You are nobody’s little boy anymore.
This is the only thought you have at this moment as you stand over your Diddy’s lifeless body. Your aunt holds him tight, tears streaming from her brown eyes. You know that whatever soul inhabited his body for 81+ years is no longer present. While you wouldn’t dream of saying your entire life was built for this one, defining moment, you have been groomed and prepared for just that. What would Diddy do? What would he want you to do? To answer these questions, you must simply exist.
This time in your life feels like a blur. You can’t quite believe he is gone, yet everyone around you acts as if you’re made of glass; that you’ll shatter into a million pieces at any given time. You’re not weak, though you feel it. You will lock away most of your thoughts and emotions deep inside. You can tell your closest friends are having a hard time communicating with you. You can’t seem to snap out of it, and rightfully so. The man who raised you is gone, not from your heart or mind, but physically he is no longer a part of the earth on which you walk.
As the time draws near for the funeral, you find yourself trying to pen a eulogy for him in his honor. Both your uncle and aunt will also speak about him, though most of the individuals attending his services know of him through you. You can’t rely on your other family members, you never could. And quite honestly, you have no desire to feign a relationship with anyone other than your aunt and cousins at this time. They were always a part of your life before, and they will always be part of your life now.
After many hours, you have finally written what you think is a true depiction of who your grandfather is and was to you. You incorporate humor and appreciation for him in all honesty. Your uncle speaks first, then your aunt. After both sit down, there is a silence. That seems typical given how many funerals you’ve attended up until this point. But now, it is your turn to speak.
When you get up to the podium, you take a deep breath, look out into the crowd and assess your audience. (It must be the communications major in you.) As you look around, you tell yourself that this is about Diddy. It doesn’t matter if people smile or laugh, cry or sob. What matters is you doing him justice. Speaking out loud what you believe to be true. It is hard to capture 22 years of your life into a short speech, but you feel you’ve done it. You are ready to share that with those sitting before you now.
You finish. You step back from the podium to take one final breath before exiting the stage area. Just as you exhale, an applause erupts from within the church. You look up, stunned, yet pleased at this reaction of everyone present. They are clapping for you, at your words, and somehow it seems appropriate despite the circumstance. You have never once seen that before, but this was a moment you would cherish forever. If they, your friends and family, felt the need to applaud a speech you gave about your grandfather, you must have truly done him justice.
Winter approaches. You’ll prepare for a speech you are giving on World AIDS Day. You made prior commitments to do so in the summer time while Diddy was alive. At the time, you felt that any little bit to spread a positive message would be ideal. Even though now you aren’t quite in the right headspace to speak about your history, somebody comes to visit you in your dreams to remind you that life goes on.
December 1st, 2009 was a cold, rainy day and only a mere two and a half months since Diddy’s passing. You tried to write down your thoughts but felt it may be best to go up and just speak from the heart. The venue was outside in Downtown Montgomery. Most of the people in the crowd were your friends from either school or work, but regardless of who came, considering this weather, it is an honor to speak out.
You’ll share your story (Editor note: which may be shared in full at a later time), feelyou sent a positive message to the crowd, and at the end of the evening, will join some of your closest friends at a nearby bar called Noble’s. It’s here that you will experience for the first time what it means to be stabbed in your lower back. When the sensation hits, you stand up immediately, panicking that the assailant must still be behind you. Your friends look at you like you’re crazy, but you feel around your back for blood to prove you are not.
No blood. “What is going on,” you think. You find yourself in more pain as the moments flash by. The only thing you can think of is that you need someone to get you to the bathroom, FAST. Your friend Kirby (real name: Chris) gets you to the women’s bathroom as it is closer than the men’s. You lock yourself in a stall frantic. You call Karen seeking some advice. While she doesn’t know for sure, she thinks it could either be your appendix rupturing or a kidney stone. Either way, she encourages you to go to the Emergency Room right away.
Naturally, you don’t listen to this advice because you’re hard-headed, and quite honestly, just want to go home. When Kirby tells you his roommate has Lortab, you happily accept it or anything which will numb out this pain. After about an hour and the longest, most painful fifteen-minute ride to your friend Jake’s, Kirby returns with a pill. Normally, you’d be skeptical to accept some random pill, but without a thought in your head other than, “MAKE THIS SHIT STOP,” you take it. You wait in Jake’s bathroom for the pill to kick in. After about twenty minutes, you’re passed out on the floor.
The next day, you wake up, and the pain has subsided. Thank goodness, you think. But you know that this pain is bound to come back at some point. Taking the advice of your aunt to seek a medical professional, you visit a urologist in town who does a CT scan on you. He discovers that you have 12 total kidney stones; six in one, six in the other. He mentions that their sizes are completely passable, and at this point, there is nothing to do but wait it out. He prescribes you Hydrocodon in the event of another kidney stone attack.
Months go by, and you make several financial mistakes. You are only working part time at MAC Cosmetics, so it’s imperative you find a full-time position or take on a second job. Diddy left you some money when he died, but it isn’t enough to sustain you for much more than a year. You apply to Starbucks since your friend Shaun works there and seemingly loves it. You have an interview which you believe goes well, but you never get a call back. You search for positions with MAC in the area, and plead with your manager to bump you up to full-time, but unfortunately, there is nothing available.
One night, while closing the counter, you are given instructions that the eye shadows and lip glosses need to be schematized differently. You are given no further instruction other than, “it must be done before you leave tonight.” You cannot locate the schematics sheet and soon realize that your only chance of figuring out where each product goes is to call another counter. By the third counter, you have an answer.
“Yeah, I have it! I can fax it to you right now.”
“Great! Thank you so much, Natalie! You’ve been a big help.”
“Groovy! Hey, would you happen to be interested in a full-time position that has just become available at my counter?”
And with that, your prayers had been answered! It wasn’t guaranteed that you would get the position, but hey, this counter was only 45 minutes east of you. Plus, you had met Natalie once before when you went to Auburn to visit your friend Coleman’s family. She spoke to you about androgynous frogs. You thought she herself was a bit quirky, and to have a manager like that would probably be fun!
“You’re not going to like it there, Mathieu. That counter is tanking. I can see their numbers. They never achieve their goal. You’ll be kissing your bonuses goodbye.” This is what your current manager says to you when you tell her you want to apply.
“While that may be, I know I have the means to turn this counter around in sales. Besides, I need a full-time job now, and you don’t have any openings.” This was your reply to her.
“Yes, but I will when Anthony goes to Texas. We are just waiting to hear back.”
“It’s too late,” you’ll say. “I’ve made up my mind. That is where I want and need to be.”
After a few short weeks, you got the call that you were being job-offered to work at MAC Cosmetics in Auburn, Alabama at Village Mall. You are elated! Part of you is excited about the possibilities to be found in a new city. I mean, my God, you’ve lived in Montgomery your entire life. It’s time you see what else is out there. Until your lease with Jamie is up in Montgomery, you’ll commute. Luckily for you, you have quite a few friends who live there already, and you’ll have the opportunity to stay overnight quite a bit.
The counter itself is quite different than how you expected. Firstly, you were always located in either a Parisian or Belk department store, and this is a Dillard’s. Secondly, the energy at this location makes you feel a bit like you’ve taken a sleeping aid; it’s just so slow. You are fun and full of energy, and this counter is, well, not. Your manager, Natalie, has a similar energy to you at times, but overall, this location is unlike your previous.
Your first new friend in Auburn, Brittany, is a fan of yours from YouTube. She even says on your first day of work, “You’re Mathieu Francis, a boy wearing makeup! I’ve watched all of your videos.” At first, this surprises you as you had no intention of bringing up your YouTube past up, but there it was, out in the open. No going back now. Luckily for you, she takes it upon herself to show you around the town, give you restaurant advice (her favorite- Chicken Salad Chick), and makes you feel welcome in a way that no one else has.
Finally, the clientele base in this mall vastly differs from that of Belk Eastdale. These are mostly college-aged girls, not big spenders and typically there for a makeover for some event or another. It takes you a while to understand the mechanics behind this counter versus your last one. You are fortunate enough to meet many wonderful individuals who work in or around the cosmetics department that you befriend instantly.
One in particular stands about five feet tall. You’re in the Dillard’s office taking some sort of test when you hear from behind a wall, “I can’t believe there’s no fucking coffee around here.” As she appears fully formed, you see a white lab coat (which signifies she works for Clinique), bright brown eyes, a long, almost-black ponytail and the most insane dimples you’ve ever seen on a woman before.
“Oh, hi, I’m Rachel. You must be the new MAC guy,” she says, extending her hand out to you. And from there, you form a beautiful friendship.
You’ll call her Ray, short for “Ray of Sunshine,” and she is originally from Knoxville, Tennessee. You both share much in common: you both have birthdays in January (though she’s an Aquarius and you’re a Capricorn), you both love cats, and both of your mothers are named Denise! More than anything, you instantly feel attracted to her energy. She is hilarious, smiles often and always makes you feel welcomed by her. You already know that she will become a lifelong friend.
During all of these changes, you move out of your duplex that you shared with Jamie in Montgomery. You have found a nice-sized two bedroom, one bath duplex in the historic district of Opelika. It’s quiet, has nice scenery and is close to work. Something between you and Jamie seems off, but you chalk it up to you moving to a new city and leaving her behind.
July comes around and you spend the weekend off with Jamie and her relatives at their house out in the middle of nowhere. You think this will be a good time to reconnect with her and spend some time with her parents. (Side note: Whenever you listen to Christina Aguilera’s album, Bionic, you will remember the drive down.)
On the way home from the house, Jamie brings up your grandfather. Now, she’s known him since she was four, so it isn’t uncommon for her to mention him, but it’s still a touchy subject for you because it hasn’t even been a year since he died. Still, you listen.
What you remember is when Jamie brings up your eulogy, how it seemed a bit “off.” When you inquire what she means, she replies, “I don’t know. It just seemed a bit… ‘Mathieu Francis’ of you.” That is all you needed to hear. No matter what she meant or how she meant it, you feel slighted by your best friend during a moment you felt you delivered a heartfelt speech. You shut down, refusing to say much the rest of the ride back to her place.
“Do you want to come inside for a minute?” she asks as you’re parked in the carport at the duplex.
“No, I’m good. I’m going to head back. Thanks for today,” you’ll reply as you put the car in reverse and pull out. You see Jamie stand there, puzzled, knowing that something is bothering you even without you outwardly stating it. On the way home, you are fuming.
“It seemed ‘Mathieu Francis’ of me? What the fuck does that mean? I *am* Mathieu Francis!”
You can’t quite understand her intentions, but it’s enough to drive a wedge between your friendship with her and you juxtapose it next to your new friendship with Rachel. Maybe this is what was supposed to happen. Maybe Jamie represents your past self, and Rachel is to represent your future. Rachel has no memories with you as a child, and any story you share of Diddy’s will be new for her. With Jamie, she knows all the stories. Maybe you need someone new to open up to in a way that you can’t with someone who has known you nearly your entire life.
By September, the one year anniversary of Diddy’s passing, you and Jamie make plans for her to come to Auburn. Despite the spat in July, you need someone who does know all the stories, all the memories and all the laughs to be with you. A year has flown by, and still, you haven’t quite reacted like you assumed you would. You have an open-to-6 shift, but once you get off, you intend on looking at old photo albums and watching VHS’s with her. She is going to some sort of derby or race with a friend of hers from college. Once it’s over, she will come to your place and spend the night.
You call her as soon as you get off work. You leave a message as she doesn’t pick up. No worries. She’s probably still with her friend. You need to go home, wash your face and get out of your work clothes. When you get home, your aunt calls you. She asks how you’re doing and wants to know that you’re going to be okay. Since you haven’t heard from Jamie yet, you decide to talk to your aunt for a while.
Your home has trouble receiving signal from inside, so you pull up a chair from your patio and place it on your driveway. You sit and watch the night fall while conversing. There is one tree in particular across the street that has caught your eye, primarily because it is swaying in the autumn breeze.
“Have you had any dreams of him?” Karen asks.
“Sadly, no. Not recently. Have you?”
“No, I haven’t. I wish he would just give us a sign or something to let us know he’s passed on and okay. Mom did it with me when she died.”
The two of you reminisce about the two, until eventually, an hour goes by. Wondering where the hell Jamie is and now completely black outside, you hang up with Karen to call Jamie. Still, no answer. You decide to start the “festivities” without her, and she can just catch up whenever she arrives (if ever she arrives). Before you go get a photo album, you log on to Facebook and see that your friend, Michael, has messaged you.
“You okay, hon?”
That’s when it hits you. No, you’re not okay. You are sad and alone and the one person who would be able to share in these emotions is God-knows-where. You tell him that you’re going to look at some photos, have yourself a good cry and go to bed.
The moment you hit the SEND button is when the power goes out.
“What the hell?”
This is rather unusual. You wait a moment, expecting the power to turn back on, but after several minutes, nothing. Your phone isn’t charged fully, but you muster enough screen light to change out of your work clothes and call Michael. You tell him how odd it is that the power went off, but you’ve got to eat dinner, and since you can’t look at photo albums in the dark, maybe it’s best you go out. You inquire if he’s available to meet up, and after you both decide on Chili’s, you hang up the phone.
As you walk down the hallway to the front door, you see blue lights blinking from outside. Police car lights. Yet another, “what the hell?” passes through your mind. You get to the front porch and notice a cop has parked his car right behind yours, blocking you from exiting. “Surely I paid all my bills, and even if I missed one, is this absolutely necessary? I am not a criminal!” You have no idea what to think in this situation.
You find the cop and ask him if there is a problem. He points out a tree branch that has fallen onto the powerlines, and as you look, you notice it’s the same tree that you were gazing at earlier. Then, you turn your head to see that of all the homes in the neighborhood who could have been effected by this power outage, yours is the only one with complete darkness. You wonder what the hell is going on with the evening.
After the policeman moves his car, you head over to Chili’s. Once there, your aunt calls you back. You notice the time is 9:11 PM. When you pick up, she tells you that both she and Abby were in the kitchen just now. Karen got a little emotional and started to cry. That’s when Abby went to console her. As they both started to grieve, the doorbell rang, but when they answered it, no one was there.
“You’re telling me somebody played Ding Dong Ditch on y’all?” you ask.
“In all the years we’ve lived here, no one has ever played Ding Dong Ditch. I think it was granddad.”
That’s when you start piecing things together. The power in your house, Jamie not being around, noticing the time being 9:11 (knowing he passed on September 11th), getting out of the house to meet up with a friend and at Chili’s, the very restaurant which was the last place out you took your grandfather before his passing… Now this. This has got to be the biggest sign from him saying, “Don’t mourn me, God damnit! I’m fine!” Hard to believe, but everything happened like this in order to get the family out of their negative headspace.
“Oh, and Rick went to get us Cracker Barrel to eat, and he paid in cash. His cash back came to $9.11. This is too much.” Say no more. Message received, loud and clear! Diddy, you are getting what you want: no one is going to mourn you today.
The following day, Jamie gets ahold of you. She explains herself and what happened on her end, but you’re unmoved. This was the last straw in your eyes. You tell her it’s over between you two; to never call you, reach out to you or even so much as think of you ever again. The friendship spanning over 20 years is finished. And with that, you’ll focus on your new friendship with Ray.
If it weren’t for her, you would have had a difficult time adjusting to Auburn. Not only did you not know anybody there, not really… but you also hadn’t connected on a deeper level with anyone in quite some time. At least, not since Diddy’s passing. It almost felt like he was very much alive through your stories, and she was eager to hear all of them. Often, she would comment, “he sounds like such a remarkable man, and he clearly did something right by raising you. Look how you’ve turned out!”
In such a short amount of time, Ray became more than just a best friend; she was your self-proclaimed soul mate. And while you are gay, and at the time she is engaged (and completely heterosexual), you realize how you aspire to be more like Ray. She is thoughtful and yet thought-provoking, she listens and gives great advice, she is funny, but direct when she needs to be. She reminds you quite a bit of your grandfather. Could she fill the void left in your heart over your beloved Diddy?
The truth, as obvious as it seems, is that no one could ever fill a void left by your grandfather. But before you can realize this on your own, you need to move around more, experience even more medical situations, rekindle your friendship with Jamie, and take a trip to your bucket list country.
It is through all these experiences (and more) that you will find more of what you’ve been looking for. You may even discover what it is you’ve been running away from…