved hello and smiled as he walked into his classroom, and as always, he placed an apple on his desk. He was one of the best teachers at Stanton.

I should mention that I played guitar. My musical ability was what I was most famous for in high school. Everyone gets a reputation for something in high school. Some kids are well known for being the class clown, or for their excellent grades. Some are well known for their heroic accomplishments on the football field or for who they date. Some kids are well known for how they dress, how they wear their hair, or who they befriend. No one at Stanton reads the school newspaper, so hardly anyone cared that I was the sports editor. Ask anyone who I was, and they’ll tell you that I was a great guitar player and a pretty good singer as well.

The guitar is not even considered a serious orchestral instrument; but the way I played, it brought tears of joy and sorrow to those who listened, and always brought down the house at school shows. Sometimes my music even tamed the wild beasts on the football team. It surprised me how many people really listened. In past years, I have played in the cafeteria, on the subways, on the street corners, in the park across the street, and whenever and wherever I could. I didn’t need to find an audience; whenever I played guitar or sang, an audience found me.

I was not one of those eccentric, self-indulgent, artsy-fartsy types. I didn’t dress
avant garde
or like a homeless hippie to play music. I dressed like a normal teenager from a poor family. I played from my heart, with hunger and passion, and that was good enough to be a great guitar player without dressing the part. Besides, it was expensive to dress like a starving artist.

Don’t get me wrong; I did take pride in my role as the sports editor. I exercised poetic license when writing about the exploits of our school’s athletes. The athletes always liked my articles; after all, it was about them. I made them seem like heroes, but that’s the job of a sports writer. I was rarely complimented on my writing. Most of my fellow students congratulated me on my great guitar playing, even though I had not played for them since the previous year.

I had a solo in each of the past three school holiday performances and also at graduation each year. My singing was improving. This was my only talent, but it carried little significance on a college application. What was the likelihood that I could make a living in the future playing guitar? Slim. There were enough starving musicians in the world. It’s hard to risk my future on the guitar or even a career in music. Besides, classical guitar was dying, destined to be an antiquity like its predecessor, the lyre. It was already replaced by its electric versions in school events. I could play electric and acoustic guitar better than anyone I knew, but I decided to put the guitar aside to focus on graduating high school.

I did not look like I was about to graduate high school. I had not grown into a man like other boys had. To tell the truth, I was still waiting for puberty to fully kick in. I was medium height, thin, and insecure about my build. Actually, I was insecure about lots of things. I wished I was built faster and stronger, that my body had produced more testosterone. I wished that I had developed hand-eye coordination like a short stop or a point guard. If that had happened, I could’ve been a great athlete. But I can’t waste anymore time looking back at what could’ve been. No more looking back, only looking forward.

There was a school newspaper meeting after school. Not only was I the sports editor, but frankly, I was the only normal person on the school newspaper editor’s staff. Everyone else was uptight, never smiled, never joked around, and only talked about how important they were to the fate of the newspaper and the minds of the students. The other senior editors on the paper talked about how they were prepared to work on the school newspaper all night. It was not the New York Times; it was just a crappy high school newspaper that no one read.

The editors were engulfed in a media power struggle existing in their own minds. Each tried to prove that they were smarter and knew better than anyone else. They would debate headlines for hours. I was part of a staff of pretentious type-A personalities. As far as the notion of working all night on the paper, it was for not me. I was leaving by six p.m. no matter what. I had to get home to study. I also had to prepare dinner two nights a week.

Besides, the other editors on the school paper were Ivy League types. They were smart, annoyingly so, tightly wound, pedantic, and mentally disturbed; a winning combination for acceptance at an Ivy League school or for living in Manhattan.

I couldn’t even apply to the Ivy League schools. I didn’t have the grades or the money for the applications. The little money I had made during the summer helped pay the bills at home. I couldn’t ask my father for the money; he was too busy reminding me that we didn’t have any. My father worked hard, but we were barely getting by. Our family went from middle class to poor when my father lost both of his jobs, and we took on boarders to survive. This happened a couple of years prior, and we’d been playing catch up ever since.

I felt too guilty to ask for money for another reason. How could I convince my father that I was an adult, capable of living on my own, and then ask for money for college applications? I needed to make my own money. I had to make smart choices in life. If I was accepted to an expensive college, how would I even pay for it? I suppose that I could have taken loans and spent the rest of my life in heavy debt. This was something that he would not understand. My father didn’t even use credit cards.

Besides, I didn’t want to be another poor kid doing dishes at a college for rich kids. It was not a question of placing my ego within harm’s way; rather, I wanted my college experience to be different from the poor life I was living. Already humbled by my family’s lack of money, I didn’t need to get humbled at college as well. Private schools were out for me.

What was the difference anyway between a private college education and a state college education, other than price? Exclude the brand name recognition, and just consider the actual education. Were their books different from the ones at state college? If so, I’d just read their books. Were their professors smarter than the state college professors? I read somewhere that many state college professors actually went to expensive, elite schools. What’s the point of going to an elite private school, if all you aim to do in life to teach at a state school?

I was determined to be a self-made success story no matter where I attended college. College was my ticket to the middle class and beyond. I had to also avoid membership in the growing class of people that were educated and poor that drive beat up cars with multiple bumper stickers from various private universities. We lived on the same block as a guy with a PhD from New York University in mechanical engineering, a Master’s degree from Columbia in Applied Sciences, and a Bachelor’s degree from Dartmouth in Early Languages. He drove an old clunker with a bumper held up by duct tape. So much for his degree in mechanical engineering. That will never be me. He needs a bumper sticker in sanskrit telling him to get a new car.

I still didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. But I knew that I needed to be smarter, make money, and not end up like my father, my grandparents, or my aunts and uncles. I came from a long line of hard working poor people. What good was that? They all dropped dead of exhaustion at an early age, never getting to enjoy retirement.

Some of my teachers had graduate degrees from expensive universities. They wore clothing from twenty years before and took the subway. It was like they had a degree in being poor. Why can’t there be a PhD in being rich? There wasn’t a college offering this degree. There is no crime in being poor, but there are serious repercussions.
Poordom
prevents people from pursuing their God-given talents and dreams, such as playing the guitar for a living. The most serious consequence of
poordom
was the inferiority complex that I had developed which prevented me from asking out the girl of my dreams.

Delancey was a girl I had known throughout high school. I’m not one for clichés, but she was different from all the other girls. She wasn’t necessarily the prettiest girl at Stanton, though she was in my eyes, and she wasn’t the highest ranked either. Delancey had never been a cheerleader, but she brought a cheer wherever she went. There was a certain quality about her that everyone noticed and some boys chased after. Perhaps it was the way she smiled. Often friendly, she was a regular Miss Congeniality, like a ray of morning sunshine after a long, dark night. I liked so many things about Delancey, but especially the fact that I could talk to her about anything.

The previous year we had talked about her dreams of success, her addiction to Coca Cola, and her infatuation with everything British. Her favorite band was Journey, and her favorite song from that band was “Separate Ways.” Delancey and I had been in so many classes together that I actually knew a lot about her. Junior year, she dressed as the Statue of Liberty for Halloween, and it really didn’t seem out of place or even out of character. If it wasn’t for the green makeup, no one would think she was wearing a costume. She had thick, brown locks of hair atop her tall, demure figure, and she walked with a certain regal gait. Delancey almost always wore blue jeans and sometimes a tee shirt emblazoned with a rock band. She dressed bohemian, and that was by design. She had the long, elegant fingers of the aristocracy. Delancey went out of her way to look like an average girl, but there was a soul behind her eyes, something far above average, that made me yearn for her to be closer to me.

Delancey was an average tennis player, and I wrote a few articles about her tennis accomplishments last year, which annoyed the good tennis players. I really didn’t care; I wanted to write about Delancey, and made a five minute interview stretch for an hour and a half. She could trace her genealogy to the Mayflower. She belonged to a country club in Long Island, where her mother lived. She once mentioned this in passing. No other student at Stanton, or all of Brooklyn for that matter, belonged to a country club on Long Island. She was a true American beauty, having grown up on Long Island, and moved to the city to live with her father when her parents divorced. Sometimes I thought that she liked me too, but I could never believe that. What would a girl like Delancey see in a poor boy like me? Although I really liked her, my malevolent friend, Sam, was obsessed with her.

Sam, like most kids at Stanton, was hell bent on getting into an Ivy League school. Sam’s parents would have to struggle to pay for it, but he was more than okay with that. Sam boasted that his father was a doctor, but his father was not the kind of doctor that made a lot of money. Sam’s father, an immunologist, did mostly research at a hospital in the city. His family had recently spent their life savings to pay for his sister’s hospital bills. She had died of cancer the previous year. It was ironic that an immunologist’s daughter died from a cancer of the blood. The death of his sister left his family mentally off kilter, and financially and emotionally broke. Sam once said to me, in a rare moment of sincerity, he felt his parents would never recover from his sister’s passing. A family can recover from financial hardships, but tragedy lingers in silence for generations.

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