What I loved most about Dragonball Z was Goku’s endless pool of grit. Not an episode went by where Goku had not gotten his ass beaten to near oblivion. He didn’t care though. He just kept fighting. There was always something in his back pocket that he had to get angry enough or stressed enough for the lives of his loved ones to whip out: kaio ken, super saiyan 1, 2, 3, 4, etc, spirit bombs, variations on classic moves like kamehameha. Goku literally died, several times trying to save his friends, his family, his planet, and returned all the stronger for it. He’s like a broken bone. One that heals and strengthens but remains jagged at its edges.
Goku was among the first people, or things I wished to be, rather than deal with my own inadequate body; I had a bird chest, not pecs like a man, and when I finally started puberty I thought I was growing breasts. Like a girl, of course, because that was the identity thrust upon me: sensitive Josephine, my aunt would say. It took too long to break the denial that I would never be Goku or anyone else, and it was my first great disappointment after family. I wondered how the kids at school would feel if they knew I stood on my couch holding my hands together as if powering up a kamehameha, or strained myself to death, bulging my prepubescent muscles thinking I would turn into a super saiyan. I wanted so badly to do something through sheer force of will and anger; I had so much of it, but had no idea how to put it to use. Nothing looked more invigorating though. Just thinking about it was enough to lift my spirits some days. I got really good at shooting things from my hands like they were energy blasts. I’d stand on the couch and wait for my sister to walk through the living room and bang! Tennis ball kamehameha to the head. Bang! Knocked her down with a couch pillow. I think standing on the couch was supposed to symbolize flying, but I never quite worked that out. I started trying to run like some anime characters do too, my arms dragging behind me as if I were moving so fast they were getting left behind. To this day, it’s all I can think about when I watch shows like Naruto, but when my son does it I worry he’ll get picked on.
I had vivid dreams where I was flying, directionless mostly, but always with some diffuse ideal worth fighting for in mind. I would cry in the morning when I woke up on the floor, not because I was hurt, but just because of the stark realization that I could not, would never, fly. In my mind, everything I thought or cared about was, and would always be meaningless, especially to the people I was closest to. The only place I sought, or permitted myself to see hope, was in anime and video games, so before long, that was all I allowed myself to think about.
Even though I left Dragon Ball Z at home, the most important lessons I learned in grade school were also about the power of violence. Stearne Elementary was less than a block away from where I lived, just across the street at the intersection of Unity and Paul in Frankford. While standing on the school yard asphalt, wishing it was like the endless fields of grass I’d seen on T.V., I’d stare over at our shrouded, brown bricked apartment. A few trees lined the other side of the street in front of the post office. Their changing leaves would float across through that nine-foot fence and speckle a little dying hope on the concrete. As contained as the school yard felt when the gates were locked, there was a child size hole on the far end of it that the teachers never seemed to notice.
On the day in question, I walked into school as I did any other day–awkwardly. Large, grey, metal doors stood between the yard and the hallways leading to my third grade classroom; the school looked like it should have metal detectors, but didn’t. Outside, all the kids lined up in size order, waiting to enter while taking off our jackets. Tall as a middle schooler, I brought up the rear. When we entered the classroom I put my coat on the floor beneath the others because there weren’t any more hooks. I’d been more focused on finding the most inconspicuous seat in the room anyway. I imagined that sitting up front was more conducive to learning, but too risky. I knew better. The tall lanky kid sitting in the front of class with the bowl cut, huge gap between his rotted front teeth and clothes that smelled of urine was too easy a target; even I hated him. Lord forbid roaches crawled out of my jacket or book bag again, their little brown bodies scurrying across the white classroom floor were hard to miss, but if I could go without incident for a week or two straight maybe some kids would forget.
I found a seat on the far left column of desks, but in the middle row. It was perfect; I could see the chalkboard clearly and it was right next to the coat rack, so I might be able to squash any roaches crawling out before anyone noticed. The door leading to the hallway was close too, and I needed to go to the bathroom, but I didn’t want to draw attention to myself by raising my hand and asking. I could hear my heart thrumming in my ears just considering it. D.A.R.E. posters were on all four walls of the classroom. That day my teacher made reference to one of them, rattling off all of the evil things she knew about drugs, and by association, the people who used them. As a drug abuse expert, I was underwhelmed and started to nod off a little. The teacher noticed a few times and gently told me to pay attention. I was so tired that I kept dozing though, my head bobbing up and down, in and out of reality, until a thunderous smack landed on the back of my neck. My muscles stiffened. The smack burned more in my gut than on my skin.
I knew what I should have done, how I should have reacted. But I didn’t have the heart. You ain’t got no heart, is what I was told at home and at school. I’d calculated the best possible outcome in this scenario hundreds of times, and each time failed to act on it. Had I gotten up wordlessly and punched the first kid in the mouth who sat behind me, girl or boy, my entire grade school existence would have changed. It was obvious that
The usual chatter of the room froze and in the silence, the slap stood out way too much. To my ears, it was still as loud as when it happened. My heart sank. The teacher stopped writing on the blackboard and speaking to look around, her lips pursed. Then came muffled giggles and chuckles of what felt like the entire school behind me, a pack of starving hyenas. Some were struggling to hold in their joy. Other mouths exploded, their little child hands too weak to contain the excitement; they could not hide the satiation of their hunger for someone else’s pain. Every hurt person who wasn’t you was a small victory. Sometimes the only victory. I’d known that feeling when I’d watched another kid get beaten up, slapped or punched, when my little sister got blamed for things instead of me–and sometimes–even when my grandmother was beaten. I stared straight ahead without blinking, trying to prevent the welled up tears from falling.
I hated those kids for being who they were, but, had I the heart, I would have traded places with them in a second.
“Cut the tomfoolery!” yelled the teacher. She addressed the whole class rather than single anyone out. Then she turned back to the blackboard and continued writing. A few minutes passed. The excitement died down and I snuck my shirt sleeve across my face once or twice, wiping my eyes in secret. Someone must have noticed though, because right after I did that, three coordinated, consecutive hands came across the back of my neck and head, twice as hard as before.
“Open neck no respec!” one of the kids behind me yelled out.
“Didn’t I say cut it out!” the teacher turned around again, this time raising her voice a little higher. My pulse went up as I struggled not to sob. The high water pants I wore filled. Urine warmed my thighs and the release at first was soothing. I started to cry. I lost control of my bowels too. Shit squeezed its way into the plastic seat with me. I should have just gotten up and used the bathroom before. I should have sat somewhere else, maybe all the way in the back where it was safe. I should have not even gone to school at all. As the world chuckled and zeroed in on me, someone was bound to notice. The cute Puerto Rican girl whom I had a crush on was the first one to take the stand.
“Eww he pooped on his self!” she yelled as if rallying troops on a battlefield.
The rest of the class followed her lead and I must have been called every word relating to shit, piss, nasty, dirty, smelly, sissy, and gay a few times over. Always gay. The teacher seemed to be waiting it out. She looked into the crowd of misbehaved children as if a plan of action would drop into her lap from the atmosphere. The chanting continued until I decided to leave. I felt dumb being there in the first place. Speed walking out of the classroom was the best way to do it; running–showing more that I cared–would have made things worse. I did run though, as soon as I hit the schoolyard, right through the gate hole and cut my coat sliding through. I sped up, growing cold on the short sprint to the apartment.
I opened the door with a sigh of relief, until I smelled the smoke. Earl was home. I didn’t expect that in the middle of a week day. Nine to five, those were the hours he was supposed to be at work. Nine to five. I coughed and wheezed and my underarms sweat, smelling like raw onions. My grandmother was passed out in bed and Earl couldn’t believe that someone had walked through the door. He rose to his feet with such violence I thought he grabbed the gun from the ceiling tile. He stood inches from my face after coming through his half-open room door. “What the fuck you think you doin’ home from school little nigga?” he said.
“Pop pop I couldn’t stay there, they—”
“I ain’t tryna hear all that little faggot shit, why you ain’t in school?”
His beard and tightly trimmed box haircut were just starting to add a touch of grey, and his teeth looked like mangled candy corn with refrigerator mold on them. His breath normally smelled of alcohol, but the smoke took over that day. A fishnet shirt rose up above his bellybutton and his chest and stomach hair poked through the little holes. He was so heavy-handed, and in an attempt to avoid a direct blow, I backed away from him a little before attempting to speak again.
“I was there but they—”
He lunged quickly and smacked me on the top of my head. I cried. He sniffed the air.
“Just shut the fuck up and get your little fruity ass in the shower, smellin’ like shit. Always whining about something, ungrateful little bitch. Don’t you know the shit I deal wit takin care of you? You think ya skank ass grandma gone do it if I wasn’t here? What about that bitch Kia? Where ya mom at? I don’t see her in here takin’ care of ya’ll. So fuckin ungrateful, spoiled ass kids. Watch, one day I’m not gone be around and you gone regret this shit…” he said.
He kept mumbling rapid fire insults as I walked towards the shower. When his voice faded faded I still knew what he was saying. A couple “faggots” mixed in with a few “pussies” and a little “always actin’ like a bitch.” That might have been when I officially got the name Josephine. It had started to get colder outside, and therefore inside. I wanted to warm up a bucket of water on the stove to wash with, but if I took too long I might have made things worse, so I went straight into the bathroom. I slid off my clothes. The mess was hard to avoid on my feet and the floor as I undressed. Staring at the toilet I let my eyes relax, lose focus. I fantasized about Earl dying–of me killing him–with his own gun. He slept enough, it wouldn’t be that hard. It was in the ceiling tile right above his bed. Right there, just out of my reach, the means to my end through his.
He was old and tired and drunk most of the time anyway. If I had the courage I could have taken his life without even risking my own. He deserved it. He’d killed people himself and didn’t seem to regret it. He had a gun and I knew where it was. I knew that he deserved it. So why the hell was I wallowing around so damn helpless all the time? If I became who he wanted me to be–a real man–I would have smeared his brains on those silk sheets like the shit on the bathroom floor in front of me. But I didn’t. And for that I felt like a coward. It was in my hands to lessen the suffering of others: myself, my grandmother, my mother and later my sister and brother, but I did nothing.
Maybe I did fear what I would do without him. After all, he was a thing I could measure myself against, to make sure I never became; and knowing, at least thinking I was not and would never be him helped me love myself a little. At times a lot. The more monstrous he was, the better it made me. I wanted to ask my teachers why cigarettes and alcohol and drugs were so bad if they took so fucking long to kill people. I’d bought the D.A.R.E. program’s admonitions and regurgitated their world view, but when would their warnings come to fruition? Sure, Earl would say his hail Mary’s by sliding Mad Dog 20/20 across the table to me a few years later, and of course, I would drink it too. But it seemed like neither of us would ever die unless I did it myself. I was certain that everyone deserving of an early grave spent most of their time above ground, and worse, dared to take up the most space. It was a phenomenon that all the social workers and teachers seemed completely oblivious of. Some people need to die, I thought, in order for others to continue living.
Then, for probably the first time, I considered killing myself.
But what would Goku do (WWGD)? Probably not much. Dragon Ball Z felt too childish to tackle such large scale questions. And Goku’s first and most important trait, was after all, grit. It was his willingness to be destroyed, over and over again and return with overwhelming gumption. Fuck that. One thing Earl was right about, was that I was too sensitive. And weren’t Black people destroyed enough anyway? The only things I’d ever learned or seen featuring people like me were dedicated to failures. Physical, emotional, and psychological failures. In school, on television, in my own home, and outside my door. Black history month in the classroom was trauma porn masquerading as we shall overcome. An exercise in Black docility: let them spray you, bite you, curse you, hit you, spit on you. Turn the other cheek. The whole enterprise made me sick, the worst of the illness being my intensified blame towards Black people for permitting it and mild disdain towards Whites for committing acts of gratuitous violence that, even as a child, I already saw as normal.
They were normal, and the weak responses of Black people to the violence was not. We were not. I was not normal. Of course, if someone had introduced me to the concept of internalized racism at that time, I’d have thrown all the shade in the world at them. I’d have disregarded them actively, much more than my passive loathing for literature, for science, for learning: all the things that I knew already, were inherently for the white, for the normal. Later, I’d discover that one of my favorite rap verses, the first of “A Report to the Shareholders,” ends with “I will not be confused for docile / I’m free motherfuckers, I’m hostile,” by El-P, the white half of Run The Jewels.
Goku, for all of his bravery, was still too docile. I didn’t know it then, but what I needed was Yagami Light. I imagine Death Note has saved the lives of many sad little pretentious nerds. I didn’t believe in God, of course, but I wouldn’t mind being him. That was the thing that made imagination transcendent, and why anime, the most expansive extrapolation of it I could find, always made me feel better. Just imagining a black book falling from the sky that allowed me to write the names of people who needed to die in it filled me with lust. And they’d actually die, of heart attacks, or in any method I specified. I imagined myself born for that; there was no one better suited for the job. Light made valiant efforts to rid the world of evil; he never hesitated. Even when his own family was at risk he stayed on the grind. When cops, including his own father interfered with the extermination of evil, he penned their names too, in increasingly creative ways. With just a pen and a pad Light set off chain reactions throughout Tokyo that reverberated around the world, re-structuring society as he saw fit, as he knew it should be, slicing through all manner of elocution and ill-structured legal proceedings, which we all know were never structured to give a penny’s worth of fucks about the people they claim to protect.
Light did eventually become a narcissistic dictator who trampled innocents (relative term, of course) in his wake, but honestly neither he nor I were far from that to begin with. The most compelling evidence for which, I think, is the fact that we both understand too intimately, that even the most galactic failures of ourselves, our communities, our planet, and our whole entire species can, and should be remedied by the individual decisions we–by this I mean specifically Light and myself–make, or should have made in the past. Sometimes this is true, microscopically at least, and sometimes it isn’t, but when you begin as an island of one, a wariness of hand-holding newcomers from the mainland is to be expected. Living with such a mindset, but having little control and circumstance by which to explore it, led to a volatile mistrust of anything beyond the auspices of my own brain, especially adults, often less intelligent than me, who unfairly pulled my strings and stood over me smug and superior, and for a long time, physically stronger than I was. Control over things is what I wanted, but I barely had that over myself.
Though I certainly lacked the strength to kill Earl, I could at least consider killing myself. It was my body, I thought. But then I was too inadequate even for suicide; I always thought I’d make a mistake. I knew I’d fumble the whole situation and make things worse. I’d be too weak to pull the trigger, trembling too much to take enough pills or smoke enough crack or heroin, too knock kneed to leap from the building. I knew that some people who attempted suicide ended up brain dead instead. I could slip up and destroy the only thing I liked about myself, then be forced to watch the other garbage of my body rot away: the little muscle I had would wither, my veins would bulge, my mouth would hang open and people would stare at my nasty teeth, the roaches would bite me all night and maggots would nest in my ears, plopping to the floor in clumps once a week whenever someone bothered to roll me and change my diaper.
So I put the suicide on hold. I just had to wait. I had no skills, I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know the extent to which I didn’t know anything. So why would suicide be any different? I’d fail at that too and forfeit an ambiguous potential, that spark of warmth I’d gotten when teachers said, “you’re not like the other kids here,” or “one day you’re going to be great.” And thinking one day is a dangerous proposition in itself, one that continually suggests a prosperous future without insisting on any demands in the present. It’s fancifulness at its worst, that demonic circle of the imaginative underworld that permits us to believe in people who abuse us and convinces the poor that capitalism is good for them too. One day I’ll have that house, that car, that boat, that tiny Island. One day he’ll stop, or I’ll stop, or we’ll stop and It’ll just be better.
Everything happens for a reason.
To this day, when people use that phrase it makes me shudder. It’s usually an attempt at tenderness, but not necessarily a useful or honest one; it holds nothing and no one accountable, it honors intellectual sloth. It’s what people at church said any time something terrible happened, and later, I would dare someone to say it at my grandmother’s funeral. I would have to wait him out. I knew two things because people told them to me: good things happen to those who wait, and if you work hard you will succeed. Obvious lies, but in spite of everything I knew to be false, I believed those things because I had to. If only I was patient and worked hard, everything would eventually fall into place. How dangerous it can be to live in the future tense, to have hope. Earl would die eventually or maybe my mother would change, compose a sense of self that included the well-being of her progeny. But I knew that was a lie too, if not for the fact that I thought of the word progeny–a term she would never be familiar with–then for the fact that I wanted her to succeed mostly to spite Earl. The same way I wanted to succeed to spite everyone. And I told myself I would eventually, if I was patient. My mother would stay out of jail and find work and man who wouldn’t beat her. I would grow up, get a job after high school and erase all the shit. I just had to wait.
And as I waited I would draw. All it took was a pencil and paper. Large bodies of water that took up most of the page, no land in site. A tiny boat with a man inside, possibly a fisherman, or an explorer. The water was translucent. Even though I’d never seen clear, open water like that I knew it existed from movies and the discovery channel. In the body of water there were serpents, large ones dwarfing the boat with two, sometimes three rows of serrated teeth and tongues that forked in three directions. They lurked, jaws popped open wide preparing for a meal beneath the water, ready to swallow the tiny boats and fisherman whole. Sometimes they would show themselves first, just to startle the man in the boat, and some talked, or thought. I drew little cloud thought bubbles or speech boxes like in comic books. They’d think: will I get splinters in my mouth from this boat? Or: Will this man’s raincoat leave a plastic after taste? Practical concerns. The man was always wearing a raincoat, because it always rained. It was always wet and cold and fish splashed.
Sometimes the sea serpent would ask the man what he was doing there, or why he was eating all the fish, to which the man would not reply and be eaten, which whether he replied or not, was still going to happen because I was the narrator. I’d draw hundreds of pages with the serpent and the man in the boat moving inch by inch, barely perceptible from scroll to scroll, but fluid when flipping through all the pages together, in rapid succession. I’d color them with colored pencils or oil pastels that I stole from K-Mart. I was proud of these works of art, but afraid to show them to my family. They said, what the hell is that? Or, that’s cute. But they weren’t supposed to be cute, they were supposed to be vicious, and at least as serious as the Lochness Monster. I kept drawing them and selling them for a dollar a page to old women who walked by our apartment. They didn’t comment on the drawings, or the increasingly aggressive dialogue from man to serpent, serpent to man; they just smiled and handed me a dollar. It was my version of a lemonade stand.
As business grew, I rotated the drawings to landscapes. Lengthwise, I couldn’t make the water as deep, but the size of the serpent, just a fraction of its body on the page, head rearing up over the boat, implied oceanic depths. It also allowed me to create a tiny island with a single palm tree. Coconuts grew there, or some hardy, imaginary fruit that tasted better than coconuts, more like frozen Reese’s cups. In some of the narrative arcs the man would survive and live happily on the island. He even became friends with the serpent and they exchanged fish for fruit and talked to each other about their problems. The serpent had trouble finding a mate, and so did the man. The serpent told the man about the ocean, and all its creatures and beauty and how there were so few of his kind. The man told the serpent that were were too many humans, but he was still very lonely.
The first time I got caught stealing oil pastels from K-Mart I asked Earl for the money to buy more. He told me that I should stop wasting my time on dumb shit, and that I should get a fucking job instead of asking him all the time. Then he gave me ten dollars. I threw all of my drawings out in the alleyway dumpster and bought a garter snake.
I’d never heard of Moby Dick or Herman Melville or any writer for that matter. But I knew that people–not people like me, or my family, but white people with money–sometimes paid to be that man in the raincoat. It was called whale watching. The whole enterprise was one of the most terrifying things I could imagine. I couldn’t swim, but I could fathom what lived in the ocean and decided it should stay on screen and far away from my body. People would cheer when Blue Whales jumped out of the water just a few feet away, splashing everyone on the boat. Did they think the whale cared about them? That it was being careful not to rock the boat, to flip it over?
And what about Free Willy? He was smaller, but I used to look at all his sharp little teeth and wonder how that little boy felt safe touching his face to that orca. In the famous scene where Willy jumps out over the boy, I could only consider what would happen if he fell short. What if Willy miscalculated and landed flat on top of the boy with his arm stretched out to touch Willy’s underside? He’d be crushed. Flattened by twelve thousand pounds of whale and Willie would not mourn him, but bask in his freedom nonetheless.
I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be the man in the raincoat or the serpent. I didn’t know who was better off, or if it even mattered. I didn’t know what Goku or Yagami Light would do under any of these circumstances, but I knew what I could do. I could believe I had a loving friendship with my first pet, a Garter Snake named Spike.