Don’t get mad, get Steven

One time, I got mad and someone almost died. Here’s the story of me, a boy from Memphis, a bottle of Tylenol, Drew Barrymore, and why tempering my temper is now the name of the game.

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“I don’t get mad.”

It’s one of the first things I’ll say to you once we roll past the “Don’t you know who I am?” portion of getting to know each other.

“I got mad at someone, once. It didn’t end well.”

I went through my preteen and teen years with a lot of passion but no particular focus. What did I want to be when I grew up? Someone who saved the world, of course. I dabbled in peer counseling, Greenpeace, Habitat for Humanity, Up With People, and Amnesty International. I went through a period of either hugging, or yelling “FASCIST!” at everyone I met. Nevermind that I wasn’t particularly clear on what fascism was (and still am not). I wasn’t sure from which thing I was saving the world, but damn if I wasn’t going to try.

So when I found my high school days coming to a close, yet the world remained unsaved, I was forced to ask myself what was next. Though I wasn’t a great student, I shrugged and said “College, I guess.” The decision, such as it was, had been made.

I signed up for the SAT at the last minute and slid in to the test without having gotten much sleep the night before. So, color me surprised when I eventually got a letter from a college in Missouri saying they were interested in me. I found Missouri on a map and considered the distance from my home state of California and the complicated family dynamics that were playing out in my house at the time, and announced I would be attending.

My mother and brother hauled me halfway across the country to drop me off at my new institution of higher learning (and living) and left me to my own devices. I had chosen an all-girl’s school because the thought of no boys to worry about/dress for/eat in front of appealed to me–so obviously the first thing I did was find the nearest place to meet some of those boys.

Luckily, there was a major university nearby, and I soon made it my second home.

Now, my roommate came from a nearby city and therefore knew quite a few of our classmates, as well as plenty of people who attended the university. Through her, I had soon built a small and dysfunctional pseudo-family of my very own.

One of the members of my school family was a friend of a friend named Steve from Memphis. I don’t mean his name was Steve and he was from Memphis, though both of those facts are true. He introduced himself as “Steve from Memphis” to everyone he met, in an accent thick as molasses, and it became his name just as sure as mine is Jennifer or yours is Person Reading This Column on the Internet. It was endearing, the way many qualities are, right up until the point that they make you want to strangle the person who possesses them.

Steve from Memphis was handsome–exceedingly so. Plus, he had that Southern drawl thing going on. So, imagine my surprise when he confessed a crush on me, and I had to tell him I just wasn’t feeling it. I tried to talk myself into him, acknowledging that I found him attractive and sweet, if a little overbearing, but just couldn’t find the chemistry I needed to do the things teenagers do with each other.

But Steve from Memphis wouldn’t give up. He called my dorm (no cell phones then!); he showed up with gifts, unannounced; when we hung out with friends he wouldn’t leave me alone. Finally, I’d had enough and reacted the way a 17-year-old does, I got mad. In front of all of our friends.

“LEAVE ME ALONE, STEVE FROM MEMPHIS! I DON’T LIKE YOU AND I NEVER WILL!”

Steve from Memphis got sad. Steve from Memphis went home and swallowed a whole bottle of Tylenol. Steve from Memphis was OK, but Steve from Memphis had to have his stomach pumped. His dad came up, from Memphis, to take him back home for good.

Since then I’ve been told by loved ones that my anger is scary. That it is tinged with disappointment and disgust. That my face changes and my eyes darken. It’s what my ex referred to as “the clouds rolling in,” like the darling little Drew Barrymore in Firestarter. I was aware that my anger was powerful but wasn’t sure what to do about it.

Then, few years ago (thanks, therapy!), I realized that my anger was mostly a mask for other feelings. I have a fear of being seen as weak and often use anger as a smokescreen for hurt, disillusionment, grief, and frustration. So, what I really mean when I say I don’t get mad is that I make a concerted effort to figure out what my true feelings are in a situation and express those, instead. Sometimes, though rarely, it’s actual anger, and I do express that because it’s kind of healthy. I mean, not necessarily for the other person, but you know.

I don’t know what happened to Steve from Memphis after he left school. I flunked out not long after, mostly due to never showing up for class because OMG there was so much drinking and sleeping to do. I toddled back home to live in my parent’s guest room and skip classes at the local community college, instead.

But Steve from Memphis taught me a valuable lesson. My emotions can scar others, if I don’t wield them responsibly. Something I feel temporarily, even momentarily, can be felt by others for much longer if I’m not careful. So I try to think before I speak and have learned to recognize my own clouds rolling in. Still, it would be cool to be able to start fires with my mind. Not sure how I’d use that power to save the world, though.

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The Checkout Girl

The Checkout Girl is Jennifer Lemons. She’s a storyteller, comedian, and musician. If you don’t see her sitting behind her laptop, check the streets of Richmond for a dark-haired girl with a big smile running very, very slowly.

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