My name is Chris. I am a father of a 9 month baby girl who is the center of my universe. While the loving relationship between a parent and a child is nothing new or remarkable to an outside spectator, to an actual parent it is so much, much, more- beyond words in fact. Personally my relationship with my daughter has a hugely redemptive quality that restores my faith in myself in small amounts everyday. Her name is Violet and the fact that such a perfect and pure little person loves a jaded and proud fool like myself, and actually needs me, is something that heals my scarred heart just a little more every day… and quite honestly for that, I need her too if I’m ever going to be worth a damn in this world.
I don’t care how enlightened, pure, or righteous a life anyone claims to have lived. I believe that in all honesty, in everyones life there are events that we wish we could go back and change. Depending on one’s age those regrets may be more or less severe, but it’s naive to think we don’t all have them tucked away in some dusty recess of our minds. But if you are lucky, something comes along later in life to inspire a redeeming perspective to cleanse and heal those old wounds. This is a true story about such a thing.
I’m an art teacher at an inner city high school in Oklahoma City. It’s a stressful job. The high school where I teach is over crowded and rowdy. It was originally designed for 1200 students but we actually have 1800 under our charge. Funds are as tight as the space, and every day presents a new problem personified by an unreasonable and melodramatic teenager. Many of the students are involved in gang activity and have little regard for the tenants of education. My wife is a guidance counselor at a middle school just down the street from my school and her work struggles are a mirrored reflection of my own.
These struggles are coupled with a nine month old baby and two teenagers at home, so its and under statement to say we are both constantly exhausted. The balance of our duties at home is very delicate and so it’s difficult at times to maintain a positive outlook in the face of relentless fatigue. I feel that my pay is relatively fair, but my wife’s education deserves a bit more consideration in her own wages. Bills are mounting, our house needs some repair work, and the children are growing and in need of new things and attention at every turn it seems. Our story begins after my wife, Melanie, came home from a dentist appointment after work.
Norman Oklahoma 2014:
I had just put Violet down for her afternoon nap when I heard my wife come in the front door. I met her in the living room.
Chris: Hey baby. How’d it go at the dentist?
Melanie: It went okay. I was right about the infection. It’s pretty bad, but they gave me some antibiotics for it.
C: How much were they?
M: Not bad. Like ten bucks with the insurance. The dentist also said that a partial would be a good idea. The insurance will take care of a lot of it but it’s still going to be a bit pricey.
C: Yeah… well… I can wait to get my glasses until after we get that squared away.
M: No you should go ahead and get them.
C: I don’t think it’s a good idea. The car still needs to go to the shop and we have that huge tax bill coming in april that we have to save up for, and we still haven’t figured how the hell we’re going to get rid of the termite problem. Plus we have to save some money for a down payment on another car and we still need to pay off your medical bills from your biopsy. My glasses can wait… I’m probably going to get a part time job in the summer just to help with some of the debt that’s going to build up.
M: No, you don’t have to do that.
C: Yeah. I do. We gotta pay it all somehow, Melanie. We’re taking on some serious water here.
Melanie took Violet from my arms and I stared at her with worry on my face.
C: I wonder how much the whole thing will cost.
M: Do you wish you didn’t have us?
C: What do you mean?
M: Do you wish you were single and had nobody to worry about but yourself?
C: No. I don’t. I don’t wish that at all… Let’s try and relax tonight. Faceoff is coming on tonight. You wanna watch it with me?
M: Sure, baby.
We spent the evening playing with Violet and feeding and washing her before we laid her down in our bed for the night. Afterward we turned on our show to marvel at some creativity, criticize other’s lack thereof, and debate which work we liked the best. As we distracted ourselves with television, I began to sink back into a silent stress and think about what I could do or even could HAVE DONE to make things better.
My mind went back to a time before Melanie and I had ever met. About ten years ago I regretfully burned a pretty serious bridge that I believe had a determining role in the professional direction of my life. I was 25 and a hotshot student at a graphic design school in Atlanta, GA. I had been there for about two years, finishing up my six year formal education of graphic design. I had learned and unlocked conceptual and visual talents and I was eager to be done with school once and for all. Unfortunately, I was also very stubborn and rather arrogant and very poor.
This school was a specialty school with a president that was extremely well connected in the world of corporate graphic design. His name was Hank, and if you wanted a sweet gig in the design world, you not only jumped happily through Hank’s hoops, but you PAID to do it. In my career at Hank’s school, I had visibly grown in my talents while climbing his mock ladder of ego. I had worked hard and my potential was feeling red hot and honestly about to pop.
The culminating project for this school was the design and production of your physical portfolio of work. Hank of course, had a company that fabricated student portfolio boxes that all students were more or less expected to purchase for use. Those portfolios and boxes went for $3,500 and the bill would be added into your tuition. As I said before I was eager to be done with school but I was VERY poor. Even if I hadn’t been so broke, on principle I could not justify such an expense. And even more, I wanted my portfolio to stand out from the usual well crafted upholstered boxes that regularly came out of that school. I had an original idea of my own that I felt would express my talents, but Hank said I needed his approval, (probably because he would not be getting another $3,500 out of me) so I set up a meeting to present my idea.
I was too confident in Hank’s faith of my talents. I thought for sure that my idea combined with my body of work that he had witnessed would be enough for him to send me to one of his old cronies with a ringing endorsement. As you can assume, that did not happen. He ultimately didn’t care about my work or talent as much as he cared about that $3,500. The school was an unaccredited institution so Hank had no legal obligation to get me an interview with a large well paying company. With some heated and colorful language, he basically told me that if I wanted to go my own way on my portfolio, then I would be going my own way entirely. Being young, scared, and angry at this insistence, I literally responded with “GO FUCK YOURSELF.” And stormed out of the school that I had worked so hard to ingratiate myself with, never to return.
A couple of weeks later I left the fast lights and plenty of the east coast and was back in Oklahoma, scraping by. I tried for years to secure design work. Some years were better than others but the profession of graphic design is a desolate landscape in the midwest, especially the bible belt that is Oklahoma. By the time I got married, I was reduced to laying out newspaper ads for mom and pops and garage sales for minimum wage, and no insurance. I had fallen a long way from where I expected I would land.
When Violet was born, I not only needed to make some more money, but I needed some health insurance for she and I. That’s when Melanie suggested being a teacher. People say that teachers don’t make enough money, (and they don’t) but try being a graphic designer in the midwest when everyone has photoshop at home. In comparison to that, I make a kings ransom every two weeks and my baby has awesome insurance. But times are still hard and bills are barely getting paid. Some not on time, but most of them are. We barely have any savings and a laundry list of expected expenses. So it’s good, but it’s hard.
I always regretted that conversation in Hank’s office because I believed it shaped more than I knew it would. That son of a bitch was “the man” and I bucked him. I told the man to “GO FUCK YOURSELF” and look where it got me? I was supposed to be designing the cover of Rolling Stone, directing photo shoots for record labels- and because of my scared pride, a decade later, I’m laying out the weekly circulars for a discount grocery store in Muskogee, Oklahoma for minimum wage. You’ve heard the old saying, “It’s not what you know, but WHO you know?” Well, I knew somebody, and I feel that if I just would have done what he said, maybe I could have afforded all of my current expenses and had enough to build and play with. My wife and I wouldn’t have to worry about affording things like basic dental care, or staggering bills around our house payment. So yeah, out of sheer necessity I hung up my graphic design career and became an exhausted art teacher at an inner city high school.
I don’t teach because I love teaching. I do it, because I love my daughter. I’m sorry if that sounds insensitive or makes me a bad teacher, but it’s the truth. I have never felt more at peace with myself in this world than in those quiet hours after she has first fallen asleep under my arm, or when I just hear her laugh and see her gummy toothless smile. Like my ancient regret from Atlanta, everything good and bad in my life connects directly to her. Everything. She is my reason for everything.
Thinking about all of this while my wife and I watched television, it occurred to me that by telling ol’ Hank to go fuck himself, I had actually just fucked MYself. Slow and hard. I was sorry for that, and felt the need to apologize to my wife and child for my dusty old mistake from so long ago. My heart was heavy by the time the television show was over and I just wanted to sleep. I didn’t feel like I could rationally articulate my head space to my wife so I grabbed the remote and turned off the television.
C: Let’s go to bed baby.
M: Okay, weina. (that’s her sometimes irritating playful name for me.)
I don’t know when I fell asleep that night, but when I finally did, I had a very vivid dream. I was sitting in the Camaro that I drove in college and I was driving through a fog and what looked like a thousand loose pages from my old journals blowing in the wind. It was dark, but through the fog I could see I was passing random objects from my past. A guitar I sold to pay an electric bill, a house I rented once, a dog I lost, lots of scribbled paper and pages of comics I had collected, blowing around, etc… suddenly from the fog came a clear and concise question from a benevolent voice…
V: So… what’s it gonna be?
I wasn’t surprised about the disembodied voice or where it was coming from. In the dream it seemed to be perfectly normal and almost inside my head. It was the voice of all creation and as it’s product I already knew what it was asking me. It was asking what I wanted to change from my life time. Without hesitation, I replied with complete understanding.
C: Atlanta. I need to change what went down in Atlanta.
Suddenly the driver seat turned into an office chair and I was no longer looking out a windsheild. The scribbled pages swirling by instantly collected in a mass of human form and I was staring across a large desk in an eclectic modern office. Staring back at me was that tubby, grey, mustachioed son of a bitch, Hank. Just as I remembered him on that day, like a shaggy Boss Hog in round Lennon glasses and a voice like foghorn leghorn.
I had just gotten back from an internship in New York City that Hank set me up with. I was meeting him to present what I had fabricated of my portfolio so far. It was one of those matte silver aluminum brief cases that you see now and then in action movies. Sometimes they have money, drugs, or some kind of weaponry in them. I had marked the outside matte finish with a large glossy logo of my own design and retrofitted the inside of it with multiple trays that held numerous pieces of my best work.
Everything was exactly as I remembered it as it played itself out flawlessly- and it was not going well.
H: Son, I can’t let you do this. I know you think you got a hot idea, but you need to see it’s a gamble.
C: But it’s not. The portfolio is more than just a representation of my work. It’s an EXTENSION of ME. So I think it makes perfect sense to use the case I already made. It’s sleek, it’s smooth. Even if it is a gamble, that still makes sense, Hank. It looks kind of dangerous, like an assassin or something. I mean what is a corporate designer but a mercenary of visuals?
H: What are you talking about?
C: I mean c’mon Hank. Every kid in this place is hungry to get out there. We don’t care what we have to do. We can’t afford to. Hell man, I’ll take a beautiful photo of a fetus in a garbage can and write up some editorial copy for which ever side pays the most. That’s what the game is out there.
H: There’s no Ethos in that, son. Where is your Ethos? (He was always going on about the importance of ethos, as if he had just learned the word last week and wanted to impress you.
C: Ethos? Hank, how much of the supposed $3,500 would you be getting if I went with the upholstered box you have in mind?… My ethos lies in my honesty. How about yours? Or is that too dangerous for you? (that was obnoxious)
C: Hank, I don’t have $3,500 to give you. This is what I’m going to use. It looks awesome, it has a concept behind it, and I made it myself. It may be a bit late to say, but with all due respect I don’t need your approval for a good idea.
H: Your testicular fortitude is gettin ahead of you. I’m not going to argue with you about this.
C: Then it’s settled.
His mustache twitched.
H: Elliott, You’re gonna sing for your supper. If you go with that case, it won’t be at any interview that I have set up for you.
My eyebrow twitched.
I stood up.
This is the moment when I said it. I had lost control again. But as I opened my mouth to curse us both with an F-bomb, his eyes rolled back in his head and he spoke. But this time his voice was the same as the voice from the beginning of my dream. That benevolent voice of all creation was no longer disembodied as it was before. It came directly from ol’ Hank’s mouth and inside my skull.
V: That’s fine… You wanted a chance to change what happened here, but you failed. Your pride got in the way again. That’s fine. You can have it the way you want it, and still have the future you wanted. But you will have to give something in return.
C: What do you mean?
V: Your daughter. You won’t have her. You will never meet your wife in this future, so you won’t have Violet either. Therefore you must surrender her soul to the fates of the universe.
I furrowed my brow in resumed anger as I processed this information.
C: then… You can go FUCK YOURSELF!
I opened my eyes as my daughter stirred under my arm in bed. The clock said 12:17. I had just relived a painful memory of my own folly and had said exactly the words I had regretted for ten years. This time however, I did not regret them. I kissed Violet on the forehead and stared at the ceiling until i fell back asleep feeling old and complacent.