Down and Out Together

We met in outpatient, but we didn’t really get to know each other until the tunnels. She was caught-you-staring, under-slept, a couple of days past her last dose. I was long-sleeves-all-the-time, tiger balm scent, blurry-eyed side effect. It was: sharing trauma in early morning semicircle. It was: vending machine routine and too-strong-too-much coffee. It was too much and never enough. We were: in there for indeterminate lengths of time, just waiting, collecting chips from AA vet/counselor. We talked when we had to talk.

Down in tunnel-dark, light slices past manhole cracks, like peeking up through vertical keyhole, decaying stink, and I never really saw her until I could barely see her at all.

She was gargle till it’s only mouthwash, can only be mouthwash if you ask. I was take everything possible, imbibe the world if you can, blackout, try to die, come back to yourself and do it all again. We both came to in backup reset state, glitching through reality’s walls, bug fix coming but no word on when, just trying to move on. It was real agony. Beautiful labor. I loved the idea of her more than I loved the thought of my death. Progress.

Manhole liberated by strategic crowbar. Always carried it with her, she told me. And down there, hidden away, the under of everybody, and the snaking, tunneling worlds that are always terrifyingly just beneath our feet. The crypts centuries-kept, stone-wall-ruined, tunnel sarcophagi down there, and all the people that the underworld can and does house. Making contingency plans for moving down there if and when it ever came to it. Missing appointments to be down there together, sleeping among stalagmites and calcified dreams.

Both of us, under fluorolight, alive despite our best efforts, still here, incredulous at our own survival, and patching in memory’s holes with newfangled sobriety. The audacity of wanting to get better. And the inevitable chest tightness, dry mouth, emptying cup after cup of too-strong-too-much coffee, my definition, yours being that coffee can never be too much of anything, and both of us wanting to be in a place before this great fog of being, this mandated outpatient program, these burning stomachs and blurry eyes, all the ways in which are bodies are failing us. What we wanted, in the end, was to be clean just one more time in our lives. Just one more time.

Dipping in and out of moonlight cracks past sewer covers, ladder rungs falling up or climbing down, forking, snaking tunnels that we’ve gotten to know on nocturnal adventures, and how if you breathe in real slow and stare out into all that black, for just a moment it’s almost like you’re floating, hovering, imperceptibly shifting in space, and it’s warm and inner-bright, just the way we feel when we’re down and out together.

The Dead Friend

The dead friend shows up like a glitch in a poorly-tested video game, clipping through walls, lagging, animation wonky. He’d look real enough in a freeze frame, but in motion the physics are just off.

The dead friend shows up wearing the jacket he wore when he became the dead friend. The jacket is thick, and woollen, but its fibers cannot adequately absorb the blood from the dead friend. They were made for other things.

You can’t seem to get the attention of the dead friend, and you’ve tried everything. All that DF is capable of is to carry out glitched animations, cycling through the keyframes until he can start the next animation.

And here is the dead friend now, sitting on an invisible bench, talking into an invisible phone, asking inaudibly for help. And you can try to sit on this invisible bench with your dead friend, can fall back and onto the ground. You can crouch down beside him, get right in front of him, attempt a lip-read, wave in front of his eyes, call out to him. You can do whatever you’d like, but he won’t notice.

Your dead friend will come for you in the liminal states, too. Don’t think it will only be when you’re out and about. He will sit on your chest like some sleep paralysis demon you’ve seen paintings of, but you will only see the whites of his eyes, will only hear his underwater voice of regret, not words but still intelligible, because regret can never adequately be expressed in words anyway. How would you even begin?

Your dead friend has been dead long enough where the experience of being a person is clearly fading from his cellular memory. He has more in common with the fog coming up off the hills during your morning walks, sunlight breaking up the view through car windows as you pass, thinking always that you’ve seen him, that he’s seen you, that there is a way out of this paroxysm of grief.

Or maybe he’s not the fog, not the wind, but what’s traveling through it. A dream, something that’s been coming back night after night. Your friend is a kite floating on the wind. You are holding the string that is tethered to his foot. All of him has been hollowed out. He is paper-thin, and empty, and his eyes are holes that wind can get through if it must. You look up and the string you hold is tethered to two other strings. They connect to his arms, to the spots once cut, tethered to the places that untethered your friend from this world.

In the dream, you’re not sure how you know that things will be okay eventually, but there is this deep, all-abiding sense that that will be the case. You can bring your friend down and out of the wind, collect his string, and walk him back home when the conditions are no longer right for flight. You can both go back home.

Kinds of Stained Glass

Some days he felt his memories had been implanted in his skull, injected from somewhere near the base. It would at least explain all of the headaches. Makes the urge to drink a foreign entity that doesn’t arise in him. Something he picked up from another lifetime, one he can’t remember. Angling down and into sleep is languid and painful, like dipping toes into scalding water, then feet, then shins. He gives in sometime in the second week of this.

When he comes to again after so much time without it, one more big binge, he can almost remember the name from before. Rather the designation. To be held captive by drink is to not be alive, not really.

In bleeding early mornings he is alone. Times when his head will burn and the urge will come in like rolling sick deep in his belly, hands on knees, collecting air and hoarding it in his lungs. An image: big splasher flopping on a pier, gaggle of children huddled around it, in semicircle, watching. Waiting for it to die, and not knowing what they’ll do once it does.

The permutations of who he could be and could’ve been, dancing around him in the early afternoon, dew burnt off already, and he’s got years on his mind, ash in his hair, and he’s weighing himself on a scale he knows isn’t accurate but which he uses anyway. It’s just something he can’t seem to part with.

He’s trying to live in a way that will let him remember, after all this time forgetting. He’s trying to be a person again.

When he opens the blinds in the morning, he half expects to see the crowded block he used to live on, halogen lighting blinding at night, tracking the paths of strangers and their shadows coming in and out of view, when life wasn’t a series of days to be crossed off. He thinks he can see himself now, over there, just past the window. Can see, yes, the shape of unkempt hair, the mop of it, can figure out the era from this mop, estimate his age, through the window, and the whole block is lined with versions of himself at different ages, different branching pathways. “All the varieties of me that there might be.” He couldn’t really feel himself coming alive anymore, is what it had come down to.

He fell away into the bottle again, and when he came back to he was flat on his back in a bathtub that wasn’t his, shower curtain as blanket, and the light was on, and today’s repeat mental word was haggard. Haggard, and the songs his brain gave him, wanted him to sing, at least hum along to, and all the lyrics had to do with failing, falling, losing some intrinsic part of you in all that darkness. The way the water felt when it sputter-spilt out of limescale shower head was something like baptism, and there’s another image, of communion he’d refused after so many years of taking it, sitting in a pew he’d never sat in before, letting the late melody of half-forgotten hymns wash over, and the way to forgetting is the opposite direction of forgiving.

He goes back every now and again, to his old town, course charted, cautious turnings, changed directions, taking a roundabout way to get to his old block and only upon getting there realizing that he did it to avoid the old church. Of trying to remember these call-and-response words that they gave you there, of all the prayers and songs and affirmations that can be repeated like ingredients from an old recipe, rote memorization, and he’s pouring every bottle he’s got down the drain, throwing the last of them against church wall, and the spray that explodes on the side and even onto the window, a different kind of stained glass, and to be inside with the pain is like being an observer of an observer, a neuronal game of telephone you can never quite make sense of. He’s going to the broken bottle and grabbing a long shard, checking the way it looks against the smooth draw of flesh. Breathing. He is breathing now.

And when he’s done and it’s finished, there are carvings in the body of the old priest’s car. Words, and scratches, and reminders, all for him to find later. Something he wouldn’t forget.

Dry Time

Take things day by day is something they tell you when you’re visibly heading toward a future without days. I don’t know. Maybe it’s just weird that now that I actually want to be here, the entire world is crashing down around me. I go in the backyard, take a few laps, try to clear the sour taste from my mouth. When I inhale, there are notes I never sensed before, little hints of neighborhood post-crisis, and the birds are singing at night now. I’m putting down words, drinking down tea, lining up my queue and working through. I’m taking things as they come, another favorite from back in my therapy days. Scenes play out in my mind’s projector, flickering at twenty-four, showing what I’ll look like at forty-eight, then ninety-six, shuttling through the seams of life till I am the last person out in the world, streets empty, grass clear and tall, and all of the things that used to matter so much are no longer a concern, I’m just carrying on, ever-forward, designing and desiring times like these, as chaotic as they might be, even so, letting them be and become what they will. Counting each day down and watching in eon-time, using the distinctly human gift of forward-thinking. See the sprouts grow, reach their predetermined top, come back down once again, as the human rockets buzz and hum around, appearing and disappearing as the sun yo-yos up ahead, first up then down then up again, stars shifting, spinning the sky in time, and I am here again, all at once, locked in a painfully slow retelling of a life I’ve already lived and seen. These are the things that make up a life, reduced to their core functions, and here are all the rooms you’ve entered, the ones you can never enter again. Here are the people you have seen, none of which you can see right now, some of which you might never see again. Here is the great abiding grief that accompanies the ones who’ve already left you, the ones yet to leave. Here are all of the things you can feel, dry now, because you are sober and will stay that way no matter what, these things you’re allowing yourself, maybe forcing yourself, to feel. Here are all the things that make up your altered, segmented life, the segmented lives of everyone right now. Because there is no going back, and you’ve seen that for some time now, since this whole thing began, but quarantine wasn’t the beginning of the change. It was already shifting, imperceptibly, by degrees so small that you could scarcely notice. You are really alive here, even now. There it is. You’re even breathing, taking down that water, letting light refract and strike the wall behind you, picture-smooth, rippled grooves like vinyl as you wake and wait for the day to stop hitting. And here it is, as it is, right now in this perfect, terrible moment. In this snapshot that is all there is but not all there ever will be, and that’s okay.

The Idea of You

I put the idea of you into a small locket that I’d never worn before, closed it up and wore it around my neck weekends before we couldn’t go anywhere, when I would go down to the things that were happening in the city that had been mine but was no longer, so I could let it glint a little in the sunlight before coming back home. I polished and shined the idea of you weekly, or rather I polished and shined the thing that contained the idea of you. I put it on my night stand before going to bed and smoothed out its chain on waking, set it down to rest just above my heart and watched the way the LCD screen on public transit went haywire, announced that the next stop was a series of incomprehensible pixels. I painted the idea of you in a self portrait after you went away, refused to take it off for the painting because it would be there if I weren’t painting, so it had to be there if I were. I sprinkled the idea of you onto the surface of my morning coffee and stirred it in so I’d have a taste of you for the rest of the day. I put the idea of you in between the layers of all of my dresses, one after the other, till I couldn’t be sure where I ended and the idea of you began. I clawed your name off the mailbox and poured isopropyl alcohol on it and set it ablaze for a flickering blue-fire moment in quiet darkness. It erased any trace of your letters. I put you into the cleanses that I drank morning after morning, intoned the shape of your face as toxin to be purged, rinsed it down the sink like the stubble shavings you’d leave behind every other day. I practiced saying all the sentences you’d shush, the barbs left unspoken if not unearned. And there were the gowns I couldn’t afford but which I would try on, looking for a version of myself I could be okay with, and the way that you didn’t want to talk or see me after you came, how you’d go in the other room and wait for my postcoital chase. I put you down in the poems of that time, clipped events and rearranged the names but kept the idea of you intact. Couldn’t do much else. In the end, I survived on pomegranates and apple cider. Thought I saw a glimmer of you in the pulp, but I decided to drink it down anyway. I was too thirsty not to.

The Ghost of Our House

Do you remember the way our shadows collected under the awning as the rain came out of pepto sky? And something like shadow puppetry as we waited for it to stop, boxes tucked under with us but getting wet at the edges? Or what about that night, with Twilight Zone sending gray light into our new place, TV on the ground, but the mattress was there too so it was okay? Or you wanting to christen the bed, the room, all rooms that were now ours, and how I breathed through the panic, yawned through it and said I was tired, maybe tomorrow? Do you remember how I suggested another color for the walls, and the way I stomached your disappointment because that was the color she’d gone with, the woman I was with before you, but I couldn’t tell you that just then? I’m sure you at least remember waking me up that night, telling me I’d been crying in my sleep, and was I okay, would I be okay? I remember being half awake, gathering the blankets under me, and waiting for the pounding to stop in my skull, acrid breath, and wondering if I was breathing underwater–did I ever tell you all that? I keep going back to that sulphur smell in our backyard, the one that wouldn’t wash away no matter how many times I dragged the hose over the lawn, and the way it seemed to have its own ecosystem, the trauma did, and I’d be out watering the lawn at 3 am; I’m sure you remember that? I wrote love letters without the sense of sight, and I hid them where I was sure you’d never find them, scrawled them out backwards so you’d have to hold them up to a mirror just to figure it all out, but I don’t think you ever found any? It’s that time I pulled up one of the floorboards, and I found a pit–withered, too large to be cherry, too small to be avocado, and you smiled a sleepy smile and said we’d turn it into a project before going back to sleep, do you remember that? And then how I spent a week in the attic, brought food and water for the journey and didn’t sleep for five days, and the way I spoke with you through the walls so it seemed like I could be the ghost of our house, and when you cried past the sleep, I tried to wake you with cooing songs? Or the way I floated down through the basement, edging past wires and pipes and nails to get at something like machinery-hum-quiet, and the more I focus on it, the more I realize you can’t see me, can’t really hear me, and I’m stuck here, without you? It’s seeing you come back home, dressed in black, finally putting my pictures away, bagging up my clothes, and wondering: Will you remember me?