My 30th birthday was quite a celebration. With scarce more than a wish in my checking account and loose coins in my pocket, I stood in line at the grocery store, petrified at the notion that my humble assembly of staple foods might be in jeopardy.

Butter, milk, eggs, cheese, spaghetti, a can of tamales, candles.

Struggling to smile a greeting in the clerk’s direction, I watched as she punched the prices into her register as my items were scrutinized while passing across the counter. The shirt on my back had three days of wear on it and my only necktie was wrinkled around the edges from being ironed after disregarding the dry clean only tag on the underside. What little hair populated my chin was beginning to grey, and I was still in my twenties. My eyes were tired and blinked slowly.

The misery was only just beginning.


Penmanship is important to me. I do not like being misunderstood and one way to ensure that does not happen is to be clear with my communication. Speaking, writing, behaving.

December 28, 1994

When writing a check I prefer to spell out the month rather than abbreviate or use numbers and slashes. It was about the only formality remaining in my barren life at the time. Signing my name, I then carefully detached the document from its binding as if it were the last check I would ever author. Payday was two days away, and a holiday at that – surely I could float a check from a bank account as empty as my own soul until then?


The refrigerator light shined like noonday sun over the Gobi Desert. What few items I could afford were sparsely scattered on clean wire shelves. On the counter next to me was a small, flat bowl containing three tamales from my recent grocery purchase. A lone candle poked from each to represent one decade of my life lived to this point. I lit the candles, thinking that a young boy from Chicago would never have imagined such a sad future for his own. That boy wanted to be an astronaut, to be the first person on Mars. He wanted to solve problems, help others, discover new things, and maybe fall in love. Instead, he was divorced one month prior from a marriage he was uncertain even happened, his children young and not with him for his birthday, leaving him alone to wish for…for anything but what he had that very moment, which was nothing.

I was quiet as tears streamed down my face, barely mustering the breath to extinguish the flames. I had not spoken to my mother in three years and wasn’t in town long enough yet to have made friends. The apartment was dark. I slept on the kitchen floor the night I turned 30. I was cold, and despite having done nothing wrong, figured this was somehow what I deserved. This was my misery, my new normal.

This year I will be 52 and that 30th birthday feels like it occurred five minutes ago. The kids are now grown and married and tonight I baked scones in my mother’s kitchen. I am not wealthy, but no longer do I float checks to afford food.

But I look back fondly at the misery of my youth. As bad as it was, the world felt kinder, significantly enough so to declare such historically dark and lonely times as a safe place for me.


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