Dark road with streetlights.
Alex Zhang/MiC.

Content warning: Triggering imagery related to self-inflicted violence, alcohol abuse and intrusive thoughts

Calvin was not the type of person that I would normally associate with, at least when we first met. To put it plainly, he was a self-loathing loser when matched up against my brilliance. I was being nationally recognized for my linear algebra skills while he was busy winning spelling bees.

The one thing he had going for him was his height: He was fairly tall for a third grader, which was when our unfortunate acquaintance really began. But even this “redeeming” quality wasn’t totally redeeming. You see, people often mischaracterize the concept of “tallness.” They relegate it to the purely physical realm, when in actuality it possesses a mental component as well. As was the case with this guy, a goofy-looking grade schooler with a terrible haircut, stuffed into an ill-fitting polo shirt and khakis. Taller than me, ostensibly, but he had an outwardly wilted quality to him, which made me slightly annoyed. He was tall, but he was not a tall person; in short, this boy had nothing in him that I would ever go for.

Our parents were mutual friends; thus, it was jointly decided we needed to battle to the death for their entertainment, by which I mean they all desperately wanted us to hold hands and maybe get married in short order. I, of course, wanted no part of it. Meddling relatives have made my life infinitely harder since the moment I was conceived, especially when it comes to boys. Before Calvin, there came a parade of various family, friends and their assuredly smart and charming sons, but I didn’t want a single one of them. Peter thought cooties were a lethal illness that I could pass along merely by speaking to him, so he was out of the picture almost immediately. Jeffrey was allergic to peanuts; nothing against people with peanut allergies, but he took one look at me before declaring he’d eat a whole jar of Jif if I even held his hand. Simon was performing very nicely for a bit — pleasant company and actually was quite good at math, as well — but all of that flew out the window when I witnessed him eating his own boogers when he thought I wasn’t watching. Looking back on these unfortunate and distant years, there is probably a reason why meaningful and happy relationships usually don’t begin in elementary school. More to the point, there is probably a reason why they are so rarely set up by your family members.

I could argue myself breathless pleading my case in front of Mom, referencing all of these previous failures that our family’s matchmaking had brought us. Why would Calvin be any different? For that matter, I was never terribly interested in boys to begin with, so what was the point in these exercises at all? They could’ve dragged Justin Bieber himself out to serenade me and I would’ve been completely unmoved. Mom simply wouldn’t change her mind once it had been made, and on this she was firmly set: I was going to at least try to play nice with Calvin.

We were in the backyard chatting, and various assorted uncles, aunts, and other vastly unfamiliar family members had formed a loose circle around us (they had just as much stake in as our parents, too. Wagers had been placed on who would make the first move, if we would get together now or at a later date, what we would talk about, with one sweaty Cantonese uncle I’d never seen before anxiously puffing his way around collecting the bets) before my mom essentially fired the starting pistol. 

“It’s so good to see you, Calvin! You’ve gotten so big!” she brightly said, gripping the back of my t-shirt like I was a rabid Doberman. 

“Joy, go talk to him,” she hissed, spinning me around and smiling at Calvin and his parents. His mom was standing behind him like he was a boxer slumped at the ring’s corner; she looked ready to supply him with damp towels and a bottle of water. His dad was basically clenching down the desire to begin rubbing his shoulders encouragingly. Without a word, he let Calvin’s shoulders go and shoved him toward me like he was sending him to storm the beaches at Normandy. I stepped forward before my parents could do the same.

We faced each other across the slightly yellowing grass as streaks of orange bled into the sky. His eyes immediately started to drift toward his feet; I knew I had the advantage. Wasting no time, I went straight for the throat. It was time to cut off any ambitions of marriage in a decisive and unambiguous way.

“You’re short.”

His head jerked back up as he shot me a confused glance, but he was the type to get defensive rather than, say, point out that I was a good foot (physically, mentally I was at least double his height) shorter than him. “Sorry,” he mumbled.

Already, I could see our parents wincing like I’d just reached out and rubbed my palm across his face in a slow and methodically disrespectful way. Third graders weren’t typically this rude, but I wasn’t here to play around. This was a no-holds-barred death match, and my entire boy-free future was on the line. I could see the writing on the wall clearly enough; if I tolerated him, his parents would try to set up playdates, family dinners and other various affairs designed to keep him in my life until, by osmosis, we would become a presumably functional and happy couple.

I would never be free of him if I didn’t decisively squash their hopes now, so I wasn’t going to hold back.

Calvin had a few tricks up his sleeve, too. He must’ve read up on my file, studied my previous matches, that sort of thing, because he went straight for my number-one weakness. “Do you read?”

I got a little excited, I’ll admit. “Yes, I do! I’m quite fond of ‘Eragon’, do you know that serie-” 

It was too late, he had the drop on me. He lunged forward and tried to grab ahold of my hand, acting rather rabid-Doberman-like himself. “I really like ‘Eragon’, actually! Which one is your favorite book?!”

The throng of relatives around me began to shout and stamp their feet. BLOOD. BLOOD. BLOOD. 

People were groaning and passing money around as I fell backward, knocked to the ground by him catapulting himself forward. I’d gotten too excited and fallen for the obvious bait — I needed to disengage and reset the situation. “I’ve actually never read past the first one,” I said a bit dryly, yanking my legs up under him and kicking him off with remarkable force.

My vision swam as uncles and aunts multiplied and fell over themselves, a blur of cheap sunglasses and floral-patterned blouses. The money had stopped changing hands so quickly now that first blood had been drawn, but their eyes were still eagerly flicking between us as we circled back around for Round 2. I needed to communicate my disinterest more explicitly. “So, you do spelling bees,” I said, feeling around his defenses for a weak spot.

He looked a little sheepish after I brought it up. “Yeah,” he said, a little shyly. “I know it’s not comparable to what you’re doing. My parents said you’re really smart.” He blushed before having the absolute balls to smile at me, despite making a huge tactical blunder in the process. 

I blinked at him a little, not because I was flattered, nor indeed because a third grader had just dropped the word comparable in a sentence like it wasn’t a big deal. He had basically put down his fists and thrust his chin out toward me; victory was in my hands.

Hesitation would get me nowhere — I got a running start and executed a perfect dropkick. 

“Spelling bees are for nerds,” I announced. I swear I could feel his innards wrapping around my feet as I got him on the grass. The family started bellowing and screaming again, but it was all incoherent and deranged background noise as I looked down at Calvin, who weakly gave me a thumbs-up. 

“Yeah. I don’t mind being a nerd, though,” he said. The smile never left his face as he looked up at me.

After a moment, I silently shook my head and stuck my hand out at him. I was baffled even in glorious, unmitigated victory. He took it, and his grin got even wider, despite the fact that he was missing a tooth.

My uncles were all mad at me. I had just cost them a veritable fortune in bets. Both of our parents had left at that point — we had been fighting for longer than their attention could hold. And so, that night disappeared like any other, fading away until the memory was crushed into dust.

Third grade has been so long ago it might as well have never happened at all. I yearn every day to return to childhood, to restart everything or indeed a future that could rescue me from the dead-end street of my current miserable existence. But there will never be comfort or safe harbor for someone as awful as me. My self-inflicted burdens, my yearning to vanish … one day, it will all collapse. I will crumple under deadly weight, my corpse unrecognizably flattened. Happiness and anticipation have curdled into mere boredom and stupidity; there is nothing left to live for, not for me.

You need not poke around for the origin of these awful feelings — starting from the beginning will show you where everything went so horribly wrong. To be frank, Joy was an awful name to choose (only a step above Frank, coincidentally). It feels slightly outdated, only a step above names modeled after virtues like Prudence or Temperance (although Joy is derived from the French joie, as opposed to Temperance’s Anglo-Norman roots — either way, I don’t possess an Asian name); I have no issue with people named in such a way, but rather the people who dragged these dusty Puritan-era names into the modern day. As was the case with mine; they simply wished for a joyful child, and so decided that naming me was the easiest way to accomplish that. 

In my mind, some additional follow-up work would’ve been nice. One glance at me will tell you all you need to know on exactly how much joy is present in my life. You don’t even need to look at me; the spaces I frequent have been infected with the same soul-sucking affliction that I carry around at all times. 

My room? Nothing short of psychotic disarray, despite the fact that I live in a Scrooge McDuck-ass mansion. A layer of clothing too disgustingly stained to wear forms the base of it, sprinkled atop with whatever I don’t feel like putting away: empty liquor bottles, endless Panda Express-brand styrofoam boxes and balls of tissues stained with tears, snot and sometimes blood. I am living in a hell almost exclusively reserved for teenagers. I yearn for the day when eating like a post-divorce middle-aged dad (Hot Pockets and beer) will no longer be sufficient for my frail, weakened body to function. 

I will simply collapse in front of the microwave, creating several problems I will mercifully not be around to deal with anymore.

“Joy, this description of the shitty conditions you live in makes me worry about you.” You shouldn’t, because I will take you for granted as hard as I possibly can. Hundreds of missed texts from Mom, hundreds more from Dad (who still worries about me even though he’s a piece of shit). Don’t even get me started on the people who’ve fallen out of my life because I failed to make time for them. 

It’s all my fault. Being this kind of animal makes time move fast, dreadfully fast, a car headed directly for catastrophic collision. I will try to catch a quick nap and end up head pounding and covered in sweat, 27 hours later. 

Sleeping is really one of the only things I look forward to, nowadays — that fantastic little gap (or yawning, unpatchable abyss) in my packed schedule when my troubles vanish beneath the facsimile of stone-cold death. Something about losing control of myself for a while is intoxicating. Half-formed dreams and, indeed, the “Brick Wall of Reality” could never compete against total dead oblivion.

It is unclear to me why I feel this way. Indeed, there are periods of merciful normality in my life, but these are sandwiched between two thick-ass slices of heinous self-implosion and venomous hatred, both of myself and others. I am a downright danger to polite society … or I would be, if I could spare the energy to even get out of bed in the morning.

Most of my musings are meaningless and follow some non-critically-thinking pattern have self-loathing: “Joy, you are a thoroughly worthless person.” A small, deranged minority materialize as cravings for violence. “Joy, you should wrap your hands around your neck and squeeze until your face turns purple and your cheeks bloat outwards.”

There is an inexact range of time when these unwanted thoughts began to germinate and gnaw away at the edges of my mind, acknowledged but never fully formed. It coincided with the beginnings of my parent’s arguments with each other, which began to happen with increasing frequency after Dad got a promotion and started getting way too close with his boss. I remember cringing in a little nook on the stairs as I watched my normally gentle and soft-spoken father devolve into red-faced, screaming obscenity. To be fair, my mother complicated matters since they were both terrible at communicating (a trait that I’ve since inherited); during these episodes she would go silent, silent as the grave and indeed as pale as the long-dead.

I remember the first of their arguments exploding through the house. I’d been coming down to get some water when Dad’s yelling struck me with the force of a physical blow, sending me scampering back like I’d been slapped, all the way back to the safety of my bedroom. 

I pressed my ear against the hastily-shut door and heard Dad call Mom a stupid bitch. I instantly wanted to hurl myself back by several seconds, but it was too late, the damage was done. Settling for second best, I wanted to stop listening to the disintegration of everything I had ever unconditionally loved. But I didn’t pull away, and remained slumped there, crying like an idiot, quietly sniffling and hiccuping as my parents tried to tear each others’ hearts to shreds.

I can’t really complain with how they treated me, though. There is a stereotype of Asian parents being hard on their children, but I think they loved me the right amount — aloof yet supportive when it mattered. Did all of this change how I felt? Not in the least. Nothing anyone could’ve done, I think, would’ve made it better. There is nothing as toxic a force as the absolute misery yielded by the human mind. 

The divorce only made things worse, but these problems have always been there; I feel that I have been a mass of seething self-hatred, which struggled to express itself and suffocate me in various ways. Comparisons to others formed the basis of this, and my feelings of inadequacy grew with wild abandon the better that I became. It was like every time I reached some personal milestone, there were countless people just beyond that summit to remind me of why I should give up on everything. What is the point in being talented if there are kids half your age who can do what you can do, but better? But the real world is an endless void. The Brick Wall of Reality is something I am not strong enough to face.

And so, I began to drink. Not in a fun party way, that hasn’t been how I’ve done it for a while. In a sad, I-want-to-reach-oblivion kind of way. I must stress that it didn’t happen all at once. At first, it was a simple accident, a product of underestimating tolerance that wiped the night from my memory. But I found that I liked it.

There was a time in my life where I felt that horrible accidents would happen to the people I loved if I didn’t abide by certain ludicrous games my mind would make for me. If this sidewalk has an odd number of cracks in it, your grandma will fall down the stairs tonight. If your mom isn’t home from work by 6:30 p.m., you have to recite the alphabet backward, otherwise she won’t come home at all. I was darkly fascinated by losing control of everything I ever knew after my parents separated. I couldn’t put anything back together. All of the things that others crave — wealth, academic success, talent —- I possessed them in spades. None of it mattered in the face of utter powerlessness. My only escape? The Twin Deaths of Blackout and Sleep. I crawled to a cliff’s edge separating depraved alcoholism from something far grimmer. I wanted to lose myself at whatever lay at the bottom. 

I remember, vividly, the last night that I stood firmly behind the edge of that desperate plunge into despair. It was, fittingly, the last party I ever went to with Calvin, before he was swallowed up by college, putting his life together and getting into long-term relationships that didn’t involve me in the slightest … but I digress.

I was cuddling with him out in a starry field after a long night of Kirkland-brand tequila and bass-laden music. This particular party was in the countryside, where plans for a secluded vacation home had fallen through, leaving the idyllic little cottage open for any law-breaking, drug-addled group of lunatics (such as ourselves) to take up space in.

Things were winding down at this point, with pairs of people drifting off home, calling Ubers or otherwise bemoaning the rural reception. I was drunkenly running my fingers through Calvin’s hair as his head slumped onto my shoulder. I felt terribly itchy and heavy, and was trying to figure out how to dislodge my shoulder from his grasp when the mushrooms kicked in.

The first sign of it was of the ground breathing beneath me, a rhythmic and gentle rocking motion that caused me to sway. I began to panic, slightly. I watched my fingers grow fat and bloated, swelling like sausages as my arm fell limply onto the grass. Calvin squinted at me in a deadened, dull sort of confusion, and I remember desperately wanting him to blink — it was taking entirely too long for his eyelids to move in any noticeable way.

Blink, man, blink! I remember thinking desperately that I would damn well rip my eyeballs out if he didn’t blink. I was seized by panic and a loathsome itching sensation just near the left side of my neck, which I furiously scratched at. The trip was terrible every single minute that passed; I waded through syrup-like vistas of time, the seconds pulling at my feet like hellish quicksand. I rode the high in an awful, wrinkled state of mind, and Calvin reported that I soon devolved into a drooling, twitchy mess, incoherently babbling away on the grass. 

Somehow, we both drunkenly got the idea after a few minutes of barfing to steal a car. We had picked our target in the same manner any intelligent kleptomaniac or serial killer would; something that no one could miss. You would think this would be a hard ask given that we were trying to take a car, but Kia Souls are desperately ugly, to the degree that I actually think we did the owner a favor by stealing one. I say “we,” but really Calvin was doing all of the work while I leaned up against a nearby tree as the world stretched and contorted around me like a monstrous lump of clay. I had brought some grass along, and we smoked it together as we made our way back along that stretch of dark and abandoned country road. Soon, we were speeding down along a collection of Houston streets, smack in the middle of the sleepy kind of residential neighborhood that doesn’t know how to react to several road safety laws being violated in a brutal and flagrant fashion.

We were high in an unpleasant and passive sort of way. My mouth felt like it was stuffed full of lint as we hit 80 mph along a stretch of red-streaked streets. Calvin was running lights with careless disregard as I limply stretched my body across the shitty faux-leather seats of the Kia. There were several crushed Natty Light cans that littered the backseat, passenger side and even the drivers’ side —- indeed, the little fuckers kept scraping up against the sides of my bare right foot. 

Some time ago, I had lost the shoe and sock that had once so snugly housed it; but we had to keep moving. The night was short, far too short, to be caught and run around by the forces of law and order in some barren field in the Texas countryside: pigs, hogs and perhaps even a few NSA and CIA spooks would’ve descended upon that clearing like swarms of awful, fat fireflies.

We couldn’t stop nor even slow down on this mad journey into the Heart of Whiteness (suburbia and its affiliates), which had started with a simple felony grand theft auto and was quickly spiraling toward assorted DUIs, OWIs and perhaps, if we were feeling cheeky later on, possession and distribution of Schedules I to III.

No boba places were open at this hour, except — thank God for 24-hour liquor stores, thank God for Celsius and Red Bull and Gatorade to keep you going instead! Calvin was complaining to me about some girl not texting him as we sat next to that damned car, drinking ourselves into glorious stupor: that place where consciousness and the terrible place known as “the real world” shrink into a tiny, fuzzy cinema-screen, where the bone-dry Desert of Sobriety ends. Further along … the cliff of depraved Blackout was getting ready to swallow me whole.

I don’t remember anything past the parking lot. I don’t think it would have mattered anyway, not even if I could recall the entire night down to every last second. The Last Night I was Ever Happy … a debauched inhaling of alcohol and the warmness of a mere two people, wearily pressed together. What is that moment of relief weighed against this entire lifetime, trudging endlessly out in front of me? The future is not dead. It does not even exist. It is not worth anything at all.

Can I confront my self-loathing? Can I seek professional help? Curiously enough, these are the same questions I bitterly bit out at Mom and Dad after one the final family dinners we ever had together, after they’d spent a solid 27 minutes making cold, caustic comments to one another over rapidly-cooling plates of stir fry. The answer, in both cases, was the same: don’t need it … it wouldn’t change a thing … I don’t want to get better, I want to get worse.

The highs of life are fleeting and dissolve in the night. The lows are always there, the morning after. All of it is utter drivel and meaninglessness– it takes most of my mental energy to simply exit the bed each morning — how could I do self-inventory drastic enough to change the way I think? Perhaps it is a bit presumptuous of me, I haven’t gone to therapy. But I’ve hung around with people who do go to therapy, and their lives are falling apart just the same. 

I get it, though; what else could you even say to me? There are no magic words, I find, that will scrub this poison away. Don’t trouble yourself over whether I will get better or not. 

There was once a time that I lived in defiance of this type of existence, but I can barely even recall it. Mom will die. Dad will fuck himself and die. I will die. If there is anything to be learned from this farce of a life, it is that deep sadness will attach itself to you for seemingly inconsequential reasons, and it will win. I welcomed misery into my liver, my lungs, my heart. It shriveled my brain and sucked the warmth and joy from existence itself. It will kill me, one way or another.

I think about that time with Calvin on that orange-stained summer evening. I think about what he must’ve seen, lying there on the grass, staring out toward the sky, before I raised my hand to him. 

I no longer have what it takes to take my own hand. I no longer have what it takes to smile. Perhaps I never did.

MiC Columnist Alex Zhang can be reached at zhangale@umich.edu.