Lost Days

Life is on the other side of death. I’d learn this years later, living in another state, at a different job, with another person, in a different headspace, but I’d learn it all the same. Before I learned it, I found myself coming home just in time for the setting December sun, coming home from a hangout after Krav Maga after a writing session after work after a morning run. In those days, I’d fill up every waking minute of my day till nothing was left, coming home at 9, sometimes 10, not realizing then that I was doing anything I could to get away from you. I didn’t know it then, but these were my Lost Days.

The thing about toxic relationships is that when you’re in one, you hardly ever realize it. My head was in a fog, soul a million miles away, and I was dodging cars on Chicago streets with my bike, sometimes missing them by inches and not really caring what the outcome might be. When the idea of leaving you would cross my mind, I’d remember the years we’d already put into this thing and reconsider, as if recommitting to a years-long mistake would suddenly make it not a mistake.

I sat at this desk I’d been given day in and day out, performing mindless tasks, only to come home to arguing, or the cold shoulder if I was lucky. My writing was arguably the best it’s ever been in this period, and I know now that it’s because it was the perfect escape. I’d dealt with addiction before, but this one had none of the side effects I was used to. There was no writing hangover, no accompanying feeling of guilt and emptiness after I finished. There was just me exploring me and putting it on the page. And when I’d share my stories with you, make sure you were the first to know about a publication, you’d shrug it off. I remember you once told me to get back to you when I got published in a big magazine, but not until then.

You kept telling me to be something or stop being another thing. You said I wasn’t funny like I used to be. That I was too serious all the time, and quiet, and that I’d space out a lot. I know now that that’s because I was depressed and felt stuck, but I buried that idea deep down. I went to my Zen service, I went to Krav Maga, I went running, I had writing sessions, I hung out with old friends, and I went on bike rides. After a particularly nasty argument, I ran 18 miles–9 miles away from you and 9 miles back. I hadn’t planned it, it just sort of happened.

I think I published so I could remind myself that I was a writer, that I didn’t have to be trapped at that office job and in that toxic relationship forever. You started coming home late too, but not for the same reasons. You’d go out drinking with your work friends, come home at 2, 3 in the morning or sometimes not at all. When you wouldn’t come home, you were “staying with a friend.” And then there was the time you were tagged in a Facebook picture, your body right up against another guy at a party. How you laughed when I brought it up, how you said that you weren’t even touching him when there was literal photo evidence that you were. I didn’t know the term gaslighting then, didn’t know that that’s what you were doing. But I’d come to learn.

All the while, I put together my novel. It was framed as nonfiction, the main character telling his story, but I fictionalized it just enough for me to be comfortable sharing my own story with the world. I sent out excerpts from it and got a few published. It hit me that there were several places out there in the literary world that liked this story. That maybe I could get the book published too, as long as I tried hard and put myself out there. So I wrote, and I didn’t stop writing. I wrote long after I broke up with you, long after I moved to another state and started working for myself and found someone new, someone who actually valued who I was as a person. But let’s go back to the setting December sun.

I was on my way back home, sun disappearing behind Chicago skyline, crossing through Warren Park on my way back to our apartment, pedaling my bike through the light dusting of snow that was just then starting to cling to the ground. I was about halfway through the park when the handlebars came loose. My tools were at home, so I pedaled through it, the handlebars getting progressively more wobbly, until it was hard to steer at all. Then the chain fell off. I stopped the bike, got off, flipped it upside down, and worked on this chain that had never given me problems before. I worked for an hour or more in the biting cold, my hands covered in grease and so cold I could barely feel them. I toiled at this thing, trying to fix what I gradually realized was unfixable.

After enough time had passed, I just left it behind. I tipped the bike over till it fell on its side, and I walked away. I dialed the friend I’d just hung out with and asked him if I could crash at his place for the night. He said I could. Of course I could. So I turned around, and I walked through the gathering snow, and I never looked back.

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STITCH AND TIME

I remember the precise color of the ink as the receptionist’s pen’s cartridge ran dry halfway along the guest sign-in sheet. It was a dusky purple, the sort of thing you’d ooh and ah at while sitting next to someone special and looking up at the stars.

Looked down at my signature. How my jittery heartbeat fucked it up. And I heard her there beside me as a little boy–take your time, not so sloppy. You’ll have to do it again.

There were other things that came to mind besides dusky hues and phonics clues. There was the last time we met face to face, with all the years and muddled feelings intervening. The mud on my shoes as I walked up the drive and left guilty prints behind. As I scraped my heels on the sidewalk’s edge just as I would before coming in for dinner as a kid. And the door swung open and she was there parading a sling on her arm even though there was no injury, her hair a tattered mess and the boxes stacked four-high behind her, ready for the next eviction.

“Hello.”

Like a door-to-door salesman. Like a solicitor. Like a man conducting a business transaction and nothing more. And she played along just fine, knew her part very well. Only the watery eyes gave it away as she handed my birth certificate over. Yes, she gave me what I asked for. And then she gave me something else, too. A blurry old polaroid of a blanket-swaddled newborn me staring up at her with unknowing eyes. I took the polaroid and marched back past my muddy footprints.

There were the loopy letters of my signature again, only half-completed. The rest was only hinted at, only implied by an ambiguous dusky purple.

“She’ll see you now. Right this way, sir.”

The receptionist led me down halls kept alive on fluorescent life support, heels click clacking on tile kept to an unreal sheen. Click. Clack. Click. Clack. A gait that implied marching someone to a place against their will. A teacher leading me to the principal’s office. She abruptly stopped at one of the rooms, opened the door, and led me in.

“Mrs. Collins. Your son Jay is here to see you.”

Something wearing an effigy of my mother’s face looked up at me from its thick bed sheet swaddling. Its hollow eyes scanned me, determined I was no threat, and went back to staring intently at the forget-me-not pattern stitched on the quilt that held the swaddling together.

“If you need anything I’ll be just down the hall.”

A professional smile, and then she was out the door and click clacking back to her desk, leaving me alone with the thing that was not quite my mother.

Surveyed the room. No windows. White walls. Same tile kept to an unreal sheen. Bed. One table. One chair. I pulled the chair out and cringed as its legs squeaked against the tile. Took a seat across from the thing that looked like my mother, with enough distance between us to allow for an easy escape should it become necessary.

The flower pattern was deemed intensely interesting, and so she stared in silence. Gave me a chance to pass over the eyes that bore only a passing resemblance to my mother’s piercing blues. This blue was dull, almost gray. The hair. Gray in spots, patchy in others, with handful-sized tufts gone and now revealing scabby scalp beneath. Her skin. Made of wax paper and stretched over a harsh frame. Sockets and joints and tendons and sinew all showing through.

I coughed. Tried to sound natural but couldn’t. The thing wearing my mother’s face looked up, determined I was still not a threat, and went back to appreciating myosotis frozen in stitch and time.

“Do you know who I am?”

Those eyes came back to me, bugged out of their dark sockets. I tried to smile a friendly smile, but it came out more like baring teeth. She did the same. Monkey see, monkey do. Went back to admiring her quilt.

“I’m Jay. I’m your son.”

She let out a breath that might’ve been a distant relative of a sigh. Genus unknown, but it had all the hallmarks of one. Looked me over, smiled her monkey see monkey do smile without a prompt this time, and began fiddling with the stitching that held the flowers on the quilt.

“I’ve come to…”

What?

“To…”

She brought the quilt to her face. Tried to smell the flowers.

“I don’t know why I’ve come here. Okay? I don’t know why. I guess I thought that things could all just magically fix themselves like they do in the movies. That I’d walk in here, and you’d be just as terrible as you always were, and we’d fight, and maybe you’d come around. No, I’m sure you’d come around. And I’d get in a few good ones and really let you have it, and you’d know why I left for good. You’d know and you’d understand and maybe you’d let it go. Maybe you’d ask for forgiveness. And maybe I’d grant it.”

She tried pulling off two-dimensional flowers, but the stitching started to unravel instead.

“But you’re gone. You can’t even hear me. I don’t know why I’m still even talking. Maybe for old time’s sake. Maybe to make up for all the times you wouldn’t let me get a word in edgewise. Who knows. But I just needed to see you, I guess. And I needed to give you this.”

Produced the old polaroid from my jacket’s inside pocket. Set it down at her side, next to the frayed forget-me-nots.

“I don’t need it anymore. You can have it.”

Got up from my chair. Didn’t cringe as wood scraped tile this time. Looked at my mom lying peacefully in bed. Almost tranquil.

“Goodbye, Mom.”

Opened the door. Shoes on tile. Click. Clack. Click. Clack.

“Goodbye, Jay.”

Close.

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