The Dead Friend

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kinds of Stained Glass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Things will get better.

I want a time travel story like the thing that just hit me. I don’t want travel to dinosaur times or prehistoric man, although that would be cool. I don’t want splintering realities or historical hijinks or grandfather paradoxes. I want a book to appear, dog-eared, in the bottom of eighth-grade-me’s backpack. I want him to see his name on the cover and to wonder about what might be inside, what might be in store. I want him to sit, cross-legged on the floor in late-night TV glow, turning pages, reading his own words from fifteen years in the future. I want him to fall asleep with that story flickering through his mind’s projector, and a repeat message like a nightly mantra:

Things will get better.

Things will get better.

Things will get better.

They already have.

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.

Stone of Madness Press Love!

This is the best acceptance email I’ve ever received. Huge thanks to L Scully and Stone of Madness Press for believing in my work and for being so very kind. My bi love story “Contact” will go live in September, and I could not be more excited! 😁