87. Ryan “Nikko” Shemanski, Vagrant

“What did I do wrong?”

“This is all my doing.” True or not, it is something Nikko firmly believes. People who spend any time with him hear that refrain over and over. Another thing Nikko says a lot: “What’s wrong with me? Why am I living like this? What did I do wrong? Am I being punished for something?” Nikko seems to think so. On the surface, Nikko had an uneventful, even privileged childhood. His father was a respected bank manager; his mother, a housewife who volunteered at the local hospital thrift shop. But the truth is Nikko’s childhood was one terrible event after another. The most memorable for Nikko was his sister Faith’s attempted suicide. Faith survived but insisted on leaving home after they discharged her from psychiatric evaluation, returning only when she had no other choice. Another memorable event for Nikko was his brother Rodney’s car crash. Roddy still limps badly from his injuries. And, then, there was his mother’s sudden death from falling down a set of stairs. And through it all, there were his father’s unpredictable episodes of extreme rage. One happened when Nikko was sitting out in the backyard with a couple of friends and his father came out with a belt and began whipping Nikko for leaving his room a mess. Another involved Nikko playing music his father thought too loud. And there was the time Nikko was doing homework with one of the girls in his class in the family dining room. Without warning, Nikko’s father came in screaming, grabbed him by the hair and smashed his head on the table, called the young lady he was studying with a whore, and ripped up their homework. When talking about these things, Nikko will – by way of explaining his current situation – go on and on about people who did him in and destroyed his life. “They had it in for me. That’s for sure. What choice did I have?” By the time he was 13, Nikko was showing signs of trouble ahead. He became very quiet, avoided friendships, and went from being a good student to one that had to be held back. His guidance counselor recommended psychotherapy. The first referral did not work well. A middle-aged, former physical education teacher whose chief therapy was push-ups and admonitions to “straighten up and be a man” did not sit well with Nikko. In the middle of the first therapy session, Nikko got up, mumbled something about a bus being late, and left. The guidance counselor was very upset with Nikko about this “resistance” and against her better judgement referred Nikko to Mrs. Marsh, a new therapist who seemed too attractive to assign to adolescent boys. And that’s when Nikko seemed to have a bit of lucky. She was patient, cheery, and always had a piece of candy. Nikko loved her, not just because she was young and female and he was an adolescent boy, but because she listened, took him seriously, and seemed to understand him. His grades picked up. He seemed to have a penchant for math and was soon in an advanced placement class, learning calculus and differential equations. But he was still skittish about friendships. And was miserable at home, never knowing when his father might fly into a rage. After he graduated high school, he went to a local commuter college on a partial scholarship. After graduation, he got a job as a junior actuary which gave him the chance to move away from home. And for a while, things were more peaceful in his life than they had ever been. He was back seeing his favorite therapist, began having a bit of a social life, and was thinking about taking a vacation. But one night, his sister, Faith, called and asked to visit. She was still living at home and had just dropped out of junior college. She said she was depressed. Faith showed up looking a wreck. Underweight, unkempt, and strangely jumpy. She had a bruise on her left cheek. She went right to Nikko’s new couch sat down with her arms wrapped tightly around her, shivering and saying nothing. Nikko gave her one of his favorite donuts. After a while, she began to talk. And the more she talked, the angrier Nikko got. He began to understand what had gone on in his family home since Faith was five years old. She stayed for a month, maybe two before she went to live with a boyfriend. At least, that’s what Nikko thinks she did. Nikko says most of his memories from that time are hazy. Nonetheless, he claims to recall three things vividly. During the first week his sister stayed with him, his father showed up, demanding to take her home. There was a fight. Nikko says he remembers grabbing the old man, calling him a child molesting pervert, and pushing him out of the apartment. He also recalls how his father lost his balance, fell over a garbage can, and ended up sprawled on the sidewalk before getting up and storming off. A second thing Nikko remembers from that time is his father’s death – a heart attack they said. Nikko says he went to the memorial service but when people stood up and began describing his father as deeply religious, caring, and generous, Nikko couldn’t take it and left. And the last thing Nikko remembers about that time is cocaine. Back then, Faith was a serious user. Nikko tried it and liked it. And, Nikko says, everything came apart after that. He’s been on the streets now for maybe fifteen years.

82. Sheila McKluskey, On Vacation

“The Flower Lady”

Twenty-five years after graduating business school, Sheila was between jobs. She had left one job to take another. But there was some sort of delay in when her new job would start. So, she did something she hadn’t done since graduation. She took a vacation. Not that Sheila could not have taken a vacation before. She just couldn’t get herself to do it. As she would readily admit, during much of her business career, she had been a bit of a workaholic and very much a control freak. And an anxiety junkie.  “No one can figure out how to do my job. So, if I take time off, there’s just going to be double work and a big hassle when I get back. It’s just not worth it. And, anyway, I’d just worry all the time.”  But somehow, being between jobs, things seemed different. So, after sitting around her apartment for two days, she packed a bag, got a cab, headed for the airport, and grabbed the first plane she could to San Francisco. Why San Francisco? Sheila had no idea. Her friend, Christine, had been there and had what she called an “interesting time.” Sheila wasn’t sure what Christine’s “interesting time” might have been. Christine had always struck her as a bit odd and. anyway, didn’t seem too keen to explain.  It turned out that Sheila had a terrific time in San Francisco. Not that she did anything much except wander and just look around. Sheila was like an invisible, visiting Martian, looking but not really touching. And after three weeks, she headed home, called her new job and told them that she needed to start as soon as possible. She had had about all the vacation she could stand. Or so she thought. Six months in to her new job, she quit. And, when they asked whether she was going to another company, she said, “No. Not going anywhere else. Nope. Nowhere else.” Everyone told her she was nuts. She had a great job. They loved her at her new company. And quitting seemed so self-destructive and out-of-character for her. Her friends and her human resource director pointed out, if you leave a job after six months, there’s no severance or anything. And it’s something hard to explain to anyone who might think about hiring you in the future. Her boss suggested that she take a couple of weeks off, get a physical, maybe see a therapist, and come back to start again. And like everyone else, her boss, who was genuinely concerned, asked, “What are you going to do?” But Sheila knew exactly what she was going to do. She was going on vacation. This time for good.  Over the years, she had built up a decent pile of money. She had no obligations. No family. She did some figuring and budgeting and realized that she really didn’t need to work anymore, if she didn’t want to work anymore. And she didn’t. First off, she went to France. Paris. She liked it. She did pretty much what she’d done in San Francisco. She wandered around. Talked to hardly anyone. Came back three weeks later. Headed to Houston. Left after two weeks. Then, she went to Montreal. She met a man there. Stayed for two months. That, Sheila would agree, was “interesting.” But unusual for her. And never repeated. For the most part, wherever she went, she remained an invisible, visiting Martian, just wandering and looking. One vacation after another. But on one trip – her last trip, it turned out – something happened. She wouldn’t say what. But when she got back, she bought a house in a small town in Vermont. It was a sight-unseen, all cash sale. Locals thought her, “Friendly enough but not very talky.” After a while, she got to be known as the “flower lady,” because every spring and all through the summer and early fall she would wander around collecting wildflowers in an old basket. And then, one day, they didn’t see her for a while. Eventually, they found her and her basket where she had sat down to rest during one of her flower-gathering walks. Her eyes were closed. Done with wandering and looking.