Issue 5 / Nonfiction

Nonfiction by Todd Gastelum


Hey there,

I know you feel utterly alone at this moment. You’re sitting cross-legged on the pulled-out sofa sleeper you use as a bed. Madonna and Bryan Adams are gazing down from the walls that surround you as the last light of the hazy California afternoon casts shadows across the floor. Your eyelashes are crusty with sodium deposits and your stomach is pumping pain through your guts. The Boys of Summer is stuck in your head—you put that song on repeat after swallowing the pills and then lay in bed to wait for what you thought would be the end. Mom has no idea. She just walked out of your bedroom after sniping that dinner was ready and you haven’t set the table and what were you doing sleeping at seven o’clock anyway? Pork chops are the last thing on your mind.

Once again, you’ve failed. You couldn’t even kill yourself. In fact, nothing in your imagined future will come to pass. Married with kids? Uh-uh. Living in San Francisco and working as an architect? Nope—not going to happen. But this doesn’t make you a loser. You’ve got a bumpy road ahead of you, and, for the next three decades, you’ll feel lost as you move through life. Things won’t even start to feel manageable until your chin and temples go gray. I’m writing you this letter to tell you to stop trying to be so goddamn perfect. You’re only human, and you’re going to make it. So please, just relax.

But suicide—seriously? And to think you did it because today you learned that you’re failing World Literature. You couldn’t make it through Don Quixote. So what? There’s no thirteen-year-old anywhere in the world that can make it through that book. Fuck Cervantes. Here’s what’s going to happen: Mom and Dad will find out that you’re failing, and Mom will yell at you while Dad stands next to her, impotent as usual. Then you’ll do an extra credit assignment and Ms. Purcell will end up giving you a D. In the end, you won’t fail the class, but for the next few years, you’re still going to suffer intense abdominal cramps every time you feel hungry. It’ll be your secret shame. Even worse is the fact that this is the first of two attempts that you’ll make on your life. Your supposed brilliance won’t help you make smart decisions.

Remember how, a few years ago, that man at school told you that you were a gifted child? Pretend you didn’t hear that. Being smart isn’t so great. If anything, it’s a curse, because it means you think about everything all the time and find the world wanting. Remember how, when you were eight, Mom and Dad forced you to join that club for intellectually gifted children? You met all of those socially awkward Jewish kids who bragged about their IQs and their membership in something called Mensa. You didn’t make friends with them and that’s okay.

What no one will tell you is that intellectual intelligence is only one way of being gifted. There’s also something called emotional intelligence. When you have it, you can understand your own and other people’s emotions and feelings, which is way more important than you think. Even though you’ve been labeled gifted, when it comes to emotional intelligence, you’re dumb as a box of rocks. This is a big reason why it’s so hard for you to make and keep friends and navigate social situations. Mom and Dad will expect great things from you and will push you into some unpleasant situations as they try to steer you toward success. They mean well, but there’s so much about you that they don’t understand. For example, they don’t know that you live with compromised mental health.

I don’t mean to scare you, but you’ll suffer from anxiety and depression your whole life. The type of depression you have is called dysthymia. This means that you experience little joy and people accuse you of having a negative disposition. You know how other kids loved watching Star Wars, but you fell asleep in the dark theater? And how everyone loves the Dodgers and Angels but you couldn’t care less about baseball? Yeah, that. It’s not that you don’t enjoy anything, it’s just that most of the things that excite other humans leave you cold. Like dogs. And fireworks. Sometimes the dysthymia morphs into full-blown depression, which sucks what little interest you have in life right out of you. But it’s not a constant—it comes and goes with no rhyme or reason.

Remember when you were a toddler and you used to lie between the walls of your room’s twin beds and hide your face with your Bee? You did that because you were depressed but didn’t understand what was happening inside your head. All you knew was that you felt awful. As you get older, there will be many other times when you feel awful, but you won’t have a comfort blanket, so you’ll turn to a host of other things to get through the dark times — books, junk food, Peter Gabriel, alcohol, marijuana, pornography, sex with strangers, and writing. None of these will bring lasting relief because the bad feelings are caused by your brain chemistry. There’s not much you can do to erase the long shadows when they come. Perhaps if you were gifted emotionally, you’d notice the patterns in your feelings and be able to make better choices. But you’re not and you won’t.

Your second suicide attempt will come in three years, when you’re a high school senior. Again, you’ll swallow pills because Mom and Dad are liberals who don’t believe in guns. Do you know what dry heaves are? It’s what happens after they give you Ipecac in the emergency room to vomit the poison. You puke up everything in the first hour but your stomach keeps contracting for three hours more. You’re left achy, exhausted, and compliant.

You’ll end up at Santa Ana Psych for two days of observation. Mom says it was longer, but they’ll put you on so many drugs while you’re hospitalized that you won’t remember much of anything. But you’ll remember that the walls were painted the color of raw hot dogs. You’ll remember meeting other troubled kids with problems far worse than your own. You won’t make friends with them and that’s okay. You’ll remember a delusional girl who screams at you in Spanish—her face inches from yours—while she scratches her cheeks raw. You’ll remember a pale boy who asks you to help him make a Ouija board from scraps of notebook paper that you use to summon spirits in your dormitory until a nurse comes in to yell at you, threatening to extend your internment.

Just don’t try to kill yourself that second time—because when Mom and Dad find out, it’ll break their hearts.

By the way, you have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. This explains why your brain is always on overdrive like a hot rod revving its engine and making lots of smoke. As you know, it’s impossible for you to harness this energy when you need to, and instead, your mind peels crazy eights until the engine dies and you just space out. Believe it or not, not everybody’s brain works this way and most don’t understand what ADHD actually is. Some people don’t even think it’s real. Unfortunately for you, when combined with your pathetic degree of emotional intelligence, ADHD becomes a Hulk-like beast hell-bent on destruction.

You won’t be diagnosed until you’re thirty-six years old. I’m not going to lie to you—the late diagnosis sucks. By the time you learn of your condition, you’ll have ruined dozens of relationships, destroyed your credit, and had more cases of chlamydia than a merchant marine. You’ll hate yourself for repeatedly fucking things up when you’re supposed to be perfect. You’ll hate that your friends have gone on to do amazing things while you continue to flounder. The problem is, ADHD isn’t really a thing in 1984 and it won’t become a commonly discussed pathology until years after you lose all interest in school and your grades plummet. You’re going to suffer a lot at school, because remember—you’re gifted! Everyone will still expect great things from you, but no one understands why you can’t pass algebra. Every time report cards arrive, you’ll shudder as you peel apart the carbon-copied sheets and read the numbered comments that offer proof of your incompetence: “Is working below ability” and “Neglects assigned work.”

But guess what? Just knowing that this is how your brain works makes things somewhat easier. You’ll find coping mechanisms and take comfort in routines. You’re way more creative than most other people because random thoughts rule your mind. You see connections between things where others see nothing. On a good day, people will notice and they’ll tell you how funny and talented you are. Enjoy these days, because the rest of the time you’ll cause trouble for yourself and people will think that you say and do weird things. Think about how Mom and Dad tease you and refer to your observations as “Toddisms.” They think you speak in non sequiturs because they can’t see the thought processes in your head. They don’t mean to hurt your feelings, but it’s fine to feel sad and angry when they do.

Here’s something else I want you to know: you’re gay. You love men. I’m sure you already have an inkling. After all, it’s not like you watch Magnum, P.I. and Simon & Simon for the plot twists. Anyway, you’ll put two and two together next year when you’re fourteen-going-on-fifteen. There’s nothing wrong with being gay, so just roll with it. Of course, you’ll receive a completely different message from society. Most people will think you’re sick and some people will try to hurt you. You’ll get called a faggot and feel scared when you see stories on the TV news about young men like you beaten to death on the streets. But keep your head up. Mom and Dad will have your back. And, believe it or not, in thirty years, you’ll actually be able to legally marry another man in the United States. I know, right? It sounds crazy, but trust me — things are going to get a lot better for gays and lesbians in your lifetime. There will still be those who hate you, but most will defend your right to just be.

A couple of months before you come out to Mom and Dad, you’ll ride your bike to a gay youth group meeting. It’ll freak you out because the walls of the community center will be covered with posters warning you about a new disease called AIDS and how it’ll kill you if you have sex. Don’t worry, you won’t get AIDS. But you’ll make friends with guys who do and almost all of them will die. It’ll be weird to know so many dead guys while you’re still a teenager. They’ll be blamed for their own deaths and lots of people will say they deserved it—even your history teacher and your grandparents.

The gay youth group will make you uncomfortable because the other boys you meet will be older and poorer than you. They’ll call you a twink, and they’ll call each other girl, and they’ll enjoy saying mean things to one another. Some will have sold their bodies for sex on Santa Monica Boulevard. You won’t make friends with them and that’s okay. Just stick around long enough for your first kiss and move on. Yeah, you’ll have your first kiss—with a boy from youth group who looks just like Dave Gahan from Depeche Mode. He’ll kiss you behind a heavy curtain and his mouth will taste of clove cigarettes. Your body will pulse with electricity and you’ll finally understand why everyone makes such a big deal about making out.

At youth group, you’ll also meet Darrin, who’ll become your first boyfriend. He’ll be a good first boyfriend — perfectly harmless but dumb. He’ll drive you around in his Chevy El Camino listening to Poison and Motley Crüe. He’ll teach you to play racquetball and will take you to Mt. Baldy to shoot aluminum cans with a scary shotgun. When you’re fifteen, you’ll lose your virginity to him on a school night in your own bed while Dad is passed out in his chair just outside your bedroom door. It’ll be okay but it won’t be enough to make you want to stay with him.

You’ll break up with Darrin after a few months and he’ll break down in tears while standing on the Berber carpet in your living room. Ending things with him is the right decision. Many years later, you’ll look him up on the Internet and—wait, you don’t what the Internet is. Well, when you reach your twenties, an invention called the Internet will come along. It’s complicated, but it’s sort of a combination of the library, TV, and Atari. You’ll start to use it all the time in ridiculous ways, as humans are prone to do when new technologies become commonplace. So one day when you’re procrastinating at work, you’ll search for Darrin on the Internet and learn that he’s a registered sex offender. I know, right? He’s not a keeper; he’s a pedophile.

You’ll go through a lengthy roster of boyfriends. You’ll enjoy the relief of not being alone, and it’ll be nice that they lend you their bodies for sex, but communication will always be a struggle in these relationships. They’ll tell you something—or nothing at all—and you’ll fail to understand the subtleties of their messages because you take everything at face value. Once again, your high IQ won’t prevent this. Like Mom and Dad, your boyfriends won’t understand you or your brain, and you’ll hold it against them—though you don’t understand yourself either. As resentment begins to taint every facet of the relationship, your depression will return and you’ll assess yourself incapable of loving and unworthy of love. You’ll like some boyfriends better than others, but it’ll always be you who fucks things up. Whether after three months or seven years, you’ll let the relationship calcify like a kidney stone. You’ll begrudge spending time with these boyfriends and you’ll begin seeking out sexual encounters with strangers—in city parks, at adult bookstores, in fluorescent men’s rooms. Sometimes, you’ll meet a man you like better than the one you’re dating, which provides a way out. Then you’re back at square one.

But there’s more to life than boyfriends. Perhaps the upside of having ADHD is that you’ll fearlessly pursue new experiences. You’ll leave the United States and live in Canada and Mexico. You’ll give a press conference in the halls of Canada’s parliament after you and your boyfriend challenge the country’s marriage laws—planting one of the seeds that will eventually lead to extending the right to marry to everyone in the Great White North. You’ll work as a teacher in Mexico and you’ll reach out to troubled kids who remind you of yourself. You’ll make time to talk to queer kids and the ones struggling with mental illness, and they’ll feel better because you listen to them when no one else does. At the close of one school year, you’ll deliver the graduation speech, telling your students to reject lives spent in the little boxes society has built for them. You’ll receive a standing ovation—including from the parents you’ve just criticized—and this will make you feel like a rock star.

Despite these achievements, life will still drag you down. Your first stop in Mexico will be the dull provincial city of Monterrey. After you move there, you’ll see your salary shrink by half, which will create a whole new set of challenges. You’ll become insolvent and default on your student loan. You’ll exhaust your savings in tandem with a peso devaluation, which means that you’ll be unable to afford a Christmas trip home when you’re utterly debilitated by culture shock and feel the dark walls closing in on you. Collection agencies will harangue you, and your American credit rating will collapse. Amazingly, this will not usher the end of the world. Your fiscal irresponsibility means that you’ll never be able return to your home country—unless you’re willing to take a vow of poverty—so, even though it’ll crush your soul and warp your identity, you’ll adapt to life in Mexico. You’ll learn Spanish and figure out how to live within your means. With time, you’ll even come to ignore the sporadic thoughts of suicide, which will mostly fade away as you reach middle age.

You’ll move to Mexico City, which will be your great do-over in life. It’s a crazy place that’ll sometimes bring you to tears, but living in such a different environment will force you to understand yourself—intellectually and emotionally—and you’ll see that you’re capable of living a good life on your own terms. Thanks to a better paying job and fiscal austerity, you’ll take charge of your finances. With the help of a Mexican government housing program, you’ll buy a downtown fixer-upper that shares a block with a colonial-era monastery. Your new home will come with an odd little room on the roof that you’ll convert into a writing studio way cooler than your current bedroom plastered with posters of forgettable pop stars.

In the Mexican capital, you’ll also meet a fiercely intelligent and handsome man who’ll sweep you off your feet when you least expect it. Do you know the meaning of serendipity? This man, who writes stories and draws pictures, will stoke your creative fire and become your muse. He’ll make you feel talented and attractive despite the many years in which you’ve conditioned yourself to believe otherwise. Because he also has a complicated mental health history, he won’t judge you. He’ll treat you with kindness and tell you that you don’t have to be perfect. It’ll be the first time in your life that anyone says these words to you. He’ll make you see that you’re indeed capable of loving and worthy of love. You’ll finally understand why others have written so many love songs and romantic comedies.

See? Hardship won’t rule your life completely. And over the years, you’ll also have many vivid experiences that you’ll never forget. One autumn day, you’ll speed down Chicago’s lakefront path on your brand-new bike, watching the waves crash onto Oak Street Beach. You’ll swim in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, surrounded by playful sea-lion pups. You’ll stand at the helm of a ferry boat watching orcas as they leap across Puget Sound. You’ll spend a misty morning absorbing the surreal beauty of Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery where you’ll be the only person there in the silent company of the dead. These memories may seem insignificant, but they’ll bring you joy and make you happy that you’ve survived to remember them.

Okay, I’ve told you enough. You’re a good man who is creative and talented, and you’ve got great things ahead of you. It doesn’t matter that you’re not perfect. It doesn’t matter whether you are or aren’t gifted. It doesn’t matter that you won’t achieve everything you set out to do. Just treat yourself with kindness. Be patient. Be strong. And relax. After all, now you know that you’re going to make it.

With love and respect,



Todd Gastelum is a writer based in Mexico City. A California native, he moved south of the border a decade ago and never tires of exploring his evolving identity as a Mexican-American immigrant to the land his family fled. Todd writes nonfiction that explores issues of identity, ethnicity, sexuality, mental health, class, and the relationships between them. Todd is a 2015 Lambda Literary fellow in nonfiction. When not writing, you’ll find him walking around the city, in his kitchen, or in a cantina in the Centro Histórico. Follow him on Twitter @toddgastelum. Selected by Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo.

Image © Ken Fisk via Flickr Creative Commons.