Rais Tuluka is an author and Ph.D. candidate in the English department at the University of California, Davis who lives in Davis, California, and is happy here among these trees.
When I was a plucky undergraduate, I learned that anagnorisis is a moment in a play or story where a character makes a critical discovery about their predicament. Who they really are. It happens in Shakespeare’s Othello, after Othello kills his wife, Desdemona, for being adulterous. He later uncovers her innocence, realizing Iago manipulated him.
My mentees were standing at the edge of a cliff, and either they would jump or chicken out. It’s late summer, my birthday, under my twenty-sixth sun. I brought them to Mount Shasta, and the water was so still it looked like blue concrete. I watched the three of them from the bottom, in silence, wearing a Raider’s cap to reject the sun. I didn’t feel old at twenty-six, but today I can’t remember the feeling of being twenty-six. Yet, all of my mentees looked at me like I was ancient, and it’s that feeling of misplaced reverence that I do remember. My store of knowledge about myself was developing, but not infinite.
Before we left to go cliff jumping, we all met in the shabby lobby of our three-star hotel by the forest, with its brown wallpaper and pine aroma. The concierge chatted to us about the Mount Shasta lore fitting in a TedTalk’s worth of content in seven minutes. Those who’ve spent their entire life in Mount Shasta love visitors, spinning fables of the sacred energy underneath the land fostered by extraterrestrials and shamans.
“Let me tell you guys,” he said, leaning closer to the boys and lowering his voice, “one thing no one here will tell you is that there are mermaids at the bottom of the lake.”
It wasn’t surprising to hear, seeming like something I could only see there. Because if we were going to see something mythical, it would happen like this, in a town of folk wisdom. When I think about that time in my life, I don’t think about whimsy, but of the futile attempt to remain realistic at every chance I got, and I remember no way to cure world-weariness.
One mentee just got out of the hospital after his head slammed on a cafeteria table while fighting at his school. His brain was scarred from the altercation, and the surgeon who patched him up said he was one fight away from death. He was roughly six feet tall and built like Tyson Fury. And though he pledged to never fight again and got a job at Barnes and Noble, there was still a rocking rage in his eyes and anger available in his walk. But when he heard of seeing mermaids at the lake’s bottom, he smiled for the first time since his hospitalization.
We walked around Lake Siskiyou, the long, circular bed of water that waited at the edge of the forest. The whole walk, I spoke at length about my experiences when I was their age, about the hot summers of violence and the lack of opportunity that swallows up young men before the age of seventeen. There were always young men who wouldn’t make it back to school after the summer, and you heard they went either to the grave or a cell.
Back then, I told them, if my friends and I weren’t roaming aimlessly around the city or smoking weed, we were at a house party. A stuffy summer party. Bodies cramped in a garage, flesh to flesh. The hot air made you so tense enjoying yourself didn’t cross your mind. Reckless abandon was impossible. Keep your eyes open. If everyone you came to the party with was drunk or high, one of you had to be aware—monitoring surroundings. Bodies floated through the room around you, phantom-like, until someone familiar speaks, putting voice to form. As dramatic as it may sound, my goal when going out to these parties was to stay alive. I refused to be a casualty of summer.
Aggression and observation were gods, but not just gods in scope and power, though that indeed existed, but gods in that it was evident what would befall a young man if he lacked either. Aggression and observation solved problems. “I think I am the person you’re referring to,” another mentee said, “angry and observant.” His mom was a stay-at-home mom to him, his 9-yearold sister, and his 5-year-old brother, and his father was a police sergeant with the City of Vallejo Police Department. They lived in a mundane house in a regular American neighborhood, not unlike those you’ve seen in movies like American Beauty or American Pie.
His mother loves wearing yoga pants and matching tops. She is all participation, whether at church or at the schools. She uses as much slang as possible, followed me on Instagram last week, and loves holding hands and praying before breakfast, lunch, and dinner. His father is a big guy, with a pharaoh’s nose and dark skin—cheeks hairy like a kiwi. He is mostly away at work but mows the lawn and watches CNN when he gets home.
Along the shore of the lake, families are playing or lying together in the sun. Whenever we walked past a family complete with smiles and a frolicking dog, my mentees would look back with a smidge of appreciation, or perhaps a dash of envy. Finally, after a couple of long stares too many, I had to tell them to cut it out. Gleeful shouts of children splashed forth from the center of the lake.
A man, probably those children’s father, was waist-deep in the teal summer water of Lake Siskyou, knees bent, arms spread like a Sumo wrestler, a shaggy gray-brown beard dripping water, an open-mouthed smile.
The last mentee’s parents were happily married for twenty years, “seriously happy” as his mother describes it, until she left her husband to be with a youth pastor. My mentee learned what it felt like to lose stability where it was once commonplace. His teachers found an uptick in his demeanor at that time, but when the divorce first happened, he said he told his therapist that life was insufferable. He actually used that word: “insufferable.”
As we walked by a family collected around a table playing Uno, he turned to me and asked, “Did you do stuff like this with your family when you were a kid?” The look on his face was stunning, like he was seriously trying to identify something mysterious, something in the distance of his imagination. He told me in the past that he hadn’t seen his dad since the divorce, and before I answered the question, I took that into consideration. He’d shown me a photo of his dad before, his lanky frame and long arms. There was a dazzling smile, vast eyes, too.
“My parents were always busy working,” I said. By the time I was in middle school, running around the neighborhood had become an extreme sport. Doorbell ditch and egging houses couldn’t raise my adrenaline high enough. As I grew older, my innocent delinquency became close to neighborhood terrorism. One Summer, a friend and I had the brilliant idea to steal bikes from around the neighborhood to sell them. I hopped fences, landing in backyards, running toward forlorn bikes as fast as I could. If someone saw me, it was okay because I would be moving too fast for them to stop. “Have you ever stolen something you didn’t need?”
He shook his head. I tried my best to look at him with courteous skepticism.
The heat didn’t relent for the rest of the trek. Luckily for us, I bought us all flip-flops, tank tops, and shorts. Even the flip-flops were a culture shock for the boys. What shocked them most were my feet: my groomed toenails, trimmed and glistening as if the sheen were permanent sweat. They tried to avert their eyes from the clear coat on my toes but couldn’t; it was the curiosity of it all. I could see them wanting to form questions, wondering if such maintenance was okay for them to do, but neither wanted to be the first to ask the question. Not this question.
When we made it to the cliff base, I told the boys to further hike up the trail to get to the top. I told them I’d wait at the bottom to get pictures so they could post them on Facebook and Instagram later. I watched them ascend Mount Olympus. They were impossible not to see, even though the brush of the forest, the trees, and the bushes were plentiful. As they climbed, I thought about The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain, an essay by Langston Hughes. My thoughts were less about the piece and more about the conditions I read it. When I picked up the essay in the JFK Library in Vallejo, I could hardly keep the loose papers together. No one cared to staple it. The prized piece dissolved in my hands, out of order, with coffee stains smudged on every other page. I asked the librarian if I could check it out, she said no, so I took pictures of each page with my iPhone.
I could see the boys racing to the top of the cliff, stuffing red lychees into their pockets, running wild as if the cliff were a playground. I remember asking one of the boys’ mothers how she could say her marriage was “seriously happy” if she ran off with the youth pastor for a six-month sexcapade. She was a soldier in the United States Army before she was a wife, and before a soldier, she was an exotic dancer. Often, she would think of her father back home and how he would demand her little brothers to follow the Sunnah, the Hadith of the Prophet Muhammed.
She had a lot of boyfriends before joining the military and marrying, and then after two decades of marriage, she finally wasn’t forced to be bound to any one man. While we sat at the kitchen table one afternoon, she said to me, “Every woman hates being alone as much as they hate being loved too much.” I spent a lot of time working out what she meant before asking her to elaborate. And when she did, the answer that came was honest. But after her divorce, she suffered from depression, anxiety, insomnia, and not to mention, financial insecurity. Finally, after months of therapy, wine, and weed, the first nugget of peace arrived, and it was small, she said, petite, but she could feel it, and she felt it because she knew she fucked up but was okay with her decision.
They had a good marriage. Their passion was still there, but she desired growth and new opportunities. She thought she might follow in her mother’s footsteps, for whom her father remained the only force in her life and to whom her mother stayed loyal. But when she started seeing the youth pastor, there would be months when she wouldn’t come home. And whenever she was home, her husband snorted cocaine to drown out the sound of her fingers typing texts to her younger man. He never said anything, opting to ignore the situation until she put divorce papers in front of him.
Near the end of our conversation, she spoke of wanting to find a way to mix freedom with responsibility, of enjoying the freedom to go hand and hand with security, especially after being disturbed by limitations in life. She never said a limitation was her son. She almost slapped me for suggesting that’s what she meant. I’m not sure what she wanted, and maybe that’s the point? To enjoy the crumbling old order and not sift through the rubble? When we reach our personal anagnorisis, what more is there left to confront? Othello punishes himself for the crimes he has committed against Desdemona and others by killing himself, but I don’t think that’s supposed to give the reader catharsis.
The three of them made it to the top of the cliff. At the top, one of them did a dance dangerously close to the edge; the other two laughed because he almost slipped. One of them then spread his arms wide, and the other one shouted something into the heavens with an enormous smile. While I watched them, I forgot my age for a second. Lord knows I felt in communion with something that I felt had been lost, a sense of nostalgia, of soul.
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