written and finished at the beginning of september 2015
photos by sam piland
Time seems faster as you grow older. Life is one continuous, slow-moving blur until you hit 18, and then everyone and everything separates, like a termite colony that has been demolished. Some go to college, some go to work, some go overseas, some die. I went to college at 18, left college at 19, came back to college at 20. I’m 21 now, I’m an adult. I can buy alcohol. My decisions are my own.
A year ago, I went through a disastrous breakup. I had been continuously dating girls since I was 16, who I became dependent on, like my viscera included this extra organ that could only function on intimacy. But for the first time ever, a girl broke my heart. We stopped talking in September and I went through the hardest, loneliest winter of my life.
A year later, I feel over it. It’s not an acute pain anymore. It’s settled and separated the way a heterogeneous liquid does, allowing me to analyze its layers in retrospect. If I think about it, disturbing the solution, I’ll briefly feel a deep sadness, like a confusing blurriness on an otherwise clear view…and then move on. I’m not mad. I understand why it happened. I was a lot worse of a person back then, emotionally needy and immature.
I made it through my junior year. At the beginning of this summer, I came back to Cleveland, where my parents and childhood friends live. At home there are a different set of problems. One of my friends is facing prison. Another one of my friends, who’s like my brother, is addicted to heroin. I love them, but there’s an unacknowledged distance between us. I live such a different life in New York City.
After two weeks in Cleveland, I went to Los Angeles to stay with friends and family. All of my friends there, many of whom are older, are thriving in their own way—influencing, creating, and being financially independent. One of them is becoming an extremely popular R&B artist. Another just sold her show to a major television network.
In Los Angeles, I met up with some people who liked my writing, who had reached out to me previously. One of them was an attractive Vietnamese girl who took me around her town, “Lil’ Saigon,” an all-Asian settlement in Garden Grove. We spent a day together. We ate real Phõ (in the South Vietnamese style) hung out with her Grandpa, who was a General in the Vietnam war, and walked around Lil’ Saigon.
At one point, we laid down in a park, next to each other, talking about God and what we wanted from our lives. She was picking dirt off of my shirt, the way chimpanzees do, when I fell asleep. I woke up a half-hour later. It was warm outside but we were in the shade. I felt a breeze. I slowly got up. We walked to get dinner, boiled crawfish and raw oysters.
I remember, on the Uber back to my friend’s apartment in Long Beach, feeling grateful and emotional. I never would have met her, or been able to experience that, if not for writing. I had depression the prior six months, everything still felt fragile to me. A moment like that—of befriending someone who appreciates your art, of having new experiences in a new city, which is made up of all Asian people, a dream of mine since young—is a brush stroke on a masterpiece of life.
In July, when I came back to my apartment in New York City, I felt more committed to writing than ever. I saw the small amount of good that it had brought me thus far, and I saw the way my friends in LA were zeroing in on their talents to huge success. I was optimistic. I thought that I’d go a lot farther, career-wise, by the end of the summer.
I did write a lot this summer, but looking back, very little of it was published. I worked with people who thought my work was too controversial, etc. Which of course makes me worry if I can make a living or get bigger with this thing. Apart from writing, there’s people I admired, who I reached out to, who had no interest in reciprocating. There’s events I went where I felt self-conscious and alone.
After one night, in which I waited four hours near the Queensbridge Projects to interview a hip-hop legend who never showed up, and I went to a show in which I thought there were going to be people I knew, but weren’t, and my phone died, I remember feeling dejected and depressed as I got on the hour-long subway back uptown. I remember consoling myself with the sentence, “It’s not supposed to be easy.”
Everything is in a rhythm. L’s—“losses”—will come in the best of times. Wins will appear in worst of times, like a match firing in darkness. I used to look at certain people I admired, and think that they experience constant success. In reality, I know they don’t. I know because everyone who I thought was like that, as I grew closer to them, I saw that wasn’t the case.
Everybody takes L’s. It’s how you take them that matters. You can let it destroy you or you can turn it into something good. You have grab the L, slam it on the anvil, and beat it into a W. Then hold it up, the fire roaring and the welder's mask on your face. A triumph.
In the middle of July, I called up a city girl I'd "been with" in the Spring, “Gabriela.” I wanted to see how she was doing—the last time we talked we had a fight, because she was angry at me, because I “led her on” via me initially wanting to have, then not wanting to have, a relationship with her. I was still hurting from my breakup, I didn't want to date anybody for a long time.
“Why are you calling me?” She said. She told me that I was the most manipulative person she ever met and that I should be celibate. Apart from that, she said a lot of stuff, word-for-word, that my ex-girlfriend said to me. Before she hung up, she said that if I respected her, I would never talk to her again. I planned to respect that. I felt ashamed of myself. Why did I have to be like that? Had I really not learned anything?
I’d skate around the city at night and think about Gabriela, and all these other people who weren’t in my life anymore, via death or falling-out or breakup. I thought about my ex-girlfriend and how she had stopped talking to me. I don’t know if I’m ever going to talk to her again. I think a big part of me maturing this past year and summer was accepting that. Forgiveness from those that we hurt in this world isn’t guaranteed. It’s up to us to shoulder that pain and not let it destroy us, but rather transform it into something that motivates us to be better.
At the beginning of August, I went back to Cleveland. I wanted to clear my head before I started school again. NYC and LA are cool, but I’m from the Midwest. I wanted to play basketball and make rap songs with my friend Ziggy, to hang out with my girl there, to breathe the air and feel solid again.
As an aside, I started listening to the song “Marvin’s Room” a lot. The lyrics didn’t apply directly to my current situation, but there was something about the feeling I identified with. Maybe just being fucked up at night, feeling bad about the past, and trying to communicate with its living avatars.
My last week in Ohio, the last week in August, I drove to Columbus to stay with my friend Godfrey. We worked on a website, made a logo, and finished making our first short horror film, “FACE TO FACE.” We also chainsmoked blunts, played video games (“Hitman: Absolution,” “Fallout: New Vegas,”) and listened to Chief Keef's “Bang 3” on repeat. It was a glorious time, I answered no emails and returned no calls during those 3 days.
The second night I was there, lying on the couch while everyone was upstairs, I got a text from Gabriela. “What are you up to,” She said—as if I, by listening to “Marvin’s Room” over a hundred times, had willed the situation into existence. “What’s up,” I said. I was so surprised, I never thought I would talk to her again either.
I had really psyched myself out to feel like I was the worst person ever. But here was the past reaching out to me, seeking reconciliation. Everything is in a rhythm.
“Something told me I should talk to you,” Gabriela said. “I don’t actually think you’re a bad person. I just think you’re a stupid boy and don’t realize when you’re being an emotional idiot.” “Facts,” I said. She laughed. We talked for an hour that night. We made plans to see “Straight Outta Compton” and eat at the Red Lobster in Harlem when I got back. And we did, and now we're cool.
I’m still worried about myself and whether or not I’ll fuck that up. I still have a lot to work on. As I get older, time goes quicker, and sometimes I feel like I'm not going fast enough.
In August, at home, I went through my old iMac computer that I used during middle and high school. I found a document that laid out my goals from when I was 17. I had 3: write for an magazine I liked, get involved in startups, and continue to pursue music as a hobby. At the time, I was doing none of those things, I was just a kid in Ohio worried about college and skateboarding.
I felt so emotional after reading that, the feeling I can imagine a father would get in a movie, discovering some “revelation” about his estranged son that causes him to slowly lower what he is eating and stare at the screen, the crumbs trembling off his beard like a light snow.
I did all those things. I’ve written for several “of my favorite magazines,” gotten involved in hip-hop and accelerator “startups,” and made a mixtape last year. I haven't had huge success yet but I've done the things I wanted to do. My 17-year-old self would have been proud of me, and surprised. I didn't anticipate that type of future for myself.
I'm proud too. Not of everything I’ve done, but my progress. All the bad stuff in my life I’ve tried to turn into good stuff. My manicism, I've tried to steer towards productivity. My depression, I've tried to steer towards expression. My failures interpersonally, I use to be better.
I don’t blame anyone for anything. That era is over—if I’m selfish, lazy, etc, it’s not because of my genetics or upbringing, it’s because of me. I’m 21 now, I’m an adult. I can buy alcohol. All my decisions are my own.
If the summer of 2015 taught me anything, it was that growing up isn’t an automatic process. Just because you’re older doesn’t mean you’re grown. There are adults who still think and act like children, their body has just aged.
You have to fight to grow, like everything else. You'll take steps forwards and back. As long as you’re alive and you keep taking them you’ll go closer to that intangible excellence that Aristotle believed was the purpose of human existence. As Beanie Sigel says, “Shoot for the moon—even if you miss, land amongst the stars.”