Breathe

It’s summer, and I’m twenty years old. That puts us at 2010. I’m sitting in the bath, and it’s perfectly cold. The air above my head is different. It’s so hot that I can almost see the heat shimmer in this apartment that has no AC. Reb will go in after I’m done, because if the heat is bad for me it’ll only be worse for a dog. In the meantime, he sits next to the bathtub and smiles as he pants.

My roommate left abruptly about a month ago, breaking the lease and leaving me with no way to cover the rest of the rent. Student loan refunds can only help so much, and I learn quickly that New York City rent is on another planet compared to Des Plaines, IL rent.

I take to sipping cheap beer while sitting in the tub, convincing myself that I’m drinking to fill myself up while at the same time cooling myself down, trying to ignore the fact that my dad used to do the same thing with the same brand of beer. My empties form a mountain in the corner of the bathroom, and I amuse myself by thinking it’s an art installation.

A memory comes from an indeterminate age. All I know is that I was small enough for the bathroom’s door knob to be at eye level, the bathroom where my father called me over. He called me over, and I went, not knowing how drunk he was or even fully understanding the concept of being drunk. I just knew that sometimes Daddy fell over while he was trying to walk to the fridge, and you never knew if he would start laughing or yelling after he got back up. I knew beer bottles being hurled against the wall and my mom telling me that Mommy and Daddy were just kidding, just playing a game. I knew my dad driving us home from a little league game and stopping the car, opening the door to puke. I knew the effect, but the cause eluded me.

But in this memory where I am at door knob height, my father calls me into the bathroom, and I go, and when I open the door he’s soaking in the tub with an open can in his hand. His eyes are glassy, and there’s a vein visible on his forehead. In this memory, he tells me that he’s empty. He tells me that he needs another beer. He asks if I can be a good boy and do that for him. I nod my head and see that all around him there are bubbles like the bubble baths I always insist on having. My father notices and smiles. He tells me he’s having a bubble bath just like I always do. He smiles, and he looks at me, and he says that sometimes he likes the bubbles and sometimes he doesn’t. He puts his hand in the water between his legs and starts swishing the bubbles away, back and forth.

The memory stops.

I’m here in my own bathtub more than a decade removed, in another state, and my chest is tightening. It feels like I am being pulled outside of myself. My shoulders and back start to hurt, and it’s only when they do that I realize my entire body is tensed up. I feel like I’m beneath the surface of a great body of water, splashing and flailing. I don’t know what to do, but then I remember that I do.

I’ve been going to a Zen Buddhist temple for a few months now, and I watch and listen as the techniques and words come back to me. An image of a stream with leaves calmly floating down it. Understanding that thoughts will pass, that they don’t have any more of a hold over you than what you give them. That the breath regulates everything and not the other way around. That memories can’t kill you no matter how painful they might be. That you only need to sit and breathe and be.

I don’t know how long I stay there in that tub, but the pain leaves my shoulders and back, and eventually I can breathe again. I come back into my body and can feel and hear and see things normally again. I just breathe.

Shower Thoughts

I realized one day, last week, in the shower, that I was the healthiest I’d ever been in my life. Physically, spiritually, mentally, emotionally, the whole thing. Honestly couldn’t think of a time I’d had everything going well like that. It was hard enough to be healthy in one area of your life, but in all of them? Don’t get me wrong. Things could always improve. Things could get better. But that was simply the nature of life. Perfection exists only in the minds of men, after all. So I stood there in the shower, at first humming some Mac DeMarco song but then stopping once the thought hit me, just standing and letting the hot water pour over me. This is one of those things that only came to you when you least expected it, one of those shower thoughts that once it hit you could make you stop what you were doing, and well up, and not be able to tell whether the water on your face was coming from you or the shower.

I wasn’t the lightest I’d ever been, but I was definitely the fittest. I’d been skinny before–too skinny. Like 1,200 calories a day for an adult male skinny. Nearly passing out after a run just to squeeze a half pound off the scale. And there was of course being way heavier than that, heaviness that was the reason for the lightness, of watching your body float away from you in the mirror, from the core of who you were. But there was none of that now. There was a healthy carrying weight and plenty of muscle on the frame. There was doing MMA and having my striking, grappling, and submissions on point. There was waking up in the morning feeling refreshed instead of dead.

I wasn’t a saint, but I was more in touch with my spirituality than I’d ever been. No longer encumbered by a Catholocism that insisted I was going to hell no matter what I did, no longer chained by my aimless wandering, searching and fumbling and creating a hell for myself in place of the one I was given. There was Zen, but not the one I thought I’d found before. I was no longer sanctimonious, no longer pushing so hard for something that ran away faster the more you chased after it. It was waking up early in the morning and meditating, having breakfast, listening to some music and starting the day off right. Cuddling with my woman in the wee hours of the night, a tenderness coming from me that I’d never quite seen before. That old tension in my shoulders going away. Looking up in the night sky, seeing Orion’s Belt, and feeling like I was a part of it.

There were still times when the depression would flare up, moments when anxiety would creep in or PTSD would remind me of its insidious presence. But these were now minor nuisances, just quiet whining voices that I could smile at as I walked away. There was this feeling, something I’d never felt before: stability. That middle path I’d heard so much about suddenly seemed doable, because it was already happening. There was not getting too excited or too down, just kind of enjoying life as it came. There was medication and therapy, sure, but those were things I needed years before I got them. There was the feeling of ditching a heavy weight and bodily floating out of the pit I’d been living in all my life.

I could still get angry, or sad, or anything else, but it wasn’t some big production anymore. No more would I have those huge outbursts where I wouldn’t vent and so would set up the inevitable explosion down the road. I could get peeved, but I could just as easily take a breath and let things go. It was a choice to be made, not out of my control like I used to think it was. I realized that I had free will, and I was making the best of it.

When I was clean, I turned off the water and towelled myself off. It seemed like seven years of dirt had been cleansed from me, and that might as well have been the truth.

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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Just Be a Person

Just pick yourself up out of the snow, plowed into a heap, next to the fallen nest in the street, waiting to get erased by a tire. Just wipe the frozen vomit from your shirt, coat halfway off, one shoe gone so when you walk you’ve become a Frankenstein. Just shield your eyes from the haze of the streetlamps, becoming two in your eyes, the sky a pepto pink behind it, buildings as knives to cut it open. Just end up at the back door of the halfway house by some cosmic luck, knocking loud enough so the cool guard can hear but not loud enough for the director to. Just end up with the one showerhead that halfway works, stepping in and out of the icy water till you can’t feel anything. Just tap a handful of sleeping pills into your mouth, the ones you snuck in, body still frozen, and try to figure if the whiskey will interfere. Just go to sleep anyway. Just wake in the morning, amazed, and shake Larry in the next bunk over till he wakes up, tell him it’s visiting hour even though it isn’t cause that’s the only way he’ll get out of bed. Just walk straight into the dining hall and don’t stumble, especially not in front of the director. Just fill out a crossword while your skull pulses into a thousand pieces, your head filled with against the odds stories of your sobriety, finished manuscript, Pulitzer in hand. Just go back to your room and do a hundred pushups, pray to god in the sunlight, dump the sleeping pills down the toilet. Just scream into your pillow, stab it with the blade you snuck in, hide the feathers on Larry’s bed. Just send her texts in between groups, insisting you’re clean, haven’t touched a drop since you got here a month ago, that you’ve got a stack of pages written, that you’ll see her in no time. Just swish mouthwash to get rid of the whiskeystink. Just down the mouthwash and wait for it to burn in your belly, to swim in your head. Just stuff paper towel down your throat, one after the other, till you can’t breathe, and try to hold it there, sliding down the wall, now lying on the floor, eyes on the bathroom’s flickering bulb, listening to yourself choke but it sounding like it’s coming from someone else. Just cough it all up and see spots in your eyes till you get up and clean yourself off. Just dream in scenes of a life you’ve never had, the one you’ve written about, keeping yourself from the edge of the bridge you’ve been eyeing since before you got in this place. Just realize that the only reason you haven’t finished writing is cause you can’t see your life past the story, a big black nothing after THE END. Just tell the director what he wants to hear in groups, bum cigs off Larry, convince the cool guard to hold the door for you while you “go for a walk,” stopping at the liquor store. Just pocket a couple plastic bottles, pants bulging, and head for the door like you’re on a lazy stroll. Just run when the alarm goes off. Just get stopped at the door by the cool guard, one of the bottles falling out, him asking you what in the fuck you think you’re doing. Just tell him you’re joking, only kidding, and throw a bottle in the snow, another against a tree, the rest into the street, bouncing off parked cars, bottlecaps cracking, splattering alcohol. Just walk past him as he shakes his head. Just delete the dealer’s number from your phone, then search all your texts, your call history to find it again. Just give up. Just wake in the night, shivering even though it’s warm in your room, sweating through your sheets, Larry snoring in his bed and a sickle moon letting light in. Just consider holding a pillow over Larry’s face but search through his dresser instead. Just find his mouthwash. Just pop off the cap. Just walk to the bathroom and look in the mirror. Just pour it all down the drain and apologize to Larry while he sleeps. Just pull out your notebook and open it, pages untouched. Just start writing, filling up pages, flipping, not stopping, not letting up. Just let Larry sleep in. Just take a cold shower. Just eat breakfast. Just watch the way the sun fills up the room. Just cry in the bathroom when you have to. Just be a person.

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