I’m not worried about sticking the landing, as much as the mount. Both are important when talking about D. However, his impact on my life is undeniable, irrefutable and devastating. You cannot begin to understand the rise of my art, the goals of my life, and the place I now find myself without understanding his influence. Look at the man I have become, and you will see his fingerprints all over me. It is not what he did for me that will be the challenging part to show you. I cannot walk, talk, write, or love without showing that. The challenging part of writing this chapter is going to be conveying the sheer magnitude of the hope he brought and the purpose he gave my life when he entered it.
Everything in my life had broken me. Everything in my life had shattered me. Everything was, in some way, a weight that hung on my neck. Seventh grade was a train wreck. Worst year of my life, if you can imagine. I am sure there is a reason to dwell there, but I can’t find it.
It was not the horror of my life or the abuse. It was not really that bad, if you just look at the bullying. I had taken worse. No one kicked my ass, or really tried to ruin my life at all. It was just the desert, an unending monotony that plagued every step of my life. I had nothing. Nothing to look forward to, nothing to do and nothing to build. Everything was dull, and for an artist, that sort of life is torture. I would have taken the beatings. The heart break, the bullying, the drama. I would have taken anything to make me feel alive. But I was numb. I was waiting for life to begin again.
I felt as if I had peaked with Jazz, as if it would never get that good again. She gave me confidence. She gave me purpose. But now, I had none of that.
There was no loyalty in my friends. We were all dregs before dregs became cool. In high school, you can find your tribe and you will be fine. You can look how you want to look and you will likely find another like you. But in middle school, it is not cool to be an outcast. In middle school, everyone wants the same thing. They all want to be popular. They all want to belong to those who belong. If my friends could make a joke about me that would get a laugh from a popular kid, they would do it. If they could betray me to get a leg up, they would do it. I had no X. I had no Tigress. I had no Cage. Everyone around me would have kicked me down if they could stand on me.
Spider was one such person. He was godlike in his brilliance. Knew about everything. One of those people who could have a conversation with you on any topic with some authority. He knew science as well as he knew crystal magic. Knew mathematics as well as he knew black magic. The boy was just good. He was too learned to be popular, and he was awkward. He needed a friend. He found one in me.
Less started dating a senior her freshman year. Rose almost immediately started talking about wedding plans. Rose loved Jay. She wanted him for a son-in-law. As soon as Less realized Rose approved of him, she dropped Jay like a dirty rag.
But I had started playing DnD with Jay. Think back, remember Pig? Same guy. I was playing DnD with him and I brought the game to Spider.
Spider’s dad had married Pretty Boy’s mom. Pretty Boy was a great guy, was kind and funny, but he was the upper echelon of the popular kids. Spider, one day, found his house filled with the most popular kids in school, and he was reading a DnD book in the living room.
Now, if Spider had been reading that book in his bedroom, my life is a completely different story. It is filled with a dead-end job. It has no good friends in it. It is nothing but desert. Nothing but a vague feeling of emptiness that would have haunted my steps forever.
But he was on the couch, and D was visiting. D saw a man on a horse with a sword and a helmet on the cover of the book and he wanted in. It was that simple. The boy wanted in. He was all in for DnD. Knew nothing, but would not shut up about it, and asked all kinds of questions. All the questions led in one direction. All the questions climbed to the same peak:
“When can I play?”
Spider came to me the next day, his eyes wide. He grabbed me with desperate hands and said, “D wants to play Dungeons and Dragons.” He repeated it for emphasis. “D. You know, D. He wants to play Dungeons and Dragons.”
My heart stopped. I wanted to laugh and deny it, but it was too fucking terrifying to imagine. Imagine you decide to be an actor. You take an acting class at a community college, and when you go home that night, you get a call from Robert Deniro. Him and his buddy, Marty, are making a movie, think you would be perfect for it. Come on out. On their dime, mind you. And let’s talk turkey.
That, but with acne.
“This weekend I’ll run a game for him,” I stammered. The words I had just said were lunacy. Running a game for D? Insanity.
“Doesn’t want to wait ‘til the weekend. Wants to play tonight.”
It was Tuesday morning. How was I going to run a game for D on a Tuesday? “What does he want from me, it’s fucking Tuesday?”
“Well, I was talking to him, and he was talking about Mr. Turner and that class trip to the observatory that is happening tonight and, well, you always have your books with you, and your dice.” He grabbed my arm and pulled me in tight. “You have your books and dice, right?”
“Yeah, always, but—”
“He said he wants to play on the bus ride up to the observatory. Says he really wants you to play with him and that is the soonest we can, so let’s do it.” Spider looked winded just talking about it.
“I’m not going to the trip. I haven’t signed the permission form,” I said. “I didn’t get permission from my mom.”
“You’re not going to the observatory field trip?!” He gasped.
“No, it was never the plan.”
“Plans change and you have to make this work. Get on it. You have to be on that bus,” Spider said.
Well, I went home with the sheet in my hand, begged Rose, did about two hours’ worth of chores in twenty-five minutes, and Spider came to pick me up. I was out the door. I was headed off to run a game for the most popular boy in middle school.
Spider grabbed my arm. “Are you ready?”
“For this game. Are you ready? This game has to be perfect. It has to be fun and exciting and it can’t be lame.”
I had no ideas, but that didn’t matter. Dungeons and Dragons was a conduit for Artist. Every time we sat down to play, art came out. It was just like tapping a keg. As soon as you turn the spicket, the brew comes out. But this did scare me a little.
Every now and then, not often mind you, but every now and then, everything locked up. I would start to sweat and break as I realized Artist was not coming. This could be that kind of thing. This could be Artist’s greatest audience yet. What if he choked?
Spider looked at me and whined. “You have no ideas, do you? Oh man, you are going to mess this up for me.” He squeezed my arm painfully, not out of anger but desperation. “You can’t mess this up for me. This is my one chance. You have to have an idea. Can you get an idea? Can you come up with a plot, some characters, and a setting? How can I help?” He curled his fingers in sheer panic. “I can help.”
But he couldn’t. No one could. It would either happen or it would not. The story would either come or I would lock up. Nothing could be planned. I had no idea how to plan a game. I never planned a story or a conversation. When I sat in that dark tub with Jazz, with Ruffle, I never had a plan. I just opened my mouth and things tumbled out. They spiraled for a while before taking perfect form. Maybe that would happen here. There was no way of knowing. All I knew was that I needed to close myself down and get Spider to stop clawing at his face.
When we got there, D met me at the bus door. “I’m D, but you know that. You’re Jesse. You know I knew that.” He laughed. It was the easy laugh of a guy who was about to have fun and knew it. He had none of the nerves I was suffering from. If this didn’t go well, he could just go back to his life. He could just turn around and walk away, disappointed. He grinned. “Been looking forward to this. I’m running a thief.” He handed me his character sheet.
I had told Spider to roll them up characters, and as soon as I looked at the sheet, I knew it was the wrong move. The sheet was a disaster. It would take me an hour to fix it. The observatory was thirty minutes away. Spider had also made characters for Pretty Boy and Stretch. There was no way to fix the mistakes. I had to wing it. Had to make them feel like their sheets meant something. Had to mask the fact that Spider had fucked it all up. I had to work a miracle.
Well, as you can maybe guess, Artist showed up. He read the room perfectly. Knew what everyone was looking for in the game and he made it happen. By the end of the bus ride back from the observatory, when we ran out of time, the tension was so high. The game had reached a fever pitch, and as the bus shuddered to a stop, the game climaxed. The boys leapt into the air and shouted in victory.
D had never experienced anything like it. He hugged me and lifted me off the ground. He howled in my ear and grabbed my shoulders.
“You’re a genius,” he said. No one had ever said that to me before. This was the first time. It would not be the last. I’ve heard it since then. Every time, it heals me a little. Every time, it fixes something inside me that was broken. “We are going to do this again tomorrow. That was one of the greatest moments of my life.”
I had a life. I had a way of expressing my art. I had a way of telling stories. An outlet for the wild images and hallucinations Artist was giving me every day. The desert opened up into fertile fields of possibility.
I was a storyteller again. This time, no dark tub. This time, no loneliness of dark room. I had an audience.
I had D.
This chapter is from Reality of the Unreal Mind, Vol. 1: Teardrop Road, available on Amazon.