Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Sanibel Island

My friend Matthew came and picked me up and took me on a drive out to Sanibel. We stopped at an outside cafe for lunch where they served breakfast all day. Matthew was middle-aged, Indian, separated from his wife, and hooked himself up to a hemodialysis machine every night.

Matthew had sought out my friendship. He had accepted his own sickness and knew he would beat it. He was on a list for a kidney transplant and even though his odds of obtaining one weren't the highest, it gave him hope. He smiled and laughed easily. He was in real estate, and talked about the things people concern themselves with when they own property. 

His cell phone rang, he answered, and then handed the phone to me. It was Theresa, and she sounded worried. There was a sense of urgency in her voice that I hadn't heard before. She had called my home, got Jesse, and he gave her Matthew's number. 

"Are you all right?" she asked.

I looked at Matthew, and behind him, at the thin, anemic palm trees bending in the wind, their fronds fluttering eighty feet above the street. Beyond the trees were the white sands Sanibel was known for, with pale, languid waves lapping up on shore. 

"I'm fine. I'm all right," I replied.

"You didn't return my calls for three days. What's going on? If you were all right, why didn't you call me back?"

"I just needed some time," I said. "I wasn't feeling well. I'm fine, though."

"I don't believe you. Did you see the doctor in Miami?"

"No, it didn't work out. Hey, Theresa, I'm out with Matthew. I'm okay, though. I'll talk to you later. Don't worry about me."

"I do worry about you," she said. 

I stared out at the pale blue waves and thought about how her voice used to sound before, when I had thought that she loved me. Matthew squinted his eyes as he chewed his eggs. 

After breakfast we walked out across the sand to a pier. The manatees tipped and teetered in the water, their scarred, bloated bodies floating aimlessly underneath the pier. The water moved gently around the piles as the waves ebbed. Matthew never told me to get it taken care of, and he never asked about Theresa. He knew how important it was for me to stay in the moment, to stay in the present, where there remained the smallest bit of control. I don't remember if we talked a lot about my illness. 

When I got back to the apartment, Jesse asked me if I had got in touch with Theresa. "She was so worried, man. She said she had already called like five different people to get a hold of you," he said, sipping a beer and eating a tuna sandwich. He was sitting at his computer and had paused his game of Diablo when I came in. 

I woke up the next day to find that Jesse had already left for his painting job. I made myself coffee, got dressed for work, and then realized my gas tank was almost empty. I spent a minute or two trying to think of what I should do, then called my boss to tell him I couldn't make it in. He asked if I knew anyone who I could get a ride with or borrow gas money from. I told him I didn't know, but that I would call him if I got something figured out. As I talked to him on the phone I noticed a large envelope from work. It was my health insurance packet, and now that I had worked ninety days I was eligible for insurance. My boss asked me if I expected to come in tomorrow. I hesitated and told him that I didn't know what to do, but that if something changed about my situation I would call him. 

I knew that if I drank alcohol and started bleeding it would prolong the episode. Knowing this didn't keep me from drinking. After I got off the phone with my boss, I poured some vodka into my coffee and sat down at my computer to read the news. It was just after 9:00 a.m. A splash of red ran across the page, with the words, "America Under Attack." It was still in those first few moments after the second plane struck, the reporter speaking in near disbelief. I spent the rest of the morning getting up and down from my computer, pouring vodka into my coffee mug, full of nervous energy. I watched the arms of people sticking out and waving frantically from between the grey spires, thick black smoke bellowing out from within. 

I laid face up on the living room floor, a tuna sandwich in one hand and the mug of vodka in the other. I chewed wantonly, not fearing the gush of blood that often came when I ate. Somewhere deep inside I sensed its presence near an inner bodily gateway. I felt the fullness above my palette and the first warm trickle down my throat. It came, but I was ready for it. I leaned my head over the bathroom sink, my forehead resting on the stainless steel faucet. 

By the time it was over, a bloody indent was there, where my head rested. My mind was numb from the blood loss and alcohol, and my hands and feet were cold. I wiped the dried blood from my face and neck with a rag, tossed it on my bed, and glanced across the living room at the computer. The webpage had refreshed and an enormous image filled the screen. A man, plummeting downward, one leg straight, one leg bent. In the split second the photo was taken, it gave the impression of a peaceful fall. 

I peeled off my clothes, put on my grandfather's kimono, and stepped outside into the blinding light. It had to have been nearly 100 degrees. I stumbled around behind the apartment building and into the dusty paved alleyway behind the 7-Eleven where Jesse had bought the vodka the night before. I laid down on the pavement in the sun, face up. Large ants, a quarter of an inch long, began crawling on my body. Letting them creep over me was like bleeding; I was used to breathing through my panic. It didn't make it go away, but I knew the secret to getting through it, and that was by letting it wash over me. My eyes filled with tears as the sun shone through my eyelids like a red shower curtain partially concealed by steam. 

I never heard a word from the woman who sat next to me on the non-stop flight out of San Francisco until we started circling Newark. She was from Trenton, and was excited to see her family. She had just woke up and felt the plane tilt on approach. My shoulder was still warm from where her head laid for the previous two hours. She was older, perhaps in her early forties, but was well-kept and not quite old enough to be my mother, and I could smell the shampoo she used that morning on her brunette hair. She asked me where I was heading. I told her I was moving across the country to be with my brother, but I didn't say anything about the Farm. She smiled and looked out the window. 

I carried my suitcase through the terminal, down past the baggage claim, and waited for my brother. He surprised me from behind and we gave each other a big hug. I could tell he was nearly as excited as I was. After four years, we were together again, and I had finally made it to Bethel. We walked out into the dusk and the bustle of the airport shuttles, taxis, with smiling and shouting people and the rush of cold air carrying the sweet smell of exhaust and something like sewage. I breathed deep. I embraced every turning moment because they were signposts of the freedom that was taking shape before me.

After a two-hour drive from Jersey to Pine Bush, New York, my brother dropped me off at the marbled lobby where I went in and met the brothers at the front counter. It was midnight, but the front desk lobby was always staffed around the clock. One of them, a friend of my brother, knew I was coming. He handed me a thick manila envelope and gave me the keys to my room. The envelope had my initial papers and instructions, including a map with a carefully drawn path on it. After saying goodnight to the brothers at the desk, I slowly walked through the maze of hallways and buildings and into the frigid February night air beyond the last door. 

Emerging, I found myself in a different world of spruce trees and gently falling snow. Lamp posts lit the path ahead, an undisturbed thin blanket of snow covering the walkway that led out toward the perimeter of the compound. The path led to a collection of modular buildings, a neat little neighborhood away from the main complexes up against the trees and fields beyond. Each of the modular buildings was split into four studio apartments, each with a small porch and its own light and unit number. I opened the door to my unit and walked in. The furnishings were all standardized and had a sterile feel about them, but something about the uniformity appealed to my growing sense of tranquility.

As I unpacked my things, I looked around the room: the plain desk and chairs, the cream-colored walls, the beige carpet, the linoleum floor. I knew I would have a roommate because there were two beds, but I couldn't tell if he already lived there or if he would be assigned to me later. 

At around one o'clock at night I curled up in bed, turned out the lights, and stared out the window, watching little specks of ice and snow falling through an otherwise seemingly-clear night sky, lit dimly by the lamppost. 

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Shawangunk Ridge

I became intimately knowledgeable about the linoleum floor of my bathroom. I studied its white ridges and little yellow valleys, running the tips of my fingers over every crack and bump, soothed by its cool surface against my body. After leaning on my elbows over the sink watching the blood drip and trickle, and sometimes spurt and stream, out of my nose and mouth for a couple of hours, my knees would shake and my legs would cramp and so I would have to sit on the floor with my back to the wall, my shirt off, a stream of red streaking down my neck and chest and down into those little crevices, creeping and spreading like a thick crimson fog.

I started to experience blackouts, although it took me a while to realize what they were. I would finally stop bleeding, heaps of toilet paper and washcloths on the counter, the toilet having been flushed a dozen times, too spent to clean the rest of the mess, and be turning to exit the bathroom to go lie down. Then I would wake up face down on the carpet, my feet still in the bathroom, my arms tangled underneath me. Fine crystalline dreams came to me in those brief minutes that felt like days, fast and blurring, more like echoes of dreams from some place deep inside. When I awoke, it was from a place of no worries and no fears, having breathed the easy, unimpeded breaths of someone with no swollen angry mass inside their sinuses.

The little red message-waiting light blinked on the phone at the side of my bed. Jason wondered if I had returned from my trip yet. His father just bought a boat and he wanted to know if I would drive up to Tampa with them to fetch it. Everyone knew something was going on. Jason was never pushy and didn't ask for details, but would always, without fail, tell me I needed to "get it taken care of," and in a way that suggested it was just some temporary thing and not the end of things that it sometimes felt like it was. I didn't know what to say when he told me that. I never saw him or his wife once without a smile. They were both blonde, had blonde brothers and sisters and blonde parents, and would eventually have blonde children. They owned a condo about eight miles up Del Prado, across a maze of canals and in another unnavigable quadrant of Cape Coral.

It was at their house where I stayed for a few days when I first flew out to Florida to scope out a job and a place to live. I had called him from the kitchen at the Farm the day after my overseers told me I would do better serving on the outside. Jason was the most positive and grounded person I knew at the time. If I had listened closer, I would have noticed the mild trepidation and caution in his voice when I told him I was leaving Bethel and wanted to come visit him. No one made it their goal to only serve one year at Bethel. But he and his wife had served with me there and would have known I had trouble fitting in. Jason and I would be cleaning the ham processor in the rear cooler of the food warehouse and he would lightly lecture me after I had responded angrily to something that one of the other newboys had said earlier that day. We were close enough in age to be friends, but being a few years my senior meant he could give me frank advice and I would listen. I waved the cleaning wand in the air, spraying foam on the walls and ceiling and my rubber boots, gesturing wildly at what I felt was unjust about the situation and he patiently nodded his head and smiled, his blonde hair bobbing. We scrubbed the machine, sprayed it off, and christened it with Sanifoam. We hung our rubber boots outside the locker room, showered and dressed for dinner, and walked together on the bark-chip path through the corn fields towards the dining hall.

It would have been early fall, then. The sweeping expanse of deep green that began at the perimeter of the Farm and ended abruptly at the base of the Shawangunk Ridge would have started to turn red and gold, because it was going to be a tremendous fall season that year, better than any I had seen in my life. The rich, thick air, full of the smell of corn and pigs and ripening apples rushed into my lungs as I breathed through my mouth. I had started having trouble breathing through my nose, but thought it was allergies. I would wake up at night sometimes... my head heavy and beating. But not being able to breathe well through my nose was just a mild nuisance then. The world was wide and deep and I was gaining a closeness with God that I could finally feel, after all those years praying into the late night hours, begging Him to get me out of where I was. It was near sunset as we emerged from the fields and approached the "E" building, and we looked up as the Ridge captured the red glow that glanced across the sky like a spear.

Jason ended his message with that familiar lilt in his voice, ending on mostly a high note followed by a short comforting cascade which I noticed he had picked up from his mother. Everything would be all right. Everything was manageable. Drive with us to Tampa.

I pressed the button.

The next message was from Theresa, with her small, girlish voice. She was worried that I hadn't called her to let her know I had got back safe from my flight. It had been a few days, but it had only felt like one to me. Her voice tightened and she left silent spaces on the line before she asked one more time if I was all right and if I would call her.

I pressed the button.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Shokoe Slip

My brother was getting married to a girl who lived in Richmond, Virginia. He had dated her when we lived together for a year in upstate New York. We would drive down to Richmond and back on a single weekend for him to see her. She had a friend and her name was Theresa. When I left New York my family didn't want me to date her. I was excited to finally see her again at my brother's wedding. I flew to Richmond and refused to have my family pick me up and told them I was having Theresa pick me up, instead. We hugged, packed my bag into her car outside, and then went to Subway to get a sandwich.

Later, at her house, she placed her head in my lap and I stroked her hair. Her younger cousin sitting across the room turned around and told us how cute we looked together. Theresa sat up and left the room. That night, we went and ate dinner in downtown Richmond with her family. It was a small soul-food diner and it was open all hours. Theresa and I sat across from each other and didn't speak. We finished eating before the others and decided to go for a walk while the rest of her family stayed and talked over coffee. We strolled around Shokoe Slip, where the James River is confined down to a small, brick-lined canal surrounded by historic buildings. The water barely moves there, its surface glistening black and still, absorbing all light. She asked me if what we were doing made any sense. I answered her by asking vague leading questions because I desperately wanted her to tell me she loved me again. Instead, she told me stories about the slaves who worked at the tobacco factories a hundred and fifty years ago.

We said goodbye at the airplane boarding ramp. She told me we couldn't do it anymore. I walked down the ramp and looked back at the square of light where she stood. I fell asleep on the plane and dreamed that a little girl had been brutally murdered and I was the only one who cared enough to follow her blood trail to try to find her. It led me down to the James River canal. I looked into the black water and saw the pale bloated bodies of dead Civil War conspirators floating and drifting deeper down, their faces twisted and frozen in despair. I turned around and saw a large wooden door in the concrete river bank. I opened it and descended a wrought-iron spiral staircase which ended a hundred feet down. At the bottom there was a heap of bloody clothes. A path was tunneled into the bedrock and I followed it down until I heard a deep drumming and saw a red glowing light coming up from below.

When I got back to my apartment in Florida I played through the phone messages. My boss wanted to know if I was coming back to work, the landlord missed my rent payment, my mother wanted to talk to me about my brother's concerns that I was no longer giving talks at church. The kitchen sink was still full of dirty dishes from three weeks ago, dead flies stuck on the window behind the blinds. I crawled into bed with my clothes on. As I lay perfectly still, staring up at the slowly rotating ceiling fan, that familiar tickle of blood in the back of my throat came on. I let it run from deep inside my head down my throat without getting up and going to the bathroom like I normally would. It created a long fibrous string down into my stomach, swelling and coagulating inside my throat. It became harder to breathe as I lay still, trying to suppress the urge to vomit. I heard the front door open and close, and Jesse's easy laughter filled the living room. He had brought a friend, and they wondered if I had returned from my trip so we could all go out to eat. He knocked on my bedroom door and asked if I was there.