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.