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Freak like me

Learning to embrace the outcast within

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I find it infuriating that Michael refuses to admit he's a freak. First, at 6-foot-7, he's so tall he doesn't fit in a lot of places. Like he didn't fit on the cramped upper floor of the first restaurant he bought here 10 years ago with his two siblings (both of whom Michael likes to believe would be living on abandoned mattresses under a freeway overpass if not for him, by the way). And he doesn't fit in the bathroom of my house, either, complaining the only way he can sit on the toilet is to fold up his mantis-like legs and hang his feet into the tub.

I'm adamantly unsympathetic. We were both equally poor when we met a decade ago, when Michael was waiting tables at his own restaurant, now the Vortex chain. But just look at us today, Michael and me; me with my tiny house in a crack neighborhood with a bathroom as big as my bed, and Michael with his chain of restaurants and his mansion on eight acres with a bathroom big enough to be used as a cult compound. "I swear," I grumbled at him while freeloading at his Midtown location, "you are such a freak."

"Retard," he snapped back, hardly distracted from his task, which was to build a big go-go cage. That's right, a go-go cage, where girls in fur bikinis can undulate over people trying to dine. Michael all of a sudden figured this was the one thing missing at one particular restaurant location, so he immediately brought in a bunch of electric saws and drills from his truck and started tearing up the place over by the bar, where there were people eating, I might add.

OK, maybe not eating, but there were people drinking with menus nearby. Or at least I was, because Michael had bought me a margarita to remind me why I still stand him. That's my boy, just because he's rich doesn't mean he's forgotten about the dregs he left behind in the cesspool. Anyway, the go-go cage didn't fit where it needed to fit, but he didn't take my advice, which was to give up and use the failure as an excuse to soak his head in hooch. Instead, Michael did what he always does, and what I think separates a person like him -- who has never easily fit in anywhere his entire life -- from the tidal wave of plebes who constitute the average human morass, and that is this: He carved a hunk out of an obstruction so he could accommodate his vision of how things should be.

God! I seriously hate admitting I envy him for his ability to do that. I can't remember ever doing that, not consciously anyway. I'm the great giver-upper, I've decided ever since I uncovered an old letter I wrote when I was 6 that my sister sent me along with a sack of other mementos from our childhoods. She'd heard I'd regretted not saving such stuff myself, having thrown it all away a decade-and-a-half ago because I didn't have room for it in my apartment, I thought. It didn't fit into my life, I thought.

This letter, written in red crayon, espoused some pretty simple dreams for the future. "I wanna be ..." I had written over and over, misspellings rampant. I wanted to be a tennis player on TV, I wanted to be a "pricess," a "moofy star," a "book riter." "I wanna be," I finished, "ever thing I wanna be."

Christ, what a contrast to today, when all I wanna do is lie down, it seems, because even sitting on the sidelines and watching a friend build something is too exhausting. It's all in my head, Michael says. He has always said that. For 10 years he has been telling me that. "I wanna be ...." I told him way back when. "What the hell's stopping you?" he laughed then and still laughs now.

I suppose Michael and I are kindred in that we're both freaks, but he'll pound out a place for himself while I'm content with letting people purge me from their circle. For example, at 14 I got fired from my first job at an ice-cream parlor because my co-workers were sick of me sitting around seriously -- and out loud -- wondering what it felt like to be bit in half by a shark. If that happened to Michael, he would have opened his own ice-cream parlor. He would have served shark shakes. He figured out a long time ago he didn't fit on the same train with everyone else, so he's accustomed to building his own tracks.

I am, too, but only because I'm one of those people whose search for someone to follow came up empty. See? I can't even take credit for my individuality because I came at it reluctantly, unlike Michael, who relishes his freak status to the point that he refuses to concede that he even is one. I'd copy him if I could, but that's not possible, so I make my way with the 6-year-old I used to be still haunting my thoughts. I wanna be, I wanna be, I hear her whisper in my ear on occasion, but graciously she has added to the list. I wanna be fine, she sometimes says now, fine with my freak-ass self.

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