For a man with two first names, Kenny Joe Southerland seemed like a nice enough guy, but I’m pretty sure that’s what everyone assumes when they first meet a college roommate. At least in Vegas the odds are plainly posted. Best case scenario you split a 12’ X 20’ space with a sleep talker that rambles like an auctioneer with a serious Red Bull dependency. A couple hops over on the roulette wheel and you discover your ‘roomie’ enjoys “Sweating to the Oldies”, buck-naked with the exception of four inch stiletto heels because he likes the clicking sound of a tile floor. In fairness to Kenny Joe, he bore no semblance to the aforementioned, but nonetheless inside of a semester I came to view his mere presence as minutes shaved from an otherwise productive life.
According to father, my first mistake was failing to inquire about his major. “The minds and personalities of those drawn to drama and theatre are too abstract and loosely constructed to mesh with those geared for hard science and medicine.”
Father dealt exclusively in condescension and while he believed an eloquent undressing somehow made it less offensive—it didn’t. There existed a certain friction between Kenny Joe and myself, but it paled in comparison to the chasm separating a father and his son. Verbal disagreeance would only incense him—that much I had learned. Instead, a mental marquee scrolled from one side of my mind to the other, “A man forged under the noonday sun—brittle and unforgiving.”
Of four siblings none of us escaped completely, equally damaged by means of entirely different methods. Ours was a world where something as uncontrollable as gender dictated everything. During my informative years he openly referred to having endured the setback of three daughters; careless words like a hard frost striking lilies in full bloom. While my older sisters pined for a moment’s attention I begged for respite from it. Each morning I knelt bedside praying for something as benign as blithe dismissal or perhaps even a brother to dilute the full measure of his critical eye and burden of great expectations. As it were no rescuers came. I only watched my sisters fade further into nothingness and one dreadful day rolled into another as he molded me into a miniature version of him. He wanted me to believe there were worse outcomes in life than becoming a respected neurosurgeon that made a comfortable living, and perhaps occupationally speaking there was, but more than anything I regretted that someday I too would warn my son to avoid contact with those who ignored the seriousness of life.
Kenny Joe’s inspiration came from a performance in a third grade play and his drama instructor, Miss Jenkins’ insistence that she never witnessed such passion from a frog. A public school teacher not only recognized a young boy’s natural ability and desire to perform, she went out of her way to nurture, encourage, and coach him. As such Kenny Joe spent his weekends crunching cheese snacks, honing his Kramer imitation from a lost episode of Seinfeld while I grappled with a more complete understanding of Homosynaptic plasticity. It is crystal clear to me now that my disdain for him then was due to the absence of a Miss Jenkins in my own life.
“Doctor, he insists you were his roommate freshman year. Will you take the call?”
Despite the venomous ways of the world, Kenny Joe’s amiability remained. After fifteen years he spoke to me like a neighbor over a privacy fence, extending an invitation to celebrate his birthday. The 750 miles separating us should have been reason enough to decline, but I was convinced more than ever that Kenny Joe had been born a better man, and I needed to understand why.
Early in my life spontaneity and I crossed paths briefly, but offering a time slot in a busy schedule insulted his very nature, so we quickly claimed irreconcilable differences and moved on. Open-ended decisions left my insides tied in knots, so early evening fell over the city and although I was behind the wheel, selecting a gas station on the outskirts of Memphis was purely precautionary as it was still close enough to turn back.
Standing staunch behind the counter was a man of Indian descent. His turban added a foot to his height but strangely gave perspective to a beard that turned gray waiting to reach his waistline. Arms folded high across his chest indicated my arrival left him waiting longer than expected. The entire scene felt creepy and scripted, as if I was an understudy thrown in at the last moment, unprepared and unsure of my lines. After placing a cup of coffee on the counter I become aware of his penetrating stare. Dark eyes with the power to convert moments into millenniums, focused squarely on me. Even fishing in my front pocket for payment took entirely too long.
“Never underestimate the power of a journey”, he said.
He seemed quite certain of his words and as much as I wanted to believe he spent his spare time writing tiny messages stuffed inside fortune cookies, the improbability was absurd. I acknowledged a strange power in the moment, but perhaps he was bluffing. Pointing to my car just outside the door I intended on drawing him out.
“Thanks for the advice, but it’s only a few steps—do it every day.”
My attempt to dismiss his comment as horoscopic in nature not only failed to bring a smile, but provoked a deeper reach into uncomfortable territory.
“A reflection knows nothing of depth. Whether in a puddle or the ocean it always appears perfect, but it is the obligation of every man to himself to dive beneath the surface and explore the integrity of what it is he projects.”
The storekeeper’s name was Vivek, and he intrigued me completely. Initially because he exemplified the kind of man my father denied existed. By way of owning a business he qualified as a contributor to society, but he also possessed a significant philosophical component belonging exclusively to radicals and free-loaders. As our conversation progressed it became increasingly difficult to view him in such stark and rigid terms. Neither at that moment nor now can I begin to explain his sage-like intuition. He saw more of me than I was willing to; the moment I entered through the door of his mart he sensed I was as disengaged with my surroundings as the day I was born. More specifically Vivek insisted that visiting Kenny Joe was about much more than barbequed ribs and cole-slaw. I had not been searching for a beginning point for this journey—or perhaps unknowingly I was. In either case Vivek stirred something within me that continues to linger and grow in intensity, like a boiling summer breeze riding the lead edge of a storm.
With a rainbow of neon fading in the rear-view mirror and a dark highway stretched out before me, it became apparent why so many desire the company of the city. Busy streets and overloaded schedules leave little time to answer the questions a mind naturally wants to ask. Learning to dissect people like regions of the brain was an unintended consequence of becoming my father’s shadow. I was a student skilled in the art of avoiding personalities and emotional connections, and Father, the instructor much too eager to teach dysfunction. Had I possessed the inner strength to break free from his way of thinking perhaps things would have been different, but I suspected there were a million others out there waiting to take his place; wolves standing in the shadows of the meadow, those that killed more for pleasure than hunger.
Dark hours on a lonely highway became an odyssey of sorts, one revelation predicated upon another, each progressively more disturbing, but I sensed this was a place of hard truths, where the excuse of transferring responsibility for my own shortcomings was unacceptable. Subconsciously I had assigned my father the role of ogre, and myself as victim, but as I closed the distance between the perception of myself and who others perceived me to be, the collective bits of truth rolled over me with all the forgiveness and subtly of a locomotive. We were one in the same; the beast was a detestable but accurate representation of who I had become. Certain truths were inescapable and indefensible. Only a fool builds his life on the foundation of another. My personal and professional life shared a single point of failure, fatefully entwined like the twisted snakes in the symbol of the profession I represented. One of the primary tenets of the Hippocratic Oath is to “Do no harm”, and alone I had done more to desecrate that than ten men in a lifetime.
Sifting through the ashes of self-evaluation delivered me to an uncomfortable place, but I am convinced had I not come here that tomorrow would be nothing more than a miserable collection of yesterdays. Until now I believed epiphanies existed in the minds of the foolish and easily coerced, but I assure there is not nearly enough breadth in the definition of random to describe the connection between the quiet moments of dawn and my own personal awakening. What was unfolding within and all around me was profound enough to pull to the side of the road.
There were a million places I could have been at that moment, but parked on the side of the road just this side of nowhere was my destiny. Watching a thousand paint brushes, each of them broad and knowing, heal the smallest cracks in the landscape with color. The hues were indescribable, except the overwhelming feeling that each of them represented the hope and promise of a new day. The procedure was radical, leaving more of me lying on the roadside than was left to continue. A majority of me was too damaged to salvage, more suitable for buzzards that circled overhead.