On Making It to Thirty

I think I one day just realized that despite what I’d expected, what I’d planned for, and what I’d even done, I was going to make it to thirty. Probably much older than that, even. I was going to live, and I was going to keep on doing so for the foreseeable future.

I’ve had a number of traumatic experiences in my life. I’ve looked at the place where my skin used to be on one side of my face, erased by cold pavement and hot friction after being dragged by a coworker’s mom’s minivan. I’ve tended my torn skin, a melange of oranges, reds, cautionary yellows, inspected empty hair follicles on my hand, purple, waiting to bud but not yet given the instruction. I’ve seen crisscross stitches like Frankenstein effects sprouting from both arms, black, blue, covered compulsively by gray hoodie. I’ve been wiped clean by the January cold of the Chicago River, spitting out cold, breathing out cold, barely alive. I’ve felt the animal fear-then-acceptance of near-death, sat in quiet waiting for it, then watched as it passed me by. I have, in my past, suffered.

So what do you do with trauma when it’s accidental, after it hasn’t been for so long? When it wasn’t something inflicted on you or something you inflicted on yourself? When it just was? The clouds shifted through the sky, the water refracted sunlight, and This Thing Happened? With each traumatic injury, I find myself getting into old mental tracks, inhabiting constructs I thought I’d ditched, letting the all-encompassing black come back and into my heart, until it’s the not-living of PTSD, the racing heart rate while sitting on the couch, the no-sleep nights, bleary-eyed and floor creaking into the kitchen, staring out the window, checking the microwave clock and being stuck between sleep that isn’t sleep and wake that isn’t wake. To be traumatized is to not be a part of your life, or any life really. It is to not be living, even while you’re taking in air. It is to be stuck in your own shadow and to not know if you’ll ever again be who you once were. At least that’s what it’s been like for me.

But this latest traumatic experience. It wasn’t as bad as the others, relatively speaking. My foot went under the lawn mower while cutting the grass. An accidental slip, then contact with the blade, then the realization, checking the wound, hopping upstairs and into the house, waking my partner, and having her dial 911 as I slowed the bleeding with a towel, already streaking and dripping it onto our nice wood floor. It was the evenness of my voice, no panic, just matter-of-fact requests, questions and answers when the paramedics came and applied a tourniquet. A simple, easy trauma.

With trauma, though, the drip brings the deluge. It was the bleeding toe, yes, but it was also the open arms, the icy cold, the engine roar as face contacted pavement and kept going. It was all of these experiences that have nearly killed me, together, all at once. It was pain in the chest at the memories, tingling in the left arm, and remembering that panic can mimic a heart attack, that just because it’s “in your head” doesn’t mean it’s only just. It’s more complicated than that.

As I sit and recuperate, thankful that it wasn’t worse, grateful that all my toes are still attached, I breathe out these variegated traumas. I watch them turn to something manageable, like dipping willow fronds in late summer breeze, chittering, ever-present, but ignorable too. Something to be left alone or heeded as the situation calls for.

There is nothing else to say. You survive, and you keep surviving, and then one day you are living. You can inhabit your body again. So I chart the timeline that’s gotten me here. I think of alternate realities where I didn’t make it through each of those traumas, branching pathways to new realities that continued on without me. A branch ending at five years old, another at sixteen. Still another at twenty-five. All of the ways I could’ve gone, but I didn’t. The unreality of surviving. The dissociation. And yet still being here after all of that. Too stubborn to leave this world just yet.

I’ve made it to thirty, and I can finally, honestly, proudly say that I’m happy to be here. I’m glad I made it.

All I Need

Pretending there are any ideas other than this one, any places beyond where we find ourselves, now, trading traumas and swapping family war stories in the dark, under the artificial moon streaming in through the window, flies buzzing around it as it buzzes back at them, glowing orange, now red, now white hot, and we are all of us children stumbling around and searching for reason in all this fallow grace, this sickly daze that we’ve created for ourselves, this human sadness, a self-created void that’s as warm as a security blanket and just as well-worn, eating up the land, and I tell you about when I was small, so small I couldn’t talk but could watch, could see these things as they happened in my home, these horrible moments that shaped me into the person I am now, heal(ing)(ed) from these wounds, recounting them to put them in a glass box where they can be regarded like a plague contained, quarantined from its host once and for all, and I watch the way the light dances on your face as you lay down color on paper, something on in the background, but fuzzy around the edges, like a dream, and I’m similarly drifting in and out of sleep, with that nonsense thought process that comes along with it, saying things I can’t remember later but which I’ve needed to say, not to anyone but just in general, needed to speak these stories out loud so they couldn’t hold me hostage any longer, that’s what trauma is, a hostage-taker, laying claim to your body, your mind, your soul, your sanity, until it’s not anymore, until one day when you realize that you can function again, have functioned for some time now, and just realizing this is terrifying, because you don’t want to jinx it, don’t want to lose all the progress you’ve made, don’t ever ever ever want to be broken in that way ever again, and your breath hitches in your chest, vision narrows, it gets harder to breathe, and you have to go to the bathroom to catch your breath, and dry your eyes, and remind yourself, again, as many times as it takes, that you are okay, that you have been okay, and you will continue to be okay, and maybe this isn’t an exhaustive catalogue of post-trauma feelings, maybe it can’t cover it all, but it covers mine, even as I stand years removed from the trauma, years removed even from the most dangerous of episodes after the fact, as I enjoy peace in my time as they’d call it, writing and working and living and enjoying, I can see that this little parasite might always be there, might always squeal its insistence, but it’s a hollow cry, a desperation that goes unheeded, and I walk on into the night with nothing more than the stars and the moon to light the way, here in these hills, and that is, now, more than enough.

That is all I need.

Burn

It’s summer, and I’m fourteen years old. That puts us at 2004. I’m in my room alone, watching the dust motes pass in front of the light that’s filtering through my window. It’s a matter of focus. Either I can look out the window and focus on the too-full dumpster out there, or I can pay attention to the dust motes hanging in the air like tiny planets. I’m alone in here.

A few weeks ago, I was in the hospital visiting Rodhi, watching his chest rise and fall as he was Resting. Only no one else would call it Resting. They’d call it being in a coma. I wasn’t there when his chest stopped rising, stopped falling, but I was there for what happened after, there to watch him be taken up on the wind, his mother standing in front of him, chanting words in Malayalam that I still don’t understand.

He’s gone now, and I’m standing in my room. I can sit down, but I don’t want to. I’m wearing my school uniform even though it’s a Saturday, polo shirt neatly tucked into khakis, belt completing the picture. I don’t know why I’m doing these things. Drew’s at a friend’s house. It seems like I haven’t seen him in days, weeks, and when I do see him he’s stumbling in drunk in the middle of the night, calling out my name in the darkness, trying to wake me, and I’m pretending like I’m asleep even though I’m not. I want to talk to him, but not like that.

I walk over to his side of the room, made obvious by the mounds of clothes and CDs and games and snacks and dirty dishes. My side of the room is almost too clean. I know I shouldn’t, but I start going through his things. I find pictures of friends, girlfriends, sports memorabilia, lighters, dice with suggestive verbs on them. I don’t know what I’m doing.

I sift through movie tickets and receipts and half-completed homework assignments that will never be turned in. Is this what a person is? The tiny bits of miscellania and junk that they leave behind? I don’t know who I am.

On the top of Drew’s dresser, in the center of it, there’s a big bottle of cologne. I pick it up. The bottle is wine-dark, almost black, and I can see that it’s almost full. I hold the bottle in front of my face, spray, and walk into the mist like I’ve seen Drew do so many times before. It makes me smell like a grownup. I spray it again on my neck, my chest, my wrists. I spray it on my hands till they’re soaking wet and rub it all over my body. I hold the bottle in front of my face again, but this time I turn it towards me. I open my mouth and spray.

It tastes like liquid fire. I turn and look at the little motes of dust hanging in the air. Outside, sitting on top of the dumpster, is a single bird. It chirps. I unscrew the bottle’s top and start drinking the cologne inside. It burns terribly, and every instinct inside of me tells me to stop, but I don’t. When I finally finish drinking the bottle, I cough uncontrollably. I try not to make a sound because my mom is home, but I can’t stop the coughing, so I go to the bathroom and I lock the door and I turn the faucet on full blast. My body is telling me to stick my finger down my throat, to drink water, to wash my mouth out, to do something, but I just let the water run, try not to look at myself in the mirror.

When I finally stop coughing, I turn the water off and go back to my room. It’s already gotten dark outside, and I can no longer see the dust motes hanging in the air. I go to bed a little bit after that. I sit on my mattress for hours, unable to fully grasp the fact that I am going to die soon. I wonder if it will be slow or fast, painful or painless, and then I start wondering what it was like for Rodhi. No one can really say, because he was hardly even there at all. One moment he was breathing, and the next he wasn’t. It was as simple as that.

I’m surprised to find that I wake up the next morning. My stomach hurts and my throat burns, but I’m still alive. One day passes after another; the pain in my body slowly recedes.

The other type of pain still lingers, though.

Move

It’s winter, and I’m ten years old. That puts us at 2000. Rodhi and I are out in our boots and coats and gloves and hats, wandering down Good Avenue, which can’t be distinguished between the grass or even the lake next to it because of the snow. Rodhi floats the idea of snatching a few of his dad’s tennis rackets and duct-taping them to our shoes to approximate what we’ve seen in shows about frozen tundras and intrepid explorers, but he chickens out at the last second. My winter gloves are secondhand, several seasons old, with tiny tears in the seams making them unsuitable for snowball fights. I’m stubborn, though, so I use them anyway. I just make every snowball count before my hands get too cold.

When we’re done with that, we take one of my action figures and find a good spot to throw him into the snow. We’ve done this for years, waiting for the thaw so that we can become archaeologists uncovering an ancient find. This year, I toss in my Wolverine action figure. The snow is soft powder, so he falls all the way through to the bottom. We make note of where he fell and take a picture of the spot with an old disposable I found lying around at home. We have so many disposables sitting there at home, some of them untouched for years, and who can say what pictures are already there when I snatch it.

Rodhi and I vow to save up lunch money and get the pictures developed when the time comes. The snow and the cold have been here for weeks, and they show no signs of letting up. This is a true Chicago winter. We leave our artifact behind and turn back for Bay Colony, for our apartment complex. Then we see LC and his crew. We both freeze, looking for an exit but not seeing one. We could turn around and run the other way, but it’d only be a matter of time before they caught us. And if they didn’t, LC knows where we live. They could just turn around and wait at our complex until they found us.

They fan out. Fernando moves to our left to block one end of the street, and Chaz goes to our right to block the other end. LC stands in front of us, facing the lake. The wind howls in our ears. Snow still falls from the sky. LC pulls out a knife, and the other two pick up sticks. They close in around us slowly, a smile growing on LC’s face.

We back up as far as we can, until we’re sure there’s no more ground behind us. LC swings his knife at the air in front of us and tells us to move. Rodhi and I stand there, neither of us doing anything.

Fernando hits Rodhi in the chest with his stick. I put my hands up and motion for Rodhi to follow me out onto the ice, and he does. LC keeps telling us to go out farther, farther. When we stop, he throws rocks at us and threatens to throw bigger rocks out onto the ice. So we keep going. I can hear the ice groaning beneath our feet, but I try not to let on, for Rodhi’s sake.

Then the ice breaks.

First Rodhi is there, then he isn’t. He disappears into a dark hole. The water is calm for a second, and then there’s splashing. And then there’s me slowly sliding over to where he fell in. And then there’s me getting down onto my belly as LC and his crew laugh behind us. And then there’s me reaching my hand in and finding Rodhi’s. There’s me pulling him out and using all my strength to slide him away from the hole in the ice, one of his shoes now missing.

The crew’s laughter recedes behind us as they all run back home, and Rodhi is already shivering by the time he’s flat on his back on the ice. I help him back up, and we get off of the ice and back onto ground as carefully as possible. I don’t know what else to do, so I take him to my Hideaway. My Hideaway is a tunnel underneath the city of Des Plaines, a tunnel you can access by a manhole that some teenager pried the bolts off of long ago. There’s something like a room down there, made out of hollowed-out concrete, and I write little stories by the light of the lightning bugs I keep in jars down there. That’s where I go when things get really bad at home.

I’ve never taken anyone else down here or even told anyone about it, but it seems like the right thing to do. I take off my jacket when we get down there and put it around Rodhi. I huddle up close to him and try to help him stay warm. He shivers for a while but eventually starts getting warmer and quiets down. Without the sound of his shivering, it’s silent down there, and the only thing you can see are the lightning bugs blinking in Morse code.

Neither of us says anything. Rodhi turns and looks at me. I don’t know what to say. He leans in and kisses me, and I kiss him back.

When it’s time to go, I walk him back to our complex. We never speak another word about this day.

Float

It’s summer, and I’m four years old. That puts us at 1994. Mom, Dad, and I are at a waterpark that doesn’t exist anymore, and I’m running around and splashing. My nose burns from trying to inhale while underwater, and the chlorine’s effects have spread to my eyes, making everything look impressionistic. This is my earliest memory.

Drew isn’t there. He’s at a friend’s, maybe, or football practice, I can’t remember. Either way, I’m wandering around while Mom suns and Dad goes to get himself a drink.

There are some other kids there, but not very many, and most of them are so young that they can’t even stand yet. I look from them to my mother to them again. A little farther past, there’s the main pool where all the older kids and adults are swimming.

The main part of the pool is open, but at the end, at the deep end, there’s one of those pool dividers to set up lanes for competitive swimming. A bunch of teenagers are messing around in those lanes, holding onto the dividers, dunking their heads under, and reappearing on the other side. The lifeguards aren’t watching.

I run over to the edge of the main pool, laughing, having no concept of the world other than what’s right here. I crouch down and put my small hands on the edge. I dip my toes in. One of the lane dividers is just a few feet in front of me. It would be so easy to reach it. The teenagers are still over there splashing, dunking, and carrying each other on their shoulders. I scoot off of the edge and fall into the pool.

The extent of my knowledge about swimming at this time has come from Drew holding me afloat in the pool while I doggy paddle, so my body goes back to that out of instinct. It doesn’t work, though. I splash and thrash, but I can’t keep my head above water. Even under there, I can still hear the happy sounds of people enjoying themselves, but the sounds seem to be coming from miles away.

I know it’ll burn, but I open my eyes anyway. Everything is harsh. Harsh blue of the water, harsh reds and oranges of bathing suits, faraway wrinkled feet, and beneath me a Band-Aid swirling in the pool’s eddy. My senses do that desperate thing where every sensory detail stands out all at once, so I can see the smudge of blood left on the Band-Aid’s bandage strip, and in that moment I see my own mother putting a Band-Aid on me. I was running around with a dollar store cap gun trying to shoot bad guys, and I fell down, skinning my knee. She came up to me, still smoking a cigarette, and put a Band-Aid where my skin had been cut open, her not knowing then that she shouldn’t be blowing smoke in my face while doing it.

I look past the Band-Aid and see the teenagers, who are moving away. I want to call out to them, but they won’t hear me. They don’t even know I’m there. One of the lane dividers is a couple feet away, but it might as well be a couple miles away. I’ve moved maybe a few inches from where I started, just far enough where I can’t reach the edge of the pool anymore.

I don’t have a fully-formed concept of death yet. I’ve killed bugs by this point and have seen roadkill in the Bay Colony parking lot from where a squirrel had no chance against a truck, me going over there when my parents weren’t looking, which was pretty easy to do, crouching down and talking to the squirrel, poking at its body and at its head, its mouth opening when I do, and a few flies coming out, me recoiling and not understanding, running home but not crying, being horrified but also curious. I knew those things, but that was about it. None of my family members had died yet. That would come later. For all I knew, this moment would last forever.

When I open my mouth to breathe, it isn’t like opening my eyes and feeling the burn of the chlorine. It’s much worse, but then it isn’t so bad as the darkness sets in, everything going from too harsh to too dim, and then it fades altogether and I’m just not there.

The next thing I remember is me opening my eyes. I’m on my back next to the pool with cold water on my mouth and chest. I’m looking up at a lifeguard who looks absolutely terrified. My mother is next to him, and when she sees that I’m alive, she starts crying uncontrollably. My dad is next to her. His face is hard to read, but it’s red, almost purple. It looks like he’s getting ready to fight someone, though he doesn’t know who.

What We Found at the Bottom of the Pool

For some reason I keep thinking I’ll find you at the bottom of the pool, maybe down a sandal like I was that day, picking at the algae that the sun baked into the deep end, kicking over last season’s leaves so they can look new again.

It’s all the same, if you’re wondering. The snapped diving board still covers the drain, fiberglass forked at the split like a giant snake’s severed tongue set to blanch in the sunlight. The ladder’s still busted, bolts jutting out like chipped teeth, and I can climb out now without his boots on my fingers, liberating nails from skin.

I can see his approach again, when our legs dangled perilously over the edge and he came over and smiled that smile of his, the one that could win scholarships. I don’t remember what he said, but we laughed cause he laughed and it had that way of worming into you and bringing it out against your will.

So we laughed.

He asked us why we were wearing our swimsuits when there was nothing to swim in. I remember that. And the baggy white tee you wore in place of a bikini top, the one that gave away areola contours. And the way he looked and smiled and passed off peeking down your shirt as gauging pool depth. And how he asked for a hug, where were our manners?

And we could hug each other too.

And we should hug each other too.

Now. Good.

Your heart in my chest was a watch’s spring wound too tight. An old model; obsolete; ticking the way it wanted to but not the way it should. He said he wanted to greet us like they do in Europe, and he kissed both cheeks. We were to do this too. I’m sure you remember.

His finger could be a magic finger. Wherever he pointed got a kiss.

My lips on your cheek. Ta-da. Yours on my neck. Presto. Mine on the corner where yours met. Voila. Your eyes were the clouds shifting past pepto pink sky and I asked the clouds if this was for him or for me. I didn’t say it. I didn’t have to. Our touch was a haze he spooned around and around till he wasn’t present for what we were doing. He was there, but he wasn’t present. You know what I mean.

The sandal slipped my toes and tumbled in like those cars you’ll see in B action movies, end over end. I almost expected it to explode at the bottom. I don’t know if you kicked it. I don’t know if he kicked it. I know I dangled, weightless, from his hand, to extricate sandal by toe, wiggling piggies he called it, and I was so close when I fell in. When he dropped me in. I saw the clouds swimming in your eyes, your shirt pricked by vertices just out of sight and your hands too. You didn’t know what to do with your hands. My foot got cut on the glass of a busted Heineken; red mingled with green. Your voice asked if I was okay. Your voice came from the bottom of a well dug past bedrock, and the vertices fell, and you were somewhere far away, right in front of me. There was dirt in his nails and he got it in your hair when he grabbed you.

You were to take him in and I was to watch.

He was to hurt me if you didn’t do it.

And I went to climb and he liberated the nails from my skin and the world had no sound in it. No sound, only heat and light, and you did that thing to save me. That’s what you said when he left, when you pulled me from this pool, this hole, the one I’m in right now, and you said it with your eyes that were the clouds and not with the mouth I kissed.

It’s still there, again, now, as you come over to pull me out. Like no time has passed at all. So I dangle, from your hand, weightless, and I wonder if I’ll ever go in again.

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THE UNSPEAKABLE THING

There are things you can do to pass the time as you build up the courage to walk up to the Coward’s front stoop and ring the bell with the piece tucked neatly in the waistband behind your back as all the old movies suggest. You can sit quietly in your car and create a cigarette ashpile on your lap. You can listen to cicadas drone and record the cacophony on your phone, play it back real slow so they all sound like they’re yelling for the rest of their lives, which are usually short for insects. You can think some more about The Unspeakable Thing that he did to you that similar summer day all those years back and smell the mud that went up your nose as he pressed your face against same, as the feeling went out of your hands, then wrists, then the Other Place, and the nondescript backyard’s lawn’s grass blades waved back and forth rhythmically to the force of his thrusts. You can ponder the etymology of a word like “unspeakable”–an innocuous word, and one you think you could get to the root of if you really wanted to.

You could instead use the human-specific gift of foresight you’ve been given as a member of the species and think of all the possible scenarios that might go down when you march right on up to that stoop and try to force your bladder to do things against its will as the Coward did to you for very different reasons all those years ago, try not to pee and negate the whole thing when he finally answers the door, when you’ll make just the right scowl of vengeance, the one you’ve been practicing in the mirror all week and let the weight of what’s about to happen really sink in for him before equipping the piece and using it on him. But the trick, you realize, is to use it at just the right moment so as to ensure that his last human thoughts will be on the unimaginable error of his ways and not on something like how funny his show was before he had to get up and answer the door. You can’t wait too long, either–you wouldn’t want him praying for forgiveness or actually asking it or anything like that. It’s all about timing. You know that.

It occurs to you that relieving yourself might be unavoidable, if not desirable for what needs to be done. Considering you unintentionally relieved yourself after he relieved himself in a very different way inside of you, the reaction might be a Pavlovian one, and could very well be activated the second you see his face again. But normal people don’t piss their pants. Crazy people do. And if he thinks you’re crazy, he’ll be scared. Again with the whole last thoughts thing.

You consider what the headline might be for something like this. Something involving “outrage as,” most likely, like: “OUTRAGE AS GUNNED-DOWN VETERAN FIGHTS FOR LIFE,” “OUTRAGE AS VET SHOOTER REMAINS ON THE RUN,” “OUTRAGE AS DES PLAINES MOURNS ITS HOMETOWN HERO,” etc. The anger you feel at the inevitable headline-related injustice is useful. It’s just what you needed, frankly, and so you get out of the car and march right on up to that stoop and let your bladder know that it can do just about whatever it wants right about now. And you ring the doorbell, which sounds lovely. And you wait patiently. And you don’t hear any prior door-approaching footsteps, which is odd, but the door awkwardly jars open a couple inches, then another couple as the Coward holds the door with one hand and struggles to wheel backward in his chair with the other. And you find yourself unintentionally helping him open his door to you, to the man he raped all those years ago when the man was a boy, to the man who will now end his life just as soon as suitable last thoughts can be assured.

And you try on the practiced scowl and stand there ominously once the door’s all the way open and propped against his chair’s right front wheel, and the bladder lets go in Pavlovian fashion just as you thought it would, and he sees the pee stain right away with the eye that wasn’t blown away by the IED, can’t smell it with a nose that is no longer on his face, and has trouble speaking about it with lips that have been grafted from ass flesh, but you come to understand that he has a change of pants inside if you needed them, and he understands if you don’t want them.

You listen to the cicadas droning their insectal/coital chatter. To the cars Dopplering past each other far away on busy streets. You feel the urine warm first your genitals, then your thighs, then trace ticklish lines down both legs. The piece feels unnaturally cold against the skin of your back, its muzzle threatening and grazing the Other Place.

Your head is very, very hot.

And you march right on inside, and will you bwait juss a second while I bit the pants he asks against the grafted ass flesh, and you will, and you close the door more so others won’t have to see the squalor of his house than the growing stain in your pants. And replacement pants have been fetched, and they’ll do you a whole hell of a lot better than they’ll do him with his atrophied legs and his left foot missing in action.

And he points out the bathroom for changing, or baffrum as his mangled lips render it, and you change right there in front of him instead. You let him see the body he had once, the body you now have. And the piece falls from your waistband, and you leave it lying there on the floor.

Blease juss do it, he says.

But you don’t do it.

You leave.

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