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?

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.

Feral

I always said I might as well have been raised by wolves, with that practiced smile meant to shut down further inquiries, smile hiding sadness, no crows feet next to eyes so you can tell it isn’t real.

Not a sob story, really, not anymore. Just day after day of pushing through pain, learning to accept it, even embrace it, in a fucked up way, convincing yourself that this hole in your chest builds character.

It gave my brain a way of darting through temporal realities, flying backward and forward through time and space, because if you’re sequencing the genesis of man among hominins or imagining our ultimate end in the (hopefully distant) future, then you rarely notice the horrible reality you’re living in right now.

It makes you open to possibility, being feral does.

I’ve tried fasting, gorging, sensory deprivation, sleep deprivation, walking 37 miles at a stretch, biking all day, eating an entire pumpkin pie, drinking nine or ten beers in a row; water fasts and exsanguination and meds and meditation and breathing. I’ve tried breathing.

And now I’m here, scribbling words on a page that will be transferred to a screen, used to have to do this at the public library for the internet access and working AC, but now I’m at my desk, before work, with little more than the glow of my screen and the mechanical hum of the office, before anyone else gets here. Now I know comfort.

And you feel guilty for the most ridiculous things. Guilty for hot water, and an ice dispenser, and a coffee maker, guilty for no longer having to scrape by but instead, somehow, miraculously, being allowed to thrive. A survivor’s guilt that marks the death of souls and not bodies, others just like you from that same neighborhood, feral kids who never found a way out of the pit they were left in, could only make that pit as comfortable as possible–a home that became a grave. There are these facts, these realities.

So I walk. I move. I write and I draw and I read and I try to make sense out of this crucible childhood I was given, this tremendous heat I survived and escaped, that I can now chart and describe for others. I don’t want to go over the same ground, God knows I don’t ever want to be there again, but there’s a power-taking in the naming of it. If it can be seen clearly, with a light shining into even its darkest corners, then it need not have power over you. Over me, over us.

I read this over, think of deleting it but don’t. I click submit, because there was never any other choice but this.

Pique/Peek/Peak

Pique

like a kid sitting on the floor

at the Scholastic Fair

debating stealing a book

because he can’t afford it

eats public assistance at lunch

can already see the looks of shame

on the faces

of his parents

when they walk into the principal’s office

so he doesn’t

so he puts it back

and tries to picture imagined worlds

his mind won’t be shown.

Peek

like hearing “don’t peek”

from the lips

of his first girlfriend

removing her bra straps

audibly

and the space between them is filled

with electricity

and when they touch

it’s a revelation

and when they finish

he tells her stories

disguised fictions

makes them up on the spot

like he did

as a kid

when the only time you heard

“don’t peek”

was during a game

of hide and seek

Peak

like seeing your name

on the cover

of a book

and you don’t know

how it got there

even though you do

don’t know

the steps that got you

from point A to B

and if you try real hard

you can almost see

the kid that would go hungry

can almost see

the kid with ripped-up

hand-me-down

jeans

and eyes that wanted

but couldn’t always

see

and now you’re at the top

of a tall

tall peak

breathing in the thin air

and seeing all

you can see

Ode to Des Plaines

We’ve got locust plagues

in the form of summertime cicadas that

sap the will to live with their cries before

attaching themselves to shirt backs,

the car seats of those foolish enough to crack

the windows of their AC-less beaters.

Yearly deluges from the Des Plaines River,

to the point where canoe is viable transport.

Wailing and gnashing of teeth

in the unincorporated part of town (where I’m from),

where the primary forms of entertainment are drug use

and drag racing on roads that are more pothole than street.

The city’s claims to fame include being the site

of the Flight 191 crash back in ’79

(still the deadliest aviation accident to occur on U.S. soil);

the hunting grounds of killer clown John Wayne Gacy;

and the hometown of the world’s first Mickey D’s.

Yet with all of that said, here I am anyway.

The prodigal son returned.

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