The Secrets of the Stars

We came down from the campo before the sun had fully risen in the sky, the air smelling of dung and of whiskey and of the swamp. The gators appeared on street corners like sentinels guarding sacred treasure, street signs strewn across roads like so many fallen branches after a storm. You could see where the floodwaters had stopped from the houses that still stood, brown water lines along their outer walls marking the height of the world’s smallest man, or else implying a tub that had not been properly scrubbed.

We collected what we could, I remember, what had not been ruined in the waters. You would stop the truck, let me out of its bed, and time me with your stopwatch as I looted the lawns. Notepads with half their leaves torn out, the rest yellowed from the flood. Whole boxes of balloons to fit the necks of to hoses, vessels with which we could control the water. An unbroken mirror, antique, and tying a stained blanket around it with twine.

I begged you to stop at the houses with walls nearly toppled, wanted to document them with the camera I found, but it was not safe and you would not let me. The marooned liquor bottles were not off limits, however. You sipped their bitterness as the sun came through and splintered light on the hood of our dusty truck. I asked if I could have some, that this time was different, and you actually let me. You’d pour swallows into the cap, alcohol spilling onto your hands so that you had to be careful when lighting your cigarillos, and I stuck out my tongue as if that would rid me of the burning.

We would drink till the world swam in my eyes, and then we would drink some more. I was young and unpracticed, so it didn’t take much. But you had years of experience. When the occasional officer passed through, you ducked into the cab and I the bed, not even daring to breathe until they had passed, them thinking our truck just one more abandoned auto among hundreds.

If it weren’t for the sign still left standing, there’d be no way to tell that our street was our street. Our house was spread in pieces across the road, shingles and siding covering photo albums, the plastic recorder I just got in music class. I remember you slowed the truck when we came to the wreckage, acted as if it was so you could take a swig without spilling, as if you had no idea where we were. When I asked if we could stop you acted like you hadn’t heard. It wasn’t until I yelled that you acknowledged my question, that you answered by speeding up.

I remember watching my ruined neighborhood recede behind me, the hood looking more like a garbage dump for monsters than a place capable of human habitation. The smell of the mud spraying out from under the tires, infused with the stink of human waste and loss. The taste of stale whiskey still clinging to my lips like a whispered secret I didn’t want to keep. The sun blinding my eyes like a beacon or a warning or both. I remember being surprised when it wasn’t the fall that hurt, but the tumble afterward. The mud unforgiving despite what you’d think.

You got a block out before noticing I was gone. By then I’d scooped up our lives into my arms like a misshapen infant, ran off into the swamp where your truck couldn’t reach. Your eyes when you stopped at the edge and got out, me able to see them when I turned my head and just kept running. Your voice as it carried into the sticks and I left a trail of dropped items behind me. I found a dry patch of land and passed the hours by scoping for gators, their eyes glowing after the sun fled from the sky and night enveloped everything.

I came back to the campo next morning, not knowing what to say to you and so saying nothing. Instead, I handed you the things I carried out of the swamp and you accepted them, stole furtive sips from your flask and ran your fingers over these things as if they held the secrets of the stars. And for all I knew, they did.

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A Sun They’d Never Catch

The funny thing about almost dying is that in a lot of ways it’s similar to what you’d expect. It’s the little departures from expectation that fuck with you. Let’s back up, though, because my situation’s a little different from most. I wasn’t going into cardiac arrest or total organ failure or anything like that. What I did was I left work on my lunch break, caught an Uber downtown, and picked out a good X-Acto knife at the art supply store. I wouldn’t recommend using an X-Acto knife, by the way. Not because it’ll fail, but because there’s a very good chance it won’t. Take it from someone who immediately regretted their decision: You’re going to want to give yourself a chance to climb back up the hole of everlasting blackness. So the X-Acto knife. There was leaving the store and thinking in a matter of fact way that, well, I’ve got the knife now, so I have to go through with it. That it’d be a waste not to. There was walking down the busy lunchtime streets of Chicago, understanding that this would be the last time I’d see a driver flick a pedestrian off. This would be the last time I’d see a light’s red turn green. The last time I’d hear a thumping Reggaeton bassline as the car playing it passed by. There was receiving a text from a friend, then a Snapchat from my little brother, and having to look away from the phone, put it in standby mode. There wasn’t any of the second guessing you’d expect, not even during the more grisly parts of the story. I’m not saying these things don’t happen, I’m just saying I was past all that. My case was different. There was picking the right bridge and planning out the logistics, realizing this would be the last time I’d plan something, the last time I’d be thinking something at all, that I’d never experience being human again. There was ignoring these thoughts so I could get on with it. There was finding the little secluded spot across from the bridge where I could do it, “FORGIVE” intaglioed on the wall behind the trees and grass. Yes, it really said that. I couldn’t make that up. There was finding the cardboard mat on the ground, empty liquor bottle next to it, diseased pillow off to the side, and apologizing in advance to the homeless guy who’d have to come across all this blood. There was the one pure moment of pain, after I rolled up the thick woolen sleeves of my winter coat and the blade entered the flesh of my left arm, then almost nothing. Almost peace. There were both of my arms open, bleeding freely onto mildewy cardboard. There was me wondering what was taking it so long, squeezing the skin beside the gaping wounds to speed up the process. There was sitting there wondering if I was getting sleepy or if I was placebo-ing that based on my expectations. There was shifting my position because my legs hurt, and almost laughing about that seeming so important. There was pissing my pants and my vision being almost apart from my body. There was getting up and leaving the secluded spot, trailing blood as I climbed up to the bridge’s pedestrian walkway. There was the comical moment when a cyclist stopped behind me to snap a pic of the Chicago River in all its January glory, me turning away so he wouldn’t see my arms as he passed, him apparently so focused (or mortified) that he didn’t say or do anything. There was studying the way the bridge sloped like a slide just past the easily bypassable guardrail. There was, like I said, no hesitation whatsoever. Just sliding for a second, then air, then icy green enveloping everything. There was seeing the sun shine through briny black, and somehow swimming for it. There was hearing my terrified yells, almost automatic, almost outside of me, and realizing I wanted to live. There was swimming to the pylon sticking out of the water and streaking bloody hands on it, having nothing to grab onto, and almost wanting to laugh if I wasn’t bleeding out and drowning in the Chicago River. There was swimming around the pylon because there was nothing else to do. There was finding the ladder and almost not believing it. There was climbing this ladder and not even feeling the pain in my arms, though it must’ve been terrible. There was getting to the top of the structure and the person across the river who somehow saw the whole thing (again, I couldn’t make this up), megaphone-telling me that help is on the way and I should stay put. There was thinking, well shit, now that I actually want to live I better not bleed out. Etc. And the fire engines. And the paramedics. And the heated blankets to pull the chill from my bones, and the straps to keep me stabilized but really probably to stop me from looking at my arms. Eventually there were the Frankenstein stitches, sixty in total, and even those went away after a while, in the way that everything does. But more than that, than any of it at all, there was lying in bed on the locked ward and watching the birds fly past the window, wingtips grazing glass, all of them darting off for a sun they’d never catch but which they’d reach for anyway.

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