I have always made decisions based on what other people will think. I know it’s wrong, and outwardly I’m not self-conscious or paranoid. But it’s always been there. That tick. That nagging voice in my head. An incessant impulse to be something I assume other people want me to be.
To be like everybody else. To be normal. To be cool.
I can appreciate it now, but growing up I always felt different. Not quite an outcast, but just deeply different from everyone else around me. My mom would tell me it was a good thing — that I was her artistic son; the creative one. But if there was one thing I knew to be true, it was that 10-year-old boys don’t want to be “creative.” At least, I certainly didn’t. I wished I had that aggressive streak like most other boys in my class. I wished I cared about which team won the Yankees game the night before. Above all, I wished nobody would care that I didn’t care at all. But that’s the measure of boyhood. So as not to disappoint my peers (read: subject myself to the ridicule I thought I’d become the target of), I just blended in.
Let me be very clear, I hated sports — it was the amalgamation of everything that didn’t come easy to me. I didn’t have the natural ability to throw a spiral like my brother. I couldn’t run as far or as fast as my friends. I certainly didn’t enjoy it as much as my classmates. To me, “creative” might as well have been a synonym for “uncoordinated.” My relationship with organized sports is even more haunting. In my mind, it was a series of never-ending practices, impossible exercises and embarrassing tantrums. In Little League, upon finally attaining the coveted “pitcher’s helper” position, I was swiftly replaced; in the car ride home I told my parents it was because “I sucked.” In roller hockey, I was relegated to the bench on a team my own family member was the coach of. In high school, I closely monitored the number of kids trying out for the lacrosse team because I knew if there were cuts, I wouldn’t make it.
The worst part of all this is that I could have stopped at any time. Everyday I told myself to just give up. I could have forgotten about everything and done exactly what I wanted to do; it’s my life, after all. But it was easier said than done. Instead, in my unfailing desire to be like any other kid — to not stick out in the crowd — I forced myself to keep trying, just rotating between sports until maybe something stuck. Nothing ever did.
But away from school, when the voices of everyone else in my head subsided and I would finally hear my own, I could just be me; the artistic son my mom seemed to appreciate so much. Unbeknownst to anybody at school, I took acting classes. I painted. I saved up money to buy a video camera and taught myself how to edit my own clips together. And in 2004, at the very ripe age of 10 years old, I saw a movie that totally changed my perception of myself.
I was instantly enamored with “Kill Bill” — an almost cartoonishly-quick, magnetically powerful attraction, as if every movie I had seen up to that point no longer mattered, and any movie I would see in the future would undoubtedly pale in comparison. It was stylistic. It was interesting. It was uniquely itself and wholly unapologetic. “Kill Bill” was the first time movies were cool; not traditional or acclaimed or widely popular, but just cool in a way I never thought any expression of creativity could be. And I latched onto it.
The movie became my identity; it was my thing, my signifier. I thought the more I engaged with it, the more “Kill Bill” ’s cool would rub off on me, and I would be cool in the way I wanted to be — not just in the way I thought I needed to be. As the years went on, it was easier to embrace the different sides of myself because of how “Kill Bill” became a part of who I was. I wasn’t embarrassed by it in the way I was embarrassed about other artistic things. I was embarrassed to take acting classes. I was embarrassed that I would rather film a lacrosse game than actually play in one. But “Kill Bill” was different. I might not be able to explain it, but for the first time in my life I felt better about being me. It didn’t matter if I were at school or at home or at a practice for whichever sport-of-the-season I chose. Because of “Kill Bill,” I knew I could grow up and grow into myself in a way that would ease all of the harsh feelings I had harbored over the years. One day, I would make something as cool as “Kill Bill” — something that was mine, and I’d no longer struggle with uncertainty or self-doubt.
When I came to Michigan four years ago, that conquest for traditional normalcy didn’t subside. If anything, it was almost like it started all over again — new friends to make, new people to win over and new opportunities to use as a disguise. But that’s not how I look at it now, three years later. With each year, I no longer see my college experience as a new chance to fail, but rather as a new opportunity to introduce myself, truthfully. Each year, I get better at being me, and most importantly, I rely less and less on fiction to do so.
Now I’m at a turning point; it’s the first true crossroads in my life, and I can see both paths ahead of me. It’s fitting — poetic, even — that Michigan is right in the middle of where I’ve been and where I want to go. One road leads back home. East. My family is there. My friends are there. I could go back to living my life as if it’s a reflection of everyone else.
The other road is more daunting. I would be in a place I’ve never been before. I would be totally on my own. I would finally be forced to think only about myself. What do I want? Who do I want to be?
I know I have no choice but to go West, otherwise all of this — my childhood, my struggles, my growth — would have been for nothing. I owe it to myself, and I’m terrified. But at least now I know that I’m doing it for me.