In Fall 2019, I interned at the Vatican. I was taking classes at Middlebury College in Vermont, so going to the Vatican twice a week was not easy. All expenses were paid, but the wear and tear from the travel was unappreciated. When I met with my guidance counselor junior year, she told me it was pathetic that I had not interned anywhere yet. When asked what I wanted to do, I said, “I don’t know, but probably not a normal internship.” She had a glimmer in her eye. But it wasn’t a good glimmer. It wasn’t an excited friend glimmer, who was about to blow your surprise birthday party. No. It was the glimmer that said: I have a connection to the pope.
Being a geology major, I never met anyone really exciting at networking events. Usually it was a bunch of old, white guys talking to themselves about their rock collections. Networking events always felt gross anyways. I didn’t need a networking event to land the internship I got. Turns out, my counselor was a classmate of the pope in the sixth grade in Buenos Aires. They stayed in touch, and he had been wanting an intern ever since his papacy began.
The first few days I worked at the Vatican, I mainly did paperwork and any sort of chore work. Organizing files, getting the pope coffee, things of that nature. On the third week, the pope finally expressed some interest in me. “What’s your name?” I remember him asking. He invited me to mass, but I told him I was Jewish and preferred to not attend.
Week seven was probably the most stressed I ever was at the Vatican. My girlfriend had dumped me that Monday morning at our favorite diner. I had to get the pancakes to-go. Then on Tuesday, I bombed my Geology 101 midterm and did desomorphine for the first time. Wednesday I flew to the Vatican where the Pope was all in a fuss about his dishes not being cleaned, and I don’t know if it was the desomorphine still in my blood or the constant jet lag or just sheer stupidity, but I dropped and shattered five of his plates. He was fuming, but apparently had to forgive me and whatever.
Thursday, I was back in Vermont and found out that my now ex-girlfriend had died. She apparently surprised her best friend who was going skydiving. She snuck onto the plane and managed to fall out of the plane, plummeting to the earth. I flew back to the Vatican Friday morning, and Saturday, I attended my ex’s funeral. I’ve always hated surprise parties.
By week 12, I really thought I wasn’t going to make it. The flight to the Vatican from Vermont is about twelve hours. I was doing that four times a week. My body was breaking down. The dining hall at Middlebury was awful, but the food at the Vatican was even worse. Wednesdays and Fridays all I had was bread and wine. Fridays they had sourdough, which was nice.
My health was deteriorating mentally, too. My school had suggested I see a therapist, but the only person they could find was in Cincinnati, so I had to fly to Ohio every Sunday for a forty-five minute session.
Yesterday was my last day at the Vatican. I went to shake the Pope’s hand, but I reached too far and grabbed his wrist. The pope mumbled, “Yikes,” and then he rustled my hair. I left a thank you note on the ottoman, but it was not sincere. He gave me a few communion wafers to take home with me.
This spring semester I will not be interning. I am waiting tables at my favorite diner. We get free pancakes everyday. And I am never speaking to my guidance counselor again.
Tej Funderburke was the dumbest person I ever met. He had the best of intentions, but he often ended his days eating cereal out of his sneakers.
“Carpe Diem!” he yelled at me. Dead Poets Society was his favorite movie, but he never got to the part where the kid shot himself.
“You don’t even know what that means,” I said. We were sitting in the schoolyard in our hometown of Fayetteville, Wisconsin. He was singing the Canadian National Anthem. He liked Wayne Gretzky and Jim Carrey. “Why can’t you just be a normal person for once?”
“You can’t learn anything if you’re like everybody else,” he said. He was walking on his hands and chewing a Kit Kat wrapper.
I pulled out my notebook to copy down his Trig homework, while he tried to get me to listen to his explanation as to why he has no hair on his left leg. Something about a fire.
It wasn’t until we were fifteen years old that I started to hate everything about him. I can think of a specific day when I decided I would never care about him again. I was walking home from school alone. All I could think about was his horrific student council speech. He ran entirely on the grounds that he was going to name every building in the school after me. He was going to make the entire school pledge allegiance to me each morning. Every week, there would be a casual Wednesday just for me. Nothing he said had anything to do with anything. It never did. And it pissed me off because he made everybody look at me when he was the moronic one. As I walked home in disgust, the last thing I wanted to see was Tej’s face. But as I turned the corner, his dark brown eyes were staring at mine. His clumpy brown hair barely let his eyes show. We’d been friends for too long. I wished the big oak tree that stood outside our school would topple over and squash him.
“Let’s take this beautiful moment in,” he said. Then he sneezed on my face.
“I’m gonna murder you and your family,” I wished I’d said. But instead I sat down on the sidewalk and cried.
“The snot and tears combination is a terrible look on you.” I hated him, but he had a keen sense of fashion. I was sick of being his friend, but there was no one else to talk to. I thought I’d never get to see the day he’d shut up.
Sophomore year of high school sucked for the both of us. I had my heart broken after falling in love for the first time. I still think she’s the best. She ended things, and I’m happy she moved on, but I’m depressed that I haven’t. Sometimes I think it wasn’t even love, I just hated myself. Now my tattoo on my chin that says Ariana looks ridiculous.
On the first Monday of every month, Carl Marx, the school bully, would beat up Tej. Everyone would watch. Carl Marx was from Texas, and that was all he ever talked about. I remember seeing him pound Tej to pieces as he yelled, “Remember the Alamo! I said, remember the Alamo!”
I got concussed during wrestling practice when I thought about Ariana. I couldn’t focus on the sport, so I ran out of the gym in tears, and I accidentally hit my head on a stop sign. I suppose the sign was effective.
Tej walked into Mr. Turk’s class every morning dancing and loudly singing, so he was forced to take all his tests facing the corner wall while sitting on the floor. People called it Tej’s corner.
I tried out for the baseball team, but I threw my bat running to first, and it hit Coach Mercado’s son in the face, so I was immediately asked to leave.
Tej auditioned for a play with a monologue he wrote about his thoughts on sex, and people stopped talking to him after that.
It wasn’t our best year.
The year ended with us getting confirmed in the Catholic church. The year also ended with us deciding to never go to a Catholic mass again. I couldn’t stand my own parents, so I was extra thankful I would no longer be kneeling next to Mr. and Mrs. Funderburke. And I wouldn’t have to give them an awkward hug before eating an incredibly bland cracker. If they were Fritos, maybe I’d still be Catholic. We moved on with our lives. And while I turned to studying the purpose of cocaine, Tej turned to studying the purpose of other religions.
There was a Tuesday night that summer that further damaged our relationship. We were sitting in Carl Marx’s driveway because he has one of those fancy driveways where it’s made of super soft grass. It’s a waste of grass to just drive on it, so we make the most of it. Tej told me he had this great idea to start selling popsicles without the stick because “People like food you can eat with your hands.” Idiot. He would take a bite out of each popsicle because he claimed it made it easier to take out the popsicle stick. This upset me. It upset me how stupid Tej could be. The second time he went to the side of school to sell his half-eaten popsicles, he also made lemonade so that he could get away with calling it a lemonade stand. He said this was good for tax purposes. I used this is an opportunity to take one of his cups, piss in it, and then put it with the other cups of lemonade without Tej noticing. My therapist would later tell me that I have trouble expressing anger and frustration.
After an infuriated stranger drank my urine, the customer threw some punches at Tej. He no longer sold popsicles, and nobody ever apologized.
Junior year of high school, I was out of control. I learned that drinking was a good way to make pretend friends, and going to parties was an exciting way to discover that everyone I knew including myself had nothing important in their lives. The only kid I never saw at parties was Jason Kaboni. He would always stay home alone to play piano. He would also raise his hand in class just to burp and fart at the same time. He’s still the only kid I respect from that school.
William Butler’s party the day after Thanksgiving was going to be the biggest thing ever. It’s all I heard anyone talk about the whole month of November. People just talked about drinking and cocaine and condoms all the time. Our school didn’t have any sort of sex-ed program, so unfortunately Jordan Dryfus convinced me that in order for them to be most effective, you were supposed to eat the condom before sex. I snuck one in my plate of pasta at dinner to make it go down easier. It didn’t help. This led to an embarrassing hospital visit.
When the day came, and people were no longer feeling thankful, but rather a peculiar combination of lazy and horny, William Butler’s house was ready. William was not. It was one of those nice two-story houses, and William assumed he could easily block off the entire top floor, but that failed miserably. Upstairs, Martha Thompson and Guy Wallace were doing it in Mr. and Mrs. Butler’s bed. I know because I was snorting coke alone in the adjacent bathroom.
Tej wasn’t much of a partier, but he went to this one. To Tej, every party was a Halloween party. He liked dressing up and getting free candy. He dressed up as Charlie Brown because even in high school, The Peanuts were “one of my favorite pieces of cinema.” I never got into The Peanuts, but I definitely did treat him like Charlie Brown sometimes. Tej thought it would be funny to knock on the doors of rooms where people were doing it and yell, “trick or treat!” This kept him entertained the whole night, but no one else laughed. He was committed though; I’ll give him that. Had a candy basket and everything.
After I stumbled down the stairs, I somehow managed to get Carolina Strausberg’s tongue to explore my mouth. I remember sneezing mid-kiss and being pissed because I thought Tej’s allergies must be contagious. Carolina was too drunk to notice, so that didn’t stop us. Vomiting into her mouth definitely did stop us. She pinned me to a wall, and I couldn’t help but feel the beer and mashed potatoes start to surface. Sneezing can be hot, but vomit’s a bit much.
She dropped me to the ground and looked at me in disgust. I was pretty cool.
“I love you,” I said.
“You smell like a butt.”
Carolina never talked to me again all throughout high school, and she sure had nothing to say when I asked her to prom that year. Minutes later as I lay in a ditch, face in my own vomit, Tej was there to ruin the night. He stared at me while eating a Kit Kat and said, “Parties are so much fun.” He helped me up and brought me home, but not before stopping by a few neighbors to trick or treat and get some candy.
The rest of junior year everybody was watching me. I always wanted to be doing something interesting. I overheard Carolina telling her best friend Katherine that I was weak, so one day when I knew she was within eyesight, I punched a hole in the wall. I broke my hand, but at least she knew I wasn’t weak.
Tej started winning chess club tournaments and would be really weird while doing it. Later, Tej would tell me I should stop calling him weird because “You call anything you don’t understand weird. Nothing’s weird. Just understand it.” During chess matches, he would cheer himself on very loudly as if he were an outsider. “Attaway Tej, you’re gonna beat this sucker so hard, he’ll think you’re Chris Brown.” I will say, he was always successful in scaring his opponents.
Junior prom was when I really wanted to pummel Tej. After getting rejected from three girls, I decided it was probably best to stay home. But without my knowledge, Tej signed me up as his guest. He’d already paid the money, so I felt obligated. I’ve never felt more suicidal in my life. I can still play the laughs in my head that I heard that night. I’m not sure if I would rather have killed Tej or myself, but one of us needed to go. We walked to prom, which was weird enough, but then we had to take a picture together at the entrance because apparently the whole world needed to think we were a couple. It seemed like incest. My cousin Marsha has slept with multiple cousins, and I would’ve rather gone to prom with her than Tej. He grabbed me by the hand to run to the dance floor. He was beaming. I think I peed myself. I took a required acting class freshman year, but I couldn’t even begin to pretend like I was having a good time. Seeing a group of kids drinking alcohol out of Carl Marx’s bucket hat, thinking they were discreet, I knew what I wanted. Three hours later I was hanging from a ceiling fan.
“What’s that kid doing up there,” someone shouted out.
“I wish I had a father,” another kid said.
Tej talked to the maintenance staff and helped get me down with a ladder. As he carried me out, I decided I hadn’t made a big enough scene that night, so I shouted at nobody and everybody.
“I hate you! Everything about you! You dumb! Eat my ass! Do it! I’ll give you a spork and just dig in! Take a bite! I have mustard!”
Nobody at school ever spoke to me again. Except for Tej.
Senior year Tej and I grew apart. Mainly because I wanted him to stop ruining my life, and mainly because he decided to stop being annoying in an attempt to respect that. We didn’t really have the money for college, but we had no experience working, so at some point we realized we needed to come together and figure out how to live decently. Tej had many ideas.
“We could be those balloon blower-uppers. Stand on the street, make balloons. Kids like that.”
Nobody likes that. “You can’t even blow a bubble with gum, how’re you gonna blow up a balloon?”
Wrestling practice was embarrassing enough, but I couldn’t fathom blowing up balloons, looking like a fool.
A new smoothie place had opened up a couple blocks away from school, so I agreed I would go with him to interview. I stole a suit from a store, and Tej looked like he had just gotten out of bed. His mop of hair covered his eyebrows. They let us interview together but told us we weren’t a packaged deal. Tej said, “We are.” I said, “We’re not.” We then argued about that for three minutes, which was an ideal way to start an interview.
“Have you ever made a smoothie before?” the interviewer asked. He looked like he hadn’t laughed with a friend in a decade. It felt pathetic. He had a name-tag that said “Juicy,” and when I asked him about it, he said his real name was Jerome, but his boss likes fun nicknames. This seemed inappropriate.
“I make smoothies every single day,” I said, as Tej at the same time said, “No.” I stared at him and refrained from breaking his nose.
“What kind of work experience do you have?”
Tej started talking about his lemonade stand as I lost my mind. I sat there, staring at him, and I couldn’t pin point why, but all the times he pissed me off were flooding my brain. As he went on about his stickless popsicles, I realized he was the only one here with a future. When we were five years old, he would build Legos and I’d tear them down, and he’d build something new. I’ve always been screwed.
“And you?” the interviewer asked. “Any work experience?” My eyes stayed on Tej until he turned to meet them.
“I hope you die,” I said, before flipping his chair and spitting on him. I walked towards the door, but I wasn’t ready to leave. I jogged back as Tej sat on the floor, and I started beating him. The interviewer tried to break us up, but he clearly had never been in a fight. I crushed him. Every muscle I had, every ounce of strength I owned, I left it all out there. That’s what Tej would always tell me when we parted ways to go to school or when I had a wrestling match. “Leave it all out there,” he’d say. And that’s what I did. That night, I opened the door to see an ice pack on the welcome mat. There was a note that said, “for your hand.”
A couple of years passed after high school graduation, and I still had no job. Tej’s senior quote was:
“You lose some, you win some, but sometimes it’s best when you tie!”
My quote was:
“I can predict the past, you know.”
I hadn’t seen Tej since the Juice Juice Caboose interview because I decided to live with my uncle, 50 miles north of Fayetteville. I organized his stuff, and it calmed me down. I didn’t get angry. But when I opened my uncle’s freezer and saw a stash of cherry red popsicles, I couldn’t stop thinking about my friend. Brother Tej. I wanted him dead, but I also daydreamed about him running Juice Juice Caboose or being a beloved balloon animal maker or whatever weird thing he wanted to do. I wanted him to do it. I missed him. I miss everything. Even the bad moments in my life I miss just because they’re gone now. But Tej wasn’t bad. I stepped outside onto the driveway and called. Our phone call went like this:
“Say hello when you pick up the phone.”
“So I know that you picked up the phone.”
“You know I’m here for you. You don’t need me to say some standard greeting just to say –“
“Nevermind. Just forget I said anything.”
“I have a pretty good memory–
“Tej, I don’t care. Listen-
“I remember that time I slept over and you kicked me in the shin because I woke you up when I went to the bathroom, and when I didn’t flinch or say anything you got more mad and kicked me again.”
“What does this have to do with anything.”
“How are you?” He really wanted to know.
“I’m fine. I’m calling to tell you I don’t think we--
“Why are you fine? I feel you’re not fine, and I want to know what you are. You’re never fine when you go this long without talking to me.”
“You’re my brother.” I missed him.
“Yes, I’m your brother.”
I paused for a moment because my stomach started turning and twisting and my eyes were getting wet and my face scrunched up.
“I hate you,” I said, and I hung up the phone. I really seized the moment, I thought.
That was the last thing I said to Tej. He went into a coma after he hitchhiked to visit his sick cousin in Iowa. He didn’t have much money, but he made sure he would see her. The driver was drunk and led the car into an oak tree. It crushed him.
I wish I would’ve been more like him.
Orange Juice – NO PULP
Dear Papa & Tita,
It’s not too late to be happy. It’s not too late to be vulnerable. It’s not too late to find peace in your life.
You don’t have to take your overflowing resentment to the grave. You can, and you may even want to,
but just know that you don’t have to.
When you look back at your days in Cuba, try to remember the good times, too. You used to tell us
stories of the beautiful beach and the waves that hit it. Now, you tell us about the boyfriend that you
should have married while your husband sits next to you. You can’t change the past, but I hope you can
I know you are struggling these days, but you do not need to hide it. Your family wants you to be okay.
We know how much you care about us no matter how you are feeling. When you and I sat across the
table at lunch in Houston, we talked for hours about life as we scarfed down our salads. You really
wanted to hear me, and you were interested in what I had to say. Not everybody’s grandmother cares
like you do.
When I was younger and visited you and Papa at your Louisiana home, I went outside with my cousin and we
rode Razor scooters for hours until we got lost in the middle of Baton Rouge. You weren’t upset at all.
You were glad we were okay.
Making everybody happy is a tough job, and honestly, you are pretty good at it. You invite the whole
extended family over during the holidays and bring in a surprise Mariachi band just because you want to. And
of course, you become good friends with the band members. Trying to make everyone around you
happy is a wonderful thing about you, but sometimes you need to make sure you look after yourself,
too. Remember that your family wants to help.
It’s okay to cry. I think I have your genes. I know it feels automatic to hold in every ounce of emotion.
But that’s a burden, and I can feel it weighing you down. I can’t lift it off you. But you can set it down
yourself, wherever, whenever you’d like.
Cry about your past that you never mention. Cry about the good. About the things you have that you
thought you never would. Cry because you’re proud of your grandchildren. No matter what we do, you
congratulate us just for living our lives. You can congratulate yourself, too.
I don’t know many people who were a win away from going to the Olympics as a wrestler. And I’m more
impressed that you continue to play in a softball league with people less than half your age. You take
care of your physical health much better than most people, no matter the age. But it’s okay to have a
scoop of ice cream every now and then.
Not many people retire in their late 80’s. Honestly not many people even live during those years. The
fact that both of you were continuing to work hard and travel the world up until a few months ago is
remarkable. You have affected many people and continue to give back to your family and your
community. And you care about recycling more than any politician ever will.
If you feel there’s no one to talk to, think again. Talk to each other. You haven’t done that in quite some
time. You can cry together. That’s okay. Your relationship is not perfect. It never was. But you have
stayed with each other for over 50 years. Eat some ice cream and give each other a hug. You’ve lived a