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.

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.

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.

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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Beginner’s Mind

It’s beginner’s mind, late at night, or something like that, the hours keep shifting around, but you’re listening to an old playlist and planning out scenes, lining up shots, storyboarding, then there’s fiddling with the camera, adjusting ISO, f-stop, white balance. Wanting things to be natural while meticulously planning every detail. You haven’t shot anything in a while, and it makes you antsy just to think about it. It was long enough for you to have to get reacquainted with the practice of filmmaking, the grind of it, the absolute exhilaration and mind-numbing boredom.

It’s always the poles with making movies, you decide–the highs and lows. You think back to one of your therapy appointments from years ago, when they thought your mind was governed by two poles, but the “mania” they pegged you for was something more approaching heavy rumination, trauma thought, turning over and over the past, drinking to sleep sometimes, being gripped by the spasm of physical remembrance, trying to stay busy to distract from the shit-thought buzzing around in your head, in those days, as it came, which was often.

So you start with a script, now, not green enough to be unaware of the ways that it will change, and that’s something in itself, isn’t it? Change. When you were green–the way that any rewrites or changes felt like a slow knife into your gut, and now rewrites feel like brushing your teeth or taking out the trash.

You get paralyzed by the page, sometimes, still. That’s still a thing, and the way your mind goes to all the dark, spider-webbed cracks and crevices, the barren wastes where you thought your fears and doubts disappeared but where actually they just went to sleep for a while. The thing about mindfulness, about growth, is that you go in with the false belief that all the bad stuff will just Go Away. That there will be a great Buddhic a-ha moment where it will All Make Sense and you will be permanently and irrevocably okay. You can’t believe now that you were ever that green to believe that.

What it is–what it really is–is a series of moments: a stumble-fall-rising, the getting up to fall down to get back up again, always getting back up, seeing past the aches and pains, the tired mornings, the shit pages and shit footage, getting a brilliant moment and taking it in your hands. Of losing it, and then finding another moment. Of being okay with failing. Of seeing it, finally, as an inexorable and integral part of the process.

There’s another side effect of getting older, and that’s understanding the perspective of your parents. You are now as old as they were when they had you, and even though you don’t want kids and will never have them, you can appreciate the supreme difficulty. You can watch in memory as your father would sketch and draw–impeccably detailed work, in the spaces between job and home responsibilities, and then how the drawings started to fade, replaced by cans and bottles of beer, until your father was in a single, sustained buzz for most of your childhood.

Your mother’s half-remembered dreams to one day act, laughing them away at first, but later trailing off at the ends of sentences, of her eyes growing hard over the years. Even now, you write for the actor. You craft for their craft, trying to never step on toes or overwrite dialogue. Even if you wanted kids, you couldn’t see yourself giving up on what you want to do for them, you couldn’t see yourself giving in and succumbing to the years.

It’s not that you’re now okay with the drinking and the yelling and the fighting, the divorce and all the rest, it’s that you understand it a little bit more. And these are all things that will go in your film, you suppose. You will color these moments with sustained shots and candid close-ups and clever mise-en-scène, if you can remember what that’s supposed to be, the stilted picking-apart that is serious study, breaking down each shot, each movement, all of it motivated, all of it meaning something. You’ll get final cut on your memories, or at least the renderings you make of them.

Mona

Sink

It’s a quarter to two and Waldo gets home at three. Roger’s not back till six, and who knows when Drew will come home. There’s still time. The soaps are on, and there’s a funny word. Soap, like days when PGN would catch me swearing and wash my mouth out, it turning everything to itself the way tofu does, only soap milk or soap bread or soap orange juice. And the nights when PGN had to lock Mommy in her room when she Went Away, always going away in her mind and launching herself at us like a wild animal, snarling and telling us she wished we were dead. PGN locking her in her room and the way her fists would slam the door till well past midnight, PGN sleeping on the living room couch and me on the floor, his snores almost drowning out the pounding, comforting, and I’d get to sleep just as the first light of dawn sliced through the window.

But we’re here now. It’s a quarter past two and Waldo gets home at three. I turn the soaps off and the dog starts to whine. I tell him to shut up and he barks at me. Barks. I go to kick him but stop. I’m better than that. I’ve gotten better. I pick him up and lock him in the closet. When he pads at the door, I kick it and tell him to shut up. I reach into my robe’s pocket, pull out the prescription bottle, light coming through its bright orange, coating the pills inside. The pain stopped months ago, but I still get them filled. There are other kinds of pain. I take three: the father, the son, and the holy spirit.

And there’s another one.

Sunday school let out at a quarter past two. It was three, and PGN still hadn’t shown up. Father Felter took me to the back of the church and brought out a bottle of wine. Drank from it once, twice, three times. The sign of the cross. Gave me the bottle. I was to drink. I did, and he took me even farther back, to a closet. Turned the light on so I wouldn’t be scared. I was still scared. He told me to come in, that it would be our little secret. I said okay.

The dog’s barking. Okay! I tell him. Okay. I let him out and he runs behind the couch, pisses on the carpet. I chase him with the TV remote and he cowers at the patio door, tries to hide behind the blinds. Whines. I put the remote down and scratch behind his ears. He looks up at me, unsure. I yell at him, and he runs away. It’s quiet out–too quiet. Not even the rushing of cars down 294. If I listen close, I can hear a faraway freight train blare on its horn, trundle down the tracks. A train.

I was out on my own. In my pockets a razor and some sleeping pills. The el tracks sliced through Evanston greenery the way I’d slice through my arms. PGN was at work and Mommy was luded out on the couch, eyelids fluttering. I had time. I didn’t have enough to pay for fare, so I hopped over the turnstile when the attendant wasn’t looking. Waited till the coast was clear and got down onto the tracks, avoided the third rail. I didn’t want to fuck this up by half-electrocuting myself. I walked the tracks that stretched out over my city, vertigo every time I looked over the edge. No driving squeal of steel on steel. I was alone. My hand shook as I pulled the pill bottle out of my pocket. Shook so bad that I dropped half of the bottle’s pills once I opened it, the only word I knew then being fuck. Tossed the rest of the pills out and screamed at the sky. Produced the razor. Lifted my sleeves, skin like porcelain shining in the sun. Touched my forearm’s skin. Cold. Looked away. Scratched at it, but not too deep. Blood just barely surfacing, peeking its head out. Went to scratch the other arm but cried so hard that the tears blotted my vision. Tossed the razor away. Located a staircase meant for maintenance. Train whistle as I got off the tracks. Doppler sounds as the whistle went past.

Whistling. The kettle’s ready. Forgot I even put it on. I take it off the fire and turn the burner off. Grab the mug on the counter. Listen. The dog panting, cars down 294, a departure from O’Hare flying overhead. Burning in my head, but there’s no way to get it out. No way to stop the noise. I tip the kettle over my hand, watch the water touch skin, listen to the sizzle as I retract my hand out of instinct. Instantly red, splotched like an unusual birthmark. Listen some more. Waldo talking with one of his friends. Making his way to the door. I cross over to the bathroom and lock the door behind me. Turn on the faucet nice and loud. Go to look at myself in the mirror but don’t. I bring hand to mouth, enter finger inside and feel the contours of my palate, the place where gums meet teeth. I stick the finger all the way down and let everything come out. I rinse the sink till there’s nothing left, gargle and spit. Look up at myself. Past myself.

Freshening up.

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Cafe Studies

café

It can be found in the girl at the cafe as she raises her oversized cup up past her eyes, the girl with a habit of cutting spirals into the skin of her thigh, seeing to herself nothing but a drain pulling her down but to her future husband something like a whirling galaxy. He’ll be surprised she hid it for so long, but she’ll say you get good at it after a while.

It’s in the crossed, jostling legs that jingle keys but not the reason for the jostling, the sarcoma that’s come back in the breast of his wife, occurring in less than 1 percent of breast cancer cases, but she’s got it.

There will be the barista hiding his trans identity from family and friends, dipping toes in water with adjusted pronouns, the liberal use of binders. Eschewing makeup, then cutting off his long locks, cringing when his family thinks it’s just a phase, one that’ll hopefully be over soon. As if he could just turn it off, delete the dysphoria, go back to being that little girl that you know his parents see, take it all back and become something that didn’t even exist back then. He knew who he was for as long as he could remember.

There’s the elderly woman whose husband fought in Korea and stayed there after the war, taking up with a woman he met and trying to pass off for dead back home, but word travels far, even from the Far East. She tore up the letters, the photos, all of it. She heard he’d just passed. They had a service back home, she was invited. His other woman didn’t go, just yesterday it was. Today she sits in this cafe, ordering a latte, wondering about memory and forgetfulness, about the undying passage of time.

There will be the man with a substance abuse problem, on parole for a DUI when he was ready to stay sober this time, wanted to, but his dealer got back in touch with him. He saw the same old people and cracked, went back to using. He’s wondering what will happen with his visitation rights after this charge, if he’ll be able to watch his boy grow up or will be shut out until he’s eighteen. And then what? Is he even considered a father at that point, or nothing more than a sperm donor? He was going to toss it all out before he was pulled over, give it all up after this one last high, but this high will cost him dearly. He’s waiting for his parole officer to come and relate his fate.

You’ll see the professor waiting for tenure, about to meet with the student he needs to discuss terms with, the professor so-called “happily married,” the student with text messages and pictures that could put him out of a job and marriage. They’ll be discussing terms of class passage, and the student doesn’t even know that he was going to give her an A before the blackmail. Now she might try for more, might collect hush money. This girl used to be the bully of the spiral-cut girl when they were much smaller than they are now, and the spiral-cut girl will consider cutting again when she gets home, replaying memories she buried deep. It was the student’s behavior that drove her to cutting in the first place, the student giving one of those false “Hi!”s now, the cringeworthy ones that are disgusting.

The professor was good friends with the soldier who went to Korea, the two of them growing up together in the cornfields of Indiana, capturing lightning bugs and making fake crop circles with tennis racquets strapped to their shoes.

The trans man will meet the substance abuser in the emergency room, both of them going to psych–the trans man for a dysphoric panic attack, the abuser for detox. They’ll chart their changes and recoveries over lunch, trading hospital food with each other and musing on the people they are, the people they want to become. The substance abuser will get the pronouns wrong at first, but after being told will get them right every time. They will trade numbers before they go.

The elderly woman will end up in the hospital shortly after the service of her once-husband, a pain in her chest that won’t go away. During the routine checkup, it will be discovered that she has cancer. She’ll become a close confidant of a certain woman with sarcoma, keeping her spirits up day after day, making it her life’s mission to cheer this woman and fight alongside her, war buddies they are, even sharing the same uniform of hospital green, bald heads to prove their solidarity.

All of these things will happen, but for now there’s nothing more than people in a cafe, sipping their lattes and trying to forget the passage of time.

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Pictures of You

You in a fever dream, sweaty, gloss-pooled to the bed like a face fighting past plastic bag. Something freeze-dried.

You marching down the stairs in my boots and hardly anything else, wearing a cowboy hat you stole from the resale shop that one time, me wondering how in the hell one successfully steals a cowboy hat.

You in a dollar store Halloween costume augmented by my makeup job that left you looking like Frank-N-Furter after he got out of the pool at the end of the movie, before Riff killed him.

You holding a camera to my face, the resolution good enough that you can see the reflection of my camera in the lens, a hinted whisper of me off to the side.

You afloat in the pool with all your clothes on, unbuttoned shirt set stiff above the water, a struggling jellyfish below, shirt tails wishing and washing in the mini undertow.

You blocking the camera with your hand, unsmiling, in a way where you can imagine my come-on laughter, my protestations or prostrations, whichever came first in the end.

You in the crack of the bathroom door, trying not to smile and doing it, caught in mid-get out, when you used to laugh at these things, these towering simplethings.

You in the bed again, not feverish but cold, you can almost see your breath rising from you, the only way of describing you here being sarcophagal.

And the last one, when you were gone but your impression remained, mountains and valleys of bed that Lilliputians could explore, wondering where to settle down but having no idea where to start.

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No Thing

I find you on the lawn, building a grassbridge across the sidewalk, one blade at a time, for the worms evicted from their homes by the late-season rain. You are wearing your camiseta bonita. English is our only language, but we have made an exception for this shirt. I smooth my hem, where a string waits to unravel me into my composite parts.

You are doing this thing on a sidewalk and a lawn that are not yours. The lawn once belonged to you, but the sidewalk never did. The city gets to keep all the sidewalks.

Your eyes are flecked with shadow and liner; your blonde roots are palimpsests on a strawberry page, the hair showing through again at the ends to stand in for seeds. You tell me you are cold, and this means I am to swaddle you in my shirt. I cross my arms against my bare chest and hope you don’t notice the unincorporated hairs you used to pluck; the stragglers. When your eyes come to mine I find the grassbridge very interesting. My shirt becomes a scarf and then a shawl and finally a shirt again. I don’t tell you you look like a child in my shirt because I don’t want to see the way your nose will scrunch up if I do.

I try to explain why I’ve come back but you tell me be shushed and you pat the sidewalk next to you and when you do loose gravel sticks to your palm like a fortune waiting to be told. It’s too bad you no longer have your gypsy shawl. We sip the silence together and you hand me one blade and then another. When I lay them down I try to graze your fingers like some cheesy movie but you are agile. You are nimble. I want to pour out what’s inside and sift through this floodwater, this standing stagnation, but you tell me be shushed and so I lay another blade down.

When you aren’t looking I put a dandelion in your hair and blow the seeds so they cling to you. This flower cannot reproduce here, but it will try.

I expect many things, but not a smile. Your teeth show for a second but you hide them behind your lips like you always do. You finger-paint grass stains onto my chest, shoulders, face. I am to be a warrior. When I ask you who I’m fighting you tell me be shushed.

A worm wiggles across the bridge we’ve made, displacing some blades and gluing others to the sidewalk with its residue. This worm has a family, but they hesitate to cross. They come from a long line of noble hesitators. You coax them with dandelion seeds and I ask where she is. Or he. They must be… (I fake mental mathematics) four years old by now. You take off my shirt and hand it to me. Your camiseta bonita comes next. Underneath there is skin that is untouched snow. You do not hide the snow. You guide my hands to the cold. You were given these mother tools but have not used them. I see this when you trace my finger down, over the scar like scorched earth challenging winter, incomplete Caesarean, and when we’re done the camiseta can stay right where it is.

The worm family starts to cross.

There are no things I can say, and I see that nothing is No Thing. You try to speak and I tell you be shushed. We speak with our fingers and make the alien like we used to, the one with ten fingers on each hand. Our song comes out and we hum the tune in the spots where the words won’t come, the places memory’s forgotten. But we remember some things. We remember the tune, and the hum, and the many-fingered alien, and the steps segueing from sidewalk to grass where our toes touch, and maybe that’s okay. Maybe that’s all right.

The worm family makes it to the other side.

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