Mow the Tiles

Moving into life lessons

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in Features • Illustrated by Eric Lauterbach

I grew up in Mansfield, Massachusetts, which is perhaps not an especially notable place on its own, but I loved it. My neighborhood was loaded with kids, and we were all the same age. You played epic games of baseball and football in backyards, street hockey upon roads which hardly saw any traffic. There was a forest extending back many acres that enclosed the rear portion of the neighborhood, what one might think of as its spine, and if you loved nature, as I did, you could hike for hours, pull snapping turtles and crayfish from brooks, learn to identify birds by their songs.  

When you’re a certain age and you grow up around kids your own age, you end up with friends, normally. Not everyone. Doesn’t mean the young people who don’t are somehow at fault or lacking. But I knew for me, and I was beginning to learn it then, at the age of 11, those deep connections were rare. And I’ve always needed a true connection, which is different than “mere” friendship.   

It’s always surprised me that people don’t mention moving more, how it impacted them first as kids, then later in life as the adult the kid grew into. I know there are children with parents in the military, who hop from country to country, continent to continent, as part of the natural course of things, but I also know that the moves my family made fundamentally altered all of our lives, in ways beyond geography. 

I don’t know what would have happened if we never moved, but I do know I would not be quite the person I became, nor the artist. Hockey was my big thing at the time. Local star. Doing well, my game getting better all the time. Hockey players are pretty tight with each other, at every age. They are usually funny and they tend to be grounded. They are loyal. I like all of these things. In life, people who played hockey, and people who like the sea are, as a rule of thumb, good people to be around. But hockey players, on a team, can also be a little clannish. It’s tough for the outsider to come in.  

My dad and I sat in the car outside of this rink after my family had made its first move: Ridgefield, Connecticut, halfway through my fifth-grade year. It was black as tar sludge outside, dark enough that you thought you’d arrived at the wrong time on the wrong day, that surely the rink was closed, no games were being played inside of it. This was going to be my first practice with my new teammates. Were they any good at hockey? Were they nice? What would I say? Would there be one person who reached out to me more than the others? Should I look at the ground or try and look people in the faces if and when the coach introduced me to the locker room?  

All of these questions were running through my head. In the darkness, once your eyes adjusted, you could make out the falling snow, which would have been picturesque, if I wasn’t so scared. I was about to take a deep breath, throw open the door, grab my bag and stick and go in, when my dad, as if he anticipated the very moment when I would pull more air than usual into my lungs, said, “I am very proud of you,” which now, a couple of decades after his death, is the moment I most think of when I think of my dad. 

Connecticut was a challenge. The fitting in part, gathering friends when it seemed like everyone else had been friends for so long. My sister Kara, eight years younger than myself, was sufficiently young enough to not be as impacted by this and barely even remembers living in Mansfield. Her transition was a simple one. My other sister Kerrin, though, did not fare as well. She was the middle child, also adopted like I was, from different biological families. We’re talking a while ago when less was known about the mental and behavioral problems that can plague us: anxiety, bipolarity, depression.  

She got picked on a lot but was also large-hearted to a degree that she’d turn around and do something nice for one of her tormentors. Later on, she would lie, which aggrieved my father, during what turned out to be the short amount of time he had left, but she didn’t do cruelty. Not calculating cruelty.  

When you are picked on in that fashion, and your first inclination is to give, to bring forth kindness, you’re often someone who imagines that you’re being picked on even when you are not. You’re conditioned to it. You go into a bathroom, two people giggle as you enter, you assume they are talking about you, so you put your head down, walk past them, do what you have to do, feeling embarrassed, feeling shame, wondering what you did wrong this time. The toll is massive, over time.  

My existence was two-part: I played hockey, at an even higher level than before, and I wrote. I read. I absorbed all of the music I could, but all of that was part of writing for me. I learned everything there had ever been to learn about the Beatles. By the time I was in high school, a typical Monday consisted of being up before school for hockey practice, going to classes, hanging with the three or four friends I had. It was never more. I’d get picked on a lot, which might seem odd. I was a dominant athlete, one of the best hockey players in the state, not the sort who usually gets teased and mocked. But I was an unlikely blend.  

As much as I excelled at hockey, art was really my thing. The knowledge, the writing, the subjects I knew so much about and was adding to daily. On those Mondays, and on most days, I’d stay after school, though there was no need in the “your grades are lagging” sense, to get better at learning, be it with a science teacher who would show me extra experiments, or an English teacher who sat eyeball to eyeball with me, going over Shakespeare, taking apart the plays, the language, the structuring.  

A lot of kids respected me, perhaps, but they didn’t want to be my friend. I did have a best friend, and we were tight. I still know him, albeit from afar. We don’t do a good job of staying in touch, though I admire the man he became. He’s a firefighter in Danbury, Connecticut now and one of the smartest people I’ve known. Good-at-life smart. Most people pretend to know what matters, few do, and fewer still do know what matters and thrive. He’s also a romantic. We’ve really only had one phone conversation in these many years since we spent a lot of time together. It was in 2013. My life had fallen apart by that point, not that it had been going well. I had a wife who left, no forewarning, no statement of concern that we were not working. We’d just bought a house. She took it, sold it. She took everything. I am never pleased with myself when I mention her departure, her betrayal — turns out she was with someone else — because a lot of worse things have happened since, due to the nature of the business I am in, and you think, should I be mentioning this a different way? You think of how you can leave it out, but it’s hard to leave out because that one hole in your narrative makes three dozen others. Holes beget holes.  

I always called my friend by his last name, Schiller. I don’t think he ever called me Colin. A bit like Holmes and Watson. A few years ago, a woman named Alexandra had reached out to me, having read my work and learned of something of my story, at least the marriage part. She lived in LA, where she ran a business I thought of as scam-y, where wealthy parents paid her lots of money to work with their kids for years — starting in like eighth grade — to help them get into their preferred schools, which, of course, means absolutely nothing in this life. But she was smart, she was well-read. She flipped out if you called her Alex. I knew that connection was rare, the world smaller than ever, and I think I understood the flexibility of geography better than most — or, better than most of the friends I had over the years.  

I called Schiller when she was flying to Boston to see me, to get his take. Being a romantic had served him well. I remember him telling me on the phone about how low he had been at various points of life, relaying stories in his colorful way. “I was so ashamed of myself, I’d be having sex with someone and I couldn’t even cum, and I’d go home and like cry.” Schiller went to a wedding once. He sees the bride-to-be, turns to his buddy at the wedding, and says, “I’m going to marry that woman.” Keep in mind that Schiller, at this wedding, is not the husband-to-be. He’s a guest. He’s probably wolfing down shrimp and having a beer as he says this. His buddy, of course, assumes Schiller is being foolish.  

Now hop a few years into the future. That bride-to-be who became that bride-who-was has a tough marriage and gets divorced. Who do you think she falls in love with and marries subsequently? That’s right — Schiller. As for Alex, she ended up in a mental institution, got out, renounced love and consequential human interaction, took more money from more rich parents, and our narrative leaves here doing the same, still in LA. My point is that somewhere in Connecticut, after moving for the first time, I began to see friendship differently, as a potential force that made proximity not irrelevant — you want to be in the same place, having wonderful days together — but not the utmost in relationship gauging; in fact, proximity can be obfuscating.  

When you understand friendship in this way, you begin to grasp the difference between connection and activity. A lot of people are glorified activity partners, whether they’re friends, partners, husband and wife, wife and wife, husband and husband. Take away the shared geography, they’re not left with much to go on. I knew, early, in my first couple of years of high school, that would never be enough for me. I probably knew before then, on some plane of my being; but that was when I could have consciously told you how it stood.  

There is a saying that the elderly, above all, like to use: You can’t take it with you. But you can, you do — our external loves become internally printed upon us. Stamped. Threaded through. When an external love is great enough, real enough, that such threading transpires, we know that these are the people, the things—and yes, it can be a thing; a beloved film, a record that changed us, mom’s favorite broach she left us — we must move towards, or back towards.  

When we cannot — which is sometimes just a reality of life, even of moving — we must remember and we must reapply. But in moving, as I would learn in other matters, even as pain and loss and alienation mounted, there is a kind of internal superfluidity that you need in order to both adjust and to keep searching. You are taking so much with you — and it needs to have max utility. That’s ultimately how you’re going to be happy if you’re going to be happy. Right place and right time go a long way, of course, but they will count for nothing, you might slide past them, without your internal superfluidity. Schiller never moved anywhere in his life, but he had internal superfluidity. He wouldn’t have married that woman without it.  

There was some perfunctory thought to me living with Schiller and his dad — his parents were divorced — for my last two years of high school, because we were moving again, to the suburbs of Chicago. My dad’s company had lied. They made him the hatchet man, the guy who had to tell employees that their services were no longer needed, which ripped apart a man like my father, who was then told to up and move again.  

My father said he didn’t want to relocate his family a second time. I am sure what happened, was he gave his reasons, which were specific to each of us, more so Kerrin, Kara, and me than he and my mom, because they always put us first. He was in some kind of meeting with bosses and he said something about his son and school and hockey, and one of these other guys says, “Just put him in a fucking prep school,” and my dad reached across the table for him. I am sure nothing about that story is remotely apocryphal. He didn’t tell me. My mom did, years later, after my dad was gone.  

He hated having to tell me that we were off again. I knew it was coming. He’d left his job and tried to find a comparable job in the area, an extended area, but he was overqualified, the boss who still had a few bosses above him, but not many. I remember telling him to try hard, to find something, please, which was a dick move on my part, because he didn’t need more pressure. I knew about myriad forms of pressure — not like I would later, but enough, even at the physical level, just as these trying circumstances took a toll on my dad physically. 

They had largely dissipated by this time, but in my earlier years, I suffered from migraines that would leave me in bed for days — blocks of time when I would lose half a week as if I had entered into a mini-coma. I’d be conscious, but not in the regular way where you note the passage of hour, day, a meal missed. I lay in my parents’ bed, because in my memory, at least, these migraines transpired against a backdrop of warm weather, and they had an air conditioner unit, in those days before central air.  

I tried to focus my mind, imagining that my forehead was comprised of a bony road that happened to be sheathed under the skin; a good road that would take you where you wished to be, but now the road was clotted with these torturous tiles of ill-fitting sizes, and I required a cutting device, like a lawnmower, to pass over them, through them, sheer them away, restore that road of bone.  

I called this mowing the tiles, and when I got older and learned more words, I realized how close my would-be migraine-thwarting technique sounded like the term “motility,” which I understood to be the quality of moving. The link made sense. The migraines may have been no more, but there was still the pain of mowing the tiles, which came with each move.  

There had been dread in making the first move to Connecticut, but an adventuring theme — if slight — nonetheless. My dad and I had driven down to Ridgefield together after my parents bought our house, so I could see it, see the town. Maybe the dry-run of a visit would make matters easier, less of a stunning plunge. We had no furniture beyond a couple of step-stools, only the empty house we’d all be in soon enough. We camped out in the living room, on the green carpet, in sleeping bags. I felt like a settler, and the woods were contained within the safety of walls, such that you experienced whatever lurked in shadows, but you had protection, certainty, the relief of a light switch, the sanctuary of being next to someone who loved you and whom you thought looked funny in a sleeping bag. The woods outside — the environs of the town, as glimpsed through the windows of that empty house — felt vaguely master-able.

We moved the summer after my sophomore year of high school. The plan to live with Schiller wasn’t a very whole-hearted one. More like talking as we drove around during our final days together, buds about to say goodbye. The plan in Chicago was for me to go to an all-boys school, on account that the quality of hockey would be better. I was not an all-boys school kind of guy. Not that I was Mr. Popularity in public school. But there is an even higher clique quotient, it seems, and you’re hardly shocked when you attend such a school that at one time there was a literary sub-genre oriented around the various peer groups and their asinine pecking orders one finds within. Had you told me during my final high school hockey season in Connecticut — say, around Christmas — when I was tearing up the league, that by the next Yule my career as a hockey player would be over, I would have envisioned some horrific injury or grim medical diagnosis. Wasn’t what got me, in the end.  

I didn’t have any friends at school. In fact, in two years, I didn’t once eat lunch in the cafeteria. I never consumed a mouthful of food on campus. I was ostracized from the start. Initially, I dominated hockey. The team had this big-deal first-line center — who would go on to play at UNH — and I took his spot. Competition, right? Good stuff. Not really. Popular kid, and he had these friendships that had been intact for years. I was an interloper. Teammates stopped passing me the puck. Parents wouldn’t go near my dad in the stands.  

Something began to happen to my game. These kids weren’t as strong as players as the kids back East, but it was like I slowed down. Sometimes, years after, not that it really mattered, because this was not my calling, I’d look back, ask how the pack had caught me, had I put on weight, was it something along those lines? My drive was waning. Meanwhile, I was writing more than ever, reading more than ever, loading my head with knowledge. Studying books, music, films. My dad showed me how to drive to this one strip on Clark Street in downtown Chicago, where all of these record stores were. I strip-mined them for bootlegs LPs of the Beatles at the BBC, the Who tearing it up in America in 1970, the pre-fame Doors at some tiny ballroom in San Francisco.  

Instead of eating at school, I’d sit in the library, working on my prose. I took two English classes at once, which no one did, because both had a heavy Shakespeare load, and I wanted to train my mind to leap from a work like Hamlet in fourth period to Cymbeline in fifth. I wanted to keep the lines straight, the works distinct, understand differences. The discipline of autonomy.  

I envisioned making thousands of works of art when I was ready and when I was able, but I didn’t aim to be one of those artists who do the same thing, more or less, each time out. No one talked to me save this one kid who got a scholarship to Harvard to play football, a mediocre student. He thought he was doing me a favor by asserting to anyone in the vicinity that if you wanted to talk to someone smart, you should talk to the new kid, he was smarter than the teachers, too, which I’m sure the teachers loved to hear. He died in Mexico on spring break, touched a fence after getting out of a pool, and was electrocuted. I’d come home and do six or seven hours of homework, but it went so far beyond what was assigned. A guidance counselor must have gotten word of something, because she told me to chill, essentially, to stop trying to learn so much. I could have spit. I didn’t. I was hanging on to all I had. I was so lonely. I also knew I had abilities unique to me, though I didn’t yet grasp their scope; but for the first time I was realizing that my greatest talents had nothing to do with playing a sport. I quit hockey.  

My parents were supportive, but my decision gutted my dad. It wasn’t that he wanted to vicariously live out athletic glory through his kid. My dad was never that way. But he blamed himself, did the “what if” game—what if we hadn’t moved, what if we had found a way to stay, what if I had lived with Schiller.  

My mom wouldn’t make this up and I knew she was telling the truth — hard as it was to conceive of my father this way — but later she told me that she’d find him in my room when I was out and he’d be crying. I didn’t know how to process that information, well into adulthood. After two years, I couldn’t wait to leave Middle America. I felt less myself when I was not near the sea. They say that Lake Michigan is sea-like, but one look at it told me this wasn’t the stuff for Melville nor for me. It looked glassy and flat and boring, like an aqueous hubcap that just kept going, un-roiled, passive. A sea comes at you, it brings energy and intensity and unflinching purpose. In the schema of bodies of water, be a sea, don’t be a lake. When pressed, you can make do as a river — at least they are going somewhere.  

What I wrote when we lived in Illinois was quite dreadful. Were I to revisit those words now, I suspect I would not see them as attempts at stories and poems, per se, so much as processes behind the making of stories and poems, tiles being mowed. I was learning how listening to albums helped me realize a song can teach you much about structuring a story. Writing a song was not about lyrics; a lot of it is shape-based and controlling the dance between sound and sense.   

Did almost everything about moving suck? Yes, everything about Chicago sucked for me, and I am not stating that here was an excellent way to go, nor advising anyone else to go the way I did. You don’t want to be alone, you don’t want to be friendless. But let’s say you are — for a time. Or life has gone — again, for a spell — in a manner akin to as if it had pistol-whipped you. A lot of people will try to wait out those periods. A lot of people give in to the pain of them. They never once more get whole. It’s like a war injury, a breathing condition — too much damn mustard gas — that never goes away.  

I was back East, out of college — but by only a few years — when my father died of a heart attack in Chicago. He was at a work meeting, sitting in his chair and he collapsed. I envision his face going flat against the table, but I do not know that it did. He never regained consciousness. I flew out. My mother and I held his hands as he died in the hospital. I smoked back then. The last time I smoked was that morning. Without my dad, and without my dad to be there for my mom, Kerrin’s situation got worse and worse. She struggled to make friends more than ever, ran with bad crowds, doubted herself, fought so much anxiety, had so little self-esteem. Gateway drugs gave way to heroin. She overdosed a number of times. My mom tried everything, all kinds of clinics, facilities. Kara and I tried to get her to see that this was not her fault, that she was doing everything she could for our sister, but that it had to come from her.  

Opioids are an evil thing. Take them once, they will probably take you forever. They can take parts of the people around you, too, who love you, whom you love. They are even more adroit in taking those people when those people are alone, which my mother, in some ways, was, without my father. She had us, she had her friends, but it is not the same. I went to Chicago again after my mother found my sister’s body in her room. She was 33. By then, my mother and I didn’t really talk. I was battling my own kind of hell in my industry and had gone through a divorce the likes of whose plot points of betrayal, treachery, and design, one would not encounter in ten thousand opera plots.  

I threw myself into my work, which I had already been thrown into for a long time, but I went to another level, then more, then exponentially more; and I got better and better, and more productive, more accomplished, by the day, could do things I never thought I could do. Write a novel in a week while six disparate pieces — something on sports, on film, on music, on art, a work of fiction — were published, and wrote ten other pieces that same week while sending out 125 letters to people who resented you because of the successes you were achieving all of the time in their gated-system. And my mom had so much anger. On account of what she had lost, on account of how hard it was, day in, day out, with Kerrin and being unable to stop her daughter from dying. Probably seeing what was happening to me, too. People always assume me to be the strong one, the person upon whom you can put your anger. In future years, I’d have a nervous breakdown, and it was all I could do to get up, not kill myself, create art, keep trying, but so little as a phone call from my mom would be something I could not handle.  

Unless she really needed me. Everything changes then. 

Even though we hadn’t been talking, we left the church together, after the service for her kid, my sister, just she and I, which I guess made a certain amount of sense. We have what I think of as rock people in this life. You might not get along with them, there might be problems, it may be less than ideal, there may be bad patches followed by good, an endless pattern, you might not even like them, they might not even love you, but when that time of “Good Christ, this has happened and I cannot handle it arrives,” we turn to our rock people and they to us. You might have one, you might have two, probably no more, unless you are very lucky or have some secret, and if you do you ought to share it.   

I don’t think moving fractured my family, but it was no help. My father died at 53 which he could have done in Connecticut (heart disease ran in his family, though no one else had been claimed that young) or way back in Mansfield. Kerrin’s problems were such that heroin could have entered her life anywhere, no matter that she had two parents who loved her, did everything they could for her. But I will say this, and I am somewhat surprised I am saying it: I don’t know if I would have been, or could be, what I am and will be, had I not learned to simultaneously cope and grow, while reeling, while alone, on account of those two moves.  

You come into this world with the ability you come into this world. You have it or you do not, despite the lies that something like an MFA program tries to sell people as part of their Ponzi schemes. F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote something about one possesses the baritone voice, the brown hair, and that’s it, a done deal, they are not acquisitions. Talent is that way, genius is that way. But your talent or your genius isn’t going to mean a lot if you don’t find a way to learn to master them. That process is not like shambling down a path strewn with rose petals. There are tiles that have to be cut into, sheared away. You need the clean, cleared, road of bone, and you move down that.  •

Colin Fleming’s latest book is Meatheads Say the Realest Things. His fiction appears in Harper's, Commentary, Virginia Quarterly Review, Salmagundi, and Boulevard, and his writings on art, film, music, literature, and sports run in The Atlantic, Salon, Rolling Stone, The Wall Street Journal, and JazzTimes. He has three books coming out in 2021: an entry in Bloomsbury's 33 1/3 series on Sam Cooke's Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963; a story collection with Dzanc called If You [ ]: Fantasy, Fabula, Fuckery, Hope; and a volume looking at 1951's Scrooge as the ultimate horror film from Auteur; with a novel called Musings With Franklin: A Novel Told in Conversation That You Can Drink To to follow. His op-eds appear in USA Today, New York Daily News, The New York Times, LA Times, and The Wall Street Journal. He's a regular radio guest and maintains the voluminous Many Moments More blog on his website colinfleminglit.com, which ranges in its explorations from ballet to film to sports to literature to music to art to nature to unique workout routines in historical structures while exposing the corruption and discrimination — and plain bad writing — rampant in publishing, and documenting what it truly means to endure and grow. Sometimes there are posts on Twitter @colinfleminglit

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