Growing up, I wasn’t allowed to watch violent tv shows, but I watched Breaking Bad anyway. I practically had to since it was all anybody was talking about at school and I didn’t want to be left out. My brother had been left out in high school when he lived with us before he was committed to the state mental institution at age thirty-five. So every Sunday evening I’d lie about finishing my homework and steal away up to my room and watch the latest episode on mute, with the subtitles on, and my finger poised over the last channel button. I’d write down my favorite lines and during the commercial breaks, I’d practice them for school. When the lunch bell rang on Monday, I ran to the lunch tables and staked out a spot close to the lunch line so I could chat with whoever might be waiting there. I wasn’t unpopular; everyone knew my name, but if you asked them to tell you one thing they knew about me, they’d only be able to say they knew I liked Breaking Bad.
But Breaking Bad was a trend. So when the show finally wrapped, I was left with nothing to talk about. Luckily, I had graduated in May and didn’t have to make as much small talk to be popular as a college kid. I had some wild times in college but was able to rein it in to get my degree in Drama. With my new degree under my belt, I went to LA with the hopes of meeting Bryan Cranston and being cast in a Breaking Bad spin-off. I tried out for Better Call Saul but got rejected. It didn’t have to be Breaking Bad, I conceded. I just wanted to be in anything with that gritty style of guns, cash, and drugs. I tried out for Narcos and was rejected too. I didn’t mind. I worked my day job at the cafe and bided my time waiting for my big break.
After a few dozen rejections, I started to get desperate. I tried out for commercials and daytime tv where I was rejected as a caballero selling auto insurance, rejected as a janitor on a teen drama and denied as a spurned lover on a soap opera. I started to think that my dream of blowing someone away with an uzi on national television might never come true. With every rejection, I became more desperate. I began looking for acting gigs on Craigslist and that is where I found my first and only acting job.
I was cast as DRUG SMUGGLER 1 for an indy film about the cocaine trade. I never got the name of the casting director. I only knew them as email@example.com. Through Cokeandguns1, I began to understand more about the movie Coke And Guns, though there wasn’t much to know. It was a short film about a drug bust gone wrong, shot using hidden cameras to give the movie a “real life” feel.
“Cool”, I responded. “When do I start?”
Cokeandguns1 told me that there would be a truck with a key in the wheel well parked and ready for me behind an old Mexican Restaurant downtown called La Cabaña. I arrived an hour early and ate a wet burrito while I waited. When I went around back, the keys were in the wheel well of a box truck just like they were supposed to be. The job was simple: I was to drive the truck 20 miles down the freeway to a warehouse district where I would unload boxes with children’s electronic toys that were lined with movie cocaine.
I was on the freeway for three minutes before I was pulled over by the CHP. The officer’s arm trembled as he leveled his gun at me. “Out of the car,” he barked. I exited with my hands up, chuckling and saying, “there’s been a mistake.” Before I knew it, I was on the ground. As I waited the officer went through my wallet. “Heh, Felix Hernandez,” he snickered. “Yeah right.” Within 15 minutes, the DEA was on the scene. In another 15 minutes, they had recovered a massive amount of cocaine from the truck. “Real cocaine,” one of the agents assured me, licking the substance off the edge of his knife.
The court proceedings were brief. I thought I could easily beat the case by showing my emails with Cokeandguns1, but somehow they had been deleted. Within a month, I was tried and sentenced to 20 years in prison. And when the verdict broke, I had nobody to comfort me in the courtroom since my parents had died a few years back. With no evidence to clear my name and without anyone advocating for me on the outside, I went to prison for what I thought would be the rest of my life.
In prison, I was quickly caught in the middle. On the one hand, everyone wanted me dead cause I was a member of the cartel and, on the other hand, the cartel wanted me dead because I wasn’t one of them. Like any sane person, I found sanctuary in the library. The hardcovers and prison guards shielded me just enough. I don’t mean to say I escaped the violence unscarred, but I gave as much as I took until the gangs found a new toy and left me alone.
In the library, I discovered new worlds. The first was Alice in Wonderland. I loved that book. I loved how the world shifted as I read it. I started pretending that I could grow big and small. I started pretending I was just one big smile like the Cheshire Cat.
After a brief time of reading only children’s books, I decided that I needed to broaden my scope. I’m not terribly smart, but I did go to college, so I thought I’d try my hand at all the big, challenging books I had heard of but not cared to read in school. Gravity’s Rainbow and Ulysses were first on my list. In these books, I learned to love how the mind could be portrayed like a kind of Rubix cube, with all the thoughts and memories locking into place and forming patterns. I sought out more writing like this. Waves by Virginia Woolfe. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. Before long, I started to see my own life as a Rubik’s cube, but the thoughts and memories were not my own. They were borrowed from Breaking Bad. From that moment on, every waking moment was a manic rush to discover who I really was.
After 10 years and 10,000 books, I still didn’t know who I was. It seemed that I was just an accumulation of everything that I consumed and that there really was no original part of me. Having read all the books, magazines, and newspapers in the library, I was left drifting. Aimlessly, I wandered through the next seven years, letting no person and no word leave an impression on me. I blacked out all those long years and when I came to I was back where I started, back to stocking shelves in the library. In my hand, there was a book I had never seen before entitled An Honest Recollection by D. Vanderskoot. I wasn’t familiar with its author either. Inside the book, most of the words were obscured by blocks of ink. I would have to report this. Writing in the books was not only prohibited but also in very poor taste.
As I was turning away from the bookcase a flash of light caught my eye. Deep in the back of the bookcase, there was a hole chiseled in the concrete. In the hole, there was a small golden kaleidoscope. I was supposed to report any found objects but found the kaleidoscope to be in good taste and pocketed it instead. As a token of appreciation to the person’s stash which I had just raided, I put An Honest Recollection back on the bookshelf. Even if it didn’t make sense to me, it made sense to someone. Otherwise, why would it be there?
I left the library and went out to the yard. I felt all eyes flash onto me for the briefest moment before completely ignoring me again. Like an inept driver of a car running a red light, they just kept going. I was free, at least for the moment, to be myself. I jogged out to the furthest part of the small yard and tilted my head to the distance. I raised the scope to my eye and saw the zenith reflected eight ways to Sunday. Green, blue, and white splotches whirled around with the rise and fall of my quickening breath.
This was the moment I had been waiting for.
In the kaleidoscope, what I saw didn’t make sense, but I was the only person seeing it and if it made sense to anyone, it made sense to me. And in that thought, I found myself because, despite the layers and layers of influences that led me to try and act a certain way, no matter who I took cues from, in the beginning, middle, and end of every day, what I saw, what I perceived, all of my experiences were solely mine. And even if I am only a composite of the ideas that inspire me, what I see through my kaleidoscope is really my own vision.
The kaleidoscope was stolen from me on my way back to the library, along with one of my eyes. That was many years ago now. I’ve been out of prison for as long as I was in and I’ve experienced many other odd evils of this world. I’ve been taught how to see this world over and over again. But, despite it all, to this day I can still see the world spinning before me just as it did all those years ago, as if for my delight alone.