THE CHALLENGER

Luck Is Stupid and Nothing about Skateboarding.

“I don’t understand how they did it though,” I said. 

Sister Anne wasn’t amused or equipped to answer this query. I was 8 or possibly 9-years-old, attending the parochial school chosen by my parents as the public system in our city was being dismantled and discredited or so I was told—these are difficult things to parse as a child but the simple reality is that Lawrence, Massachusetts public schools were in disarray during a decade many referred to it as the “City of the Damned.” 

What this meant for me was that every morning I was dropped off at the blacktop in front of Saint Michaels’ School in North Andover, Massachusetts before most children arrived and was usually the last picked up from the same paved area. My mother was always, “running late,” which filled me with tension as a boy. I’d wander the small wooded path between the school and the convent where many of the nuns lived, knowing I’d have at least 30 minutes to burn before my mother arrived but it was usually closer to an hour.

My mother was an instructor at a community college and her schedule rarely allowed her to leave in time for my dismissal but I was never privy to that. Instead, I made up things to do: pitching rocks at trees, reading comic books until I was banned from bringing the “devil’s texts” to school, pretending the icy snow banks were the Planet Hoth from Star Wars and acting out my own imaginary sequel. It sucked.

I don’t recall what I actually learned in elementary school—the standouts were getting kicked in the balls by a young girl for what I have no idea, being put on “probation” for writing “KISS” on a brick using a piece of chalk, and throwing up on my teacher’s desk in second grade because we had to ask to use the bathroom.

“Ms. Cochrane, may I…” followed by a rainbow of bile adjacent to her coffee mug—St. Michael’s was one of the few schools that employed non-Sisters of the Cloth. But I do recall “learning” about the Apollo landing because it was one of the few times where we watched a film, rather than listening to a teacher speak about math or science or Christ. Sister Anne wheeled out the projector and showed us an antiquated short about the landing. I asked in earnest how they got there and was immediately lambasted for the remark not realizing that it was a direct show of my lack of faith. 

“Did you pay attention to the film? That’s the entire point,” she replied before deciding I was trying to “sass” her and administering a punishment for my disobedience. “Two days,” she said, walking to the supply closet in the classroom. “Two days to think about how to be a polite young man.” 

I knew what was coming, I got out of my seat as she propped a refrigerator box around my desk with the top cut out and a “window” that would fold down so that work could be placed in my new cubicle. Because I was disruptive, I would now spend two days in the box but I didn’t really give a shit. I could sit there and draw and would have enough time to hide the sketches as she fumbled with the window. The only drawback was the lighting hurt my eyes and made me dizzy but everything makes you feel off when you’re a kid in a room with no air and fluorescent lighting. 

As an avid comic book reader—even at a young age—I was used to explanations. Superman was an alien orphan with powers gifted to him from his parents. Batman and Iron Man had the bankroll to be strong and brave. Spiderman was bitten by a radioactive insect, and the X-Men were born with mutations that gave them powers but space travel was just rockets and shit? I didn’t get it because we had previously been taught about gravity and sure, rockets could maybe get a large missile-shaped thing out of our atmosphere but how the fuck could that little satellite on top thrust its way back to Earth or even know where to land?

What this did teach me was to not ask questions in parochial school as they rarely were met with any positive dialog. The lunar landing was a miracle much like any of Jesus Christ’s during his time on Earth and believing such was the fastest route to favorable grades and comments on my report card—done and done. 

NASA made sure that space was a thing during the 1980s, leveraging the movies, general outer space oeuvre and interest in science fiction of the time. “If you like Star Trek, you’ll love NASA” or whatever the fuck and there were a new crop of National Heroes waiting to emerge, flying space shuttles to uncharted territories. And there were robots, and E.T., and Spacecamp, Buck Rogers, a movie about people dying in a black hole, Battlestar Galactica, Flash Gordon, and really anything not happening on Planet Earth was really cool.

It was now 1986. My family had moved seven miles north from Lawrence to Salem, New Hampshire, a whiter, “safer,” uniform town devoid of anything other than consumer culture, an amusement park, and a pond that some people lived around. They had what was considered good public schools so I was allowed to attend them. Coming from the strict environment prior it was a blessing and a new start. The year began with the New England Patriots suffering a 46-10 loss to the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XX in Louisiana. The sting was lessened by another Boston Celtics NBA Championship in May but bookended by a Red Sox defeat in October that was cataclysmic to the region. 

The two sports franchise losses were devastating but not life-changing to a young person. I may have lost a few trading cards in a bet or felt the same disappointment of getting a telescope instead of a new BMX for Christmas but it didn’t have any lasting trauma other than feeding the loser mentality of a then Boston sports fan. But on January 28—two days after the Patriots noncompetitive ass-kicking—something much more surreal and impactful occurred that still feels like a fever dream, partially because I had one at the time it occurred.

In 1985, NASA put out a call to teachers to become the first educator in space. Yes, this sounds like a bizarre reality TV plot cooked up by Elon Musk but this was real. Over 11,000 teachers applied and out of the fray, A Boston-born woman named Sharon Christa Corrigan—Christa McAuliffe—teaching 38 miles away from my home in Concord, New Hampshire was selected to join the crew on The Challenger. Being from New Hampshire this not only made her a rockstar, but it also made the entire state champion this milestone in space travel.

Christa McAuliffe was an icon before takeoff. On that day in January, 73-seconds after launch, the first teacher in space failed to earn her title as the shuttle broke apart, exploded and landed in the Atlantic Ocean. It was later revealed that they were possibly conscious during their descent. 

That Tuesday was supposed to be a celebration—redemption from a Super Bowl loss. I was a perpetually sick child and stayed home with some type of cold or flu. I slept through the launch only to turn on the TV and see the intestine shaped explosion loop as the tragedy was detailed. I learned what an O-Ring was. I threw up. I heated up the chicken noodle soup left for me in a ceramic pot by my mother. My relationship with the stars was effectively ended—space is not the place. When I returned to school later that week no one was wearing NASA or New England Patriots T-Shirts. Van Halen would release 5150 that springtheir first album with Sammy Hagar which also felt like an L.

Shortly after I decided I didn’t enjoy pop music or pop culture as it felt like math—charts and formulas that people quantify as taste. Rather than live in a spreadsheet, I decided the fringes had an unpredictable charm. No matter what anyone thought about your interests—music, culture, fashion, literature—they were choices that were emblematic of what you liked, not what you needed to quantify. Life isn’t a commodity so if you only like penny stocks you can only profit. Unfortunately, an affinity for the undervalued makes you a target but it’s also not that big of a deal. Predictive or volatile are the same thing when you don’t give a shit. 

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In 2003 the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated during atmospheric entry. The Red Sox won 95 games, eventually losing to the New York Yankees in the American League Championship series via a walk-off home run by Aaron Boone on the first pitch he saw from knuckleballer Tim Wakefield in the bottom of the eleventh inning. New Yorkers and bandwagon fans were ecstatic, Bostonians were shattered once again. Now living in Brooklyn, New York, a friend asked me the following day what I thought of the game. 

“It only takes one bad pitch,” I replied. What a stupid fucking question but rather than spew anger or “what if” scenarios, I chose to just shut it down. I don’t play for the Red Sox. I don’t bet on sports. I am not invested in outcomes. What did I think about being kicked in the balls or when the local dirt stole my bike, spray painted the entire thing, including the tires white, and refused to admit it was mine and then beat me up? Life sucks. Stupid questions never cease. Whatever.

Numbers are powerful as they are finite. It’s difficult to explain to someone why a piece of art is great or even effective but games are won by numbers. Elections are won by numbers—even if they are confusing or crooked. Being poor or wealthy is simple math—I have X you have Y; if X > Y, I lose. The end. This is the simple line between schools of thought—what you can quantify and what you can glean. Between that is a swamp filled with numbers that have no bottom or top, where some try to connect the crisis of drowning to different digits, patterns, and meanings. Any conspiracy theorist will explain to you the numerology behind our world as if it’s an exact science or code that anyone enlightened can crack. It’s tedious thinking, almost designed to distract people from doing real work or having meaningful interactions with others. I never wanted to see patterns, just outcomes. 

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We met at the edge of the East River on the Brooklyn side. It was what I would call “Old Fall,” when October felt crisp, not sticky. It was 2005. It was not yet East River Park, a place for Condo Conservatives and faux-Liberals to see live music or eat ramen burgers. The waterfront was filled with rusty things, broken things, and rocks, where you could drink… or smoke rocks. 

“I guess I’m lucky,” she said. “I was supposed to meet my brother at his job on Wall Street to get the key to his apartment but he wasn’t feeling well, so I went straight to his place in Kips Bay. Could you imagine if he went to work?”

I didn’t bring up 9/11. I didn’t want to talk or think about 9/11. And I really disliked these types of “what if” lowkey brags. It’s really odd to turn a tragedy into your good fortune. I immediately picked up that she was into astrology, lucky numbers, lucky T-Shirts, superstitions, palm readers, maybe even energy healing—basically all the shit I avoided. Despite being a judgemental twenty-something, instead of answering back, I lit a joint and asked what time she had to work tomorrow. I proceeded to get way too high and forgot how much I didn’t want to be sitting on this boulder with Aimee—yes, she used the alt spelling—for another minute but didn’t want to be a complete asshole despite at least being half an asshole. 

As we walked down Kent Street towards South Williamsburg, my paranoid brain began rewinding little comments I had tossed out, mentally debating if I sounded too harsh. I decided that the pivot was to get us out of what I call the “two people in a room” dynamic, even if we were on an empty street lined with brick factory buildings and construction sites. We made a left and bounded towards Rosemary’s Greenpoint Tavern which was technically in Williamsburg but more importantly, sold cheap beer in large styrofoam cups and was usually bustling on weeknights due to said affordable beverages.

We got drunk and laughed at the last Electroclash couple standing in the corner of the bar. I had forgotten that what I liked about Aimee was that she was also kind of an asshole and we enjoyed ripping on the same things, perhaps out of the fear that we were the tropes we feared as cuspy Gen Xers living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in the early-2000s. 

After hearing two AC/DC songs in a row we decided GPT was too aggressive and opted for her apartment on North 7th street which didn’t really have a living room and lacked a sink in the bathroom. Having reached my yellow beer tipping point, I asked to use the lavatory but neglected to knock first, opening the door on her roommate Claire who was taking an actual shit. Claire had a Motörhead, Brooklyn—not England—tattoo on her thigh with the skull eating a slice of pepperoni pizza. She was the kind of loud person who overemphasized taking a well shot when she got a combo special and said fuck a lot, so it wasn’t surprising when she just laughed and said, “Can’t a girl shit in peace,” instead of freaking out as I stared mortified. 

Aimee grabbed my arm and instructed me to just piss in a bottle in her room, facing the wall of course, which reminded me of nothing cool. I did. We listened to Leonard Cohen as she chain-smoked out the window next to her bed and made plans to spend Thanksgiving Day together, “no matter what” as she had to bartend and baited me with a Friendsgiving potluck that promised a lot of food and weed brownies. Even though this was still a single-digit hangout, I was impressed by her forecasting and the sting of my projection that she was “luck obsessed” dulled. Sure, Aimee potentially believed that every human born on the same day had the same personality traits but I liked her personality traits and she hadn’t done my chart yet so it was fine. 

The next morning I popped out to a bodega to get coffee and a Diet Coke for her. The idea of drinking soda before noon was strongly against my DNA but I didn’t want to be a killjoy and I enjoyed the way she said “thaaaaaank youuuu,” very slowly when she was impressed by my budget acts of chivalry. I slyly grabbed the piss bottle on the way out and headed home, purposely walking under a construction ladder out of defiance, only to have a pigeon shit on my shoulder. It would have been whichever misused adjective you’re thinking of but I didn’t notice the thick white streak until I put the jacket back on that afternoon. 

I never spent Thanksgiving with Aimee. Her boss lost a noise complaint battle with the neighbors, resulting in the city shutting down her place of employment unbeknownst to any of its employees. Of course, it was Aimee who showed up to the bolted and gated storefront, keys in hand, only to read the neon closure proclamation as she fired off unanswered call after call from a flip phone to her boss. “As luck would have it,” I liked her and she was now moving back to suburban Illinois at the behest of her father who had grown tired of her “New York lifestyle,” Aimee informed me over two-for-one happy hour beers that she was going to move home to be the bookkeeper for dad’s construction business—a position that sounded imaginary. 

I left the bar with a buzz and a bit of garish lipstick on my face. Eyes fixated on the ground, I scanned the bricks of the sidewalk until a white envelope that read “Apt. 3R November” broke the grid. I picked it up and found $800 cash. Like any decent human, I faux-looked for clues as to whose money this was. There we none. I realized it was mine and promptly headed into Manhattan to buy weed.