My eyes pop open and I jolt upright, causing me to fall off my couch and onto the floor.
The TV is on, the sun is blaring and I’m still dressed in yesterday’s clothes.
I don’t know what time it is, what day I’m in or what type of shit I’ve done but what I do know is that while I was passed-out someone hammered a giant railroad spike into the back of my skull and whoever that person was they also brought along their cat so it could shit in my mouth.
I crawl around on all fours looking for my phone, finding it lodged between the couch’s cushions next to a couple of beer bottles, a pack of cigarettes and an empty Doritos bag.
That must’ve been some rager last night.
I turn on my phone and it tells me today is Friday and the time is 9:20 in the a.m.
I scratch my head and yawn as a vague feeling comes over me that there’s something important about today but since my brain is still swimming in the sea of alcohol I consumed I can’t quite put my finger on it.
And then it smacks me upside the head and I remember the significance of today, the weight of it all falling on me like a downpour of a million Honey Boo Boos.
My practical exam is today and it starts in 10 minutes…and it takes me 20 minutes to get to school.
I jump to my feet and lose my balance, falling into my coffee table and sending all the bottles on it flying as well as a torrent of obscenities loud enough to wake the neighbors.
I cautiously get back up and try to figure out what I need to do in order to get out the door.
Since I’m in yesterday’s clothes and my shoes are still on that means I’m already dressed so that’s out of the way.
I look in the mirror and my hair is a mess but that’s nothing new so I’m good on that front too.
The only thing left is that I need to brush my teeth to get the taste of feline feces out of my mouth so I run to the bathroom and scrub them then follow it up with a huge shot of Listerine, swishing it as I run out to my car.
I race through the streets like the cops are chasing me, running red lights and blaring my horn at any pedestrians stupid enough to cross my path.
As I get within a block of school I realize I’m still swishing the Listerine so I hit my window button but just as I expunge the mouthwash the window gets stuck due to the advanced stages of ruin my car is in.
This results in the window and my shirt being covered in minty green goo.
I screech into the parking garage at exactly 9:30 a.m., leap out of my car with my hair kit in tow and run to the school, bursting through its doors at 9:31 a.m.
My model who is a friend of a friend and only agreed to do this on the condition that I buy her lunch and drinks afterwards is sitting in the waiting area tapping her foot and looking annoyed.
I say hello and grab her by the hand, leading her onto The Floor where everyone but me is set-up with their models and ready to go.
I find a spot next to Bode, have my model sit down and start throwing my things onto the station.
Charlie is on the other side of the room with a clipboard, checking each student’s station set-up to make sure it’s in accordance with state sanitation guidelines.
“You okay?” Bode asks as I set my shit up at a break-neck pace.
“Yeah, just drank a ‘lil too much last night.” I tell him while grabbing supplies out of my kit.
“You feel ok?”
“You know when a little kid colors a picture in a coloring book and it’s got all those wild strokes of color outside the lines?”
“I feel how that picture looks.” I tell him as I finish getting my station ready.
“You think you’ll do ok today?” he asks concerned as Charlie makes her way down our row.
I look at myself in the mirror.
My eyes are bloodshot, my shirt is stained with Dorito dust and mouthwash and I have a dumb expression tattooed on my face.
“Sure?” I say shrugging my shoulders.
“Good morning.” Charlie chirps as she inspects Bode’s station and I make last-minute adjustments to mine in an attempt to make it look like his because he always has his act together and me, well, I’m always me, forever a liability unto myself.
“Looks good.” Charlie tells him with a smile as she jots a score down on her clipboard then turns to me.
“Good morning, Stuke.”
“Hi, Charlie.” I tell her.
She scrunches her nose up and sniffs the air.
“Do you smell that?”
“Something smells like…a distillery…and mouthwash.”
“I’ve never been to a distillery so I don’t know what one smells like but I did have a mouthwash incident on the way here so that’s on me, literally.”
“Stuke…you’re not drunk are you?” she probes, putting her face so close to mine that I can smell her bubblegum breath.
“No, but let’s say I was.”
“This exam is meant to simulate real working conditions and it’s unsafe to be working on a client with tools and chemicals if you’re impaired, so if you were intoxicated it could threaten your chances of passing.”
“Well I promise you I’m not only sober but I’m also safe.” I say, leaning up against my model as the chair she’s in swivels causing me to fall on top of her.
“Sorry about that.” I say as I straighten myself up and she gives me a dirty look.
“Let’s hope so because I really want you to pass.” Charlie says with a look of apprehension.
She inspects my station, puts a mark on her clipboard and then strolls to the center of The Floor.
“Ok, everyone since your models are starting off with dry hair, our first procedure will be sectioning them for a perm. You have 10 minutes to complete this task.”
I start on my model and struggle with my coordination because my entire nervous system is saturated in booze. I end up doing a haphazard job and finishing up just as Charlie yells out “Time.”
She makes her way up and down the rows, grading everyone’s sectioning and then having them recite the 19-steps to a perm.
“Ok, Stuke…” she says as she grades my less than stellar perm sectioning. “Let’s hear your 19 steps.”
I open my mouth and…
I take a deep breath and try again.
“Uhhhh…” is all that comes out.
“I know you know the steps.”
“I know I know them too but my mind is drawing a total blank right now.”
“But we’ve been over them like a million times in class.”
“Well then can I use one of those million times as a credit right now?”
“It doesn’t work like that.”
I try again.
“Uhhhh….you know what?”
“No one has gotten a perm since the cast of Different Strokes was alive and relevant so is it really that important for me to know the steps in doing one?” I ask in a last-ditch effort to wiggle out of this web I’ve weaved myself in.
“I know they aren’t popular but it’s part of the school’s curriculum and if you can’t complete this then it could fail you.”
I stand there wondering if all the headway I’ve made since I started was about to be undone due to the fact that I couldn’t recite the 19 steps of performing an ancient and antiquated service.
Was I going to be forced to repeat Core because my mind had suddenly locked-up and kept me from saying something I’d said countless times before without issue?
I felt panic and then I felt pissed as a deep and disappointing anger came over me.
I was angry that I’d allowed myself to drink so much last night and angry that this time might be the time that I really fucked myself with my recklessness behavior.
“C’mon, Stuke.” Charlie says, looking at her watch. “We’ve got a lot more to get to.”
“Ok.” I tell her, wondering how I’m going to pull something off that isn’t on in the first place.
And then Bode starts humming the melody to Danger Zone, the song we’d put the perm steps to a few weeks ago.
I close my eyes and listen to it then fall effortlessly into singing the steps like some idiot savant, making it all the way to the end without missing a step or saying it out of order.
“Made it through with your wingman.” Charlie says, making another mark on her clipboard.
The next procedures we’re tasked with are single and double color process applications followed by highlighting a section of the head, all with using conditioner.
As the haze of my hangover intensifies I have a challenging time getting through all of these things because my hands are shaking, my head is throbbing and my vision is murky.
And while I’m miraculously able to keep from getting conditioner all over everyone the actual quality of my work looks sloppy at best and shit-god-awful at worst, especially when it comes to my highlights.
“Your foils aren’t snug against the scalp nor are they folded securely.” Charlie chides. “If this were actual color or bleach they’d have bled all over the client and made a mess.” she says while putting a grade down on her clipboard and kicking me down another notch or ten.
After this she has us wash our models and then blow dry them. She makes her way up and down the rows one final time, grading everyone on their styling skills.
“Ok! Congrats on making it through your practical, everyone! Break down your stations and then take an hour lunch and meet back in the Core Room for your results.”
Bode and I along with our models head to a restaurant where I follow through on my promise to buy my model food and booze while I nurse a beer to combat the hangover and stare off into space.
“You ok?” Bode asks.
“No, I’m upset with myself for getting wasted last night and I feel like I blew the exam and endangered my chances of passing Core.”
“Don’t worry about it, dude. You’re gonna pass this thing and be fine.”
“You know, here’s the thing, even if I do pass it I’m still going to feel like I’m not ready to be out on The Floor. Sure, there’s a couple things I do ok with but I still feel like I’m miles behind everyone else and that I’ll just be a god-damn disaster once I’m out there taking clients. I mean maybe it’s better if I do have to take Core over again…”
Bode gives me a comforting smile.
“I’ve always saw you as the dark horse.”
“The dark horse. The one that no one counts on winning but comes up from behind and takes the gold, surprising everyone. I see that promise in you so just have faith because you’re gonna be golden, I know it.” He says, putting an arm around me and hugging me tight.
I wanna break-down right there in front of our models, strangers and wait staff.
I wanna bawl not only because I’m upset that I’d let myself down but also because over the course of these past six weeks I’d somehow met people so good that they were always ready to help pull me back up.
“Thank you…” I tell him as I bury my head in his chest and squeeze him back. “For everything.”
“I’m your brother.” he says.
We hang out at the restaurant for a while longer then bid our models farewell as we head back to the Core room.
“Alright, guys…” Charlie says, holding in her hands the results of our exams which will not only determine the fate of our scholastic endeavor but also determine if some of us (namely myself) will go home and put our head in the oven. “Just like yesterday I’ll have you come up one at a time for your scores.”
She calls a few people, each one of them telegraphing that they passed by the expression on their face. Then she calls me.
I force myself out of my chair and walk up to her in complete and utter dread.
“Thanks.” I say as she hands me my results. I take a deep breath and then look at my score…it’s a pass and I immediately feel a huge relief as if I’ve just given birth.
She then hands out the remainder of the results to the rest of the class, none of whom failed. We had all survived and completed Core.
“I couldn’t be more proud of you guys.” Charlie says, catching her breath and dabbing at her eyes. “Starting next week you’re no longer mine, you’re no longer Core babies, you’re all Adaptives now, advancing on the next stage of your journey.”
Everyone claps and a few of us hug each other, glad that this whole thing is over.
“It’s going to be a whole different game now…” Charlie warns. “More will be expected of you since you’re taking actual clients. That means the stakes will be higher and the pressure greater but I know you’ll all do amazing and please remember that I’m always here for you.”
Charlie suggests that we spend the rest of the day shadowing other Future Professionals working on clients out on The Floor and as everyone makes their way out of the room Charlie shouts at me.
“Can I have a minute?”
She waits until it’s just us in the room.
“As your Learning Leader, watching you advance and grow during your time in Core has been so gratifying.”
“Thank you, Charlie.”
“But also as your Learning Leader I know your capability and I know you could’ve performed better on your practical today…a lot better.”
“I know, I just-“
“Listen…” she says, cutting me off.
“You have so much potential but I also have a feeling you have just as much self-destructiveness which can cause you to sabotage yourself, and sooner or later you’re going to do something you won’t be able to recover from. I know you were fucked-up during your practical today and I could’ve failed you for it.”
“What stopped you?”
“What stopped me was that I know you have the ability to become something great, there’s something special about you that shines when it wants to and I didn’t want to risk stifling that. I also know the burden of being haunted by one’s darkness, one of my best friends is an amazing artist and person who also struggles with substance abuse.”
This was the first time I’d heard someone categorize me as a substance abuser.
All my life I’d considered my drinking just that…drinking.
I drank to have fun, take the edge off, or more recently, kill pain but it was always something I felt I could quit at any time so I didn’t need to worry about quitting. Substance abusers were the ones that couldn’t quit.
They were the crackheads, cokeheads and junkies that were chewed up beyond recognition, lying, cheating and stealing for their next hit, bump or fix.
But hearing Charlie refer to me as one sent a sobering chill down my spine, making me reevaluate my relationship with alcohol, questioning if I did have a habit of going too far and losing control, two things associated with the act of abuse.
“As artists we have a darkness to us, just remember that it can push you forward or push you down and if you don’t control it, it WILL control you…and eventually destroy you, ok?”
“Ok.” I tell her, bowing my head.
“When you get out on The Floor next week it’s going to be a whole different animal and that animal will devour you if you don’t stay focused and disciplined and it would break my heart to see that happen to you. So promise me that you’ll do better because you deserve better.” she says, gently placing her hand up against my face.
“I promise, Charlie.”
“Good, run to your destiny.”