Clouds of Static

Plug red, white, and yellow wires into VCR.

Change TV to channel 3.

Turn on VCR (make sure no tape is in VCR).

If tape is in VCR, rewind to beginning.

Watch tape and follow as news report about Princess Di segues to home movie, then back again.

Make sure red, white, and yellow wires are plugged in.

If weird sound comes from TV, check that wires are plugged into proper color.

Scan VHS tapes for footage of your parents before their respective breakdowns.

Realize that this is all you have of that time, besides Swiss cheese brain memories.

Take out cartridge from game system.

Blow on the contacts and reinsert into game system.

Put in one of those VCR head cleaners to get past the tracking, magnetic damage.

Tell your previously-recorded mother that you’re okay now.

If TV flashes blue screen, try re-docking cartridge into game system.

Get cell phone footage of your LCD parents as the tape grinds, before it gets stuck in the VCR.

If other games don’t work, try Super Mario Bros.

Test the system.

Try to remember the last number you have for either of your parents.

Try to remember the last time you saw them.

Try to remember their faces.

If game system still doesn’t work, turn it off.

Watch the way the screen’s blue is intersected by clouds of static.

Ask for help.

Rented Space

He used to work construction. Good money, decent contracts. A living. There was always another way to live, though. A golden, sloshing way to live. Sometimes a silvery shot, one then another way to live. A liquid friend till blackout came and got him through to another bleary morning. That way to live. His doctor, when he went to see him, called it alcohol use disorder. Or at least that’s what he put down on his chart in all caps, before he referred him to a couple organizations and groups that might be able to help. Charlie didn’t see that doctor anymore after that.

By degrees, it got to where after-work-before-bed drinks started getting earlier and earlier, blurry around the edges, and he’d put on a movie on Netflix, something he’d gotten into back in film school, when he was actively pursuing his dream. A wide-eyed kid, he’d say, shrug it off now, shrug off everything–working his way through college, moving and delivering pool tables, putting everything he had into this thing, making office hours and asking how he could improve as a filmmaker, all of it behind him now, flushed down the toilet with the booze from the last time he said he’d quit but just didn’t quite get there in the end.

The end. There’s something he hasn’t seen in a while. He used to draft scripts like it was his religion, taking communion in the form of late night Taco Bell and something with more caffeine than water to keep him going through marathon writing sessions, sometimes upwards of 40 to 50 pages at a go, slicing through entire third acts like it was nothing, and this wasn’t a late night cram, either. Not some procrastination thing. These scripts weren’t even assignments, just something he wanted to do on the side.

He’d write these drafts in a fever dream, no editing, just getting the words down on the page, sometimes writing for 12 or 13 hours at a stretch. When it was done, he’d get blackout drunk until all words, thoughts, and feelings escaped him. He drank till everything in and around him ceased entirely.

And that was it. At the start, that was the only time he’d drink. He told himself it made it okay to get it out in one big binge, that it was better than stringing along drunken moments until they became a drunken life, the way his dad did. Charlie wasn’t exactly living the unexamined life. He could see the parallels, the comparisons to be made. Could watch as those one-night-only binges became two- or three-night affairs, and this he justified by simply writing more, as if the output justified the input. He could sit, and he could breathe, and he could feel this for hours. This was his legacy. His family heirloom.

He remembered taking walks down by the river, catching the light-glint in his eyes, blinking past the migraine. He took the walks because he thought he needed to be outside, but taking them he realized that he needed to be outside of this.

So he’d walk down to the water, and he’d sit on the edge with his legs hanging over it, about a six foot drop and then nothing but retention wall and water. He thought of breathing, and what it felt like not to. What it would feel like to never breathe again.

Charlie could always just see what he had to do right before it became too late. Sometimes he acted accordingly. Sometimes he didn’t. He’d wake in the middle of the night and watch as the clouds rolled by his opened window, turn and vomit onto bed sheets where it’d then congeal, and he’d pass out and rediscover it in the morning. He stopped going to class, didn’t do his assignments. It’s not like he didn’t write. He wrote like mad. Just not what they wanted him to write. He shot films using scoured old stock he found in the film cage at his school, stuff that was no good but which he pocketed anyway. Didn’t realize at the time that he was staging reenactments of his childhood in front of the camera, but it turned out that way anyway.

The thing about radical honesty, or new sincerity, or whatever it is that he was going for, is that you’re going to inevitably over-extend yourself. You’re going to reach that hall closet of the mind that you haven’t opened in decades, and you’re going to have to lock yourself in it for hours at a time.

Charlie sobers up by the light of the morning, a sickly-sweet taste in his mouth, something that won’t wash out until he drinks again. He’s definitely in a motel. He checks the little mini fridge thing, but apparently he raided it the night before. There’s a breadcrumb trail of empty cans and polished-off bottles, maybe a handle left if he was really desperate, which he is.

Charlie watches the way the dust motes hang in the air like suspended planets in rented space. He feels the clothes on his body, the blankets under the clothes.

Cloudy Bubble World

Driving through my old neighborhood with the windows up and my mask on, and I’m thinking about the now-beatified times. The moments I thought I wouldn’t live through, couldn’t, now stuck in the cloudy bubble world of a snow globe on a quarter-life shelf. Counting the days down until something would happen, or not happen, always passing the time until a more desirable outcome presented itself, but never wanting to look at the possibility that This Is It. That maybe this moment is the thing. That it always has been and always will be.

I get a drink from the convenience store I used to haunt as a kid. Some sugary abomination in a tall can. The old shop owner’s still working there, and I tell myself that the reason he doesn’t recognize me is because of the mask, and not the fact that I haven’t been in my old neighborhood in way too long. The only thing that’s changed about the shop is that you can now do the contactless pay thing, which I do, and the old shop owner smiles and wishes me a nice day behind a plastic shield that’s been put up now at face-level.

I read reports that my town was one of the hardest hit by COVID-19 in the Chicagoland area, but Des Plaines officials were quick to qualify that not all of those cases were “in town,” that a sizeable number were in the unincorporated area, where I’m from, as if that’s some consolation. Another rug or municipality to be swept under, I guess. But seeing it makes it real, on these ghost-town-streets that used to be filled with kids on skateboards, BMX bikes when it was fashionable, when my friends and I wandered the streets as a roving gang, back when that was a thing that kids did.

I don’t see anybody. I know that that’s a good thing, or that it could be, but it’s still disheartening. All that’s left of this place that I once knew are the memories of it, and the bits and scraps that I’ve written down, some of it even collected in a book. It’ll be a tidy series of recollections, permutations that change with each retelling, every shadow of remembrance filled in with heat and light from a time far removed, like a dusty old polaroid.

I took this trip alone, which was for the best. Even if flying were a safe thing to do right now, I would’ve still made that drive up anyway. I needed to take that time for myself, watch the rolling hills segue to farmland and flatness, the eventual outcroppings of buildings in the distance, then that familiar old skyline, because if Chicago and everywhere else has changed, at least the shapes of its buildings are still the same. I don’t know what I’m here for, besides the obvious of seeing my friends and family. I had a general idea of what the city might look like now, but reality is always different. Right now it’s crueler. Maybe later it’ll be kind.

Everything has the quality now of a rough draft, and over and over again in the margins, someone’s scrawled in “TBD.” Even down Potter, and past it in Bay Colony, folks have been hit hard and it’s unclear when they might be able to get back up. I wonder why sometimes I identify so much of myself with that old neighborhood. If that place doesn’t technically exist anymore, why does it still feel so much a part of me? And then one further: If I got through what I got through living in that neighborhood, why would I ever want to go back to it and be reminded? Why not just keep moving forward? But it’s not that simple.

I walk over to where the old hideout used to be, where as kids we’d propped up a tarp and put down a wooden plank floor and ran extension cables into the woods so that we could play PS2 in the fort that we’d made, and one of the kids had snatched a hookah from his older brother, and we coughed and sputtered in between songs played in Guitar Hero. I see these moments as clear as the barren, patchy ground that stands there now.

But it’s getting closer. Or at least that’s what Kevin Parker tells me through the speakers of my car as I start it back up, as I take one last lap around the old block and let these things burn themselves into my mind. I drive, and I listen, and I breathe. I leave.

Finally a Reality

I feel like I’ve got everything I always wanted. It’s a strange feeling, a foreign one, of not wondering when the other shoe will drop, not even thinking about shoes, rather kicking them off to finally relax a little. It first started to hit when I withdrew my manuscript from every other place I’d submitted it to, when I let these places know that I’d just signed with another press. It was sending those withdrawal emails, and it was realizing that I wouldn’t have to send this novel out anymore. I’d done it. It was finally getting published.

I go back mentally to the places I was at when writing it, diving back, taking half my lunch break to cloister myself in an unclaimed cubicle at work and pop open my laptop, squeeze out a little more writing time before going back to administrative tedium again. It was finding gaps in the story, holes in the memory, and filling those holes with something, dirt if I had to, because having something to remember is better than nothing at all. It was taking walks till exhaustion and listening to the same hundred or so songs over and over until their rhythms and patterns were baked into the story, into me, and I could taste freedom from the pain if only I kept writing about it.

I can track mental states in the pictures from that time, in the drafts saved in sequential order, cross reference with journal entries if I’m feeling particularly masochistic, but really just trying to get a snapshot of where I was then and how I was able to sustain a mental deep-dive of myself for that long. Because it was one of the most useful things I’ve ever done in my life, but it also nearly destroyed me. And so I’d touch on those images in the book, looking back on the past and risking salt-pillar-transformation, writing and rewriting traumatic memories until dissociation became the norm and it was all almost normal. We return to the thing that hurt us because that can become all we know. And that’s the tricky thing, because that’s also exactly how we beat it. We face it, we plumb the depths, we walk into that great dark, and we don’t stop walking until we come out on the other side.

I came out on the other side with this book, and now it’s going to be published. There are professional artists, designers, and editors working to bring this to life. When that’s done, there will be machines that will print it, and digital versions optimized for people to read however they want. I have to say these things because the unreality is still there, shock in the best possible way, and to say it is to realize that it really is happening. After so much time, so much work, the thing that I dreamed about is finally a reality.

Comings and Goings

It’s seeing the spider-web fractals of light coming in, through his busted windshield, to wake him up for another day. Turning the key to check gas gauge but then shutting the car back off, hearing a brief interval of morning radio show before it all goes quiet again. He’s gone a distance of about 800 miles now, he realizes. Not all at once but piecemeal, day after day, parking somewhere farther than where he came from, putting it all together like a quilt he’d watch his grandma make way back when. He’s thinking of the nature of being homeless, and the myriad “Home is…” decorations that he’d find in the suburban homes of friends and girlfriends growing up, thinking then even when he had a house that he didn’t exactly find home there, but he didn’t see an alternative then, any sort of way out. He was just staying there till he was old enough to legally leave. He remembered looking up emancipated minor laws as he was studying for finals his freshman year, and the chaos that was his living situation: a house filled with mildew and garbage , with no utilities and barely any food, a mother monster who would berate him even as he shaped himself to be a model student and son. The old words and moments come back, but only just now. They’re hazy around the edges, indistinct. He’s remembering the lapses of good, back before the divorce, when his parents’ mental states were fragile but still intact. When they’d do things like shoot home movies on a clunky old camcorder and go down to a park or a pumpkin patch, depending on the season, an old Wolverine action figure in his hand, something from the dollar store, and they’d put off fighting for a bit, at least until the shot was over, and he learned to live in these moments of focused attention, these comings and goings of surface-level normalcy. He remembers more and more of these good times now, and he doesn’t know whether that’s a side effect of his current condition or just a side effect of getting older. He doesn’t really care either way.

Morning World, Mourning Whirl

Parabolic stories told in whispered corners of a broken-down house, where the moonlight creeps in like a suggestion and stays there, wandering, before dissipating just enough to let you sleep.

Ego fears and slipping between a version of yourself that you left behind and an uncertain future you find yourself barreling toward.

Approaching something like stillness, and training yourself to be okay with it, without trauma and learned internal violence.

Of entering conflicts only when needed, and even then with a distilled serenity, a weightlessness, and the calm that comes with being accustomed to terror.

Half-dreamt landscapes that won’t fill all the way in on waking but which leave impressions, visions of themselves, like an image burnt into a cathode ray tube, searching for the cells that make up this generational hurt, this wandering sorrow.

And it all seems so trivial now, the shouting matches, the screaming tears, doors slammed and feelings hurt, set against what we’re now fighting, all of us, collectively.

It’s in talking past the severed connections and getting at something like communication.

Not the way it was, but maybe the way it could’ve been.

Now it’s in sipping strong coffee in the morning, awake before anyone else in the house, and cherishing this newfound quiet as much as you don’t trust it.

As much as you fear it.

It’s being able to just sit, and breathe, and appreciate your cat as he sits in front of a window, unmoving, and the stillness of the morning world around you, the mourning whirl of grief coming in slow now, like the delayed pain of fingertip on stovetop, and wondering about the original order of things, if there ever really was such a thing.

And maybe it’s even making your own order, if you can, in the honey-drip stillness of a too-early morning, before the alarm hits, before the birds can really process things, awake in the undark, processing last night’s dream and the belief that it’ll fade followed by the reality of it fading.

Like a shadow yielding to light.

Expiration Dates

I saw the way we danced in the wobbly reflection of a public transit bus as it passed, and I laughed, and it was like laughing could expel both air and consequences, and the way my bones creak and ligaments strain and muscles ache, I feel like I’ll need a robot body if we ever get that far technologically in my lifetime, and you smile and call me old, and I know it’s a joke, and I know I’m 30 and you’re 25, but it stings just a bit because I’ve been realizing lately that all my pop culture references are dated now, and I go out of my way to eat healthy foods, and now I’m mentally reminding myself that when I get home, I need to open up the fridge, and feel the cool air for just a second, and check all my expiration dates just to be safe.

 

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Shapes and Patterns

It’s in the way you can’t quite see your reflection now, coming away, and the great undoing that time can be. It’s in the way we smiled past punched-out teeth in the backyard boxing ring we made, cleared the ground of obstacles and debris and hit each other on the grass, midday sun gassing us a little earlier than we might expect, and thinking then and now that whether we liked it or not, fighting was in our nature. It was in the lights coming on to signal the end of the competition, and going back inside our apartments with busted lips and swollen eyes, going back to some GBA or N64 game, finishing up homework and explaining away the injuries to our parents with something about recess football. It was in dripping bloody noses into mashed potatoes, green beans, tasting blood past meatloaf, and learning how to launder out stains from clothing. It was tossing out the gloves when we got bored of that, and finding a different backyard to fight in when Zuhaib’s dad got laid off and was home all day and might see us. It was sleeping with my head sandwiched between two pillows to drown out the sound of my parents fighting. It was getting up at 5:30 to be able to hear something approaching silence. It was staying out in the cold past curfew and plunging my hands in the snow so I might feel something, regardless of what that something might be. It was sneaking back in through the broken patio door, hands as iceblocks, and running them under hot water until the tears streamed down my face and mingled with the water to bring me my healing. It was of course the way that I would punch myself in the stomach, to toughen up when backyard fight club was set to start up again, and the way that I couldn’t seem to shake myself of the habit, or any other habit really. It was getting up even earlier to watch the cartoons I used to watch when I was really little, before the punched-out teeth and frostbit hands, the ones where the good guys always won no matter what.

And those action figures. The ones with the bendy arms and legs and the tacky paint jobs, and how when I broke my arm in a fight I tried to rearrange the arm into one of those impossible configurations, if only for a moment.

How I imagined a giant, invisible hand holding me, lifting me into the air. Rearranging my limbs and actions into their own pre-ordained shapes and patterns.

 

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In Transit

To see yourself in pictures that will never be taken: a ghost of a ghost. To feel these faux-polaroids in your mind’s hands and the shape of them, the wear in the corners from wallet’s contact, and the genuine smiles, the eyes getting in on it, the weight and the wait till “cheese.” To hear the sound of the word divorce. To feel this dissolution in the heart-hurt, the shortness of breath, the physical signs that tell you you are dying. To remember that sometimes your brain can’t tell the difference between emotional death and actual. To rehear these same words spoken by your parents when you were about the age your daughter is now. To sound out the syllables like some rehearsed song in a language you don’t understand. To recall a period of your life where you saw the things that separate–the screen doors, the foggy windows–and not the views just past them. To see your daughter’s face with that same far away look, that bubble world of unknowing. To get sleep using cheap beer and sleeping pills, and to cry your vomit into the toilet when the world comes back to you. To dump these pills and to buy more when you can’t sleep again. To get on a bus and a train with these bodies around you, and the way that spills collect in pools under certain seats like portents of doom, waiting for changes in inertia to strike unsuspecting feet and bags. To see what’s become of your life as one great spill, something to slosh around and rapidly change states. To fall asleep in transit and to wake up when a mechanical voice announces a stop you’ve never been to before. To get off the train. To wake up in night snow, midnight inebriation, and the no-feel of where your skin made contact with it. To leave vomit the color of your frostbit skin and to howl your pain at a moon covered by clouds. To be taken in past red letters and bright lights and hallways choked with sick people, and to almost see the label you will receive, Just Another Drunk Off the Street, and the stinging stain of this. To be visited by the receiving and the attending, and to be given literature with meeting dates and times as you convalesce in a rented bed, steep fee but not as steep as death.

To be let out after a time, and to read about continuing treatment, and to put this in your pocket. To breathe. To go to the place you remember and to make that first date, feeling almost remade, re-naissanced, reborn.

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Tightrope Act

The thing about going from being invisible as a child to quite visible as an adult is that you’ve learned to value the perks of being seen and unseen, but you haven’t had enough time to experience either, so you’re confounded by both. At least this is Jodie’s experience of it, she thinks, as she sits in her car with the windows rolled up, AC on, and some self improvement podcast playing.

She realizes “This is my life now,” listening to podcasts on the way to and from meeting with donors, practicing her smile in the mirror, trying to get her eyes in on it, not faking so much as helping the whole process along, because the truth is that she loves people and loves the outreach she’s now able to do, but too much schmoozing makes her skin crawl just by default.

It’s crazy to think that there was a period of her life where it was an accomplishment to get out of bed once a day to make a packet of ramen before getting back into bed. Days spent in the miasma of depression, brain fog as roommate, getting lost in the middle of thoughts, and words, and actions. Seeing this again is like watching a movie from the back of the projected screen. It’s all there, the basic components exist as they should, but it just doesn’t feel right.

She remembers that Shel Silverstein piece about Melinda Mae, and how she ate the whale one bite at a time. She remembers how it expanded her mind as a child, how it shone wonder into the corners that once were dark, and so for that reason she doesn’t go back and read it again now. She wants to keep it that way, if she can. That realization that all change, all self-improvement, is iterative, is sequential, is endless.

Waking up in the morning and just breathing, with the specter of yesterday less and less a factor, but still resting on the pillow next to her. Still scarred by it, still not whole and finally okay with the unwholeness, claiming it as her own.

Of listening to the tick of the clock inside of her, and how she always meant to document this mental health outreach as it was happening, to start a blog or something, but then when it actually started happening she could do nothing but be present, even when she wanted not to be. How the people in her life gave her conflicting advice–that presence was what she needed now, or that she could use a distraction, and being stuck somewhere in that nougatty, dissociative center, trying to make a joke of it, laughing when she could, because if she can still laugh then it’s lost at least some of its power over her. Or something like that.

She’s at this place now, surprisingly okay, with the ability to work full-time, and take care of her responsibilities, and help others, and do her outreach work. This high-up tightrope act she’s doing, somehow succeeding at, and the visible, tangible way that it’s helping others. And thinking, realizing, saying to herself: Maybe that’s enough.

 

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