Why fight other people when I can fight with myself?


I sat on her bed in her dorm room. I stared at my feet as I got the nerve to say what had been on my mind all night… week… month…most of sophomore year if we are going to be honest. Emily was watching On the Waterfront. I was too busy arguing with myself to pay much attention. The argument was between my senses of self-doubt and confidence. It was not then nor is it now anything unusual for me.

 Confidence: “Dude, she’s into you. You’re sitting on her bed, she’s leaning against you. She practically has her head on your shoulder. Just say it. Just tell her that you want to be mutually exclusive.”

Self-doubt: “Are you nuts? What if she says no? She’ll probably laugh you right out of the room.”

C: “Oh come on. Grow a pair and do it.”

SD: “She’s going to laugh and tell her friends. Then they are going to laugh. Then everyone on campus, faculty included will get together and talk about what an asshole you are. You are never going to be able to show your face outside of your dorm. You’ll have to withdraw within the month. Or throw yourself off the roof of Mobile Hall.”

C: “Fuck you! If it were not for you, self-doubt, there is no telling where we would be. We would rule the world. This girl is everything you need. Don’t you dare fuck this up for us. I’m right about this and you fucking know it!”

SD: “No, fuck you, confidence! You are reckless and make us look like a complete ass all the damn time. You get even worse when alcohol is involved.”

C: “Oh sure, bring up something that has nothing to do with the subject at hand when you know you’re losing. Why do I have to keep apologizing for asking that waitress out and then inferring that I could beat up her boyfriend? I could have by the way. 6 foot 5, 250 isn’t that big. ”

SD: Shut up shut up shut up! She is staring at you. Fuck. Be cool.

All of a sudden I became very aware of my breathing. During the heated argument I was having with myself I had started breathing very rapidly without noticing it.

C: “You’re breathing too hard you idiot! Try and be cool for once in your life.”

I try to slow my heart rate and control my breathing. But soon enough I realized I was just holding my breath. I smiled at her.

C: “Breathe before you pass out, you spaz! Damn it, Mackin.”

I let out all the air all of a sudden through my nose in somewhat noisy fashion. Emily’s brow was knitted and her green eyes lit with concern.

“Are you ok?” She asked.

“…yeah…Marlon Brando…he’s something else,” I croaked, “…great voice. ‘Charlie I coulda been a contenda.’” I said in the worst Marlon Brando impression that has ever been uttered.

SD: Putz.

She smiled and laughed nervously. “We can watch something else if you want to. I’ve got plenty of DVDs.”

“Oh no this is fine….I could be content watching grass grow with you.”


SD: “Nice one, Humphrey Bogart. I bet if you dart out of the room right now you can be far enough away from the building not to hear it before she busts out laughing at you.”

Emily looked at me and the room brightened as she smiled from ear to ear.

SD: Holy shit, it might be working.

C: Keep going, idiot. Go for the kill before you screw it up again.

“Emily, I’ve really enjoyed hanging out with you these past few weeks.”

“Me too.” Emily responded.

I felt like my face was burning up. If had shifted my collar I bet steam would have escaped from my shirt like in the cartoons. To this day I can only imagine the bright bright shade of red my face must have been.

SD: Nope. Nope Nope. Bail out! Mayday mayday mayday. Change the subject. Talk about the movie more. Better yet just run. Go north. Don’t stop running until you get to Georgia. That’s the only solution.

C: If you don’t shut up, self-doubt, I swear on all that is holy that I will beat your ass. Do it, Mackin, take the shot.

“Umm…I was wondering if…um I mean I uh really like you…really like like you.”


C: What are we, in middle school? Want to just drop her a note during homeroom?

“I really like you too.” Emily responded with a giggle.

C: Yessss!!! Doo it!!! Finish her!!!

“So you want to, ah I dunno, make it official, like mutually exclusive maybe?”

C: Shakespeare you are not.

Emily again came close to blinding me with her smile and nodded her head vigorously.

C: Hate to say I told you so, but I told you so. Actually I love to say it. I told you so.

SD: Fuck you

The movie ended. Both of us had class the next day. I decided I should probably be going. She got up and walked me to the door. It wasn’t a big room but it seemed to take forever to get across as I plotted my next move. I began to seriously wonder if I should kiss her or not. Of course I wanted to. At that moment no person had ever wanted anyone more than I wanted to kiss Emily. Not just any kiss, the melt in your arms old movie kind of kiss. The one everyone dreams of being a part of.

…Wait…what if she doesn’t want to kiss me?

C: Are you fucking kidding me? Really? After all that? Damn it, Mackin.

SD: No. You’ve already won way more than I would have guessed. Get out and go home before you lose it all. Who the hell would want to kiss you anyway? Obviously the girl is deranged enough to publicly admit to knowing and liking you.  If she is not deranged she is probably just setting you up to humiliate you. Publicly too. Like in Carrie. Good job asshole, you are going to get us covered in pig’s blood while wearing a prom dress. I knew it.

C: That’s it. I’m kicking your ass!

My confidence then proceeded to kick the shit out of my self-doubt because I did something that normally I didn’t do. If had done it before, I definitely wasn’t sober. I kissed a girl I had never kissed before without warning. Prior to this all of my first kisses came after long discussions about everything under the sun until the girl got so bored she left or just went in and kissed me instead. It’s a terrible system.

Now don’t get any notions in your head. I was no Clark Gable or Humphrey Bogart. I was much too short and chubby. She was not Vivian Leigh or Ingrid Bergman. She was much too pretty and classy.

I grabbed her by the hand and leaned in. She must have been caught off guard because just as my lips reached hers she began to pull back.

C: Shit. I was wrong.

SD: Shit. I knew it.

But all of a sudden Emily processed what was happening and leaned forward into it.

That kiss is one of those clichéd happy places I go to mentally when I’m in a bad place physically or emotionally. It probably wouldn’t have looked like much to someone watching but to me it was the beginning of a whole new world. That kiss confirmed to me that there was something special about this girl. I didn’t know exactly what it was at that point but I sure as hell wanted to find out.

After a second or two we broke the awkward, yet sweet, yet powerful embrace. She smiled again. I liked it when she did that.

“So I’ll call you later?” I asked.

“Yes please. Goodnight.”


I walked back to my dorm. In a daze. Ran into a few trees. Tripped over a sprinkler head. Some people I knew might have greeted me on the walk back. If you were one of them and are reading this and I didn’t respond, sorry about that.

I stopped by my friend Matt Sullivan’s room. I had to tell someone. But it had to be someone who would be cool and logical about it but at the same time would give a glimmer of giving a damn. Matt Sullivan is that guy. Even keeled about most everything regardless of whether he should be or not. Except if you insult Kurt Cobain. If you do that, especially after a few beers, be ready for a debate.

He was watching TV with a somewhat glazed look in his eye. I sat down on one of the campstools he had in front of the set. We watched some movie for a few minutes. Can’t remember what it was but it probably had Bill Murray or Michael Keaton in it.

After a few minutes I said plainly without looking away from the TV. “I asked Emily out tonight. She said yes.”

“Nice, man. She’s a cool lady.” Matt replied in the same fashion.

Without looking up from the set, I gave a little smile as I thought about what had transpired.

I finally said simply, “Yes she is.”


ImageMy parents were busy in the 80s. Long story short, they were married in 1980, went traipsing through Germany for a few years courtesy of the U.S. Army and had quite a fine time, as best I can tell. What with the visiting countries and the good food and beverages, a non-stop party with the rest of the lieutenants and their wives, all while thumbing their collective nose at the communists across the way. But all good things must come to a grinding halt eventually.  1984 rolls around and the parentis Mackin find themselves in Fort Knox, Kentucky. While the commonwealth of Kentucky is a wonderful place I am sure, it is probably not nearly as exciting as swinging Western Europe. So the happy couple had to find other things to do. As a result my sister Kathleen was born in November of that year.

For a few years it was my parents, Kathleen and two huskies, Sam and Ski. It was the mid-eighties, music was for the most part terrible, the USSR was crumbling, and Rambo First Blood Part II was taking the box office by storm. The decade was looking like it would be all together unremarkable until thankfully for everyone I busted onto the scene in June of 86. Now the party could start. A month after I was born my parents loaded the household up, stuff, kids and dogs and headed south. I’m sure my father made an argument for leaving the dogs and the kids but Mom said no. So we move to Madison, Mississippi and my Dad begins doing whatever army stuff he was called upon to do. Obviously that didn’t take up too much of his time because my sister Annah showed up in June 1988. In under four years my parents had three children. After that I guess they got cable because no others have joined the Mackin brood to date.

But this isn’t about my parents, so enough loosely concealed references to their sex life. This is about my sisters and me.  Our upbringing wasn’t all too remarkable. We did normal kid things like play games and sports and go to school, some of us did better than others. I was in the others category. Mom insisted we eat at the table as family as often as possible. That was nice. There we learned to sit up straight, put napkins in our laps, chew with our mouths closed. We also learned that above all else, Annah was to have the green plastic plate or there would be hell to pay.

My sisters were pretty good early on. Sure, we fought like all siblings do. We tried to be civilized though. For instance, one day I happened to be in Kathleen’s room for very important and legitimate reasons. Kathleen informed me that my border crossing was unwarranted and consequences would be had if I did not cease what I was doing and retreat back to the zone of neutrality that was the hall. I decided not to heed my older sister’s warning and instead laid down on the floor in peaceful protest. Kathleen feeling that further diplomacy was useless launched an all out offensive which devolved into a tussle and ended with Kathleen sitting on my chest and bending my fingers back. Well this brought me around to Kathleen’s way of thinking. In those early days when Kathleen was bigger than I, she was quite good at helping me see things her way.

I’ve got more stories about both sisters that go along the same lines, as I’m sure most anyone with at least one sibling does. We didn’t always like each other but we were always there. In rough times you know no greater ally than a sibling whether you are aware of it at the time or not. As army brats we moved around several times in the span of a few years. While we were all more or less social kids by nature and none of us struggled to make new friends, but those first few days in a new place could be lonely without siblings. We would explore the new quarters together. Walk about the neighborhood and find the best playground, figure out what routes the ice cream truck used. With my sisters always there, moving was easy, it was an adventure.

Once we settled in Virginia we went to the same schools. In high school Kathleen and I did not get along 90 percent of the time but there were times when we came together. We went to the local catholic school that required uniforms on a daily basis but every so often they would have an out of uniform days to raise money for this or that. On these days I would come down stairs ready to go in my cargo shorts, calf length white socks and running shoes. Both sisters would look at me and shake their heads in disgust. They would then take me up stairs and tell me what to wear so that I would not be a complete embarrassment to the family. To this day my sisters remain my fashion consultants even though they both live on different sides of the country.

After we all grew up and moved out of our parents’ house most tensions between the three of us subsided. I remember being on my way home on break and feeling weird about how excited I was to see Kathleen and Annah. They were still the same short women that I had grown up with but now they had these complete other facets to their lives that didn’t involve me. They have both grown up to be absolutely delightful people and there is seldom a time where I would not rather be a in the same room with them. The change in attitude towards my siblings makes sense when I think about it. Look at how much siblings who grew up in the same household go through together. We had seen each other through crushes, first loves, break ups, high school and college graduations, engagements, weddings, jobs searches, job interviews, arguments with significant others, arguments with parents, deaths in the family. It’s a bond that runs deep but has not been discussed. It just is. As I have wandered through my adult life on my own I have come to the realization a few times that my sisters have an understanding of me as a person, of my background, of my mentality that no one else is capable of having. We all just know. I know it may be 2 a.m. where one of them is but, if they hear that phone ring and know that I’m on the other end; I know they will pick up. They know that I do the same.

Over the last three plus years they have proven how deep our unspoken all for one, one for all code has gone. The day after I had taken Emily to the ER and the doctor discovered the mass on her brain, they decided that the best place to get the initial surgery was at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Emily and her mother were transported from Newport News by an ambulance and I would follow in my car after I tied up a few affairs. Not knowing exactly where I was going I decided to use the family GPS. It just so happened that Annah was had the garmin, so on my way out I stopped by her dorm room at the College of William and Mary to pick it up. I knocked on the door and as soon as Annah opened it she immediately wrapped me in a bear hug around my waist. “We will get through this.” She said while holding me tightly.  Then she let go and walked back into her room. I followed her and stood next to her desk while she got the system.

“You doing ok?” she asked as she reached in her closet.

I had been asked that question a few times that day by friends of the family and Emily’s friends and medical staff and other members of my family. Up to that point I responded stoically with yeah I’m fine and then I would start talking about Emily again. I don’t know why but Annah asking me that question hit me hard. Maybe it was fatigue; it was early evening and I had slept maybe an hour or two since the previous day having kept vigil over Emily in the ER the night before. I think it was that, coupled with the fact that it was the first time I had been alone with one of my people since the ordeal had begun. I was in a safe place with one of the few people in the world who knew me the best.  All of a sudden I went from “Mr. in control of his emotions” to my chest heaving and my eyes welling up. I remember thinking, “Fuck, Mackin, you are not, I repeat, NOT, going to break down in front of your baby sister.” But it was too late. I sat down at Annah’s desk and sobbed uncontrollably with my head in my hands.  After a few seconds I felt a hand on my shoulder and looked up. Annah stood there with a bunch of tissues and put them in my hand. Then she put her arms around my shoulders and listened as I talked about everything that happened. How Emily’s head had been hurting almost every day for the past month and a half and how instead of being kind and loving I had been a complete ass. I thought she was being hyperbolic and needed to tough it out. While I didn’t say that to Emily, I remember not being as patient as I could have been. I thought it was just the stress of grad school coupled with the anxiety of being so far away from home. Now she was going in for major brain surgery and the thought of losing her, especially after acting so terribly was too much to handle. After a few minutes I was able to regain my composure. Annah then reminded me that this wasn’t something anyone could predict. She told me to carry on for Emily. She told me the past was the past. I had to move, I had to act. So I did. I got up, drove to Charlottesville, still feeling guilty but emboldened by my little sister’s words.   Annah was 21 at the time. Annah is smarter than I. She is smarter than most people. On top of that she is wonderfully empathetic. I think she might take over the world. But that’s a different entry all together.

As Emily and I went through our hardship, my sisters were not only there for me but they were there for Emily. As anyone who has been married or in a long term relationship can tell you, your family liking your significant other can make life so much easier, well the Mackins and Buttericks liked Emily. All of them, as best I can tell. She was smart and pretty and had table manners and was good to me. What more could you ask of an in-law? Emily was one of theirs after about four months of us dating and they took care of her as such. When Emily was doing chemo in Washington D.C. during the winter and spring of 2010 I was at Fort Benning for infantry officer basic course. While I hated being away when she was going through treatment, I didn’t have a job. This was when unemployment throughout the nation was peaking. Being at school for four months would stave off the unemployment line for a bit. While I was gone she and her mother stayed with their cousins in Northern Virginia. That is also where Kathleen lived at the time. Every so often, Kathleen would go and sit with her brother’s fiancé. I never asked her to do it, she just did. She would go and hang out with Emily. They would talk and sometimes Kathleen and her hetero life partner, Katie would do her hair and paint her nails. I would call Emily and she would excitedly tell me about Kathleen coming by. “Oh Ben, Kathleen is just so easy to be around. I just feel calmer when she is in the room.” That might not sound like much to most people, Kathleen included, but at times like those when illness and treatment and surgeries and blood tests and every other stressful thing is coming at you at once, people with calming auras are so awesome to have around. It meant a lot to Emily and it meant the world to me. I could think of no one better to be there for my beloved in my stead.

My sisters are the some of the best people I know. I love them more than they could ever know.