Posted: March 10, 2013 in Stories

It was such a strange birthday that year.

I remember putting on the dress clothes my parents had bought me and which I had laid out the night before: khakis, white loafers, pink-striped button-down with a baby blue necktie and the blazer I had worn for graduation the year before. I stayed up late talking to some girl whose name I’ve chosen to forget, so I hadn’t gotten much sleep. Just an hour or two.

There was a line at the wake, all the way out the auditorium doors into the parking lot where Hell’s Angels were waving American flags and revving their engines. The old vets wearing the hats with insignias and pushing walkers probably couldn’t hear them. I remember the woman behind me sobbing. The man in front of me was talking loudly about thisandthat to the voice in his earpiece and a baby’s scream bounced off the concrete façade. It was hot; almost ninety-two, and I could feel the sun slowly burning away the skin on my nose and my closed eyelids. I could almost hear my mother telling me how I should have put on sunblock like she always told me to do.

I knelt down before the coffin and just kind of stared at the flag draped over it. I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t even know why I showed up. But I just knelt there for a while, staring at the flag, then through the flag to the varnished wood, then through the wood to the ravaged body. Maybe my eyes were still closed. I can’t remember.

I felt like I was there for a while, because the woman behind me who had mostly collected herself by the time we made it inside the auditorium broke down again and just about threw me down. I didn’t make a big deal out of it. I got up and shook the hands of the man’s mother, father, grandmother, sister, uncle, other uncle, other grandmother, and the almost-widow; the fiancé, holding the hand of the three-year-old son. It was his birthday, too. I guess it was strange for both of us.

I grabbed an empty seat in the back and listened to the politicians talk over the flag over the wood over the body. The man sitting to my right said something to the man sitting on his right and they both laughed. The sobbing woman sat to my left. A marine gave the almost-widow some medals. The uncle gave a funny eulogy. The other uncle gave a sad one. The father refused to go up at all and the almost-widow left at one point. I texted my parents saying don’t worry, I’m okay, I’ll be home soon. They said my best friend had showed up early and they were all wondering where I had gone. I said don’t worry, I’m okay, I’ll be home soon.

Some hours later, after I blew out twenty-three candles and opened up gift cards and packages with ugly, ill-fitting clothes, I watched my mother cut up the cake and put the thin slices on plastic plates with big scoops of French vanilla ice cream. I remember watching it melt. They watched me watch it melt.

And when my friends left dejected after I said no, I don’t feel like killing some brain cells tonight, I watched them walk to their cars from my bedroom window. I was lying down on the bed when my parents knocked on the door saying that I knew I could talk to them about anything. They love me. Happy birthday. My thigh buzzed and the girl said she doesn’t usually make offers like this, but since it’s my birthday…

I walked out to the woods that night wearing mostly nothing – exposed. Overcome by jealously, I leaned my head against a tree and stared past the bark and waited for a bullet to come and drill my brains into the spot where I was staring. When I knew it wasn’t coming, I waited for the world around me to explode; just swallow me up like an angry beast. But then the nothing. And then the nothing.

I knew there must be more to it, but there just wasn’t. I was like a father without a child, a husband without a wife, a soldier without a war.

It was such a strange birthday that year.


Posted: March 10, 2013 in Poems

As a young man I hid my spray cans and stencils

Inside a black canvas backpack under my bed

And sprinted between shadows

From tenements to train tracks

Corrupting and claiming walls

And I called the city mine.

I’d wake between the cracks of bricks and sidewalks

Stretch my skin across a concrete canvas

And preach in colors

Turning grey to gold

My portraits were promises

And the city was all mine.


I stood from building-tops and billboards

Painted prayers flowed along the alleys

And the stars were spotlights

Over derelicts and dumpsters

Turning with time

And the city died and rose again.

For Caroline

Posted: March 10, 2013 in Poems

“I don’t smoke,” she says

as she lifts back the bottle

and the golden liquor

burns and soothes.


And when she cries she smiles

And she doesn’t know why

Except that it feels like a note

Too low to sing.


Her laugh consumes

Angst for a time

Until the humor bleeds dry

And she closes her eyes again.


And so she burns burns

Burns, lying in an ashtray,

trying to sleep

Like the cigarette she’ll never smoke.

She Lost Her Words

Posted: March 10, 2013 in Poems

At the bottom of the purse

Beneath the compact and the cell phone

And with fingers fumbling and tongue tied

She watched helplessly as what she really wanted to say

Held itself hostage underneath the lipstick,

Cushioned by a half-used-up

Package of tissues.



Posted: March 10, 2013 in Poems

As I looked out the sliding French doors to my backyard

I smiled as the raindrops dove face-first into the bricks of the patio.

There was nothing else in the house,

So while preparing a ham and cheese sandwich with a Dr. Pepper and two chocolate chip cookies

I sent you a message about how I was sad that the world wasn’t crashing down around our ears.


I had wanted the wind to leave me unscathed,

Standing, staring at a throne of splinters

that was once but would no longer be mine.

I had wanted the rivers to rise and carry me away from what I knew

and we could go to a place where the trees were still rooted

and we could chop them down

and we could build our own home.


You know.

The kinds of things that happen in love poems.


After I told you what I had for lunch,

We came up with the ingenious plan

In which you would bake cookies

And I would eat them

Because you, apparently, bake delicious cookies.


It was a perfect plan, you said, half-serious.


And then I said what we both knew.

That the kinds of things that happen in love poems

Don’t happen.


“Ah, so what are we to do?” I remember you said.


And I told you our story:

I would go on sitting at home

Making sandwiches

And waiting for storms that never come.


And you would go on being a storm

Kicking over my tomato plant

Creaking my windows

Drowning leaves in my swimming pool.


Obliterating over other houses,

But never mine.

Unchained Sonnet

Posted: March 10, 2013 in Poems

Let me peel off your nose,

Pluck out your eyes,

And gnaw away at your chin

Until my white teeth click at your bone.


I want to strip away

The skin on your arms

And strum on the sinews underneath

As I hum the harmony stuck in my head.


I dream of breaking back your ribs,

Ripping out your heart,

And squeezing free the blood

From veins stretched out and inventoried over my bed.


And when I piece you back together I hope

You would want to do the same to me.

This I Believe

Posted: March 10, 2013 in Essays

I’m not what you would call an average community college student. Since kindergarten, I’ve received the best private school education money can buy. When I graduated from my prep school in the spring of 2010, I watched as my classmates excitedly prepared for successful academic careers at top-tier institutions: Williams, NYU, USC, BU, Cornell, Amherst, Trinity, Holy Cross, Georgetown, UPenn, Princeton, and so on. My name, however, did not appear on the matriculation list; I had no idea where I’d be in three months.

I had a B average and a kick-ass SAT, so Roger Williams offered me some money, and I even got accepted to Wheaton, but in the end my parents simply couldn’t continue spending tens of thousands of dollars a year on my education. As my father put it, “I’m not going to burn 50 grand a year just so you can write poetry.” That July, I enrolled in Bristol Community College (BCC). Now, like my friends, I walk to class every day, but only because my house is five blocks from the campus.

Where I came from, community college was a joke; I even invoked it as an insult to a blonde in my history class senior year. As far as I was concerned, it was reserved exclusively for morons and slackers. When people asked, I hesitated to tell them where I went. When I did tell them, I was usually met by a patronizing, sympathetic, “oh… well good for you.” I was quick to write off all my classes as sub-par and my classmates as unintelligent.

But I know better now. I knew it after just a few weeks. Not only are they intelligent, but also passionate. Yes, there are morons and slackers… there are always morons and slackers. But I’m in the same boat as almost everyone else, though we had taken different paths.

This I believe: the students at community colleges aren’t morons and slackers; some of us are just lost.

Many of us work full-time jobs, and hope that education can open doors we don’t even know exist. Some of us take refuge from a society that shuns us or thinks us subordinate. Some of us simply don’t want to waste money trying to figure out what we’re going to spend the rest of our lives doing. Some of us come to recover from drug addictions, improve our minds and embrace a community. Some of us need a new way to support sons, daughters, nieces, nephews, grandchildren, siblings, or parents. Some of us come to set an example.

Some of us are here because we have no place else to go.

Sure, it’s been a culture shock –no one in prep school ever asked if court dates counted as excusable absences– but it’s a culture I’ve now embraced. I’m not being paid to say this, and I have no reason to lie: I’m proud to be a Community College student. I see and understand the prejudice held against my classmates and myself. It’s okay. We may be lost, but we’ll find our way.

I’d like to tell you all how I got here.

Several weeks ago, I was in Ron’s office, and we were discussing… something. I can’t remember what. All you need to know is that whatever it was that we were talking about, I was right.

I remember that part.

So I was walking out with my head held high when Ron says “so we’re having this brunch at the end of the semester for everyone at the tutoring center. Would you like to say a few words?” It was a rhetorical question, really. Of course I’ll say a few words to anyone who’ll listen. So I told him what I charge, and we were off and running.

At the time, I thought it was going to be a very small thing, like the tutor appreciation brunch a few months back. You know, we’d all sit in a small room, someone would stand up, introduce his or herself, say a few words. It’s like educational AA. “Hello, my name is Sebastian… and I’m a tutor.” “Hi, Sebastian.” But then someone told me we’d be meeting in G building. I got nervous, since it meant that the event would be a certain kind of fancy; the kind of fancy where everyone gets their own chair.

A couple weeks later, I got an email asking if my name was spelled correctly on the program. I got nervous again. I didn’t know there would be a program. I responded that they had misspelt my middle name, Patrick. It’s actually spelled D A N G E R. I think they just took my middle name out.

All this nervousness brought me to a point where, in order to rise to the occasion, I turned an ad-libbed speech into the prepared talk I’m giving to you all this morning. The moral of the story is, I didn’t get what I signed up for, and I couldn’t be happier.

Now, I’d like to tell you all how I got here.

I became a tutor for two reasons and two reasons only: glory and money. I haven’t received much of either.

I didn’t have many other options at the time, so I stuck with it. It didn’t take me long to realize that tutoring, mentoring, was something that I have a real passion for. I ended up surprising myself, because what I liked the most from the job wasn’t being told, “gee, Sebastian, you’re so smart” by one of my tutees, but instead hearing that student say “I’m stupid.” That was my opportunity to throw the books aside and tell my friend, wholeheartedly and honestly, that no, you’re not stupid. The stupid person never seeks help. You’re not stupid. You’re whatever you want to be, and the only thing that’s standing in your way is you, not this lousy textbook. You’re not stupid. You’re not stupid. You’re not. You’re right, the answer is the square root of seven. Now let’s do the next one.

We don’t give our tutees the answers. We give them the ability to answer. And that’s what I love doing. It’s equal parts expertise and inspiration. Being an SI for English 101 put me in front of some students who had never written a decent sentence their entire lives, much less expressed themselves in any organized way. Watching them realize that they had just suffered from the editing process, but through their suffering, created something that was their own made this the greatest job I could imagine.;

So my quest for glory and wealth has been a failure. But that’s okay. The moral of the story is, I didn’t get what I signed up for, and I couldn’t be happier. Thank you to everyone here who made it possible.

An Open Letter to Tim O’Brien

Posted: March 10, 2013 in Letters

Dear Mr. O’Brien,

My name is Sebastian Clarkin, and I’m a student at Bristol Community College, where you spoke for about an hour on December 1st. I didn’t get the change to ask you my question (I wasn’t about to cut in front of the President), so I hoped I’d be able to reach you this way.

My father is a Vietnam Vet, so I grew up with war stories. He has funny stories, like the time he accidentally raised the flag upside-down over his base. He has sad stories, like that of his Cambodian friend, Eduard Kem, who was eventually executed by the Khmer Rouge of “Treason.” My father even has stories that are just damn interesting, like when he got a mud-stained letter in the mail from his friend who was afraid to charge up Hamburger Hill, and then read that day’s headline: “Marines take ‘Hamburger Hill.’”

The stories that stood out to me the most, though, are the stories he never finished, either by just trailing off, walking away and lighting a Marlboro, or, on at least one occasion, simply saying “No” when asked to continue.

Part of his reasoning is psychological, of course. Like you said, part of the pain is having to realize and come to terms with the things you’ve done. But, from what I can tell, he, as well as all other veterans, are frustrated. They know they may be able to tell their stories, but they can never make their audience truly understand, truly know, truly feel what they felt and see what they saw. All they want is to be honest, to tell the truth, and, crucially, to be heard. Sounds like a circle of Hell, doesn’t it? The restless mouths and the unhearing masses? The disconnection isn’t just between soldiers and civilians, either. While he opens up more to fellow vets (of all wars), there’s a frustration that no one experienced the war the exact same way he did, and so he can’t get tell his story the exact way it happened.

I read The Things They Carried going into the sixth grade. My dad said I had to read it. He said that you were one of his favorite authors. He said he especially liked Tomcat in Love because he related closely to the main character. When I read that book years later, I felt that he had said too much. But I read The Things They Carried mostly because I was interested in hearing the ends of so many of my father’s stories, and at least slightly because you were wearing a Red Sox cap in your photo, so I knew you were a decent guy.

We never really talked about the book after I finished it, and he certainly didn’t open up any more than he had before. It’s probably because he knew that even after reading the stories (and I’ve re-read them several times since), I still wouldn’t be able to get it. And so he’s still frustrated.

Are you familiar with this frustrated, hopeless feeling? How do you reconcile it with the urge to communicate and be heard? How closely do you feel The Things They Carried, Going After Cacciato, and If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home reflect reality? Would you add anything? Take anything away? When you spoke, you said that you wanted to “bear witness” to Vietnam, but can simple words express the truth? Have you felt limited as a writer or by the form of writing? Can truth only be conveyed by half-truths and verisimilitudes?

I know I’ve asked you a lot. Probably too much. I don’t expect you to answer everything or know the answer to everything.

If nothing else, consider this a thank-you letter for speaking to my school, writing your books, fighting in the war, helping my dad, being a Red Sox fan, and inspiring me to write. I hope that one day I’ll be able to thank you in person.



Sebastian Clarkin

No one ever talks about just how different paper clips and underpants are from each other. It’s time to break the silence.

Paperclips are long, thin rods of metal shaped into a form (a clip) that can hold several sheets of paper. Underpants on the other hand, are terrible at keeping your papers together. They do not offer nearly enough grip; papers will just fall right out. This is a very important fact to remember if you keep your underwear drawer next to an office or other work area where papers may need to be clipped. Not only would it be ineffective to pass in your English essay with a pair of boxers, but most likely, very embarrassing too.

Similarly, paperclips can never hope to serve the same purpose as underpants. Underpants are meant to add another layer of warmth and protection for your “below the belt” region. They prevent chafing and, should the worst happen and your pants fall off (or are forced off by a delinquent whose parent’s didn’t hug enough), protect your dignity.

Paperclips cannot do any of these things. They are impossible to fit your legs through, so they cannot be worn. Even if they could, they lack the elastic qualities of underpants and would greatly restrict movement. They are far too slender to protect the dignity of even the most unfortunate “pants-ee”. If anything, keeping paperclips in that area would at best cause discomfort, at worst, bleeding, scraping, puncture wounds, tetanus and castration. This is important to remember in case you find yourself naked in an office supplies store; try to keep the presence of mind to realize that you’d be far better off raiding the employee lockers.

Paperclips have the unique quality of being able to be linked together easily to form a weak chain. This chain can be used to create jewelry and belts, a lasso, keep together your two nun chuck sticks, escape from prison, transfer an electric current, create a crown and declare yourself king or queen of all office supplies, and much more. Underpants can be tied together and in theory could help your escape from prison, but that would just be silly. Underpants should not be worn outwardly like jewelry is unless you possess super strength, can fly, or have heat vision. This is important to remember in case you find yourself killing time in an office; just link together paperclips! Don’t take off everyone’s underpants and tie them together. You’d find yourself at a loss for what to do next, which does not justify the effort you just went through to get the underpants in the first place.

While underpants are stretchy and elastic, paperclips are hard but malleable; underpants will always snap back into their original form, but paperclips can be bent to create many different shapes that can serve many different purposes. The unwound paperclip can be used to reset a wireless router, torture your enemies, teach mice how to throw javelins and pole vault, or pick a lock. This last fact is important to remember in case you need to break into a room to get more underpants.

Underpants are sold individually or in packs of up to maybe twenty. If anyone tries to sell you an individual paperclip, punch him in the face because that’s just messed up. Paperclips are sold in bulk. They are great in case you have some money to blow and want like, eight billion of something.

While there are many more ways that underpants and paperclips are dissimilar, this should have instilled you with enough knowledge to discern between the two on your own. And in case this essay was actually useful to you, may God have mercy on your soul.