I wrote a tall stack of short stories in college. The only one that was decent was entitled “Leftovers Again.” It was about a man in a stale marriage and meaningless career driving home to celebrate his fiftieth birthday. Fifty seemed so far away to me then; I could just as well have written about anticipating a trip to Mars. Anyway, I named my protagonist, an obese, balding chain-smoker on the cusp of a wasted life, Donnie McMurphy. It was irony, of course; an insider’s wink. See how clever I was? Donnie McMurphy was deep inside the box, the opposite of R. P. McMurphy. “Leftovers Again” was a cautionary tale to my readers and future self. During Donnie’s commute home, he remembered when he was in college, a vigorous distance runner, and in love. Thirty years later, he looked forward to his surprise birthday party; he assumed it was a surprise, as his wife had said nothing about it. When Donnie arrived home, there was only a note on the refrigerator from his wife, who was not his college love but someone much less passionate. His birthday had been forgotten. The note said to heat up the leftover meatloaf. On his fiftieth birthday, he’d have leftovers again. He’d lived a bland life, which meant that I’d written a horror story, as a wasted life was basically my worst nightmare.
My life would be so much easier if I accepted boring—interpersonally easier, I mean. But it would be emotionally torturous, the way Donnie McMurphy’s life was.
My favorite teacher, Professor Victor Contoski, was the antithesis of Mrs. Hillhouse; he influenced the class in my favor. He told us to call him “Vic” and often held class at his house as Kesey did at the University of Oregon. We sat cross-legged in a circle and read poetry. Vic sent my story to Prairie Schoonerfor me, and it became my first professional literary rejection. I kept that rejection letter the way a soldier keeps a Purple Heart.
I gave a copy of “Leftovers Again” to another male role model, Coach Timmons. I wanted him to think that I was more than just a dumb jock. That was how I mostly presented myself, which he would know, since he had access to my grade point average. Coach never underestimated me, though. Rather, he tended to overestimate my abilities, which I totally appreciated, but I felt bad when I let him down. He modeled compassion, warmth, and integrity at a time when I needed to see more expressions of masculinity than those presented by stoic, libido-driven males.
I wasn’t stoic, but I was a libido-driven male. Even then, I knew to weave emotional intimacy into “Leftovers Again.” I modeled the protagonist’s college girlfriend after the young woman on the track team whom I was trying to date at the time. It was flattering of her, romantic, not sexual, and loving. I gave her a copy of my short story. That was a charming move coming from a rube like me—or creepy. I don’t know which because she never said anything; so probably it was creepy. But then my buddy had a steamy evening with her and bragged about it to me. I suppose that I was someone to whom you could brag about such things, because weren’t the beats, hippies, and freaks known for their sexual proclivities? Still, I was heartbroken. It occurred to me to blame my buddy, but nah, not a bro, so I decided that if she’d get with anyone else, then I didn’t want her anyway. Then I learned she already had a steady boyfriend back home in Colorado! Well! Seems I was just a fling, an object to her. Since I couldn’t give her hockey checks or crush her in a two-mile race, I did my other thing: I defended my pain with snarky barbs, made her an object right back, and labeled her “The Colorado Six-Pack,” meaning that she was passed around. It stuck. But she was not to be trifled with and took her revenge. I found myself shunned by some of the female runners on the track team. It felt the same as in fifth grade.
I thought it was an unfair shunning. I mean, yeah, I’d roasted her, but hadn’t I been sincere and subsequently wronged? I clearly hadn’t learned enough from the “Pigeth” incident. Perhaps a paddling at the time would’ve taught me a lesson that actually stuck. In ninth grade, when I took my pocketknife to school after getting jumped, had I used my steel, I would have been viewed as the bad guy. But this time, I indeed pulled out my weapon: my cutting, slicing words. I lashed back and didn’t passively walk away as I did from Circle K bullies. What I didn’t understand was how ugly lashing back and name-calling made me appear. I should’ve remembered the Golden Rule. Mom was right about that. Today? Now I merely set stricter emotional and behavioral boundaries with offenders. I let my ugly thoughts flit out the other side of my head. And then I just move on.