My flash piece “Clouds of Static” is live in OPEN: Journal of Arts & Letters! While you’re there, check out all the other work they publish too. They run a really great magazine over there.
My flash piece “Clouds of Static” is live in OPEN: Journal of Arts & Letters! While you’re there, check out all the other work they publish too. They run a really great magazine over there.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
There’s a saying about getting what you always wanted, and she’s trying to parse out exactly how it goes without having to Google it. She’s not needing the meaning for posting purposes or anything like that–call it simple curiosity. She’s been doing her outreach for a while now, and her own unique way of showcasing the words of others (getting stories printed wrap-around style on drink cups) has only just now started to take off in a holy-shit, five-news-appearances-in-just-as-many-days sort of way.
She told herself that this is okay, and it is, the long nights spent scouring the streets of the internet, looking for a person who hasn’t been heard but who desperately deserves to be, because giving voice to the voiceless is her specialty, and she almost stopped and took another course of action when she found out that a major restaurant chain had started printing flash fiction on cups, but she kept going with her idea when she realized that they were only publishing established writers, big names, people who would be recognized. But the way she did it, you’d be reading stories you didn’t even know you needed to read, written by your hairdresser, or your mailman, or the woman you pass by every day who’s sleeping on the street.
She started doing it on a whim, self-funded, and whatever wasn’t for rent or absolutely-necessary-food got funneled into this side-project she did after work, testing out different food safe printing techniques, different cup materials, biodegradable a must, and then different inks, collaborating with various artists to spice it up a bit, etc. It was one of those things that tended to dominate conversations with friends and family after a while, and she could tell that while they were supportive, they were also looking for the opportunity for topic change when she went on about it for too long.
The thing about it is that she herself didn’t even really write until she was well into adulthood, and by then there were all those fears and self doubts, the thoughts of old dogs and new tricks, the fire alarm that blares in your head and tells you that you are Too Far Behind, that you will Never Catch Up. When she was a kid, it was AP classes and constant studying, and her parents were the live-vicariously-through-their-kid type that saw her journal scribblings as time better spent cramming, as opposed to the poesy of a budding genius. So she stopped writing for about 12 years.
When she started writing again, really writing, it was like she was coming to after a deep and dreamless sleep, and there were suddenly too many things to do all at once. She immediately had to write in every genre, every style, until she finally felt that she had Caught Up. Mixed in with all of that was reading every literary magazine she could get her hands on, devouring content like it was her job, which even back then she had the feeling that it was–or that it could be.
There comes a time when all of your hard work pays off, when the camera is on you and the kind and smiling person behind the camera and slightly to the left or right of it is waiting for an answer to the question they just asked you, and you have to pause for a second. Not because of anxiety, or rather not only that. You have to take a second to appreciate the fact that this is happening. You are not dreaming, this is not a joke, you are actually exactly where you wanted to be when you first started out.
She remembers the saying about getting what you always wanted, or at least an iteration of it. The old Willy Wonka film, the one she grew up on and still returns to every couple years. The last lines of the film:
“Don’t forget what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he always wanted.”
“He lived happily ever after.”