#100HappyDays Day 100 ➝ the Why-I-Did-This Edition

The banner pic is my favorite picture of Micha and me, composed of all my other favorite pictures of Micha I pulled from everyone’s Facebook accounts (sorry ’bout that). She lives on through all of our memories, most of which involve middle fingers. Click here to download the big-ass file; to truly honor Micha, do it from your mobile phone which has a limited data plan.

About 100 days ago, a group of us survivors made a vow to participate in the 100HappyDays project.  We were drowning in shock and sorrow, and it seemed an engaging project to distract from the pain by instead focusing on happiness.  For me, it served two purposes: I needed a balm for my soul, and I wanted to get closer to the other participants who were Micha’s other besties.

For day 100, I will attempt to explain what made Micha so special.  Such a thing seems obvious when you met her in person, but there’s so much more to Micha than what you perceive.  So in essence, this is the eulogy I wish I had the strength to deliver at her funeral.  It’s the hardest post I’ve written in awhile. Be warned, it’s a mix of the dark humor and honesty that permeated our friendship.

Micha came from a broken home.  By the time I knew her well, she was already living alone while her family remained scattered around the Metroplex.  When we met, I had just moved to Southlake from Dallas, where my junior high years were an emotional apocalypse that resulted in high amounts of mental baggage, while my brother was away at college, leaving me alone with my parents.  So it made sense that two separate souls like us bonded so quickly.  It’s the simplest explanation of why two random people decided to be brother and sister (the more-complicated one is here).

Micha was career-oriented in all aspects of life, one of her best traits.  She showed those traits in high school activities, so they must have been part of her DNA.  Later as an adult, she cared both about her job and the company she worked for, a combination I’ve never achieved at the same time.  But she inspired me to do both, especially during the short time we worked together at Dell.  I saw her advance via promotions and take on greater responsibilities which made her stand out, even in a company that large, and each time I thought, “I can do the same!” — and believed it.  She was confident, critical, visionary, engaging, judging, and the person I always wanted to be.

We were the same age, yet she was the older, wiser soul I always looked up to.  And when I hit lulls in life, Micha was always the best at helping me talk it out.  She less gave me answers vs. letting me figure it out on my own, and her responses were typically unvarnished.  Now that she’s gone, I don’t really have anyone like that in my life, and I’ve backslid into internalizing things once again.  Don’t get me wrong, I have other best friends the same age, but none of them have the same experiences I shared with Micha.  And outside of my family, no one has known me as long as Micha did (twenty-four years).  I struggled with the decision to remove her from my iPhone favorites, which I did eventually because it hurt too much to see her name & face everyday following the funeral.

Interestingly enough, our relationship had several identifiable quantum leaps over the years.  The first was on the last day of high day of our high school senior year.  I bore witness to her evisceration of my ex-girlfriend live on stage, as the two participated in a Lincoln/Douglas-style debate as the final examination of debate class which Micha made sure to win by all means necessary.  It was her means to extract punishment against the woman who had broken her big brother’s heart.  Not many people would step up to bat like that, and Micha was always as protective of me and her clan for the remainder of her life.

That same day, we also made an explicit decision to keep in touch.  Such decisions were a big deal in the dark age before email and texts — long distance calls cost major money, and your options were to either pick up the phone or write letters.  We were cheap and chose the latter.  During that post-graduation summer, I remained back in Southlake, working a summer job and preparing for school that fall.  Micha had left immediately for Lubbock to attend summer school at Texas Tech, a combination of determination and restlessness taking her out west.  I’ve kept all of her letters (she told me she did the same), which I can’t read without gesturing theatrically, embodying Micha as if she was speaking them aloud herself.

Micha Correspondence
It’s a good thing I have large enough feet that a leftover shoebox was big enough to hold all of these postcards, letter, and photos that Micha sent over the years.

We exchanged visits between Denton and Lubbock until her graduation, when she and Jay relocated to Austin/Round Rock and we reoriented the commute from west/east to south/north.  After a traumatic breakup with my college sweetheart, where I was thankfully shaken out of my comfort zone and prompted to finally leave school, I had the grand vision to move to Austin myself & eventually moved in the summer of 2000.

My relocation resulted in the next of our relationship’s quantum leaps.  Both young and kidless, I spent tons of time with Micha and Jay, just us and the dogs Six and Bus.  On weekends when Jay was checking off the miles with his bicycle, Micha and I would hang out on Saturdays, adventuring around Austin, whiling away at gardening, sucking up pancakes at Kerby Lane, playing drunk racquetball, and burning down the house.  It was such a weekly habit that years later, we’d still call each other early on the occasional Saturday because such mornings weren’t truly Saturdays without a few minutes together.

During my stint in Austin, Micha had just gotten her job at Dell, and the company still had the street cred of a hot startup.  I tried hard to get a job there myself, but no one would hire a fresh college graduate with no experience and a fine arts degree.  The universe displayed a great sense of irony years later, when after working at Perot Systems in Plano, TX, that company itself was bought by Dell in 2009 for $3.9 billion.  The day the acquisition was announced, I called Micha at her desk & bragged about how Dell wanted me so bad they paid through the nose for me!  To this day, I still carry around this warped sense of inflated self-awareness.

Unfortunately, a crappy job market pushed me out of Austin in 2001, and I relocated to Dallas, TX for several years.  Of course Micha and I kept in touch, but over the course of 13 years she encountered new friends that filled her life more than I could hundreds of miles away.  These friends, some of whom I hadn’t really known well until Micha’s last days, are truly amazing — each is liking looking at a mirror,  perfect reflections of Micha’s soul and spirit.  Each of you — Alex, Jennifer, Jig, Nelwyn, Vaden, Jig, Charles, Laura, and more — were so lucky to be in Micha’s close orbit.  You may not know I was incredibly jealous of your access to her, not because I thought it challenged my own relationship with Micha but because I missed being able to see Micha as often as you did.

Micha Report Card
Micha’s dominant character trait was judgement, as evidenced by her report card regarding our friendship.

Micha and I kept few secrets from one another.  We often shared intimate thoughts less because of getting things off our chests vs. we just had to tell one another because of some secret brother/sister code.  The one secret I never told her: I had feared the worst since that fateful Thursday she called with news of her diagnosis.  This is because I come from a family where the worst can and does happen, despite the odds.  I give her credit for always being honest with how she felt during her cancer treatment.  It’s one thing to put on a brave face, it’s another thing to respect those you love by being both honest and hopeful.  If something like cancer ever happens to me, I hope to approach it with the same defiance and zest.  It always seemed more like a speed bump to Micha’s life than a hinderance.

Our relationship always had that sense of foreshadowing.  We found ourselves together during major moments of global tragedy: once driving around town the night Princess Diana died, another time packing away Julie’s house while north Texas was littered with space shuttle Columbia debris.  I’m sure if we were alive then, we’d find a way to be present at Dealey Plaza at the same time.  Yet we were also together during some more-intimate yet tragic moments.  Shortly after graduation, our high school classmate Jason passed away, as the first of our class to meet such an end.  I’d listen to her tell me stories about Jay and Ted shortly after Jay’s father passed away.  We regularly discussed her mother Julie’s slow decline.  I felt like I was there for all of it, even if I was hundreds of miles away.  We’d commonly cold-call (later text) each other just to say, “DIE!”, then hang up.  We played the good twin/evil twin model daily, slipping back and forth between the two roles (although let’s admit that Micha is always the evil one).

For awhile, as our families grew and it became harder to escape on the weekends, we settled into a pattern of seeing each other only once a year.  One time, I looked up remaining life expectancy, did some math, and told Micha that we only had 40 more times to see one another before we died.  Then my Dallas company was bought by Dell, and I found myself traveling to Round Rock every week for a year.  I told Micha that these weekly visits counted against the 40 figure.  “DAMN IT!” she said while shaking balled fists at the gods.  Micha would get a little bit of revenge against me soon enough.

I learned about Micha’s cancer the day of her diagnosis.  She called me and said, “You know how you’re always telling me to die?  Well, you might get your wish.”  Point, Micha.  Although shaken by the news, I had the gumption to immediately reply that she’d beat this, if only long enough for me to do the deed myself.  Above all, my goal was always to destroy Micha before Reagan had the chance.

Our decades-long joke (besides clown-related humor) was, “the good really do die young — holy shit, we’re going to live FOREVER!”  In this case, not just the good but the best died way too early.  Did I mention foreshadowing?  As I type, I still smile about the fact our friendship allowed us to be that way to one another.  Yes, it’s stupid, but the ability to be an adult and stupid/silly was one of the best things about being Micha’s friend — otherwise, life’s too short to walk around with sticks up your ass.

Micha’s funeral was only the few I’d ever attended.  I’d done a good job up to that point of avoiding them.  The first was for our mutual friend George’s father.  We were so young at the time, it was hard to register what was truly happening (after all, us kids were going to live forever, right?).  The second funeral was for Archie, Micha’s father.  I remember being tardy, because I had gotten lost on the way to its location east Dallas.  I went up to Micha after the ceremony and apologized for being late.  “No big deal, Matt. It’s only MY FATHER!” she said with equal measure love and sarcasm.  When I was driving down to Round Rock last June for Micha’s own funeral, that day’s silliness played over and over in my head.  BTW, I was almost late for Micha’s funeral as well.

Micha Inscription
Words do have the power to change lives, as does a fear of no afterlife.

Besides her friendship, the greatest thing Micha ever gave me was a student bible.  Years ago, I had no relationship with God and was a very outspoken atheist.  While I was comfortable with this, it always bothered Micha but she never explained why.  I found out the reason when she gave me that bible.  Inscribed on the inside are words that make me cry every time I read them: “Heaven would be a lonely place without you.”  Less than a week later, I met my wife Jenn and my life changed forever for the better.  I believe in God now as a result of those two women, having two children, and more so after losing Micha.  It has to exist, and Micha has to be there — I will accept no other answer.  When I was writing this paragraph, the following verse serendipitously appeared in my Twitter timeline and seems quite apt:

Anyone who is among the living has hope — even a live dog is better off than a dead lion!

— Ecclesiastes 9:4

Now 100HappyDays has come to an end.  I’m a few days late on this final edition, because this has been the hardest blog post for me to ever write.  On day 100, am I happy?  Very much yes — my career has taken off in the past three months, my wife is healthy, my toddler girl is exploding in the good ways, and my son started kindergarten.

Am I sad? Undoubtedly so.  The pain of Micha’s loss is still sharp, and I find myself crying unexpectedly when my busy mind calms down enough to wander towards memories of her.  I apologize to my Austin friends for not keeping in better touch — for example, I haven’t spoken with Jay or the kids because I’m hesitant to talk about my grief.  I know I shouldn’t be, but just bear with me while I get my shit together.  Time does heal all wounds, even if it’s not enough for my tastes (after all, I’m an American. I want it here and I want it now).  I promise I’ll talk to y’all soon.

I’ll end with something said 20 years ago.  In one of Micha’s missives from Lubbock, she composed quite a bittersweet letter.  It ended with the following:

There is one other thing I would like to say to you, Matt.  Because life is so short and one never knows when it is going to end I want to tell you what a wonderful person and friend you are.  It takes a special person to put up with me and you do it freely (well usually).

I love you,

Always,

Micha

I love you, too, Micha.  I’ll see you someday soon enough.

My “Thankful” Journal

I sat down at the computer, armed with a steaming cup of instant coffee. In the midst of my morning routine of simultaneous web-surfing, podcast downloads, and lacing up of my running shoes, I saw evidence that Jenn had once again failed to sleep through the night. My RSS feed reader showed that her blog had been updated during the night.

Her most-recent entries contained three specific things she was thankful for that particular day. Reading each of those reminded me that I used to also maintain such lists myself, in a journal that I handmade from raw materials.

Although we had recently moved and many of my older things were still in boxes. I knew exactly where that journal was. So before I headed outside for my morning run, I dug it out of the closet and inadvertently journeyed eight years back in time.

The first entries were in 2000, inspired by my friend Ellen and her suggestion that tough times are easier to navigate when we remember what’s most important. In fact, she wrote the first entry, listing her five “thankfuls” that particular day:

May 1, 2000:

1) Brown eyes
2) D Milk
3) Horns
4) No fear of dog spit
5) My health

The next day, I started writing entires on a regular basis, each day trying to list five things that I hadn’t previously recorded. Some of my specific “thankfuls” require little explanation, and they all apply today:

“Poptarts and coffee — the breakfast of champions”

“A nice set of boobs”

“Being a Skeeball wizard”

“Knowing it’s not always my fault”

However, the context for others have faded with the passage of time. I once wrote “That Zoe has such good friends.” I have no idea who Zoe was, but I hope she’s doing alright. And I can only imagine the fun I had the night before I wrote “Not knowing where I was when I woke up!”

For a good stretch, I was dedicated enough to write five “thankfuls” per day. However, the entries began to peter out around July of that year. That was the month before I relocated to Austin — perhaps I had packed the book away in preparation for the move? If that was the case, it was eventually unpacked, as entries resumed again around October.

However, the last entry was dated October, right before I returned to Denton for my college’s homecoming:

October 4, 2000:

1) Hope that I’ll find love again
2) Pajamas
3) Big baby eyes
4) Celis White
5) Historical perspective

No more entries after that. It was during the following weekend I found out that Rebecca was engaged to marry someone else, as big of a kick to my spiritual nuts as could ever be given. I imagine that’s why I stopped writing altogether.

Yet as I reread that distant final entry, I winced at the thought that I had lost the ability to count my blessings. Obviously since then, I’ve rediscovered this resource, and nary a day goes by where I’ve not motivated by how incredibly freakin’ lucky I am. My homemade journal was so beautiful. Handbound with needle and thread, with a cover of delicate rice paper and rose petals, it would be a shame for this piece of art to continue gathering dust. That just wouldn’t do.

So I pulled out my pen and wrote the first of hopefully many new daily “thankfuls”:

May 21, 2008:

1) My home
2) My health
3) My wife

April 9, 2022

Everything was loaded in my truck Kilgore. I returned to my vacant apartment to perform one last survey and ensure that I didn’t forget anything before hitting the road to Austin, my next in a long string of hometowns. Just as I thought, nothing remained — except for my time capsule.

A petty cash box purchased from Office Depot, I had spent the past several years collecting the flotsam I intended to bury the day I finally moved out of Bruce Hall for good. Each item represented both my current time and place in the world:

  • One of my laminated ID cards from the North Texas Premiere Soccer Association, within which my team The Mama’s Boys competed
  • The operating manual to my first computer, a Intel 386SX with added math co-processor
  • Various photographs of family and friends, all of which I hoped I would remember
  • A VHS video cassette featuring a Kenmore advertising campaign, a separate contribution from my ex-girlfriend and fellow creative Margo
  • Tassles from both my high school and college graduation mortarboards
  • A small tin of Spam, my calling card
  • A black spiral-bound journal filled with sentiments from cover-to-cover

One by one, I added the items to the box, never pausing to consider their symbolism. After all, I had stared at these trinkets for over a thousand days, ever since I decided to create a time capsule on April 9, 1997, the day that the population of Bruce Hall buried a time capsule in commemoration of its 50th anniversary. With so much time cohabitating with such trinkets, they held no more intrigue. However, the last item in the list forced me to pause and ponder its contents.

In my hands was the black journal, whose insides I never once saw. For the past three years, I carried the journal everywhere I went, asking everyone I met to write whatever they wanted inside. I promised them I would not read the journal until I opened my time capsule a quarter of a century later. Contributors were not bound by my self-imposed trust, and in fact I encouraged them to read it. Sometimes, the journal would disappear for days, as my friends took the time to read it cover-to-cover. On occasion, I would hear a report that some daring things had been written inside. I know that some of the authors were girls I liked at the time, and for years I wondered if they used my journal to confess any romantic sentiments.

My mind returned to the present and the journal before me. Right before I was to hide the book for decades, I was tempted one final time to sneak a peek. Doing so would spoil the wonderful treasure I created and the joy I would feel when rediscovering it,. This chance to preserve a slice of my youth was too precious. With a grin, inside the box went the book. I gently closed the lid, turned the lock, and slipped the tiny key into my pocket, where it sits to this day mingling with my other keys.

Nearby was a stack of white vinyl stickers, each adorned with the green University of North Texas logo. Leftover as spirit giveaways from years of attending student housing conferences, I peeled the backing off each and adhered them to the outside of the time capsule, layering them like shingles on a roof. Soon enough, the entire box was uniform in outward appearance and quite well-sealed against the elements. The only feature exposed was the clear plastic window behind which I slipped the following note:

Ahoy, fellow spelunker!

This is my time capsule that was buried during the ancient 20th century. It is intended to remain closed until April 9, 2022, twenty-file years after I first began to amass its contents. Please do not remove or open this time capsule, as I plan to return that Spring day to retrieve my belongings. So if you are reading this, please put it back where you found it — and consider yourself invited to that day’s opening festivities. I look forward to meeting you then.

As ever,

Matthew

My time capsule was complete. Now came time to secret it deep within the bowels of Bruce.

Because I had already turned in the master key, the prime regalia of my recently-vacated job as hall director, I borrowed the submaster key from the key box downstairs. It would prove good enough to get me where I needed to go. Soon enough, I was on my hands and knees, crawling in dark passages, hiding my treasure in a dark, dank location known only to myself and Jim, in case I am personally unable to return 22 years from now.

I emerged from the expedition with caked dust on my shoulders and the musty smell lingering within my nostrils. It was a melancholy scent, as the fact I could smell it meant all of my work, my purpose, at Bruce Hall was now complete. It was time to leave Denton behind, and along with it the bittersweet memories of the past year spent trying to ride things out.

I returned to the key box both the submaster and my apartment key. Then I headed out the back door, hopped in Kilgore, and drove away to my new life.

Dead Man Walking

There was a knock on my room door. It was Reece.

“Want to go with me to donate plasma?” he asked.

Being that kind of college kid who hadn’t yet learned to think things through, I said, “Sure.” I put down my bowl of ramen, slapped on my Birkenstocks, and went to see the wizard.

Everything I knew about plasma donation came from the ocean of flyers plastered around UNT. Each advertised how rich you can get through safe, regular donations. Although I was desperate for any spare cash, something about whoring out my circulatory system unsettled me enough that I resisted its financial lures. Yet here I was, willing to walk all the way across campus in order to literally spill my guts.

Reece was also a “plasma virgin”, but he knew enough details about the process that he was able to educate me during our stroll. He described the ins-and-outs, how my blood would be removed, washed clean of plasma, and returned to my body in regular cycles. I learned of the comfy chairs we would sit in, the cornucopia of cookies we would enjoy post-donation, and the televisions we would watch.

Sadly enough, the TVs were the selling point for me. Consisting of miniature monitors craning around on extendable arms, they helped one pass the time during the tedious donation process. In essence, we would be paid to watch television…the American dream! This was an important perk, as my weekday existence at the time was centered on ABC’s 2pm-3pm daytime schedule, where my mind switched from art classes and pursuit of girls to keeping track of the Quartermaines and Felicia — mmm, sweet, sweet Felicia — on “General Hospital”. Yes, you read that right…”General Hospital”. I was a soap opera addict. As if scheduling classes so that I had enough time to get back to my dorm room each afternoon wasn’t enough, one of my short life’s highlights up to that point was the year that A.J. Quartermain served as our campus homecoming parade’s honorary chairman.

We arrived at our destination, and the sign out front glowed “BioLife”. Inside, the antiseptic white interior momentarily blinded us, and it took awhile for our eyes to adjust to the interior. In the lobby, televisions attached to worn-out VCRs on continuous loop blared forth videotaped testimonials from the exponential number of souls we would with our life-saving donations. Fire victims, cancer victims, children with diseases — all of them would be helped by just a single donation.

After filling out reams of medical forms, we were admitted to the inner sanctum. Rows of leather-clad lounging chairs spread out before us, each one accompanied by large machinery which resembled paint mixers. Reece and I sat in adjacent chairs, and we each had a kind female nurse who introduced themselves and walked us through the process we were about to undergo. Our arms were checked for fresh prick wounds, a sure sign that we were donating more frequently than medically recommended. The televisions were fired up, and glowing on the screen was my soap. Everything was ready.

The nurse asked that I outstretch my arms, and in short succession I had a needle protruding from each arm. Both needles hooked up to the aforementioned-machine. When it was switched on, before my eyes my body was being recycled. Out one arm went my dark crimson life-force; into the other flowed something similar but slightly more transparent, as if I was getting back half of what I gave.

Every so often, the machine whirred, its centrifuge stripping out my plasma, mingling the remainder of my blood with saline, and pumping it back to my body. Within the first few moments of having my blood returned, I could feel a cool shock fire up my arm, as the cold saline surged through my veins. My lips tingled as the cooled blood soaked into them. It was an experience both odd and fascinating in equal measure.

Just as quickly as I experienced those sensations, the novelty wore off as I realized it would take quite awhile for the machine to scrape out every last morsel of plasma. As long as it was done no earlier than 3:00pm, I had no objection. Besides, this wasn’t a gift horse I was about to look in the mouth. I had just stumbled upon an important source of income, significant enough that it might help me stay in college. And I got to watch General Hospital and keep track of Jagger, Sonny, and Brenda…sweet, sweet Brenda.

I wasn’t about to look this gift horse in the mouth. After all, I had just stumbled upon an important source of income, one that might keep me in college. And while going about it, I could watch General Hospital and keep an eye on Jagger, Sonny and Brenda…mmm, sweet, sweet Brenda.

Gift horses were the last thing on my mind the next morning, as I woke up and felt like he ultimate ass. My sinuses were swollen with thick fluid, my throat was scratchy, and any movement was exhausting. My brain felt as if it was floating on a sea of mucous, and each turn of my head sent both hemispheres sloshing to-and-fro like skiffs on an open ocean.

I immediately thought of strep throat, as it was going around. I called the student health center and requested the first available doctor’s appointment, and thank the gods t was just one hour from now. Having some time to kill, I hung up then stumbled down to the Bruce cafeteria to have some breakfast.

I got my usual pancreas-hostile meal of Golden Grahams and orange juice. My cafeteria tray drooped like lead in my arms. I felt the urge to sit in the closest seat I could find, yet I had enough presence to remove myself from the population and sit at the most-remote table possible. I ended up on the McConnell side of the cafeteria, the south side, where the high-school prodigies from the Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science sat, separate from the native Brucelings thanks to a form of self-imposed social segregation. Surrounded by freaks and geeks smart enough to eventually be my boss, I focused on fighting through my swimming head.

Spooning Golden Grahams into my mouth was a Herculean enough effort, and I certainly didn’t have enough gas left to properly drink my juice. As I brought the glass up to my lips, it slipped out of my hand, fell straight down, clipped the edge of the table, tumbled over 180 degrees, and spilt its entire contents into my unsuspecting lap.

Bruce Cafeteria chairs each had a concave shape, with a slight downward slope from front to back. If I wasn’t sitting in the chair, the juice would have flowed off its back. But thanks to their bowl-like nature and the tight seal caused by my legs, the cold juice pooled in my lap and soaked my jeans, my underwear, and the naughty bits beneath. I could feel the citrus marinade lap against my thighs. Humiliated and too exhausted to move & get cleaned up, I gently laid my head down on the table and began to cry.

Thankfully when my appointment time came around, the student health center was just across the street from Bruce Hall. Like a zombie, I shuffled over and waited to see my doctor. When my name was eventually called, a kind nurse led me to an examination room where I met my savior.

Dr. Hansen was my physician. A middle-aged yet youthful-looking man, he came across as friendly and in possession of a bedside manner which was more highly developed than my previous doctors. Chief of staff for the health center, he was the head man, the top dog, the big cheese…no one could possibly be more qualified to cure my condition, I thought.

After a brief examination, Dr. Hansen confirmed I didn’t have the plague, West Nile virus, bird flu, roto, SARS, or any other disease du jour. Instead, it must be a sinus infection that was roaring through my system. I inquired about strep throat, since so many around me had been stricken by it. Although my condition shared one or two symptoms with strep, he believed that most of them were more akin to run-of-the-mill sinus infections. But if I insisted, he said, he could perform a strep culture, which would be at extra cost. Balking at the idea of paying even more money that I couldn’t afford to spend, I declined the culture and assumed that anyone who’s been in school longer than me must know best.

Dr. Hansen asked if I was allergic to anything, and I said no. “Great,” he said, “I have just the thing for you. Ever heard of Zithromax?” he asked. I said no, and he went on to describe it. A wide-spread antibiotic which was relatively new to the market, Zithromax was new enough that no bugs had yet developed any resistance. Also, its dosing instructions were relatively simple, with just a handful of pills to take over a few days versus the standard 10 regimen. And finally, it was long-lasting…those few pills would remain in my system for days afterwards, ensuring that whatever consuming crud I had was cleared out completely.

Although a bullet to the head would have worked equally well at this point, Zithromax sounded great and was less of a mess to clean up. Dr. Hansen supplied me with some free samples, two of which I consumed on-the-spot as directed. I then dragged myself back to Bruce Hall in order to get some much-needed rest.

I began to feel better over the next couple of days, as Zithromax surged through my veins like radioactive spider venom. After just one day, I was able to muster enough energy to resume studying, although I was still far too drained to attend any classes. With each passing morning, I dutifully consumed the antibiotics as instructed until all four pills were gone.

Then began the itching. At first subtle, my skin quickly became hyper-sensitive to touch. Soon enough, both arms turned red and blotchy, as if I had a sunburn in the dead of winter. Finally, my arch-enemy the sore throat had returned with a vengeance. Nothing like this had ever happened to me before, and for the first time in my life I was scared for my life. I immediately went back to the student health center and visited with Dr. Hansen once again.

After I reiterated my symptoms, he expressed surprise at their intensity, especially considering that my medication was widely considered safe. “We must have missed something,” he said. Dr. Hansen asked me to start from the beginning and recount anything in the past week that might help him figure out my problem. When I mentioned donating plasma, he paused me. “Wait…you didn’t mention that before. Why not?”

“I didn’t think it was a big deal,” I said. “After all, they told me when I donated that it was safe.”

Dr. Hansen begged to differ. “It’s been my experience that when you donate plasma, although they are supposed to return to your body the white blood cells they took out, sometimes it doesn’t always work.” He went on to explain that donating plasma puts stress on the body, and if I was unknowingly catching a bug at the exact same time, the intensity of my illness could be high like it is now.

“Take off your shirt,” he commanded. After disrobing, even I was shocked by what we bore witness to…nearly every inch of my skin was covered with hives, rosy and dry from inflammation. In short, I looked like the receiving end of a meat tenderizer. Dr. Hansen’s eyes quietly scanned every inch of my body.

He then broke the silence by saying, “You know, Matthew, it’s patients like you that make doctors like me lose their jobs.”

Although I had skipped this option before in order to save a buck, this time around I underwent a strep culture at Dr. Hansen’s insistence. After my tonsils were violated via Q-Tip, I was instructed wait in the hallway outside while the swab was tested.

Outside, I slumped onto the nearest chair. Next to me was a fellow student in obvious distress. With squinted eyes and an ice pack pressed against his forehead, he was valiantly attempting to overcome the headache from hell.

Time seemed to drag as I fought my own pain and nausea. I scanned the room, looking for magazines, co-eds, anything to pass the time. On the wall opposite of me hung one of the scrambled 3-D prints which were fashionable at the time. The Force had never with me when I tried to view these, and countless hours spent over the years attempting to scry their contents had turned into an equal amount of time wasted. Never had I been able to see past the visual noise and see any meaningful image.

Yet this poster…I looked at it briefly for just a second, and suddenly an arresting image leaped out from nowhere. I witnessed dolphins jumping over flaming volcanoes, with orange lava-borne flames licking the blood red sky. I couldn’t believe it! I jabbed my comrade-in-pain and implored him to gaze upon the glory I just saw. My neighbor lifted his sweat-soaked head, and within seconds saw those magnificent sea mammals. Between grunts of pain, he muttered, “Oh yeah, man. Cool. Ow!”

Then a nurse called my name. Her summons broke my concentration, and the magnificent sea mammals I had just borne witness to disappeared into a pixilated sea, forever gone. I sighed, then got up and entered to Dr. Hansen’s office.

Dr. Hansen had mixed news. The positive news was that my culture came back likewise, confirming my ailment was a roaring case of strep throat. He also informed me that Zithromax is a great choice to fight such an infection, so it should clear up after my body stops stressing out so much. However, the hives and itching were textbook examples of a drug allergy. And because one of the “benefits” of Zithromax is its long-lasting presence in one’s bloodstream, my only recourse waiting for my body to flush it out of my system, a process that could take several weeks.

It seems I had a long way to go before I was back on my feet again.

I woke up.

The room was dark, except for slivers of sunlight piercing the tightly-shut blinds. Despite having just slept most of the past twelve hours, I still felt exhausted.

My body immediately began to plea for a swift return to dreamland. Before giving into its demands, I got out of bed to check for messages.

As expected, a folded note sat slipped underneath my door. I picked it up and read its contents. It was from one of my classmates, and written on it was that day’s literature assignment.

After digesting its last words, I refolded the note and placed it on my desk, atop a stack of similar missives quickly becoming a paper Jenga game growing to untold heights.

I crawled back into bed. The idea of further slumber was alluring, but the more I slept the further behind I would fall. So instead of closing my eyes, I reached over to my left, grasped a nearby easel, and inched it closer to my bedside.

English homework would have to wait. It was painting time.

Weeks after I went to the student health clinic for a simple case of strep throat and came away with a violent drug allergy, I found myself practicing the same daily routine: blocks of sleep interrupted by intermittent bouts of school work, all in a desperate attempt to not drop out of school.

All of my other responsibilities had fallen by the wayside, including my paid job delivering pizza and my unpaid position as Bruce Hall’s President. Because I couldn’t work, money was becoming scarce. My bedridden nature had gone on for so long that I was forced to lighten my course load, going from a full load of 15 hours down to 9.

Those dropped classes were a small blessing, as the tuition refund I received kept me financially solvent for several weeks. But while I was able to drop non-essential classes, I couldn’t drop my two art classes — I was already behind my classmates thanks to failing my junior review. I had little choice but to keep painting or else.

So went my days, napping to fuel my weak batteries, and discharging them in exchange for brief bursts of creativity. And except for the occasional note under the door, I had little contact with the outside world and entertained few visitors — except for one notable exception.

One evening, there was a knock on the door. Because it was never locked, I shouted, “Come in!” Into my room walked Amy.

She had two unmistakable looks on her face: one that wondered how I was feeling, and another that silently said, “We need to talk.”

For several weeks, I had anticipated this moment, as my attempts to get closer to Amy had been met by her further emotional withdrawal. I desperately wanted to be close to someone, but my overeagerness in pursuing Amy only steeled her resolve to be with anyone else but me.

I could sense Amy was getting closer to our mutual friend Rolly. I thought if I just tried that much harder, it would persuade her I was the better man. I wasn’t emotionally mature enough to understand how that led to the opposite intended effect.

I sat up in bed, and Amy situated herself on its opposite corner. The only light came from a nearby desk lamp, which cast Caravaggian shadows across each of our faces.

For several minutes we sat in silence. Intermittently between looking around the room, we stared at one another, attempt to kill the clock until the inevitable moment when Amy would say her peace.

Yet when she finally spoke, there wasn’t much to say. Amy told me that she didn’t want to date me. I didn’t ask why — although she didn’t mention Rolly, I knew her reasons. Besides, I was tired…tired of fighting disease, tired of trying to stay in school, and especially tired of trying to force someone to love me.

Sometimes when you break up with someone, there’s a relaxation that comes from knowing you’re doing the right thing, even if the act of dumping itself is hard to get through. After Amy said her peace, this was one of those moments.

Everything in my room was an art supply of some sort. Once the weight of what just occurred had left the room, we grabbed whatever was nearby. Like little kids drawing on walls with crayons, the two of us reached out to color each other with scores and marks of ink and paint. Soon enough, I was drenched in red ink, as Amy drew targets and bull’s-eyes all over my chest. Her arms were adorned with unicorns and corny tattoo phrases.

At some point, my camera came out, and some of the silliest photos I own were soon produced.

Amy Laughing 1

In every one of them, Amy was smiling, and I realized that she didn’t do that often enough in our short relationship.

Amy Laughing 2
When the evening was over, Amy stood up, gave me a hug, and threw me one final glance. Then she left — in more ways than one.

After Amy walked out, I began to feel hot and uncomfortable. I thought of ice. Yes, ice. That’s the ticket. Ice would help. Must get ice.

The nearest ice machine was two floors up and two wings over, a considerable distance in my current condition. But I couldn’t just sit in my room and think about being dumped.

I threw on some clothes, then swaddled myself with a blanket, draping it over my head and shoulders like a cloak and tunic. Pprotected from any unexpected chills, I ventured out of my room and into the “Bowling Alley”, the crowded, main throughfare of Bruce Hall’s ground floor, so named after the blonde hardwood flooring spanning its length.

I strolled south towards the main stairwell, wheezing quite audibly from the intense labor. With all of my energy focused on surviving, my shoulders slowly drooped over the course of my journey. My hood drooped low, obscuring my face. When combined with my degrading posture, I looked like one of the hunchbacks from days of yore.

When they became aware of my presence, people quickly snapped to attention and made way for the leper passing by. A huddled mass of cloth, with little exposed except for arms caked in red, scaly blights, was an odd sight. In this pitiful soul’s outstretched hand was an empty ice cup, held forth as if soliciting alms for the poor.

It was one of the few times in my life that I cared nothing for what others thought of me. I was on a quest for icy manna to fill my grail. I sauntered past the spectators, got my cold cubes, and returned to the comfort of my dark cave.

I woke up once again. But unlike other such occasions in the past month, I didn’t feel the urge to reverse such an action. Instead of feeling tired, I was vibrantly refreshed.

A week had passed since Amy had broken up with me. Perhaps not coincidentally, I had begun to recover physically in those same seven days.

I got up out of bed and opened the blinds. As the slats snapped open, clouds of dislodged dust billowed forth. Sunlight visited my room for the first time in days. I held my arms within the beams and examined my skin. Despite being dry and peeling in some places, the majority of its irritation had passed. I was on the road to recovery.

Tired of being cooped up in my dorm room, I cleaned up, slipped on some clothes and went to rejoin civilization.

I trekked down to the Bruce Lobby, where I was always sure to bump into someone I knew. People murmured in amazement when they realized what a rarity it was to see me alive.

After chatting with a few friends, I looked out the window into the courtyard. Outside, an exciting game of sand volleyball was heating up. A couple of semesters ago, I had gotten hooked onto the sport and spent at least one hour each day digging and spiking.

Despite a complete loss of conditioning the past four weeks, I hopped outside to join the game currently in progress. And instead of my usual hour of participation, I played for several, using my trademark wicked serve to make up for my lack of blocking talent.

It was the first warm day of spring, hot enough to encourage most of the guys to remove their shirts, including me. My pale skin exposed, it soaked up solar radiation as if it had gone forty days in the desert. So intense of a sensation, it was as if I could feel the Vitamin D pour into my veins. The brilliant light reflected harshly off my pasty flesh, so much so that it hard even for me to look at myself without squinting.

Someone there had a camera, and I was one of their many subjects.

Bruce Hall Volleyball Game 1

When I later saw the photos, I didn’t recognize myself.

Bruce Hall Volleyball Game 2

I was gaunt, having lost a significant amount of weight, and my untrimmed hair had grown quite shaggy. Clothes hung off of me like sails on a ship. “Not a big deal,” I thought. After all, it was visual evidence of something that I had grown truly worried wouldn’t be the case: I was alive.

After the volleyball game ended, I put on my shirt and headed back to my room. It was time to return to what help keep me alive in the first place. I began work on my next painting.

The Elevator Repairman Ghost

Bruce Hall is the oldest dormitory at the University of North Texas. Opened in February 1947 as a residence hall, it has persisted in its original function longer than any other dorm, including numerous ones that were built afterwards. It stands out from many of its neighbors, with its pitched roof, elaborate stonework, and hardwood flooring. And ghosts.

The building houses a small elevator, originally intended for freight but overused and abused as a public lift. The misuse of this elevator caused it to be shut down and sealed in the early 1970s. Its closing spawned one of the hall’s alluring legends — that three students died when the cab plummeted from the top floor into the basement, and that their spirits haunt the basement to this day. Even though the ghost story wasn’t true, it did not stop people from spreading it for many decades to come.

Many years passed, and along came…well, me. And except for a two-semester gap, I spent my entire college life living at Bruce Hall. I began as a resident, soon stumbled into hall association, and was later hired as a resident assistant. Amazingly enough, I tricked them into hiring me as the assistant hall director.

Before each semester, a massive amount of prep work is needed to get Bruce Hall into operational shape. And somehow, even though we had cleaned out the storage rooms just one year earlier, they would swell with the accumulated crap of the past twelve months.

So one fall, I enlisted the help of my resident assistants Tyler, Bill, Keith, and Dustin to clean out the storeroom that used to house the elevator machinery. Much of the day was spent tossing old boxes, sweeping mounds of dust, and (as boys are inclined to do) playing grab-ass.

At one point, I was standing in the doorway when a stocky middle-aged man walked past me. I didn’t see his face, but he was wearing an mechanic’s jumpsuit. Judging by the way he was surveying the area, I could tell he was looking for something.

I offered to assist. “Excuse me, sir? Can I help you?” The man turned to face me, and I immediately notice that his jumpsuit had a patch reading “United Elevator Repair Co.”

“Yes, sir, I got a call to fix an elevator at Bruce Hall,” he said with a chipper tone.

For the briefest of seconds, I was speechless. I was fully aware of the elevator’s past, as I was the amateur historian that researched it. I say, “Sir…the elevator hasn’t been working for nearly 30 years!”

The gentleman revealed only the slightest disappointment, but he politely responded, “Oh. Well, musta’ been a mistake,” turned around, and left down the hallway leading to the back door.

Why was someone here to fix an elevator that had been out of commission for decades?, I asked myself. I followed the man in order to get more information.

The repairman reached the end of the hall and disappeared around the corner. I rounded the same corner myself, went out the back door, and…nothing. He was gone. Now, he couldn’t have gone anywhere else but out that door! Since there’s nothing behind Bruce Hall besides an ocean of parking lots, he could not have been able to disappear anywhere without some sort of evidence.

Keep in mind that no one but me would have called in a work order for Bruce Hall. I walked back inside, went to the front desk, called our maintenance department, and asked our administrative assistant Bonnie about the mystery man. She confirmed that no work order had been called in. Bonnie asked what repair company he was from; I told her, and she exclaimed, “United Elevator Repair Company? The housing department hasn’t used them for nearly 20 years!”