The photograph is of a young, bloated white kid with a buzz cut and a weary smile. The photo is hazy from the professional retouching to hide the pimples that line his face and neck. He is ten, maybe twenty, pounds overweight and his eyes are glazed over. Underneath, there is a quote:
“Veni, vidi, vici.”
This phrase is in Latin, a dead language that is no longer spoken outside of academia, and rarely seen in places other than diplomas, law books, and dollar bills. The phrase means “I came, I saw, I conquered.” The tense of the phrase is first-person perfect: There is no mistaking that the speaker is the person who has come, seen, and conquered, and there is no doubt as to the task’s completion.
Julius Caesar wrote this famous phrase in 47 BC after the completion of his battle with Pharnaces in the city of Zela. This conflict, called the Battle of Zela, took place in the midst of The Great Roman Civil War, sometimes called Caesar’s Civil War. The phrase’s simple construction was meant to convey the swiftness and completeness of Rome’s victory.
This was me at 17, when I graduated from high school with a 2.33 GPA and one extracurricular activity of note, two years of varsity baseball.
At a dance in seventh grade, I was introduced through a mutual friend to a Filipino girl named Angie. She had olive skin and long black hair that reached halfway down her back. She looked like Pocahontas, but I wasn’t brave enough to tell her that. I was, however, brave enough to tell her she was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen, and at twelve years old it was true, truer than most things I’d said until then or said since. That night, we exchanged our parents’ home phone numbers and talked until four in the morning. I sat on the cold floor of my parents’ kitchen clutching our corded telephone, and she lay in her bed, holding her fancy cordless phone, across the city but not sounding an inch away from me. I loved her that night and for years after.
Whenever her parents and older brother left her home alone that summer she called me, and I got a ride to her house. We talked and kissed and had sex and fell asleep in each other’s arms, the sun from her bedroom window warming our young, virtually hairless, undeveloped bodies. Half the time we didn’t use condoms, and when we did, I used Magnums to try to impress her. They were so loose they would almost slip off.
When we heard the front door open, I would put on my clothes and jump out her bedroom window over her family’s trash cans, usually twisting an ankle or ripping my clothes, and run through her neighbor’s yards until I reached the next main street. I would then walk home, about three miles. On the days I missed her too much on the walk home, I called her from my mom’s flip cell phone, and we would continue our last conversation as though we were still lying next to each other.
One sunny afternoon, she traced the outline of my lips with her brown index finger.
“I love you, Conor,” she said. “And I love your lips. You’ve got such big lips for a white boy. I bet you’re part black.”
I know now that girlfriends exaggerate the sizes of things, but I did not know that then. That night I stared into my bathroom mirror for quite a long time and wondered why, before now, nobody had brought these tremendous lips to my attention.
Angie broke up with me before we went to high school, telling me that it would be too hard to stay together in such a new environment. She wanted to expand her horizons. “Whatever makes you happy,” I told her. The high schools we ended up going to were no more than a mile away from each other.
When I started high school, a few new classmates of mine who had gone to middle school with Angie asked if we had sex. I didn’t want to develop a reputation as a liar, so I told them. She quickly got word and after school one day, walked down to confront me with some of her girlfriends. They found me in our asphalt parking lot in a group of my new classmates.
“Conor! You’re telling people we had sex? Why would I have sex with you?!” she screamed at me.
The group I was standing in parted.
“What?” I asked her.
“You heard me! Why would I have sex with you?”
My new classmates started laughing at me.
“We did!” I yelled, my eyes welling with tears. “We did, we did, we did, we did! I’m not a liar!”
“Why would I even touch you, Conor?” she said. “You chubby-ass, pizza-faced motherfucker?!”
They laughed and laughed. I sweated and I stuttered and walked away to my bus stop with my head down, and later that night, in my bedroom where nobody could see me, I broke down and cried. I was broken. She broke me.
When I started high school, I only knew three people in my class. I had sustained multiple concussions playing football the year before, so I wasn’t medically cleared to try out for the freshman football team. Nearly every other freshman did. By the end of the first month, I didn’t know many more than those three people, and had a reputation as a liar because of the Angie Incident.
One day, I was lucky enough to find a group of people willing to talk to me. I was having a conversation with a group of classmates who happened to be black.
“Look at Mandela’s African ass. He ain’t black, he full midnight,” one of them said, pointing and laughing at another black freshman who walked by.
We all laughed. It felt good to laugh at somebody else.
One of the guys turned on me, though. “Rather be dark like him than white like you, though!”
Then, in response, the most awful, disgusting racial comment came out of my mouth.
“You know I’m part black, right?” I said, assured they would see what Angie saw. They stopped laughing. “Yeah, if you need proof just look at these lips.”
Now, I am a white person of mostly Irish descent. As a fourth-generation Irish-American, I’m not even Irish. I am a Honkey to the highest degree and my lips didn’t convince anyone otherwise. I told them I was 1/16th black. My classmates did not believe me and mockingly called me 1/16th. High school freshmen, by and large, are not clever.
The majority of the white students shunned me from this moment on, but the black students mostly didn’t mind my presence. I began spending my allowance on baggier clothes and Air Force One sneakers. They buzzed their hair short and squared their hairlines, so I did, too. Most of my new black friends smoked weed so I did, too. Well, I shouldn’t say that we were friends. They were just the guys who let me follow them around and play dress-up. I was the butt of some of their jokes and the reason for most of their eye-rolls.
One dark and rainy morning my freshman year, on my way to the bus stop, I smoked a joint I had rolled the night before. When the bus dropped me off near school, I was overwhelmed with hunger, so I walked over to the Bartell Drugs near school to buy something to eat. When I got there, though, I found that I had forgotten my wallet. So, as I walked through the aisles, I casually tucked a brownie into the pocket of my puffy black coat.
On my way toward the door, flop-sweating my way toward freedom, a skinny white Bartell Drugs employee with bad skin grabbed me by the arm. He then walked me to a small room in the back of the store and made me empty my pockets. When the brownie hit the table I thought he would tie me to the chair and beat me. To my surprise, he simply told me they could either call my parents or the school. Scared and too high to make rational decisions, I chose the school. Our dean walked over in the rain, led me on a silent walk back to the school, and we filled out the paperwork for disciplinary probation.
My disciplinary probation lasted the rest of my freshman year. The fine I had to repay to the drugstore was $250.50, their standard $250 shoplifting fine plus the cost of the item. They did not let me keep the brownie.
Without a friend at school, I began hanging out with kids from my neighborhood that I had known through youth baseball. Some of them were still in eighth grade, some were my age, and some were much older, but none of them went to my high school. They all knew me as the star of the baseball league and respected me, which felt even better than the weed and the cheap alcohol we bought from sketchy neighborhood corner stores.
They introduced me to a kid named Kevin, a malt-liquor-sipping, excitable black kid my age with a little trimmed mustache who was selfless and loyal but was forever getting in trouble with his own white adoptive parents. Kevin had an inimitable laugh—high pitched and alarming, it sounded like he was choking on his happiness. That year, our freshman year, we were best friends. We spent most of our days walking around and taking the bus and smoking weed in parks and going to parties and hooking up with random girls and drinking until we threw up, side-by-side. I started growing a little mustache.
One night, a female acquaintance of mine passed out drunk at a party, and a kid I’d known for years named Kenny opened her purse and stole 40 dollars. He was at least 6’3” and told people he was a Crip, so nobody said anything about it. When I got word of this, I challenged him to the first real fight of my life. We agreed, in an angry AOL Instant Messenger conversation, to meet down at the community center by my house on a certain day that next week.
I trained for hours each day prior to the fight. I sparred with Kevin. I jumped rope in the dark. I ran every day. I shadow-boxed in my bedroom every night between my baseball card collection and my twin-sized bed with the baseball bedspread. I had just turned fourteen.
When I got to the community center for the fight, there was a group standing in a semicircle near the swing set. My opponent, Kenny, was in the middle of it. I recognized most of the people in the crowd, but none of them shook my hand or smiled at me. They didn’t want to associate with the sure loser. But Kevin, my trainer and cheerleader, came up and hugged me: “You GOT this baby! You’re ready!”
After about a twenty-minute, stand-up boxing match, I connected a left-right combination with Kenny’s face and saw his knees buckle. Seizing my opportunity, I tackled him. The back of his head slammed on the pavement behind him, and I put my knees on his shoulders and beat him with a series of punches as fast and hard as I could deliver them.
Four cop cars pulled into the parking lot with their sirens crying and some members of the group pulled me off. I can still hear Kevin laughing as we fled the scene. That girl got her money back but I stopped seeing so much of those kids after that.
That spring, I tried out for the baseball team and made the freshman team as the starting catcher. For the next four years, I studied hard enough to stay eligible for baseball. I didn’t care about much of anything else besides being able to strap on the catcher’s gear at our home field, with its rock-hard infield and fenceless outfield that crackheads from the neighborhood routinely walked through during practices and games. Baseball kept me in school. Baseball won me respect from most of my teammates and helped me forge a couple real friendships that I still have today. Baseball kept me going. And I was good.
As high school went on, my allowance and odd-job money started going toward baseball gear and polo shirts rather than baggy clothes and puffy jackets. The weed stopped, mostly. The drinking never really stopped, and still hasn’t, but at least I’ve gotten smarter about it. I stopped shoplifting. And as the years passed, I stopped fighting. Mostly.
My senior year, when scholarship offers were coming in for me, our head coach stopped me in the hallway to tell me about another school that had called him about me. There were plenty calling by then. A small group turned their heads to listen in, and loud enough for everybody to hear, he said, “What race are you gonna put down on your applications?!” The kids around me laughed, but not very loudly, not as loudly as they used to.
Angie and I started speaking to each other again that year. I told her I forgave her for the whole incident, and she said she forgave me for telling people about us. She gave me rides to school some mornings and we would talk about how we used to be. When we reached my school, she would put the car in park, come around to the back of the car and give me sensual hugs, the kind where you touch hips and hold them there. I had an erection every time. Sometimes I tried to kiss her. I was a mess. I loved her again. And she kept picking me up, kept talking about the past on the way down to school, and kept coming around the car to hug me.
Kevin and I lost touch over our high school years. Each time I saw him around at parties we hugged and talked about the old times and he would give me his new cell phone number. Every time I called it, though, the number was disconnected. I didn’t see Kevin after high school. One time I heard through an acquaintance that Kevin came out as bisexual. Then I heard he was on heroin.
The last time I heard his name, I had just gotten home from college baseball practice, halfway done with my degree and getting most of my tuition paid for by scholarships. I had just gotten an essay published in Donegal, Ireland, about my Irish heritage and my identity as an Irish-American.
The news came to me through my Facebook feed.
Kevin was dead.
He was 21 years old.
I didn’t sleep much that night, and when my live-in girlfriend asked me what was wrong, I told her about Kevin, but I don’t think she understood. She didn’t know me then, so she couldn’t have possibly understood what he meant to me.
I saw Angie a couple months ago in a little hipster bar near my apartment. She told me I looked great, and her eyes said she meant it. She kind of looked the same. She wasn’t my type anymore. My two roommates and I had split a fifth of whiskey before we got to the bar and they brought me drinks as Angie and I talked for what seemed like days. For the life of me, I can’t remember most of what we talked about besides the fact that she’s back living in her parents’ house and not happy with her job. And I remember how she told me how proud she was of me, a successful writer at 23 (at least successful for 23), living with good friends with a degree on my wall, and in better shape than I was in high school. We hardly mentioned the past, and when we did, it was just the key events.
I had a lot of feelings that night but not one of them was love. But the way she looked at me was familiar. I gave her a nice, sensual hug at the end, putting my hips flush against hers, and pulled away before she could kiss me, if she was going to try.
After the Battle of Zela, an anonymous Roman officer gave a full account of the action, detailing the tactical mistakes Caesar made in the battle as well as how gruesome the action had been. As Caesar’s enemy Pharnaces and his troops charged the Romans, Caesar had not taken the attack seriously and didn’t assemble his troops properly. Caesar almost lost the battle due to a lapse in judgment. After Caesar’s army finally achieved victory, that same Roman officer called the battle “long and doubtful.”
Caesar used only three words to express his victory.
The words have lived on, and have been reprinted, recited, used and misused for thousands of years since, but the battle itself has disappeared into history. The key events of the battle are available, but get harder to find each year, buried in the Google listings beneath collections of inspirational quotes and photographs of the phrase tattooed on the backs of young men’s shoulders and across young women’s rib cages, sometimes misspelled and often by people who haven’t conquered anything—not yet, or not that we know. Caesar’s mistakes from that battle have almost been forgotten. Sometime in the future, they will be. Someday, all that will remain is the summary, the declaration of victory.
I found a friend, I found something to fight for, I found baseball, I found success, and most importantly, I found a future.