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“John?”

“Where are you, John?”

He’s awake in the night. His dreams have troubled him. Dreams of who he once was and what he feared, and who he feared to lose — he’s always reaching out for someone.

He couldn’t recognize himself in the dream — a man without features, a voice without sound, a boy without a name. He’s in a room with a low ceiling and bare tiled floor with many long hallways and doors leading to exits where office rooms and corridors lay between, but there’s someone in the outer room. He’s desperate to go out from his room, but he can’t bring himself to leave. He can choose to walk into the outer room. There are no locked doors between them. There is only an empty space leading to the outer-room beyond, but he waits in his room and grows more and more upset. He’s always losing someone, — even a friend — letting them slip away.

He wakes up in the night sweating. His sheets are cold and wet with perspiration. They cling to him as his mind holds onto what he has seen.

The relationships in his life are breaking apart and he can feel himself withdrawing again. It’s not what he wants, but he always finds himself back in the same place when his weaknesses and mistakes catch up with him and overtake him.

Doors behind doors, walls in front of walls and barriers protecting gates chained together — he does not like to relive or revisit those times in his life when he committed so many mistakes. His weaknesses were exposed. The voices closest to him bring back the deepest parts.

He rolls out of bed and in the late hours feels the cool night air on his skin. He heads to the bathroom, turns on the soft, faint light within and closes the door.

He observes himself. He’s deathly pale in the reflection of the glass. Staring back at him, traces and fragments of the boy he once knew, clouded over by who he had become, always it seems, dragging him back into the frantic and silly past life he used to live.

What was he in the mirror? A boy? No. A man? Yes. His appearance and features keep changing. There is vanity in his heart one minute, and intimate knowledge of his painful weaknesses the next. He turns from the mirror disgusted with himself.

He is not a boy, but he can’t see himself clearly. There is silence and memories and words once spoken to him. They call to him in this black night. He’s gone through so much, but he still returns to the same moments in time. The dark and the light of his thoughts blur together until there’s no longer any distinction and all of his memories go back to one place.

His life is not all black or all white. He’s not forgotten the faces so familiar to him. He returns to his bedroom and lies on his bed. He does not fall asleep or still his mind, but lets his thoughts wander and roam back into another life.

On a bright September morning, John starts middle school. He’s nervous and sick inside. He’s sitting in his mother’s blue Honda Civic and she’s telling him. “Just be yourself. Everyone liked you at Calvary, and you are still the same person. The same reasons they liked you are still with you. That hasn’t changed.”

He’s standing on the outskirts of the tall brick school building, silent, stressing internally.

“John…What’s the worst thing that can happen?” His mother’s voice reminds him.

“I’ll be alone.”

“Maybe for a time, but once people get to know you…You’ll find people to sit with. It will pass. Don’t worry, John. Friends will come.”

He looks at her doubtfully.

“They will.”

A girl is standing in front of his locker. His heart pounds, but he finds his courage and tells her that he needs to get by her. She notices him for the first time and smiles warmly at him and steps to the side and watches him open his locker and put in his backpack, heavy with school supplies. He turns to her and introduces himself with confidence that he does not feel, “I’m John by the way,” he tells her. “I’m Sarah,” she says and smiles at him.

He enters a darkened room in the middle of a lecture and all eyes seem to be on him. He gives his late note to the teacher and all of the books he carries in his arm fall from his hands onto the cold hard floor. He picks them up one by one while everyone seems to watch him. He takes his seat where there is no one close.

“Cassie and John! Cassie and John!” these girls sing. They whisper and laugh as John talks to her. He sits beside her and she’s warm to him and he’s comforted by her presence. John keeps asking her questions on pronunciations in Spanish. He likes to listen to the sound of her voice.

“Sometimes you have to do things that you don’t want to do.” His mother reminds him.

He’s given a Jaw expander and then later, braces, for what feels likes a lifetime until his trials are complete.

“Keep your heart soft John. Don’t lose this.”

Cassie pulls away from him. Neither of them can speak without giggles and laughs from her two friends, and so they become withdrawn and hardly look at one another.

“Another scar from your war with acne?” his friend asks.

Rubber bands given to him from the orthodontist fall from his hands onto a lifeless white tile floor.

He buries his face in the shadows of his arms and pretends to be asleep.

Why does this girl come to my locker? he thinks to himself and worries about her. He racks his brain for conversation but ends up telling her the same things every time he sees her. He is shaking in her presence, but she does not leave him. He is pushing her away, though he does not want her to go. He ignores her, but it is not because of her. He does not know what to say.

She attaches herself to him and he feels pride in her company, but beside her, he is only aware of his weaknesses and feels his flaws all the more intensely.

She waits by his locker once again and he turns away, leaving her waiting. When he finds that she is no longer there, he knows only darkness and regrets at what he has lost. But his heart soon notices another, safer target — one that cannot get so close to him.

The start of a new school year is said to be a new beginning, but John hasn’t seen it. He’s trying to find a classroom and a class that he’s late for. He’s nervous and shaking inside. He finds his seat on the far side of the room and his eyes meet blue eyes watching him. He’s nervously placing his backpack on the floor and she’s studying his face. The boy sitting beside him says, “Ah! You smell!” The boy turns to the rest of the class and shouts, “John stinks!” A blonde haired boy turns in his chair to look at him, saying, “John, you smelly dog you!” Smiles are washing over him and condescending down to him. Waves of heat flood him inside and he wonders if this will ever end.

“Your hair has gotten really long!” His classmates tell him with laughter and amusement in their eyes. He cuts it all off.

His black band t-shirt fits him very tightly and he’s drawing attention to himself with the bright designs and logos on the front.

A blonde boy asks him if he’s gay. Frustrated with the question, he answers firmly, “No.”

He watches a cute brown-haired girl fall all over this same disinterested blonde haired boy.

Now she’s calling out to him, “John!” and she’s embracing him tightly and he doesn’t know when to let go.

He sits next to her in math class. He means to talk more with her but a nameless panic overtakes him and he hides from the light of her face and buries his thoughts inside and looks absentmindedly at other people and empty spaces.

“Where are you, John?”

He talks to an upperclassman and grows bitter and jaded about school and he wants something this boy can give him.

“You don’t want a reputation as a bad boy,” his Mother tells him. He thinks he does.

“Why wouldn’t she like you?” his friend asks him as they walk in the hot afternoon sun on an endless hard sidewalk. He agrees with his voice, but his thoughts inside convict him of a hundred obvious reasons.

He’s following this upperclassman now and he’s trying to learn from him.

A girl who usually doesn’t talk to him tries to engage him in conversation and she’s beautiful to him, but he feels a distance that he cannot cross. He needs to be something more otherwise he can’t face her.

He’s rushing out of the bathroom and feels sick because of the mirror’s reflection. He’s leaving for home. He sees a girl he knows coming up the hall, following him with her blue eyes and he feels no hope inside of living up to her.

Darkness falls on him from his talks with the upperclassman.

John and his friend leave a loud, crowded gymnasium where all of the kids laugh and talk and cheer ridiculous school performances. The school assemblies now seem so childish and small to him.

“Can you still hear Him, John?”

“I can’t hear anything.”

“Maybe you don’t want to hear what He has to tell you,” his mother says.

The manager of the pizza shop speaks to John in private. He’s only worked there for two weeks and they’re firing him. John’s attitude is debauched and his tone is bitter as he talks back to his manager. “It’s a mutual parting of ways then,” John tells him. There is cruelness and hurt in his voice. He’s walking away from the hot, lighted interior of the restaurant, breathing out heavily in the chill fall air. He’s furious inside.

She’s keeping him up at night. He sees her blue eyes in the morning by his locker bank and it’s become painful to him. Still, he will not go near her.

He sits in his friend’s car in the middle of summer in the burning midday heat. They’re talking about how some boys never grow up and become men -
some just don’t get it.

“John, show up for class.”

He’s up late at night turning over possible conversations that he might have with this blue-eyed girl. He’s run through a hundred conversations they might have together. He feels the power of every word.

Now he’s in front of the class with his teacher and she’s interviewing him for a class assignment. She asks him about his previous employment history. He keeps laughing and laughing every time she asks him a question. He can’t help it. It’s all so funny to him. Job after job he’s worked — five of them in total — none remain. He’s steadily breathing out in a room full of watchful, wondering eyes and not one of them know who he is.

“What do you do at home all day?” his teacher asks him.

He’s throwing his backpack violently across the threshold of an empty bedroom, his eyes burn with unending hurt and consuming anger.

“So, is this the ‘new John’?” his old friend asks him.

“Where’s the boy I once knew? He had a soft heart,” his mother says.

“I’m not a boy anymore.”

He kicks in a hard wooden door and shakes the foundations of the house, but his mother does not want to speak to him.

In the cold and dark of his father’s CRV, he reads a book and cannot go home because his father is entertaining the realtor — a woman his father cannot get enough of.

“John, whatever hole you’re trying to fill, you can’t find it where you’re going. You know the right path.”

His birthday passes him by in the heat of a summer day. Out on the patio, his mother, brother and himself watch his father look down at them from the second story window. “If he comes out, I’m going inside,” he tells his mother and brother. His mother sighs and he knows she’s uncomfortable. His brother is protective of her and watches over her. “What is he even doing?” his brother asks.

“I’m going now, John.” She hugs him from behind, but he doesn’t turn or think much of facing her. He’ll see her again. He doesn’t feel it as a significant loss.

“I can’t hear anything.”

“John?”

“I’m a man,” he tells her.

“Yes, you are a man, and it’s right for you to want your own place.”

“But you just got here, you can’t leave yet!” his classmates tell him. “It’s called a school lock-in for a reason.”

“No, we’re leaving,” his friend says. “This is boring.” They leave her blue eyes behind that John cannot face in the light.

He sits in the principal’s office with his friend and receives a lecture on school spirit. Afterwards, they receive a week’s worth of detentions. The principal speaks words that seem so false to him.

“You don’t know Him anymore do you?”

“No… I can’t sleep.”

He waits for his father outside of the office as daylight slowly fades into night. He feels like his life is being spent inside of a car. Later, he accuses his father. He boasts of his own strengths. He’s in bed shaking, hoping to disappear.

“What is there to hear?”

“Mom!?” He talks to her excitedly on the phone.

“How are you, John?”

“I’m ok.”

He thinks in the gathering shadows of his darkened room that he never had any hope of reaching this girl with the blue eyes. He never could pull himself together. It would never be enough. She is too far away from him and she’ll never come down to meet him.

“I’m Lexi,” she tells him. He met her through a friend.

“Yeah, I’m John.”

“Right,” she says.

She sits close beside him and he looks on her as a source of pride but does not see much else in her.

“Will you help me pack?” he asks her frantically.

“Today? Why does it have to be today?” He can feel that he’s losing her.

He’s in an empty room. His belongings are packed in separate travel bags, stacked on the floor next to other possessions — some to sell and some to keep.

“Promise me that you won’t leave,” his brother says over the phone. “John, Promise me.”

He graduates high school in the heat of a bright summer sun, but he’s disconnected from everyone and only wants to see one person. Where is she?

He leaves the auditorium while his peers celebrate around him in the lobby. All of his heart seeks after her blue eyes, but he cannot find her. “Do you need to say goodbye to anyone?” his brother asks.

“No.”

He wanders around University sidewalks in the fading light, heading aimlessly towards the library. A girl from his dormitory runs out to catch up with him. She looks pleased to see him, but he does not understand why. “You’re always going to the library,” she says, “what are you doing over there?” she asks, smiling. “Reading,” he tells her and smiles, but his thoughts are clouded over with concern and he has no energy for her. He shuffles away from her into the dark.

After all of the time spent thinking about this one blue-eyed girl he’s finally left hollow in the rain. He wrote her, but she never did respond. He was separated from her and she was lost to him.

Time passed, and the days changed for him, and life was breathed into him again.

And at the end, what was she worth? Was she his judge and did he live through her eyes, afraid of every flaw being made known to her? Or in his heart, did he feel that he was unworthy of her?

John’s memories fade and he comes back to himself in front of the mirror.

In the half-light of a new morning, he watches himself in the darkness, but whether it’s a dream or visions of the night, he cannot tell. He’s standing in front of a mirror, staring back at himself.

He sees a presence unwanted, an affection undesired, a face exposed to the light of every imperfection — all of the flaws, all of the weaknesses, mistakes he wants to have back; failures he needs to forget — the words he wanted to say are left unsaid. Is he still alone in the silence?

No. John is not alone.

He cannot keep burying the darkest parts inside, and if he chooses to fight, he fights to accept the hidden parts of himself — though a fallen world may not see him for who he is.

He loses himself to the scattered images of the night, but he knows that when he awakes, one day; he will see his face again, not as he would like to be seen, but seen for who he truly is — recognizing himself in truth, as he is known in truth.

(2016)

Written by

Creative writer, Essayist.

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