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Ash in the Air (1 Viewer)


When I was thirteen I became something of an agoraphobe. It was a very transitional time for me. I was changing inside and out. Baby fat was everywhere, my little sister kept calling me Thunder Thighs, all my friends were maturing faster than I was, and I learned the words ‘pimple’ and ‘zit.’ I didn’t like it.

On top of that, come fall I had to change schools. The Church claimed it was merging the Catholic schools in my neighborhood because of low enrollment, but its true motivation was less noble. Of the two schools to choose to remain open, the beautiful, historic one in the nice part of town or the crumbling one in the projects, the Church chose to sell the one that was most valuable. Thus begun my disillusionment with Catholicism and its all too evident bottom line.

This was the same straw that made me reconsider altar service. I actually never really liked it anyway. It turned out to be such a hassle, everyone regretted it. The only reason my brother and I joined was because we knew altar boys got tipped occasionally. Real chump change, two or three bucks a ceremony, but the only source of income for a good little Catholic boy. I remember the day we came home from school and begged our parents to give us permission. My father flipped out. I couldn’t understand why it bothered him so much. He never even went to mass, what did he care? Plus, tuition was discounted for the students who signed up. He couldn’t overrule my mother, though. Ever the dutiful parishioner.

For some reason I was one of the kids who always got the shittier altar server jobs. The priests certainly had their favorites and my brother and I weren’t among them. Besides being assigned to all the well-tipped weddings and funerals, the priests’ pets would get the cushy jobs for Sunday service, too. They were the cross bearers who led the procession at the beginning and end of each service or the acolytes, the candle bearers, who followed them. A little further down the preference pole they stood like human podiums to hold the Book for Father to read from for a few minutes. Other than that they just sat on the sidelines behind the massive, staggered columns, out of sight and able to goof around or take a nap.

I was usually first or second server which is basically exactly what it sounds. I ‘served’ the priest. I sat by his left side throughout mass, my brother on his right, getting up only to bring him something or take something from him. When he did his little performance with the Eucharist I knelt below him and rang a small bell a certain number of times. He held the body of Christ high above his head and showed it to each side of the Church, singing a garbled hymn in mock baritone. I always wondered what the priests thought of when they did this. Did they really feel magical? Or like the way a bus driver does when he stops over train tracks and opens the door. By far, being a server was the worst job because it was so busy and involved. The only time I wasn’t doing something I’d be sitting on a miniature version of the priest’s throne facing the entire church. I couldn’t even scratch my nose. The thing I hated about it most was that I really did feel like a lapdog or gopher. A slave.

On top of having to change schools the year I was going to graduate, I witnessed things that just didn’t seem altogether “Christian.” Corporal punishment was supposed to be a thing of the past, but some priests and nuns just didn’t get it. They were from another time. Instead of using good old-fashioned yard sticks they used their imagination and got creative with their physical abuse. Hands on radiators and force feeding. And little did I know there was a bigger problem brewing in the background. When mass was over, all the suck ups stayed behind. I can’t believe it now, but I used to feel left out and wonder what I was missing. Well, priests got touchy feely, parents sued, and then the Church sold parishioners’ property to raise funds. If we only knew.

I wouldn’t learn how many of my friends and peers were affected for years to come, but I was always thankful my brother and I were spared. The only abuse we suffered was the occasional dope slap to the back of the skull. Our pastor was a bully. He acted more like a bookie’s henchman than a man of God. I was one of the kids who was regularly pulled out of class to be reminded that my parents were behind on tuition. If I didn’t want to go to public school with all the niggers and spics, I better tell Mummzy to cough up. The more aware I became of the world around me, the more I extracted myself from it.

I stopped calling my friends. Eventually they stopped calling me, too. I walked the long way to the store just to avoid running into someone. I felt like a shell of my old self. I felt like a fraud. Almost as if I were made of paper mache and any trivial social inquiry into ‘where I’ve been lately’ would pierce my flesh and deflate my soul. At least when I was home alone I could be myself, whatever that was. I could enact an epic play with a deck of cards if I felt like it, or marvel at the alleged wonders of my brother’s Playboy. I could spend hours staring at spoons trying to bend them with my mind, or I could interpret my sleep diary using the illustrated dream dictionary I got from the mall. I could become weirder and weirder behind closed doors without risking exposure. And exposure is what I feared most. That someone would pull away the curtain of my friendly and popular exterior to reveal my shameful and weird insides.

So my bedroom became a fort. It was my sanctuary. I stopped hanging out with my friends completely. I told my parents to tell them I wasn’t home if they called or stopped by. I ignored my family as best I could, too. At first I took meals in my room, say I was in the middle of a wicked good TV show or something. If anyone asked me anything a one word answer was all they got. ‘Fine’ and ‘nothing’ became automatic replies. It got so bad that I waited until the house was completely empty before I’d raid the kitchen for food. Luckily I had my own bathroom on the third floor so that wasn’t a problem. But even then I wouldn’t risk running the water if someone was home for fear of having to take part in a conversation. God forbid. My constant, unexplained embarrassment truly boxed me into my own little world. I couldn’t understand what was going on with my own body, my own mind. My voice cracked mid-sentence. One second I’d sound like my big brother, the next, my little sister. It was nuts. Oh, and the random erections, they made me question everything. (Including the popularity of sweatpants!) I had learned in sixth grade, two years earlier, that their appearance signified attraction, but considering their frequency and odd occurrences I prayed that was not the case. If so, I was in deep trouble. Deep, wrong, inappropriate trouble.


Like all strange ideas, I don’t know what the hell made me think of it, but I started flying paper airplanes out my bedroom window. Since our backyard was a highway, no one really noticed or cared. Plus, I could use the skyline of Boston as a backdrop. It was like a cheap movie set. The planes flew high above the sprawling roof. The skylight offered a glimpse of family life inside the kitchen. A spark, a flame, a burning. The aircraft has been hit.
At first they were regular old paper airplanes, but then I made them unique. I lit a flame on the little rudder in the back of the plane before I flew them out. I liked watching them glide through the air like that. They reminded me of those jets that leave the trail in the sky, like the ones that almost look like sky writers, but aren’t.

Sooner or later I broke out the aerosol hairspray. I remember keeping a bottle of my mother’s purple Aqua Net to spray houseflies with when they penetrated my fortress. That tall can multitasked. I would fold my plane, light the tail, give it a careful, quick spray, and then launch it out the window. I’m pretty lucky my neighbors didn’t call the cops or I didn’t end up on the six o’clock news, victim and perpetrator of foolish arson. It’s not that I thought I was invincible though, I just didn’t care about my safety or my future.
I remember using a blank sheet from the back of the family bible. It burned wonderfully. It was so dry and thin that it didn’t take long for the flames to burn through it. That’s when it became addicting. I wanted to make a plane that would burn so fast that it would be ash before it hit the ground. Lucky for the family bible I found even thinner paper to use as lumber for my new fleet of planes: my cousin’s old aviation textbook From the Ground Up. Brigit studied in school to be a pilot and her enthusiasm was contagious. Once she became engaged she dropped out and became a stewardess, though. When she shelved her dreams so did I her old books. They were buried under my bed next to my virgin, Styrofoam remote control airplane until I dusted them off.

Many afternoons were whiled away just like this in what was to be my last pre-pubescent summer. Come fall I would be an eight grader, part of the very first graduating class of the new school. When I was younger I climbed trees, taunted store owners, played Alleario and looked forward to ice cream cones. When I was older I would drink beers, smoke grass and discover that what really made the world go round was sex. I must have known I was at an in-between stage. I watched my younger sister play make believe with her friends and my older brother grow aloof with his. I didn’t know exactly what he was up to but I knew I was only a year or two behind. Until then I would stay inside my cocoon.


I’m sure I didn’t spend that entire summer flying fireballs out my bedroom window; but maybe I did. Looking back, I guess it was sort of appropriate. Flying paper airplanes itself is very innocent, but lighting them on fire lends a dangerous element to it. Even my delinquent activities were caught in between.

As summer gave way to fall, I panicked. I bought a complicated ab machine to try and hide my fat. I bitched and moaned until my mother bought me new clothes. I started calling my friends again, to reestablish our friendships for the coming school year. I couldn’t avoid the uncomfortable situations anymore. They were popping up, left and right. My world was closing in on me fast. I could hardly catch my breath. I would be in eighth grade soon and I was still a caterpillar.

My godmother told me it wouldn’t last long, but that was just something she said to ease my mind. She was just doing her job. But she knew I was embarking on the most awkward year of my life and I didn’t stand a chance. I would lose focus. I would lose part of myself. I would be miserable. I would incinerate before I would land. I would be a teenager.


Senior Member
BRAVO!... excellent writing and a sad tale that's true of so many... the title is wonderfully mysterious, and appropriate to boot... i'm so impressed by the quality of your writing and your comfortably conversational style, that you've done what few in this world have ever done... rendered me virtually speechless...

don't stop now!

love and hugs, maia


Senior Member
that's quite a fantastic story, well written and beautifully told. The image is very powerful too. I'm making a sketch of it in my sketchbook:)