One Last Night

As we sat on the yellowed grass next to the crumbling remains of your childhood home, you with your fishnets and Converse, me with my combat boots and rolled-up jeans, both of us with our shades on against the setting sun, we both took in this time we had together, this one last night before you’d move several states away to go off to art school.

They’d fenced off the house to keep mischievous kids from getting in and having the place collapse on them. They’d been planning on knocking down the house and building an apartment complex in its place, but they’d run out of money during the demolition, and so there it sat, half-crumbled, waiting for someone to put it out of its misery. We made so many memories in that house–hide and seek in the dark, laser tag with flashlights, sledding down the stairs on pillows–and here we were now, watching the light go out from the sky like a campfire that’d reached the end of its life, knowing that soon I’d have to go home and you’d have to go out on the road.

I couldn’t afford art school, not even with financial aid, but you could. I tried to stay cool about it, but I knew you could tell I was at least a little jealous. I tried to be happy for you, tried to smile and get excited in all the right places, but it was more than a little forced.

Our art grew along with us, everything from doodles and comics to portraits and landscapes. You always said I was better than you, and I always disagreed. Now, just to make myself feel better, I let myself agree in my head.

“So you’re all packed to go and everything?”

“Yep. Roscoe totally knows something is up. He keeps whining and pawing at the boxes. It’s funny.”

I pictured Roscoe fussing like that, your big orange tabby perennially looking to me like a kitten even though he was thirteen years old.

“Is your mom still giving you shit?”

“Of course. You know her. She and dad are still trying to get me to reconsider. Stay home, go to community college, go into business, something. They keep telling me there’s no money in art, as if I was doing this for money in the first place.”

“That’s shitty.”

“Yeah, I know. Whatever. It is what it is. And I don’t give a shit, I’m going.”

We both shared a laugh, and it got sad at the end of it when we both remembered that this was our one last night, when we realized this could be one of the last laughs we’d share together.

“Have you gotten your schedule already?”

“Yeah. I’m taking mostly gen eds to get them out of the way, but I’ve got a couple of figure drawing and art theory classes, and I’m taking a class on sexuality.”

We looked at each other and shared an awkward smile. There was a silence that was midway between comfortable and uncomfortable.

“I bet your mom loves that.”

You laughed.

“She doesn’t know, and she’s not going to find out.”

“I could just imagine her turning red and telling you that the Lord is watching.”

You laughed again.

“Yeah, she’d have to do a dozen Hail Marys just to get the impure thoughts out of her head.”

We shared another awkward smile, made eye contact that went on a little too long. I broke the silence:

“Do you remember when we used to play spin the bottle out here at night when your parents were asleep?”

“Yeah, and that one time I had to kiss Robbie Stevenson. Dude was all tongue and mouth, I thought he was gonna eat my face. Freaking gross.”

“Yeah, I remember. I like to think I was the best kisser. No big deal.”

You laughed. I thought I saw your cheeks get red, but it could’ve just been the rosy sunset.

“Yeah. You totally were.”

It got quiet again. The sun was past the trees now, nearly below the horizon.

There was no way of knowing who initiated the kiss. It just sort of happened. When it was over, you scooted over and rested your head on my shoulder. I reached over and started stroking your hair. The neighborhood looked to me like it was coming through a fishbowl on account of the tears that were forming. I closed my eyes and smiled.

recording4291901984_MMS1.25.2018

I don’t have signal to call you and I don’t have time to text so I’m doing this through talk to text I apologize for any typos I don’t know exactly where I’m at it’s completely dark I felt around for any doors or Windows but there’s nothing the only light I have is from this phone and my battery is at less than 5% I hope that I’ll get the chance to send this to you but if I don’t hopefully they can get the message to you one way or another I don’t know who put me in here and I don’t know why but I’m here and I’m alone I’m hungry and thirsty and I feel like time is running out the memories that do come back are hazy men in suits shades their faces exposed although I can’t for the life of me remember what their facial features look like at all it’s as if that part of my memory has been wiped on purpose my body feels as if it’s taken a terrible beating but I don’t remember anything like that I hardly remember anything about my life it feels as if I’ve been in this dark room for my entire life at least I can still remember the you though I periodically hear noises noises that force me into one of the rooms corners for safety and when the noises her over I can smell food I have to walk on my hands and knees so that I don’t step on it and I find my food on a plane metal tray with no utensils I eat with my bare hands it’s never enough food but I guess it’s better than nothing I don’t know how much longer I can survive in here it feels like I’m wasting away and my mind is starting to play tricks on me staring into darkness listening into less than silence for so long has made me start to hallucinate I suddenly remember late night Wikipedia research when I heard about sensory deprivation for the first time the ganzfeld effect was it called I don’t remember what I do remember is spending summer nights with you walking through that open field that was only a five minute walk from where we lived coming out onto the grass and being so far away from everything it seemed I remember laying down on the grass and looking up at the stars light pollution gone away just for that moment so that we could see everything in the night sky as if it was all put in the sky just for us I don’t know if I’ll ever get the chance to see you again and that thought terrifies me I don’t know what I did to deserve this what I knew who I spoke to all I know is that I need to survive on a moment-to-moment basis I don’t even know if it’s day or night how much time has passed my beard and hair are long and that’s the only way I have of knowing that quite some time has passed I always cut my hair short and stayed clean shaven sometimes I can sense that someone is trying to talk to me I don’t know if it’s one of the men in the sunglasses but I do know that I can’t hear their voice rather I can hear it but not through my ears I’ve plugged my ears to test my theory and I can hear their voices even after I do it seems as though they’ve gotten in my brain as crazy as that sounds my battery is at 1% I don’t have much time I can hear the noises now I’m going to click Send I hope this gets to you and if it does please don’t forget me I’ll never forget you

Black Hole

He was known to disconnect from the world on occasion. One minute, he’d be in the grocery store, leaning over to smell the flowers, and the next he’d be floating alongside the Orion Nebula, not able to breathe, swimming his arms in empty space but not going anywhere. He’d be out there just until he thought he’d pass out from lack of oxygen, and then he’d blink and be back wherever he was before the episode started, gasping for breath but alive. Looking for a diagnosis was a farce. Half of the MDs he saw pegged him as a drug addict, while the other half wanted to have him admitted. Some suggested narcolepsy with vivid dreams, but these weren’t dreams. He could feel the coldness of space biting at his fingers, the sting in his eyes when he looked at the bright light of the stars unencumbered by an atmosphere to shield out the harmful rays. He could feel the pressure in his head and chest, hear the absolute silence of the void.

He never knew when it would happen. It didn’t seem to be triggered by any specific smells or sounds or sights. It could happen when he was happy or sad or angry. He made detailed logs of his episodes and shared them with the MDs who actually stuck with him, but it got him nowhere.

He never knew where it would take him, either. He’d witnessed the creation of stars, flown over alien planets he’d never before seen, each of them dotted with lights like you’d see in a photo of Earth from space at night. Gaseous clouds of every color undulated past. Hunks of rock of unbelievable size hurtled past, so massive that they seemed to be lazily sliding past him. Satellites of a construction he’d never before seen flew past, sometimes stopped in place as if to observe him, then continued on their way. Every time, he’d hold his breath as long as he could and try to take in as much as possible before going back. If he was in public, he’d inevitably find himself surrounded by unfamiliar faces, concerned faces that were relieved to see him regain consciousness. That was better than waking up in an ambulance or hospital room, because at least then he wouldn’t be charged for the ride and visit.

He took whatever he had with him. More than a few times, he found himself aimlessly pushing a shopping cart through the yawning abyss of space, his groceries slowly floating away from him. When he’d wake up, everything would be back in its place. Then, one day, he got an idea. He was surprised it hadn’t struck him before.

He’d wear a breathing mask and oxygen tank.

He went to a scuba shop and bought the best mask and biggest tank he could find. He called a week off work and wore the mask and tank 24/7. He’d basically never gone a week without an episode before, so all he’d have to do was wait. He also kept a fire extinguisher handy at all times so that he’d have something to propel himself with in space. He spent as much time as he could in bed to ensure that he wouldn’t fall and get hurt if an episode hit. He was ready.

And then it happened.

He found himself hovering above an alien nebula he’d never seen before, each twinkling pinprick within it a star, some of them perhaps suns for habitable planets. He had to remind himself that he wasn’t technically above the nebula, that there was no “above” in space. Some concepts are hard to shake off.

He got to work right away. His mask secure, he turned on the oxygen and was amazed to find that he could breathe. All these years, all these episodes, and he’d always been holding his breath. When that was done, he sprayed a bit of the fire extinguisher by his side, just enough to make him spin. He needed to see where his destination would be.

There were massive clusters of stars everywhere, uncountable. But then there, in the center of it all, there were no stars. There was nothing at all. A perfect circle of nothingness stared back at him, whether taunting or beckoning he couldn’t tell. An unnamable dread consumed him, a fear of something he did not and could not understand. A black hole.

He fought against its pull at first, the different vestigial parts of his brain fighting against this threat, trying to liken it to an apex predator in the wild but having no clear strategy on how to outrun something so massive that it can slow down time.

He’d read all about time dilation. The frequent, unplanned, and initially unwanted trips to space had developed in him an interest in the infinite. Theoretically, if one were to be pulled into a black hole and somehow survive, time would slow down to such a degree relative to them that it would seem like they were being pulled in for millennia. There were many theories on what would happen once an object or person was entirely pulled in, but no one knew for sure.

Now he would.

He pointed the fire extinguisher behind him and propelled himself forward, toward the black hole. He saw this not as an end, but a new beginning. A gateway to something else. A path leading to a world he had no concept of. He flew, and was pulled, and carried. He watched as the light went in along with him.

Rise

UFC @ the Palace

He hadn’t done this in years. He thought he was done, actually. He’d let time take its course, let the creaking in his body set in. He settled into the years that passed. Then the call came.

He didn’t want to do it, but his wife insisted. His retirement hadn’t been official, but it was definitive. An embarrassing defeat given to him by a young up-and-comer. He’d been caught in a triangle choke. Disbelief, or pride, or maybe both, stopped him from tapping. Surely he’d get out. Surely he’d escape. But he didn’t. The choke tightened, and he watched as consciousness left him. When he came to, he was lying on the mat, staring at lights that were like miniature suns, listening to the crowd going wild, the ref and a doctor over him, concern on both of their faces. His body was beaten and bloody, and he was barely able to catch his breath. That’s how it’d happened.

This could be his chance to end on his own terms, she said. His shot at going out on top just like he always wanted to. He could argue some with her points, though he chose not to. What he couldn’t argue with was that this could keep their bank account afloat. That old residual cash wouldn’t last forever, and this could be his way of securing their financial future.

He said yes.

He started training immediately–intensive cardio, sparring, grappling. It hit him all at once just how old he’d gotten. Sure, he was technically only middle-aged, but that was practically ancient for a fighter. Almost unheard of. But he was a big enough name where people wanted to see him fight one last time.

His legs ached from hundreds of takedowns and blows over the years, arms gave him problems if he extended them too far. Still though, he could spar.

He was always a slugger, always preferred standing toe to toe with a guy and putting his strength to the test. He’d come out swinging with such ferocity–a true berserker. Long after most guys would tire and clinch with their opponent to catch their breath, he’d be throwing hooks and uppercuts. It was what he was born to do.

He trained tirelessly, day after day, pushing his body to the absolute limit and then beyond it, having to take some days off when he flirted with injury, feeling like he needed to have an advantage over his younger opponent. But eventually, he could train no more. Eventually, fight night came.

The response he got when his name was announced would sound enthusiastic to the casual observer. He knew that there were plenty of old fans out there, plenty of people paying their respects to a guy like him, a guy who’d help define the sport, but there was pity mixed in there too. They’d seen his career end before, and they expected it to end in similar fashion again. But that was okay. He was used to being the underdog.

Round one. His opponent didn’t touch gloves, so he gave him a jab to the nose to teach him a lesson in manners. He delivered tightly-packed combinations as he was wont to do, alternating between striking the body and the head, not allowing his opponent to adjust. The younger fighter clinched several times to stop the punches, which elicited boos from the crowd. When the clinching didn’t work, the younger guy tried takedowns. But the old man had been training his takedown defense. He sprawled in textbook fashion when the kid tried to come in for his leg, put all his weight on the younger fighter’s back, pushed him down, and got back to his feet.

On and on he slugged with the kid, past round two and into the third and final round. And here was something new: the old man was actually gassed. Sure, the kid was gassed too, but this was still alarming. He threw his trademark combinations, but they were slower, sloppier. The younger fighter noticed and capitalized. He clinched up with the old man and fell backward so that the older fighter would fall on top of him. The kid pulled one arm and pushed the other against the older fighter’s chest, got one leg over his head and the other over that leg. A triangle choke. The old man breathed in slow and deep as the kid worked at the hold. The younger fighter grabbed his own ankle and pulled down, cinching it tighter, squeezing till the old man’s face turned red. He could see himself fade again, feel his strength seep out of his body.

And then he did what had to be done. He got his legs underneath him and stood up. The crowd collectively gasped as he picked the younger fighter up like he was nothing. Then everything went silent. Everyone waited.

The old man slammed the younger fighter down with so much force that the kid was knocked out instantly. The ref came in and got between the two of them before any more damage could be done. And that was it. He’d won.

The entire crowd was on its feet, cheering and applauding as if he were a hero back from war. The kid came over to offer his congratulations and thanks, and the old man shook his hand.

As he walked out of the cage and past the cheering crowd, harsh bright lights like miniature suns up above him, the old man knew what true happiness felt like.

Come Loose

Things Happen

The way the fighter’s coach put it to him as they sat in the gym’s back alley long past midnight was to let the fire do what it needs to do. You could spend your whole life tensing up. Tensing up for a word, for a punch, for a fight. Or you could come loose and strike first.

It was a kind of controlled chaos, the same way the combustion engine harnesses miniature explosions to propel a vehicle forward. The fire, though, must be controlled. He’d been out of control long enough, as a boy, getting in fight after fight, fighting just to survive, fighting because that’s all he knew how to do. No form, no technique, just using whatever would work to stop the pain and inflict that pain onto the other person. So much destruction. So much hurt.

But even hurt can be harnessed.

It felt unnatural at first, having to adapt his wild punches to something more controlled, more precise. Drilling footwork, and takedown defense, and grappling. Practicing the same punch over and over and over, exasperated, asking his coach if he could move on, learn something else. He was hungry. And his coach would bring up the old Bruce Lee quote about not fearing the man who’s practiced 10,000 kicks once but instead fearing the man who’s practiced one kick 10,000 times. And the fighter would laugh and say yeah yeah yeah, get back into position and hit the pads again. Jab, jab, right hook, dodge and roll, right hook again.

He remembered the first time he landed a right hook. Some asshole kid was following him home after he got off the school bus. Making fun of him for having to get school lunch assistance, saying his mother worked the streets but even that wasn’t enough. The bully was getting in his face and shouting insults till his left eardrum felt like it’d burst, till his shoulders tightened and his head got hot and his vision focused. That first time he landed a right hook, it was textbook. He pulled it across with the precision of a conductor, his arm his baton. And when it landed on the bully’s chin, sending him down, unconscious before he even hit the ground, it was like his own symphony had started to play. It continued to play the whole walk home, and it never quite stopped.

He had dreams of making it big, starting a gym in his old neighborhood, and coaching the kids looking for a way out, giving them the discipline and structure he himself didn’t find till he was already an adult and had made his mistakes. He was going to fight for every kid out there who didn’t see a way out of the black hole that was poverty. He knew what it was like having no concept of the future, not being able to think past where the next meal might come from. He was hungry, and he’d stayed hungry. Hunger comes in many forms.

But his coach would come in and tell him the quote about the journey of a thousand miles beginning with a single step. Always with the quotes, his coach. But he was right.

The fighter trained. He practiced punches, kicks, sprawls, submissions. He practiced, but more important than that, he listened. If his coach told him to do something, he did it. Even if it seemed pointless, even if he couldn’t see the immediate purpose, he did it.

Months passed. The fighter shed fat and put on muscle. He found that he could go an entire session without getting gassed. He’d sweat, and he’d feel sore after, but he could keep fighting for as long as he needed to.

He trained on pads, bags, and dummies. He sparred, first with headgear, then without. He fixed his diet, drank plenty of water, and got good sleep. He didn’t realize it then, but he’d worked himself into the best shape of his life.

And then he got his first amateur fight.

He didn’t know what the outcome would be as he stood across from his opponent. Didn’t know then that his right hook would land him a win in the first round by knockout. All he knew was that the tightness he was feeling, that instinct to tense up, was less than useless. So he breathed. He let go. He came loose.