You Must Change Your Life
Editor's Note: "You Must Change Your Life" is part of Michael Juliani's poetic series, "From Young Rooms."
I. Cinco de Mayo Soliloquy
Standing over the desk, patting my pockets for money and keys, I realize again to soon start Baudelaire. I’m reporting on a concert tonight in the Miracle Mile. Had a sandwich, reading Esquire in the persona of my comfort. Last time reporting from this venue, I brought M. as my plus-one, and didn’t kiss her goodnight. I ate the same thing for dinner tonight as that night: a Subway sandwich, cookies and syrupy Diet Coke. It’s the place I go with dates, it turns out. Everyone’s comfortable eating there. Departure’s in 15 minutes. This, my first day of summer vacation, a week before I’m legal to drink—a landmark age I ached for in the backyard parties of my teens, when I knew no one with a tattoo. A police helicopter haloes over the campus every day. I believe, for the first time, that I might have earned four As in a semester—all from writing classes. At the gas station, where I put 40 dollars into the car I worry will break down again, a homeless man began cleaning my windows while starting to ask me about school. He speaks with a strain, like his jaw’s wired halfway shut. He asks where I’m from. Pasadena, he said, then this is home for you. Yes, I’m thinking, how this freedom is a stone’s throw away from love.
(soliloquy: a speech in which a character reveals his thoughts to the audience but not to other characters in the play)
II. Telemachus Jumps Ship
There’s this metaphor of the family as a burning ship going down in the middle of the ocean, the father far away, banished by fate. The young man of the house has the best chance to jump and make it. Maybe you know, having been there, that he’ll try to outswim the sight of the wreckage, wondering if he’s betraying the gods. But beauty comes from paradise, beauty comes from hell—and, in life, deep water and drowning are not the same thing.
III. Old Mill Road
Crows populate the magnolias of Old Mill. Not once in my life have I seen a dead one on our street. For evening walks, they’re a presence, sounding like birds who no longer want to be birds. Gazing upward, you see them one by one on the flaking limbs of the tall trees. Through my bedroom walls and windows, I hear birds, cars, shouting kids and the drone of lawnmowers. On lawns they’ve just cut, the gardeners lay against plastic garbage cans that cave under their weight. They eat lunch under the trees and laugh with tanned, unshaven faces and gold-capped teeth, bandanas hanging from their necks. When a front door opens, they stop talking and turn, staring. They watch me on my way to the car. Past eight p.m., the crows disappear, despite seeming like they’ve been made from night. Light inverts from outside into homes. Dining rooms radiate with orange chandelier buzz. At midnight last night, a door slammed in the muggy quiet. A neighbor kid sprinted to a cab waiting in the middle of the empty street. This morning, while watering the front yard, his father asked the jail if they can keep the kid until he learns his lesson. Today we heard no yelling from their house.
IV. Greece, San Francisco, Pasadena
My grandfather came home one day when he was five years old to find the home emptied out and his whole family gone. Nobody had told him while he was at school that if he went home he’d be going to the wrong place. In Greece, his parents had known that as long as you were in the village, you were home. Papou used to open and close the family ice cream store when he was eight years old, serving chocolate shakes to bookies, the DiMaggio brothers and men who would soon be killed by the mob. He’d take the trolley home, where there’d always be a Greek from a different family at the dinner table. During high school, his father died, and then his mother went, to a benign tumor, before he finished college. In my America, the disintegration of families—from death or destruction—provides one of the last rites of passage we have, since we’re no longer “raised by villages.”
When I wake Papou from his chair in front of the television some nights, checking first for his breathing, half-asleep he says: “Tell Mom I’ll be home in 10 minutes.”
“My mom?” I say. “Maria?”
“No,” he says. “Tell my mom. I’ll be home in 10 minutes.”
V. Upon Finding a Patient Nude, the Doctor Removes His Clothes
Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing concluded that “normal” families carry some of the worst pathologies. Laing’s theory was that madness comes from an inability to reconcile your own identity with the one your family creates for you. He was willing to believe that the “insane” had more validity than the “functional.” As a father, he left a trail of detritus that seemed to prove his theories. One of his ten children said, “It was ironic that my father became well known as a family psychiatrist, when, in the meantime, he had nothing to do with his own family.” In the eighties, my uncle talked with Laing once in Greece, at a language institute on the island of Chios, where my uncle was studying to learn Greek for a Comparative Literature major requirement. He said that Laing was “always drunk,” walking near the seashore. I first heard that story years ago, before I had vested interest in who this wasted Laing might be, when I felt nothing but distance from those “put away” or caught in Dionysian hell. But I always felt linked to him, like he’d become part of my consciousness about my family, a force for our team. Laing once found a patient nude, rocking to a specific rhythm—a schizophrenic who’d been mute for months. He took off his own clothes and sat next to her, joining her focused cadence until she spoke to him. The mental patient, Laing said, is as fully human as her doctor.
VI. Your Family Dies
You remember that freedom must be earned.