Open Arms

If you’d have told me two years ago as I was staring at my open arms, open from where I’d cut them, as I was bleeding to death, that two years later I’d be happy, I’d tell you you were a fucking idiot. But you’d be right.

They told me later that if it weren’t for the ice cold water that I jumped into after doing what I did, I would’ve died. That it slowed the blood flow. It was a quick fall from the bridge: first air, then green-blue, almost black. Pure cold. I wonder to this day if I subconsciously did it on purpose. That maybe I’d heard about cold water stopping bleeding before, and had kept that as my backup plan if I decided I actually wanted to live.

There was my body, thrashing in the water, fighting to stay afloat with arms tired from blood loss. There was my blood, already staining my winter jacket, coloring my jeans, dispersing slowly into the Chicago River. There was my baptism, removed from my first baptism by twenty years and some change, but probably representing death and rebirth better than the first one. What could you need to be reborn from as an infant anyway? Original sin always reeked of bullshit to me.

After the rescue, after the ambulance ride, after the placement in the psych ward and the tearful visits from friends and family, I lay supine on my bed, let the clear light come in, and flipped open the David Foster Wallace novel that my friend gave me. The irony of being gifted a book that was written by someone who committed suicide after myself attempting suicide was not lost on me. I read about being a hero of inaction. Of not doing something grand and large, but instead simply not doing the wrong thing. Of making small and unsexy sacrifices each and every day for the good of others. Of putting a box around this day, this hour if you need to. I remember just looking at the cover for what seemed like hours, those perfect white clouds in an untouched blue sky, the title a seeming impossibility. Can anyone really ever reach infinite jest anyway?

I was in a toxic relationship, my job was shit, and I knew I needed a fresh start. So I left the relationship, quit my job, and moved halfway across the country. Every day felt like I was trapped at the bottom of a pitch-black well. The Frankenstein stitches came out of my arms, the wounds healed, days went by, but I couldn’t find a way out of the well. I tried to drink my way out of it, fuck my way out of it, but nothing really helped.

So I wrote. Wrote shit like this, fictionalized just enough so I could work up the nerve to put it out there. If you can slap that “fiction” label onto it, it’s almost as if it didn’t happen to you, no matter how true to life it is. I published. Got brought on as an editor of an online litmag. Reviewed other litmags for a major publication.

The well was still just as deep, but light was starting to seep in.

I went to bars. Going to bars was never my thing, but I assumed that that’s what you were supposed to do in that kind of situation. I met people. Slept with people. Got over that awkward guilt that comes with sleeping with someone new after getting out of a longterm relationship and being accustomed to sleeping with only one person for years. Was reminded of the grand diversity in bodies in the world, the grand diversity in ways to please those bodies. Wrote poems for women I hooked up with when they asked, turned men who reclined on my bed into characters in my stories.

I assembled some of my stories, realized that I was writing a novel without even knowing it. Had enough material for 30 pages, then took over from there. Wrote every day. Covered everything. Growing up poor. Getting bullied. Surviving sexual abuse and not knowing how to express that as a young boy. The works. Even covered that cold day with open arms, the freezing water that kept me alive.

So I don’t know when it happened. It wasn’t an overnight thing, that’s for sure. But one day, while taking inventory of my life and its debits and credits, I realized that I was happy. Things weren’t perfect. There were still plenty of improvements to be made. But I was happy. Content. Comfortable in my own body, my own head.

The book’s publication was nothing more than the cherry on top, believe it or not. It was the light beyond the well’s top, after I’d climbed my way out over the course of two years, fingers bloody and aching. I took my copy outside and sat on my porch, let the clear light come in, and looked at the cover, at my own name written on it. And then I looked at my arms, no longer open, scars faded. I closed my eyes, opened them again. Breathed. Felt the book’s cover between my fingers and turned to page one.

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Karen

Either you were a civilian, or you were a veteran. There was no in between for Karen. Never knew where the next meal was coming from as a kid? Beer bottles made brown explosions on the wall during fights between M & D? Veteran. Got the crusts cut off from the lunches your mom made you every morning? Taken on annual summer vacations that you complained about for being “lame”? Civilian.

While most people would consider being adopted as qualifying you for veteran status, Karen felt like she still hadn’t earned it. So she started going on undercover missions. Did shit like mess up her hair, forego makeup, wear her crappiest clothes, and panhandle. On the missions when she was homeless like this, she’d talk with the actual homeless, level with them as one of their own. When her mission was complete, she’d divvy up her earnings amongst the people who actually needed it and head back home. When she did this enough times in her hometown, she’d take the Amtrak to other cities, other states, so as not to arouse suspicion.

She’d watched Titicut Follies. While she assumed that the treatment of those who’d found themselves in the psych ward had no doubt improved since then, she still needed to know what it was like. So she stopped at the 7-Eleven that was a block down from the nearest hospital and bought three of their strongest energy drinks. Chugged them, one after the other, to induce a “manic state.” Left her ID at home so they couldn’t alert M & D. It was during the summer, so Karen was even able to tell her parents that she’d be staying the week at a friend’s. Waited a half hour or so for the energy drinks to take effect. Figured it was time to check in once her vision got hazy and her heart felt like it was going to beat out of her chest.

She’d psyched herself up beforehand, thought she’d need to to make it convincing. Thing is, once she got into that reception area and the lights were too bright and she met the bland indifference of the receptionist and felt like she might pass out, she didn’t need to act. Could barely get out that she’d been having suicidal thoughts, constant panic attacks on top of that. And then she was made to wait, for how long she didn’t know. And then she was led to a concrete hole of a room, a room with nothing more than a metal slab that you were meant to lie on and a smattering of cameras. The kind with a door that locked once it closed.

For some reason, they put her in the wing that housed those who were prone to violence. At least, that’s what Karen assumed once she’d witnessed two fights within a half hour of being there. Most of the people in this wing had done things you’d usually be arrested for, but had done them in a way that freaked out the cops involved to the point where they didn’t want to deal with them. Stuff like resisting arrest by biting. Taking off their shirt before getting in a fight, then dropping their pants too. These people gave the rest of the patients a bad name, Karen decided.

Maybe she’d been placed there because of her high anxiety. Who knows. But they eventually realized their mistake and placed her in a wing with other suicidals, mostly quiet types who either ate too much at meals or not enough. Who had to excuse themselves from groups because of crying spells. Who stayed in bed for days at a time. Who sported thousand yard stares and took a few seconds to respond when you called their name.

These were people who would sit down next to you and strike up a convo if they sensed that you needed one. And that’s the funny thing about veterans of that kind of shit: They could always sense that you needed one. Once you’ve been to the depths and back, you become acutely aware of others’ internal states. Sensitive to their inner sufferings.

They kept her longer than anyone else. It wasn’t because she hammed it up or anything. She ditched the act after day four, but apparently they saw something that she didn’t and decided to keep her there longer.

It’s the silent moments you have to reflect that get to you. One after another, her new friends left, slipping her their number scrawled on the backs of group therapy schedules, scratched in with the nubs of pencils.

She was encouraged to share in group, and she did. She went in with a whole character bio and story ready, but all of that fell away after she made her friends. Making it all up didn’t seem right when they were letting everything out. So she talked. About finding out she was adopted as a kid. About collecting everything she could carry in a backpack and running away. About getting picked up by a cop and brought home three days later. About not being able to talk for another three days after that, memory wiped. All of it.

Karen left with a prescription for an SSRI she’d never take, a hospital wristband she’d keep in a lockbox with the numbers after she’d put them into her phone. They gave her fare for the bus, the card for a therapist who accepted Medicaid. She hadn’t planned on riding the bus till its final destination, but that’s what happened. She got off at the end, caught a bus going back home, and looked out the window. Watched the way that dusk played with the sky, purple segueing into black.

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Intertwined

intertwined

We met in the psych ward, your hands shaking jello off your spoon, face mask covering everything but your eyes as you glanced at me, then back to the plate. I watched the birds as they flew past the window, wingtips grazing glass, and said what the hell. I introduced myself, put my hands in my lap so my bandaged arms were out of view. I asked about the face mask like an idiot. You told me you had chugged cough syrup and didn’t think you’d be getting a cold anytime soon.

We met in the common area after dinner, swapped stories of where we grew up: me in the torn-up part of town, you in the suburbs. I walked you through taking showers with microwaved cups of water when the gas got turned off, wearing your winter coat to bed when the heat went out next. You showed me cutting yourself in places out of sight since you were eleven, not eating for days, running away from home and sleeping in parks. We showed each other sneaking out of group therapy and setting up a game of Scrabble, fingers grazing as we reached for tiles, both of our hands stopping in place, and me looking at the way your blonde hair cascaded over your face, your eyes now watching mine.

It was waking to find you sitting at the foot of my bed, hair haloed by moon and pepto pink Chicago sky coming in through the window, whispering what you were up to so as not to wake up my roommate. It was making room on my bed for you and finding out what was wrong, covering your mouth as you cried so we wouldn’t be found out. It was yanking the blanket over our heads when the orderly came down the hall with a flashlight to make his fifteen minute rounds, breathing so shallow we could pass for the dead. It was the kiss we shared, silent, shifting our bodies so no part of us wasn’t touching the other.

They let you out first, you leaving me with your number and a hug that wanted to last forever. I spent the next couple of days holed up in my room, thinking of the things I’d say to you once they let me out.

You skipped your first therapist appointment to be with me once I got out, us biking the trails and cutting through Chicago alleys, riding down the middle of barren streets and reaching out hands till our fingers intertwined as we rode. I staved off suicidality with our weekly hangouts, breathed through dissociation and panic attacks that left me incapable of completing even the most basic of tasks.

I went off my meds ‘cause I couldn’t afford them, walked miles to your apartment and buzzed you out. We snuck up to the roof and lay supine, legs intertwined. Watched the sky’s tentative blue segue into the pink we once knew. I told you of the unreality of my days and you said you’d collect my thoughts into a great pitcher, that you’d drink them up for me. I told you I didn’t want you to bleed with me, and you opened your mouth to say something but nothing came out.

I took you down to my old neighborhood, charted the places that made me. The exact plot of dirt in a barren baseball field where the bullies held me down and taped firecrackers to my body before lighting them all with an old Bic, losing feeling in my hand for a half hour, ripped-paper skin that bled onto dirt. I showed you the manhole I used to pry up, the one that led to a city-wide tunnel system. Where I’d go when the AC gave out in the summer, or else a place outside of M & D’s verbal assault jurisdiction. I showed you the convenience store I used to rip off honey buns from when there was nothing in the house and even the Catholic charities weren’t willing to help.

You took me to your old neighborhood: immaculate lawns and empty houses, parks you used to populate late at night, us sitting there and you pulling down socks to reveal ankles dotted with constellations of scars, your inner arms tallied like an inmate counting down the days till their release. So much scar tissue it almost looked like regular skin.

You kept me out of the psych ward and I kept you out of your head, escaping the places that housed us to be out on the road together, peeking over shoulders to make sure no cars were coming, everything around us buzzing too fast, never stopping, and the way you would laugh out loud and remind me of taping playing cards to spokes to make motorcycles of bikes. It was like that, those summer nights together, just the two of us, pedaling off and into the darkness.

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Before Thought Comes

They could see the lake shimmering a mirage of far below moon out the window of the common room on the locked ward. On their plates filets of chicken, perfect domes of rice, salads with halved cherry tomatoes, salt and condiments on the side. Dwayne was a street man, twenty years, collecting meals like these when he was too tired of the cold, of the bottles he’d empty and let roll down the floorboards of the foreclosed he found that night: an empty rolling down an empty. Of nights crawling into windowless rooms so police flashlights wouldn’t find him, boots clacking mud on stoops as they rattled door knobs. And Elyse, still in the gown they gave her, blue eyes going gray but still piercing, trailing now over Scrabble letters not yet placed, on her wrist the watch she wore when it happened, hands ticking nothing, its face half gone from where it made contact with pavement, stuck forever on 2:32, and the way her words came out in a whisper, lips pursed after her story, of what they did to her, nodding and looking back to the letters, tallying her score on the backside of a sheet on coping mechanisms, the pencil short enough to be deemed safe for use. The way they’d sit at the heads of the table at mealtime like some rich couple, cold and distant, and the kids just passing through, ODing on heroin or sleeping pills or memories, they’d populate the side seats, so young these kids, thinking their lives were over at 23, withdrawing hands shaking as they’d drain milks like the ones you’d get in grade school, the juices they’d trade for the milks, cups of ice they’d chew just to have something to focus on, something tactile and real. Or the pre-packaged pumpkin pie they’d pass at Thanksgiving, and filling out the next day’s menu “just in case,” those three words a gentle way of saying you’re not ready yet, Dwayne and Elyse past even this formality, just being handed the things instead, memorizing the entrees, side options, both of them circling the same thing, like the birds outside, out the window, orbiting the park bench where the man drops the bread, every morning, at 8:40, and the way Dwayne and Elyse will prolong their breakfasts, never speaking, just to see this man again, the passing-through kids always rushing off to group, or their rooms, or shaving in the hallway, supervised. Practicing what they’ll tell the doctor, reciting, writing it down so he’ll see they must be let go, Elyse dictating to Dwayne when her hand shakes too bad to write, Dwayne’s coffee bean eyes steamed over, seeing loopy alphabeticals on dashed paper, learning to start his letters from the bottom up, to build on what he put down before. Taking their pages to the trash, confettied and clinging to plastic lining, bits of words only, Elyse coughing out a laugh when Dwayne does this, taking off her watch, tossing it in with the paper, then her socks, and his, and their clothes, and sprawling out on the table in the common room, fingers on bodies as the mirage of far below moon comes in, before the RNs notice, before the doctor’s called, before thought comes and clings too deeply to the moment.

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