Time Stood Still

Sitting in the back of the bus with a dollar store notebook on my lap, sketching and thinking about the past. October droplets stain my public transit window, turning the grime to a vertical stream as it passes and changes the passing headlights into alien stars–nothing more than ways to mark my way as I move along.

The headlights become fireflies in fading light, the summer retreating to its chrysalis, nights getting colder and rain and wind starting to claim the treehouse we made out in the woods, not in the trees but among them, sitting on the ground and made out of repurposed wooden fences, branches, and a blue tarp we liberated from a neighbor’s backyard. More branches plotted out the yard around the house, where we’d plant our garden once we had enough money for seeds. We never had enough money.

Playing backlit portable games underneath the blue tarp sky we made, taking our first sips of alcohol–vodka stolen from parental bottles and transferred to empty Coke cans, filling the bottles back up with water to disguise our theft. We were good.

You painted the tarp ceiling like it was the Sistine Chapel, counting sixteen candles and watching as you made a Frankenstein God touch the finger of a Super Mario Adam. You learned quickly that a little paint went a long way when some of it dripped off of the tarp and into your hair. It speckled it like you were a painted galaxy, took days to fully wash out.

You swiped a pack of cigarettes from the corner store when the clerk wasn’t looking, and we only got a cigarette in before we tossed them out, laughing and coughing. Your throw landed them in the creek, and I started like I was going to fish them out, but you told me it was okay. We were going to be enablers of fish addiction. We started a fire.

My pen is tracing lines I don’t know the endpoints of before I make them. It’s only when I hold it out in front of me that I can see the general shape, can make out what it is that I’m sketching.

You said we were going to get married someday, that you’d have my babies. We hadn’t even kissed yet. I laughed, sputtered out an, “Is that so?” Flames played in your eyes. You said, “mmmhmm.”

Midterms and finals and college searches. But you wouldn’t make it that far.

One day you were here, and the next you weren’t. Recited words and lit candles and crying eyes and offers of consolation. Days and nights of empty wandering in my room, thoughts moving from what I could’ve noticed to what I should’ve done. Could’ve and should’ve. Weeks melting like wax from a candled finger in reverse, working up the energy to take a shower, change my clothes, go to the corner store we used to haunt so I could put some food in my stomach, no matter how unhealthy it was.

Taking walks through the woods alone, thinking I saw you walking beside me, like a phantom limb you were, always attached to me. I kept walking.

My stop is coming up, but I have to finish this sketch first. It needs to have an ending.

One night long after it happened, I walked back out to our tree house. The tarp had sagged from the season’s rain, branches bent, but it was still standing. I crawled underneath and sat in there, the moonlight becoming something different fed through the water-blue of the tarp, something new. You were almost there beside me.

We’ve already passed my stop, but that’s fine. The drawing is done. It’s us sitting under the tarp together, the glow of a portable screen on my face as you watch with your head on my shoulder, in a place we both know, back when time stood still.

Living in a Lofi World

Vapor trailing off a simulated cherry, taking in the air of a cold, hard, muddy, Eraserhead-type October night. Throwing tiny acorns against a wooden fence, little tree seeds with so much potential yet facing such great adversity. Listening to songs that sound like they’re coming out of underwater speakers, tearing holes in sweater sleeves, sitting here and living in a lofi world.

I don’t know where I am anymore. A sequential thought is a miracle, tossing through scenarios both experienced and imagined, seeing the sights that made me who I am, flooded streets in summer storms and generators running at full volume at night, sneaking honey buns out of convenience stores to keep my belly full (you’d call them corner stores), not knowing how to sit or stand or move or act till I got out of that place, like a curse, sensory pleasures the ambrosia of the broken-down town.

My whole life felt like a chord progression you couldn’t place, resolution out of sight, almost grating, until this moment, this turn of events, this change of the hand and tune of the strings that brought the entire piece into order, that made the whole song make sense. You helped me with that.

So I put myself into things that can erase myself, that can create something new, something whole that will fly far from that place where I used to be, that cursed home, still home, always home, no matter how far I fly, erase the times and the places and the people, erase my past self until I’m nothing but a palimpsest, a scraped and scarred blank thing, standing under harsh light but with no discernible features to be seen. I am feeling all of these things.

I feel I’m flying through clouds most days. Sometimes with hair standing on end from static shock, sometimes soaked freezing from the rain, but flying, floating, above it all. And there is no way to erase those things, to erase my selves, the Things I’ve Seen. No need to, either. And out in this night, if I can’t be in the clouds, I’ll just have to make my own.

Sines

Traveling the sinews and cells of a breaking body, the sine waves of thought as nothing more than chemical signals sent from one location to another. A word: spaghettification. A photo in a physics textbook: a body falling toward a black hole, being stretched past comprehensible limits. That is this feeling, here, being unplugged and plugged back in again, at random, consciousness in spurts guiding you, giving you just enough animation to keep you alive, to allow you to do what you need to do to survive. Dilation of time, seconds turning into hours. A smell you don’t recognize. Hearing the sounds you’re making as if they’re coming from a deep and distant tunnel. This is extreme trauma, a body pushed to its limits, and a will to survive that cannot be defeated. When your eyes close, it’s a green field you’re standing in, nearly endless except for the streets at the borders, traffic nothing more than light whooshes and faint movements. Morning dew still clinging to blades of grass, and warm sunlight like childhood playground days in the summer. When you open them again, it’s your own blood all around you, more of it pooling inside you, and a burst of pain in your spine like liquefaction of sense. It’s a pure animal fear, lizard-brained, all higher functions suspended for the time being. Are we all just light trapped inside a cage of skin and bone, glimpses of a limitless form only ever temporarily shining past animal wants and needs? It’s nothing but sines now, all coming through in waves, and this is not the day that you die. This is the day that you defy the odds and live. Because you are more than this cage of skin and bone, even if you need to put it to use to save the light. And when that’s done, anything can be done. So you get to your feet, through agonizing pain and the cold flush of lost blood. You find that the pain can only reach a certain height. Maybe we’re all just sines in the dark, endless arcs, rising and falling, forever, in the ever-dark of space, becoming other things after this life, then others still, experiencing love and loss and birth and death, an endless cycle, but this story isn’t quite done yet. So you stand. You walk. You take in breath and call out and taste the cold flower of the air as it dances on your tongue and shows your breath. All we need to do to survive and thrive is find that moment that can provide a firmware update for our soul, and you’ve just found yours. The reason is the reason. So you walk out of the cold and toward the warmth. You keep moving.

Lost in the Options

Lost in the options, hanging out back of a Taco Bell, a stained and worn strip of cardboard sitting on the concrete next to us, blasting some Reggie Watts off of a smartphone, shaking a can of spray paint that’s half out, and Sammy’s rendering a Renaissance mural on the wall, a bloodmapped mattress off at the end of the alley, from some old motel, a seedy place next to the exact replica of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the only tourist trap and place of note in this small Illinois town, small relative to the size of Chicago, though infested by denizens of same, with driveby shootings in the middle of Touhy Avenue, civilians caught in the crossfire, never able to react to the light as it turns green, and we passed by the art park on our bike ride over here, the one with anything and everything on display, modern art, experimental, abstract, the homeless people on the side of the street, next to the canal, shooting heroin in between bouts of panhandling, the software designer from Florida among them, the guy I talked to, the guy I walked past on my way home from MMA one night, soaking wet with sweat, asking him about his life, finding out the details, offering to draft up an interview, maybe a series, online, hashing out the social media details, getting his story out to an audience so the world could understand what it’s like, what the experience of homelessness is, always seeing it through the lens of passive news viewer or vaguely worried passerby, not knowing when to make eye contact if at all, all of us wanting to ignore the fact that we can all be at this place at any time, are always one paycheck, one decision away from having nothing, and I knew this from the time I was a boy, before even my mom became homeless, when I could see it firsthand, could see the way that life had melted her, shaped her into someone she wasn’t, always a respectable member of society until you aren’t, until people have a reason and excuse to cast you aside, and I’m thinking about these things while Sammy is doing his work on the Taco Bell wall, an ethereal representation of Sodom and Gomorrah, cities quickly turning to ash, burning, eating themselves, with a figure of the Madonna in the foreground, with the baby Messiah suckling at her breast, looking content, peaceful, maybe with no idea what’s going on behind her, just pausing in this moment to have her likeness captured, and we’re talking about childhood books that were read to us when we were little, Goodnight Moon, Where the Wild Things Are, thinking back to a time when things weren’t fucked up, or not quite as fucked up as they are now, a time before responsibility and accountability, and there are sirens in the distance, Skokie cops, and Sammy has to get the last details right before we go, has to get it just right, because there’s no way we can come back here again, not even once, because once we’ve tagged a place we’re gone from there for good, so he finishes, and we take our last swigs of the wine we bought and brought, and we run away to the next street where we can ride off in peace.

In the Dark

We’re in the dark, slow dancing to a song we barely know the words to, mumbling, mostly just picking up the melodies and harmonizing on the chori, making up our words and movements as we go till we’re melting together, here, at night, with the storm outside, with old Christmas lights strung up inside as the only light for us to dance by, something lofi, something chill, with words aching past quivering vocal cords, kissing every half step, sweat running down your forehead like the raindrops that are on the window, raining, trying to hold this moment in our hands like a childhood snowglobe that’s been scuffed but is still kept for sentimental value, moving past assuring each other that we’ll end up together in the end, somehow, the finality of it like a semi truck sending us flying down concrete, knowing full well, now, that this is the last moment we’ll ever spend together, that I have to leave, for reasons we didn’t want to face at first but now have to, waiting for something to happen, some epiphany, some moment like in a dream, like in a movie, then trying to forget it, eternal sunshine of the spotless mind, conducting this moment like it’s a symphony, and I’m trying to remember forever the shapes of your face, the curves of your body, wondering if there will be a satisfying denouement, some word at the end to make it right, or if death is always something that happens with a whisper and not a bang, and I’m wondering what it’ll be like to be in my final moments, not just this one here with you but my last on Earth, if it’ll be quick, they never really know do they, and you’re trying to console, trying to make this all okay, because that’s who you’ve always been, using your half of the glass to fill mine, to make me see, to be my eyes, my light, my world, and it only makes sense that I’ll lose it all when I lose you, because the storm is starting to hit, and if you look close you can see the waves as they crash onto our block outside the window, the raindrops joined by branches and leaves, wind threatening to crack it, to break it all, and there was never any way out of this, no evacuation possible for us, no money for gas, never enough of anything but love for us, between us, and we’ve decided that we’re going to slow dance in the dark for one more song and make it right in our own way.

Picking Targets

In combat, for him it was nothing more than picking targets. He’d look bored while hitting the bag, send a right hook to where his opponent’s head would be, then a left to the body, right elbow coming across that would erase consciousness if it hit a human head. It was the same with words.

There was a time when he’d be excited to fight. A chance to paint on canvas, whether to see his words or punches land, it didn’t matter. To see his opponent’s hurt show through no matter how hard they tried to hide it. He knew better now, but there was a time when he was fueled by the fight. Bruises hidden under shirt sleeves, bloody noses washed under kitchen sinks in dirty light. Cutting knuckles on teeth and throwing punches as wild fingers grasped at him and nails cut flesh on neck. Blood kept him going.

He’d been out of that way of thinking for a while now, but he could still pick targets. Still strike with surgical precision, identify his opponent’s weaknesses and exploit them as efficiently as possible. If someone hits you, you rip out their throat with your teeth. He knew what to do.

That acid can’t be contained, not for long, and when it burnt from its container and spilled out, it couldn’t be stopped. There’s a calm breath that comes, a quiet certainty as you move your body where it needs to go, allow the words to come out in just the right sequence. There’s an art to destroying a person.

Back when it used to consume him, when the rage controlled him, he always had an internal barometer. Would know when he’d gone too far, had been too extreme in his words or actions. But not now. Now he was picking targets, attacking his abuser with a focus and a clinical technicality. Exposing him for his cowardice, his artifice, tearing apart his idea of who he was as a man until he could watch the paper man crumble. And when it was done, and he was left on read for days, and his target had nothing to say, no comeback after years of always having to get the last word, he nodded, smiled, and carried on.

Inbound/Outbound

When I got the call and heard that my little brother had attempted suicide, there was that long, false, beautiful moment where my brain decided this was Not Real. This was an incredibly tasteless joke, or maybe it’d been a case of mistaken identity. I’d talked with him the week before, seen him in person last month when I’d flown back home, and he’d seemed fine. Stressed, maybe, but okay. A couple weeks later, he’d downed a bottle of pills and waited for an end that refused to come.

I know that discovery, that mix of shock and relief and disappointment. I’ve been in that position, been hospitalized for it, seen the looks on the faces of the people who matter most to me, and now I couldn’t help but make the same face. Couldn’t help but sort through the years, looking for any clues that this could possibly happen. Regressed mentally until I was a little kid myself, holding my little brother for the first time, just a baby, with no concept of the fact that what was just given to him could so easily be taken away.

When I got off the phone and reality finally caught up, I walked into the bathroom and knelt in front of the toilet. My stomach heaved, mouth stayed open, but nothing came out. Like words left unsaid for years, gathering, with no outlet, no exit, mingled and mangled until they’re unrecognizable and you can no longer say what needs to be said.

I cried. I allowed myself that much.

Powerlessness is an old friend. I knew him well when I was younger, but I thought we’d parted ways for good. I was wrong. How much consoling and comforting can you do from 800 miles away? What can you say over a static-y line that could make all of this go away? To see that kid at knee-height again, tearing through the house and laughing as you pretend to be a monster and give chase? What words can you offer beyond the ones that everyone already says, the words I myself had heard in the hospital, from friends and family and staff?

When I was sure I wouldn’t throw up, I got the number for his facility and called. Hearing his voice was like hearing someone come back from the dead, with every nuance and vocal quality vivid and obvious. I’d never pinpointed the details before, always subconsciously assumed that he’d always be there for me to listen to. I’d taken those things for granted.

What is a person made of? Is it the tiny changes in inflection when they’re making a joke? The glint in their eye when they haven’t seen you in months? For my brother, it was being able to be sarcastic in any situation, including and especially when relaying the facts of a suicide attempt. It was asking about family members and hoping they were okay, as if what had just happened to him was insignificant. It was the way that every “I love you” that came out of his mouth was genuine. True. And always would be.

Later that night, lying in bed, I checked my phone. I didn’t want to call anyone–I had already called them all. So I scrolled down the list, down and down, so fast that I could no longer see the names, just inbound or outbound.

Pique/Peek/Peak

Pique

like a kid sitting on the floor

at the Scholastic Fair

debating stealing a book

because he can’t afford it

eats public assistance at lunch

can already see the looks of shame

on the faces

of his parents

when they walk into the principal’s office

so he doesn’t

so he puts it back

and tries to picture imagined worlds

his mind won’t be shown.

Peek

like hearing “don’t peek”

from the lips

of his first girlfriend

removing her bra straps

audibly

and the space between them is filled

with electricity

and when they touch

it’s a revelation

and when they finish

he tells her stories

disguised fictions

makes them up on the spot

like he did

as a kid

when the only time you heard

“don’t peek”

was during a game

of hide and seek

Peak

like seeing your name

on the cover

of a book

and you don’t know

how it got there

even though you do

don’t know

the steps that got you

from point A to B

and if you try real hard

you can almost see

the kid that would go hungry

can almost see

the kid with ripped-up

hand-me-down

jeans

and eyes that wanted

but couldn’t always

see

and now you’re at the top

of a tall

tall peak

breathing in the thin air

and seeing all

you can see