The Last Safe Place

I have been clean for nearly 14 months. 414 days to be exact. I’ve been back east nearly 8 of those 14 months. Staying clean here is a coup considering far more than half my life has been spent in the desperate grip of addiction in this place in which I was born and bred. When I left to go to California it was an attempt to outrun my addiction and get a clean start. I was embraced and emboldened by people who loved me out there and it was the springboard into a future that was slipping further and further away from me. A last, futile grasp at life. When I left to go to California I was also in some pretty dire circumstances with my dealer at the time, so it was also an escape from a dangerous situation that had, on more than one occasion, become fairly violent.

I’ve been clean for nearly 14 months and back east for nearly 8. When I came back east I didn’t stay in Boston.  I would have picked up again if I’d stayed in the city that I so closely associated with getting high. There’s not a lot in the city that I don’t associate with my drug use. The streets, the buildings, the people, the bars.  There is so much pain in this place.  Things I had dealt with my whole life by not dealing with them, by losing myself to the empty promise of dope. The last place I lived before I left for California last year was a closet on the second floor of a filthy junkie flop house in Dorchester. I was terrified of everything and of nothing. My fear of the world took a back seat on a daily basis to my desire, my need to get high enough to get me through one more day.

So I didn’t stay in the city when I came back last July. Instead, still newly clean and sober, I thought it safer to go to Maine and stay at my grandparent’s cabin. The cabin was my safe place. It had always been my safe place. As a child, being in that cabin with my grandparents was what made everything else tolerable. I was always safe with them. I was safe and I was loved. And though they are now gone, their love lived on in that place. I felt immediately at peace when I was there. And so when I came back east I made my way to the cabin and spent most of the summer and much of the fall there. I’d go into town for brief respites from the primitive living at the cabin. I’d stay at hotels or rent rooms for a week at a time to refuel a little before heading back to the lake. Sometimes I went into town just to be around people. The cabin is remote and the silence could get overwhelming at times. As the days and nights grew colder, I spent more and more time in town. But when I found myself getting anxious or scared, I’d go back to the cabin for a night or two and it always made me feel better.

In the 8 months since I’ve been back east, I’d only gone back to Boston a couple of times. They were short stays and I had managed to avoid running into my dealer or anyone else from that life. I could always feel myself slipping when I was in the city. It’s like an invisible cord around my neck was tightening and making it difficult to breathe. My veins ached each time I walked the streets of my hometown, no matter how short the visit. The demons would start to scratch and claw their way to the surface, waiting for me to succumb again. It was the dance we danced. Still, I managed each time to make it back to the safety of the cabin, still sober, breathless and sick from the memories and the temptation.

And then something happened. The only safe place I’ve ever known was taken from me in a savage way and now I feel like I’m in a free fall with no end in sight. I’d returned to the cabin after a trip to Boston. I’d arrived around midday and by evening I was settling in for the night, exhausted from the trip and in need of some solid sleep. I don’t remember hearing them climb the stairs or come through the door, but suddenly they were there. These men I’d managed to avoid for 8 months. Three of them. My fear rose when I saw my former dealer and my uncle; it was dampened a bit when I saw the third man, a friend from childhood. I figured it wouldn’t be good, but it wouldn’t get too bad if he was there to intervene. I have never been more wrong in my life.

I am desperate to push what happened out of my head because I have no idea how to even begin to process the reality of it. But every time I close my eyes it’s there. They’re there. The blood rises to my face and I can feel his hand around my throat, squeezing, squeezing. His face directly next to mine, his breath in my ear, kneeling on my chest, heavy. The other’s hands tearing at me, holding the cold metal against my cheek. They know what scares me most.

I’m back in the city this night.  I spent the better part of this week back in the hospital with an infection. I tried to go back to the cabin when I got out. I can never go back there again. And so I came back to Boston, the city of my birth. I tried to distract myself today. I tried to write because writing is always what I’ve done. I sat with the keyboard and tried to write about anything but my dealer and my uncle. I didn’t want to write about what happened. I didn’t want to think about it. I was desperate to write about anything but the attack–the seasons, my addiction, anything–but it kept coming back to this, to what happened. I wrote and wrote and wrote the things that I couldn’t say aloud. I purged the details of what my uncle and my dealer did to me. I wrote about the fear and helplessness I felt as they held me down. I wrote about the things they said as they violated me in the most sadistic ways imaginable. I wrote about the agonizing pain, the blood. I needed to rid myself of the terror that once again threatened to paralyze me, silencing me forever. I wrote through the tears. I wrote through the pain. I’ve learned well over the years to dissociate myself from the pain–physical as well as emotional. It’s how I got through the years of abuse as a child. It’s how I survived that brutal night at the hands of two men who seemed to enjoy doing whatever it took to get me to scream louder and cry harder and beg, beg, beg them to stop. I wrote it all and then I erased it all, shame and fear and fury dripping off each word.

Power is holding someone else’s fear in your hand and showing it to them. They showed me my fear that night. If there’s any justice, they’re getting just a taste of the fear I felt as they sit in jail now for what they did.

I’ve locked myself in this room tonight. The small space is closing in around me. The air is stale and it’s difficult to catch my breath. My heart is racing and panic washes over me. I can feel the bile rising in the back of my throat and I try to suppress the terror and the rage. My fists clench and I start to scream. It’s a scream that comes not from my throat or my lungs, but from deep within the shut-off places that I carry inside. It’s a scream that could expand and expand without end. Its source is equal parts panic and rage, proliferated by the silence and pain of all these years, the anguish of these last two weeks, the ever-present fear, the never-ending nightmare. It’s all I can do. Scream and wail. Anything to break the silence that hangs heavy, thick with dread. And then it stops and there is no more sound. Just tears rolling down my face as my chest rises and falls in silent sobs.

I have spent every night of the last two weeks rocking myself to sleep as a child who is learning to self-soothe would. My knees drawn tightly to my chest, holding myself together. My greatest fear is that if I let go I will crumble into a million pieces. I sit in silence and listen to the neural hum of time travel. The world around me slows; my mind speeds through at a supersonic rate.

I can’t take the silence any more. I need to escape the silence or it will swallow me whole. I still hurt. It hurts to walk. My flesh is still raw and pulsing with pain but I have to get up and get out tonight and not be alone and held captive by the silence. When one is lost, one must be among the lost.

The cabin was my last safe place. And now it’s gone and I don’t know what to do. So I fix my eyes on the dark and wait, holding my breath one beat longer than is comfortable, trying to keep my heart from beating too loudly. Am I too far gone now? Trapped on the other side of this wide, dark chasm. This expanse that has always tenuously bridged the void between hope and despair, sobriety and drunkenness, safety and terror, life and death?

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The Night is Dark and Full of Terrors

I’ve been in the hospital for a few days. I went in for one thing and, of course, ended up being poked and prodded until this morning when I’d had it and was feeling well enough that I decided to leave and get on with things. I didn’t want to go in the first place, but I was feeling pretty crappy and my desire to make it to tomorrow with the ability to breathe relatively unhindered trumped my distaste for medical intervention. And so, here we are. And now I’m just a couple hours away from being able to say that I am officially one year clean. Tomorrow marks a full 365 days without heroin. There’s a lot to say about that, but there’s a lot to say about other stuff as well, so I’m going to start here:

When I checked my messages this morning after having not looked at my phone in over a week, I saw one from my childhood friend, Beeb, telling me that his brother Frank had taken his own life. The weight of the news took me to my knees as a wave of memories came rushing at me all at once. Frank and Beeb were among my closest friends growing up. We lived about a block apart and we, along with a group of 6 or 7 other kids, spent countless hours together, walking the streets of our neighborhood, trying to steer clear of the adults in our lives, hanging onto one another for support and love and fun and any sense of normalcy we could glean amidst the chaos of our respective worlds.

Frank and Beeb lived with their grandmother and an aunt and uncle in an old, rundown colonial right next to a cemetery. Their mother was dead; their father was in jail. There was a correlation between these two facts, but we certainly never discussed it. I knew little about their home life, except that their grandmother was mean. Her way of keeping her young grandsons in line was to smack them around and instill a fair amount of fear in them. Their family was from the Mid East. I actually have no idea if Frank and Beeb were born here or if they came over with their family at some point later. I met them when I was around 6 and they always spoke perfect English with no accent so I assumed they were born here. They spoke Arabic with their family though, and I remember being pretty fascinated by that.

Beeb was my age and Frank was a year younger. Beeb was the stronger of the two, physically and emotionally. Frank was a tiny little thing. He and I bonded quickly over our love of nature and words and later, our shared desire to stay away from our homes as long as we possibly could. He had this adorable crooked, mischievous smile and a mop of curly jet black hair. He was several inches shorter than me until well after high school when I stayed at 5’5″ and he suddenly shot up past 6′. Below is a picture of him when he was 16. He’s the second one in from the left. That’s part the motley crew I affixed myself to throughout my school years.

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I’ve spent a lot of today thinking about the time I spent with Frank. I remember riding quads in the pits behind the cemetery for endless hours and then sitting against the headstones until long after dark just talking and laughing. I remember the town dances we all used to attend. Frank would wear a crisp white shirt and skinny tie and pegged jeans. He was obsessed with Michael Jackson’s music and that kid could break dance like nobody’s business.

When I was a senior and Frank was a junior he asked me to go to his prom with him. Neither of us was looking for a hookup or a relationship; we were friends who loved to dance and talk and so we went to his prom and had a great time together. We went to the after party at a hotel with the rest of his class and at the end of the night I remember Frank leaning in for a kiss. I instinctively pulled back and immediately felt bad. I certainly didn’t mean to offend him. He was surprised by my response and tried again to kiss me. He wasn’t trying to go any further than that, he just wanted a kiss. When I recoiled a second time he asked why I didn’t like to kiss. He’d kissed me on the cheek lots of times and I hadn’t reacted, so I think it just took him back. He didn’t know about the Monster. He didn’t know that our neighbor had been raping me for years. I’d only told one other person at that point but that night I told Frank. I told him a little anyway. I didn’t get into the whole thing, but I told him that the Monster would try to kiss me and that I remembered how it felt and the thought of it made me physically sick. And while it certainly didn’t hurt like the rest of it did, I remembered the kissing and how much I hated it. I told him I still didn’t like to kiss because all tongues feel the same. He sat back and stared at me for a few minutes and then gave me the longest, warmest hug I ever remember getting. He never tried to kiss me after that, but he almost always put his arm around me when we walked together and I remember loving how safe that made me feel.

I didn’t know Frank well as a man; I knew him mostly as a boy. Still, my heart broke when I learned of his pain and his passing. It brought me back through time and suddenly I could hear his voice and his laugh and the hope he had for the future. And then it stopped. We reconnected about 10 years ago after having not seen each other in well over a decade. I’ve seen Beeb from time to time. He and I had drugs in common. I’d see him on the streets of the city now and then. But Frank, for as troubled as he was, never got into drugs. He traveled to try to escape his past. I’d get postcards or emails from him every once in a while from wherever he happened to be. The last time he wrote he was in Jordan. This is the last picture I have of him. He’s standing on the banks of the Dead Sea.

FrankS

It’s funny how we’re drawn to certain people in life. Frank and Beeb and I seemed to have this restless soul thing in common. I escaped through books and words and getting high. Frank took off for adventure and I always admired that about him. We were all perpetually running from that which haunted us, desperately afraid that our pasts would someday catch up to us and finish the job. Our pasts seem to be winning the race right now.

A year sober. To be honest, aside from not actively using every day (hour) and avoiding the inevitable overdose or run-in with my dealer, not a lot has changed for me over the last year. There are times I feel worse now because I’m not using to escape and I haven’t developed a whole lot in terms of coping skills. I haven’t used in a year. But I’m not sure I really consider myself in recovery and sober because aside from abstinence from using, nothing has changed. I haven’t  faced my demons and worked toward some semblance of a life. Basically what it comes down to is this: My stubborn Southie pride has managed to override my desire to use for no other reason than as a BIG Fuck You to those who never thought I’d be able to make it a year. Not great incentive, but it’s kept me from the needle, so there’s that.

I’ve had a year before. In fact on the day I made a year the last time, I had an epic relapse that almost killed me when I overdosed on a speedball. I love heroin, but speedballs are the craziest thing I’ve ever done. It’s like bungee jumping and having the most intense orgasm of your life in the middle of the free fall. The whole point of it is to get as high as possible. But it’s one of the most dangerous things you can do because it speeds up and slows down your heart at the same time. It’s the ultimate game of Russian Roulette. Will the pull of the trigger set off a hollow click or will your heart explode into a million pieces?

It was always an exercise in futility to find the balance between oblivion and lucidity when I used. I’m actually having the same trouble sober if you want to know the truth.

The past few months have been difficult. I hate the holiday season. This is always a difficult time for so many reasons. I miss Paul, I miss my grandparents, and thoughts of family fuel the rage. Thanksgiving, in particular, is difficult because I always spent it with Paul and it marks the lead-in to the anniversary of his death. I struggled most of November and December to keep my head above water. I thought many times about just filling a syringe to capacity and pushing off into a peaceful nod. It was exhausting trying to fight off the sadness and despair. Heroin protected me from anything that could hurt me. It filled me with peace and calm. Until it didn’t. It’s the broken promises of heroin that I need to remember.

The past 12 months have been surreal. The months leading into the holiday season last year were among the most difficult I’ve ever had. Between brief infinitesimal stints of sobriety I was abusing my body with heroin, cocaine, and alcohol. I was, quite literally, living in a closet in some junkie shit hole in the city. A year ago Thanksgiving week I was in such desperate shape that I made a really lame attempt to smite my misery by securing a belt around my neck and hoping it would strangle the last hopeless, wretched breath out of me. I was so sick at that point that I didn’t think I had anything left to fight with. I was on the Cape that week with D and R, who had come from across the country to get me out of where I was and offer me from respite, some love. I think we all thought that I wasn’t going to live a long time and they wanted to be there with me.

I was still using then, but during the first couple of days with them at the little house D had rented I started to feel something I hadn’t expected. I decided that if I was going to die, I didn’t want to be using when I did. So I flushed what I had left and started to go through withdrawals. But I wasn’t alone this time, and the care and love they showed me helped get me through the worst of it. The unfortunate belt incident was most probably a reaction to the confluence of emotions that hit me like a hammer: the fear, despondency, and loneliness were met head on with hope, love, and compassion and I really had no idea what to do with it all.

I remember just wanting to talk. I had been alone for so long. Silence had broken me down and I just wanted to talk. About ordinary things, about extraordinary things. I wanted to hear them talk. I wanted to just listen to their voices as I lay there shaking and exhausted. Mostly, though, they seemed to know that what I needed most was just some human contact. They held my hand often that week, wiped my brow with a cool cloth when I had a seizure or my fever spiked. My discomfort with opening myself up like that diminished over the course of the week and eventually I embraced the connection. That week they seemed driven to get at the deeper places inside me, knocking on doors I had long ago locked. They were urging something else, but demanding nothing.

While I believe they were prepared to be there for the end of my life, I know that they hoped to ignite in me a spark of life, of hope. D asked me, I believed sincerely, if I would return with him to the west coast. I had begun to fight and he wanted me to continue. I couldn’t commit to that then, but a couple of months later I came to believe that my best shot at staying sober and of living was to leave Boston. So in February I flew to R in Florida and then we flew together to California a couple of weeks later.

“You never forget the face of the person who was your last hope.”

Except sometimes you have to.

This is not where I pictured myself being right now. In this place, in this head space, in this anything. But it’s funny because for so much of my life, I never did the “I wonder where I’ll be in a year” type thinking. I lived day by day, for better or worse. Ok, usually worse given my proclivity toward recklessness and self-destruction, but my point is I never really thought too far into the future. That changed a year ago. It changed on the Cape. I guess gradually it had started a little before that, but though I relapsed soon after the Cape trip, that week was really the impetus for my current state of sobriety. Though it’s not exactly the journey I would have expected. I was moving ahead with such vigor and promise and then I landed back here and hit a wall. Today I’m back to living day by day.

I’m just not doing a lot of forward-thinking these days. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, I don’t think. The thing that sucks about it is that I don’t get to experience the joy and peace that I felt when I allowed myself to be open to possibility and to love. Conversely, I don’t feel the pain I felt when I allowed myself to be vulnerable and open. So, while C.S. Lewis would most certainly disagree with me, I’m willing to forgo the former to avoid the heartache of the latter.

“Hope is the worst of evils, for it prolongs the torment of man.” -Nietzsche

The room I’m currently renting has a small couch by the window and a little alcove off the living area. I live, eat, and sleep mostly on the floor in the reading nook. I have couch cushions laid out on the floor and a sheet on top of them. Arranged around the perimeter are dozens of books in various stages of being read and not being read, a fortress with me walled off inside. My safe place. A portable safe place I can take with me wherever I go.

I’m no longer taking my AIDS meds. I came off them months ago. I suppose I’m being very passive aggressive about both life and death, holding onto neither particularly tightly. One consequence of not taking the meds is that I have been having a lot of seizures lately and night sweats many nights. I have a lot of trouble sleeping. I wake with great urgency, ripped from any peace that sleep had rendered, and writing is the only way to calm the thoughts. I keep a notebook next to me and without turning on the light I scribble faintly in the night’s small hours, often trailing away and off the page as I struggle against my body’s desire to fall back into unconsciousness.

Right now I’m just filling my days with books and some writing. I’ve been thinking lately about the themes in my life: sexual abnormalady, family division, abandonment, loss. It feels like there’s a Herzogovinian revolt brewing in my soul.

The silence is getting to me again.

The moments between the sounds of life feel like chasms of emptiness. I hardly have the words to describe the absence of sound. Each heart beat is like an explosion. I feel like a Dharma bum of the northeast these days. Completely unsettled, without a home, waiting for the silence to overtake me.

“Without a family, man, alone in the world, trembles with the cold” -Andre Maurois

I fell asleep this afternoon and woke up angry, enraged really. I had a nightmare about the Monster. It’s been happening more and more lately. I always thought I’d have the chance some day to confront the man who stole my childhood, my innocence, my life. But he died last summer from the same fucking disease he infected me with and I lost that chance forever, and that has only fueled my rage more. I have such a desperate need to confront the people who’ve hurt me. And lately I’ve felt an intense need to look back at my life and excavate something from the depths and memorialize it in words so it won’t be forgotten or denied. So I won’t be forgotten or denied. To leave my mark somewhere on the world. I wasn’t born broken. That happened later. I was a child once, full of innocence and hope. I laughed and loved. And then I didn’t.

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My cousin and I (on the right) in our favorite place in the world: our grandparent’s backyard.

 

It’s just after 3:00 in the morning on the 23rd of January. I am officially a year sober. I’ll stay here a few more days, then perhaps make my way back to the cabin for a bit. Ultimately I imagine I will end up back in Boston if for no other reason than to fulfill my need to confront part of my past.

Echoes of Silence

Three AM, a couple of weeks ago, I couldn’t sleep and was feeling pretty restless. I’d decided to go for a walk to see if I could clear my head a bit. I put my headphones on and tried to listen to an audio book instead of the workaday anxieties scratching at the back of my mind. The streets were empty. The stoplights had switched to the late-night mode of blinking only red. Everyone in town was asleep. My mind wandered back to a conversation I’d had with my friend Paul one late summer night many years ago. I’ll try to summarize it.

Nature abhors a vacuum. Energy (heat, light, etc.) goes where there isn’t any energy. All systems tend toward entropy or an increased state of disorder. This disorder manifests itself as a rotting apple, an exploding fuel tank burning itself out, or some other dissipation of energy. Living things have about seven distinct characteristics, which include a higher level of complexity than the environment, a barrier against the environment, reproductive capabilities, etc. These represent the tendency toward order that all living things share, a tendency toward imposing an order on the disordered environment in its own image.

For example, if I eat an onion ring, then my body will tear it apart and use the constituent bits to make more me. Life wants to make more of itself.

This “order” represents what is desirable to us, at the most fundamental level.

We love music because it creates from an infinite number of possible dissonant arrangements a recognizable theme. We hear the melody and take pleasure in the variations that weave a higher and more complex order from what would otherwise be noise.

We have really good orgasms if something in us thinks that we’ve connected on some appropriate level with our partner, a level that in evolutionary terms indicates an increased probability of successful reproduction.

We like a Rembrandt because of the gorgeous, radiant life in his portraits. He created a visual representation that everyone recognizes on some visceral level, and the measure of his genius is that so many people share this recognition. It isn’t a smudge; it’s a pure moment caught in a canvas. (I have no idea why people like Jackson Pollack.)

Now put death/disorder/entropy on one side and life/order on the other side of a great big cosmic balance. Someone dies and someone else is born. Someone has a great personality and someone else has an ass to die for. A superstring sweeps out an orbit and whatever would be the opposite of that probably happens somewhere, I guess.

Take it up another level. Say God is on one side, Not-God is on the other, and the general region in the middle is where Life dukes it out to a draw, more or less. It’s where we leave our give and take and where order is balanced by disorder. Law versus Chaos.

Two what-ifs here:

What if we’re the fractal elements of an even greater order, which some might refer to as a Supreme Being? We’re all on the right side of the scale, all our loves and lives and failures, and the gestalt creates a living pattern that, from some unimaginable perspective, outlines the face of God.

And what if all that amounts to the proverbial dot on a dot on an atom in a molecule in a cosmic blade of grass.

I’m not sure what this has to do with the argument at hand, really, except that it got me thinking about my faith and what I believe in.

My faith has never (ok, rarely) waned. My discomfort was never with any possible God that may exist, but with certain of His putative servants and their “works.” I loathe any organization that works to suppress our natural human urges to make love, and drink, and read, write, paint, hear, act, watch, or sing what we like. To me, these people are about censorship, regimented thinking, embezzlement, exploitation of the elderly, chauvinism, sexism, homophobia, opportunism, hypocrisy, repression, and voting a straight Republican ticket without reading the names above the levers.

But it goes deep than that now for some reason. It goes beyond my faith and touches on my very beliefs. I watched a powerful movie long ago called The Believer, about a young man who was involved in the White Power movement. The irony was the man was a Jew. As the movie progressed, it flashed back to his years in Hebrew school when he would argue with the teachers against the belief of a just God, one of love, mercy, and grace. Instead, he offered, God, if He did exist, was a bully who demanded too much of a creation He ultimately screwed up. He made us too weak and then tempted us, and when we failed He destroyed us. Was it not easier to simply believe there was no God than to believe in a wrathful deity who wielded such power over the meek and helpless? He gave us free will and then dared us to exercise it. Where does our inherent weakness lead us in the end? I know myself I used to be afraid of being angry with God. What would happen if I raged against Him? And even if I did it silently, He knew my heart. That I could conceive both sides of that argument, I figured, was God’s ultimate mind game. Some sense of humor.

Anyway, the movie struck a nerve and it haunts me.

I’m tired tonight. I’ve been spending less and less time at the cabin because, well, it’s fall in New England, which means the days are cold and the nights are wicked fucking cold. Still, I can’t seem to stay away completely, so I go for a couple of days and then come back into town for a bit. I’m loathe to make a final visit though, mostly because I’m not really sure where I’m going to go after that. The cabin has pretty much been my sole mission for the past few months. For sure it’s been the only place I’ve felt safe and at peace. I’m not ready to lose that yet.

I’m tired tonight. As I write this, I’m lying in bed staring out at a beautiful full moon. I’m desperate for sleep, but afraid to close my eyes. I’m growing frustrated with the effort.

 

Alternate Ending

We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone. Only through our love and friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we’re not alone.

–Orson Welles

I hate days like today. I woke up thinking about my cousin. Today is her birthday. Or rather, today would be her birthday if she hadn’t overdosed on heroin nearly 4 years ago. I was supposed to save her that night. Her sister had called me and asked me to look for her. She was worried that she was out of control. I’d only been clean for a short time and her sister knew I’d know where to look. So I looked for her and, of course, I found her. But instead of saving her from herself that night, I loaded up with her. I woke up the next morning. She didn’t. No part of that makes sense to me. It should have been my heart that stopped that night, not hers. She was young and beautiful and smart. She had so much to offer, so much life ahead of her.

Anyway. I hate days like today. I’ve been in a dark place since I woke up from a very restless sleep.

I’ve been back on the East Coast for a couple of months now. The past 7 months or so are still kind of a blur to me. One minute I was in a safe place, thousands of miles from my life, tucked away in a friend’s little yellow spare room, feeling as close to loved as I have in a long time. Then a few things happened and suddenly I was on a plane, loaded on Xanax, headed back to the belly of the beast, unsure of exactly what was going to happen next. I got off the plane around 6 AM on a Friday and grabbed a cab to a hotel about an hour away. The last 24 hours had cost me nearly three grand between air fare and the cab ride alone. I threw my bag in the closet and fell into a deep sleep on top of the covers of the bed.

I awoke a few hours later and shook off the cobwebs and lethargy. I still felt numb from the realization that I was back and I wasn’t sure what to do next. So I went where I always go when I feel myself tumbling aimlessly through space and time: I went to visit my grandparents. My grandmother died 9 years ago; my grandfather followed 6 years later. They now rest side by side in a family plot at a cemetery just outside the city. I sat with my back against their headstone telling them about what had gone on over the last few weeks. After an hour or so, I got up and headed for the bus station for the long ride north.

I’ve spent the better part of the last 2 months at my grandparent’s cabin in Maine. It’s a remote place. There’s no electricity or running water and it’s pretty run down. Early in my stay, I was climbing the stairs in back and put my foot right through some rotted wood. I ended up tearing a tendon in my ankle, so that’s made things  a bit more difficult. Still, it’s a peaceful place for me, full of memories of when I used to go there as a kid with my grandparents. So I embrace it for a while and then I get tired of living like Laura Ingalls and I hightail it into town for some 21st century amenities.

There’s not much to do at the cabin. It’s heartbreakingly quiet at times. I spend a lot of time down by the lake, fishing or just staring out at the water. I don’t go in the water, or not too far in anyway. I’m not much of a swimmer. I used to be, but apparently it’s a skill that can be forgotten and I seem to have lost the ability to not sink, or at least to not panic as I try to avoid sinking. Drowning is not how I want to go out, thank you very much.

Getting back into town from the cabin can be a bit of a challenge. Usually I walk as far as I can until I get at least spotty cell service and then I call a cab or hitch a ride. Being all gimpy with my injured ankle, it’s easier if I take the rowboat across the lake instead of trying to walk around. That old rowboat and I have a tenuous relationship at best. But so far it has managed to deliver me safely to the other side with no major incidents.

Tonight I’m in town. Sitting at the desk in a hotel room I’ve taken for the night. A small lamp illuminates the otherwise darkened room. I closed the curtains and turned on the air conditioner as soon as I walked in several hours ago. I have a vanilla candle on my left and an American Spirit burning down to the filter in a makeshift ashtray to my right. That’s not really allowed but what’s the worst that can happen? I get kicked out? I’ve been tossed out of better places. Whatever. I’m not here for long. I wanted to escape the humidity, get a meal that didn’t include something I’ve kept chilled by sinking it to the bottom of the lake, and indulge in a hot shower. Simple pleasures.

I had to get away from the silence for a while. I’ve been alone since I landed back in Boston. Alone, I’ve tried to process what’s happened the last couple of months. Alone is the only way I know to endure the grief, hurt, and anger I’ve been feeling. Solitude isn’t always easy, but I’ve come to believe it’s necessary. True intimacy has always been difficult for me. Even when, like with my friends D and R, I know they’d be there for me, I have a difficult time reaching out. And so I sit in hotel rooms and write it out, hoping for some relief. Being able to trust has never come naturally. And the times that I have, it hasn’t turned out so well. It’s become far too troublesome to bother to be honest.

D and R spent months breaking down my defenses, trying to get me to embrace life and believe in a future they insisted I had. And to be honest, I felt human when I was around them. I felt safe. “We got you.” But alone in this room tonight, they don’t have me. I’m in this one alone. Terrified and alone. D wants an ending. He wanted a different one than I can give him. I’ve been holding my breath since the day I landed back in Boston, trying to pretend like things haven’t changed, like the experience I had being held in the arms of people who said they loved me, despite my utter inhumanity, didn’t open some door of possibility for me.

In an interview about a movie he was writing, Orson Welles once said, “If you want a happy ending, it depends on where you stop your story.” I’ve been thinking about where I want to stop my story. I may have stopped mine last Thanksgiving at the cottage on the Cape. I felt safe and protected and loved there with my friends. They took me quite literally right off the street and were willing to be there for whatever happened. There in that house, lying on the couch with D and R on either side of me, no drugs in my system, I would have just slipped away. I know that’s probably not the ending they would have wanted for me. Which I guess is why I ended up in California with them a few months later.

My first stay out there. I may have extended my story and ended it there. Though thinking back on it now, that stay offered a glimmer of hope that I made the mistake of trusting. I started to see a way back to life during those couple of months. I was sober, my health was improving, I met people who live fully and who welcomed me warmly. I don’t think I could have ended it there, because I was too full of hope and promise. I wanted what they had, but the terror I felt at how to get there proved too strong, and so here I am. No matter where my story ends now, it’s not going to be the rainbows and unicorns ending that D wants. It’s time to write an alternate ending.

The demons that haunt the darkest places of me are painful and scary and I’ve no earthly idea how to face them sober. I don’t have the tools to do that. I’ve always just numbed myself to the worst of it. For so long I’ve felt like I was too broken for this world. It terrifies me at every turn and that fear has exhausted me to the point of no return. It’s broken me down, and the few times that I dared to hope that I could find my way out, I was pulled back in the cruelest of ways.

It’s peaceful at the cabin. But sometimes even the peace of that place is shattered by the roar of the broken junkie voices inside my head shouting for relief. I feel caught square in the middle between life and death; a swinging pendulum stopped short in the middle of its journey to either side. I feel like I’ve been dying like this forever. This inexorable march toward my own end–physical, emotional, spiritual–not all at once, but rather one by one. Time has stopped here.

I’m not sure what I’m waiting for now. Am I waiting to see if, like it always has in the past, the Monster will rear its head and drag me down once and for all? Am I waiting to start living my life again? Or am I merely waiting to die?

I know I can make all this pain disappear tonight. I mean, I know the quickest and easiest–and weakest–way to stop the hurt. The needle could take all this away. I could be enveloped in dope’s warmth tonight. Dope. My only friend this night. My veins ache for it. The silent scream I feel forming in the pit of my stomach, making its way up my throat, waiting for me to open my mouth and release it all to my savior. I don’t want to be alone tonight. The urges are pulling all the darkness to the surface and I am losing myself to the desperate desire I feel for the beautiful silence of the nod. I can taste the flavor, the bitterness in the back of my throat as the junk hits my bloodstream. I just need a fix.

What choice do I have then? I’m too destroyed to continue to live with dope and I’m too terrified to really believe in the idea of living without it. Will this last shot bring me from zero to forever?

God, I fucking hate days like today.

I’m so tired. I’ve been fighting a fever for weeks. I still have a few hours until the sun comes up. I just have to get through this night. I’m going back to the cabin tomorrow. Back to the peace and solitude of the cabin. I just have to get through this night.

Cacophony of Silence

“The wind kicks in stronger, branches clatter. Or maybe skeletons. Bones of abandonment. Ghosts that will never be.” –Ellen Hopkins

The pain took me by surprise, probably because I’d numbed myself to it for so long. Warm tears rolling down my face woke me this morning and I thought, Fuck this.

I woke up sick. The familiar rolling waves of nausea associated with regret and despair and loneliness and defeat. Pepto and ginger ale can’t ease the discomfort; its source lies deep within me and it bubbles, slowly at first, to the surface and finally unleashes a brutal assault on my whole being. The realization that I can’t do this hits me square and hard, knocking the wind from me and sending my head reeling into an unstoppable spin.

The brief taste of life, of contentment, I had, sweet with possibilities, has grown bitter with reality.

As the realization set in slowly over the hours that ushered the dark out and the morning sun in, I started to lose myself in the sadness of it all. Of the sheer enormity of it. Of the utter absurdity. Mechanically I arose and went about the business of the day. I poured tea and showered and read the paper, but I remember practically none of it. I was going through the motions.

Eventually I ended up at my storage unit to pour through the boxes that have occupied the space for the last four years. None of them contain my belongings. They all contain what remains of the life of my best friend Paul. After he died I painstakingly cleaned out his apartment and I found it difficult to get rid of a lot of what was there. How could I, really? This was the only tangible connection I had to the life of the person who loved me completely and unconditionally and whom I loved equally as earnestly. He was a compulsive saver, and so I too have become one, only it’s his stuff I save. I explored the boxes today. His old baseball glove, his appointment books, pens from his desk. I held them in my hand as though I expected his energy to flow through me from each object. Notebooks full of his musings. I read each page, studying the handwriting, remembering.

I sat in the corner of the cold, dimly lit room and imagined his disappointment in me. His sadness. Never, though, his judgment. I felt safe there, knees drawn tightly up to my chin, rocking slowly to cadence of my own breathing. I could hear my heart beating. I wished in that moment that someone would come along and shut the door, leaving me in there with all that was left of Paul and the brokenness that was left of me.

Death has such power to change life so completely. Paul slipped away four years ago and this gaping hole was left in my universe. I was unprepared for Fortune’s turn, and I’ve not yet been able to reconcile myself to it.

“There are wounds that never show on the body that are deeper and more hurtful than anything that bleeds.” –Laurell K. Hamilton

Too long have I watched the benchmarks of my own life dissolve into nothingness, enveloped by the quiet desperation and deafening battle that I’ve sometimes fought valiantly and other times not at all. Silently, apart from myself, I’ve watched woefully as each part of me, each part that matters anyway, has been replaced by a soulless shadow, that has thrust me into this two-dimensional universe in which I currently exist. A dull place, void of color or sound or humanity.

As I’ve struggled with this decision I’ve had to make over the last few days I’ve had my feelings quickly dismissed as excuses and copouts. I don’t know. Maybe they are and I’m just too broken to see it. But they feel pretty fucking real and suffocating to me and to have them patently denied and shook off feels like a violation of my psyche. And so I’ve decided not to decide. I’ve raised my defenses once again against that which may cause me any sense of discomfort or devastation.

Sometimes crying or laughing are the only options left. Today I chose complete and utter apathy. It’s far stronger armor against the pain, I’ve found.

I can only ever open my heart to the Words. I can’t disappoint Words; they can’t disappoint me. Words can’t abandon or judge or condemn. They can’t command or give ultimatums. They are true and forever and unconditional. My face belongs in a book not out in the world to be kicked time and again. So I retreat back into the Words, closing myself off once again to anything that can ever hurt me. But as I close off to the pain so too do I shut myself off from the love. It is a heartbreaking consequence.

My instinct, always, is just to slip back into the shadows.

So tonight I sit quietly with my memories and my failures, overwhelmed by the deafening cacophony of silence. I’ve fought hard this day not to succumb to my demons. Any peace I’ve ever found, any comfort, has  always come at the business end of a syringe. I can feel the merciless grip of that monster tightening even as I close my eyes against it tonight, desperate for sleep and release.

Addict, Interrupted

“Do you like poetry?”

“I like some poetry, yes.”

“Have you ever read anything by Rimbaud?”

“I don’t think so. What’s he written?”

“Season in Hell. Illuminations.”

“Nope. Doesn’t sound familiar.”

“He’s a real kick in the ass.”

“Do you like poetry?”

“You don’t have a couch in here.”

“No, I don’t. Should I?”

“Aren’t you a shrink?”

“I’m a social worker actually. You didn’t answer my question: Do you like poetry?”

“I like words. And I hate them.”

“What words do you hate?”

“All words sometimes.”

“When?”

“When they’re insistent and forceful. When they won’t let you sleep, or eat, or breathe. When they become obtrusive and overbearing.”

“You speak of them as though they’re a living thing.”

“Aren’t they?”

This is from a conversation I had with a hospital social worker 2 days after I was diagnosed, and it reflects perfectly my feelings right now. Writer’s glut is how I think it was described. My neck is tight with the tension that comes from sitting at the keyboard, trying not to let the Words take you over.

In his book Wonder Boys, Michael Chabon describes what it’s like to have the midnight disease; “to have the rocking chair and the faithful bottle of bourbon and the staring eye, lucid with insomnia even in the daytime.” I smiled to myself when I read his definition. He uses it t0 describe a common affliction of writers; I would argue that it’s likely to plague anyone who’s intent on purging a part of themselves for whatever reason or motive.

“The midnight disease is a kind of emotional insomnia,” he writes. “At every conscious moment its victim-even if he or she writes at dawn, or in the middle of the afternoon–feels like a person lying in a sweltering bedroom, with the window thrown open, looking up at the sky filled with stars and airplanes, listening to a narrative of a rattling blind, an ambulance, a fly trapped in a Coke bottle, while all around him the neighbors soundly sleep. This is…why writers–like insomniacs–are so…liable to rumination and a concomitant inability to let go of a subject, even when they are urged repeatedly to do so.”

That’s it then, the midnight disease.

I loved to write. What better way to examine things that need to be examined? I didn’t think it would be this hard. It’s become my albatross. I’m left now feeling like I took a running start toward a sheer cliff and I’m now balancing precariously on the precipice. I’m not sure what to do next. What happens if I make a false move? I’ve put it all out there and now I don’t know what to do with it. It’s left me raw and terrified and vulnerable. I just want my life back.

I have come to hate the one constant in my life. Writing now brings me no pleasure. That which was once my passion now haunts me from within and I’m not sure how to live with that. This task no longer brings me comfort, but anguish. I can’t write without remembering.

I’ve been plagued with a terrible sense of urgency lately. The past 2 days have found me in marathon writing sessions, desperate to get it all down, to get it all out.

So here I am in my 40th hour of consciousness, drinking chilled Evian water and ruminating over this post that I’ve started and stopped a half dozen times.

I’ve lived most of my life under—but not buried by—the shadow of those memories. But lately they’ve haunted me and now I’m trying to deal with them in a way I never had to before. So I thought purging those memories in a safe way might be a first step in freeing myself from them. I wrote it all out. I wrote into the early hours of the morning and I almost hit “post.” But I couldn’t. It’s amazing that my 8-year-old self can feel such shame and horror. I couldn’t share those details. I wanted to. I wanted to let go of them on some level. But the truth is, even though I’m anonymous behind this blog, there’s a deep enough sense of shame that kept me from sharing that particular horror.

The nightmares have been bad lately. They haunt me each time I close my eyes. In the dark I can feel the Monster on top of me, raping me, causing the most excruciating pain and terror imaginable. There’ve been times I wished that he’d just killed me, as he had so often threatened to do. In a way, I suppose he has. He stole my innocence when I was 8; he’s been crushing my spirit ever since.

I want to be numb to it all. I can’t bear living through it in my mind’s eye one more night. I hate him. I hate him with every fiber of my being. But it’s time I have some closure. It’s time to take some power back.

 “Nothing can drive one closer to his own insanity than a haunting memory refusing its own death.”

-Darnell Ford.

I called him Uncle, though he was not related by blood. Of course, I only found that out later when I was old enough to understand that he would have had to have been one of my parents’ siblings to truly be my uncle. The thought comforted me briefly when I realized it, but only briefly.

I was told to call him Uncle. I guess because he was my father’s friend, and he spent more time at their house than any real relative. I don’t remember ever being very comfortable around him. He always seemed so cold and inhuman. He was always around, and not long after my 8th birthday, I found out how inhuman he was.

I was in the basement watching television. Cartoons probably. He came down and asked if I wanted to play a game. He suggested Cowboys and Indians, and I agreed. He told me to run and hide and he would try to find me. I started running. He ran after me. Then he caught me.

He put me over his shoulder and carried me back downstairs.  He laid me down on the floor and tied my hands to the lally column. He left me there and went upstairs. When he came back down he had a can of beer in his hands. He took a drink then put it on the floor next to me. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and shoved it in my mouth. He shoved it so far down I started to gag. I could feel the sting of tears roll down my face.

From the back of his pants he pulled out his gun and put it on the floor next to the beer. He turned back to me with the most hateful look in his eyes. He pulled off my pants, then his.

I will never forget the pain that night. Each time he pushed into me, I tried desperately to cry out. Tears were running down my face. Finally he collapsed on top of me and I felt my breath come even harder as I struggled under his weight. He got dressed after a couple of minutes. Then he picked up the gun and pressed into my cheek, right next to my ear. He said I was dirty and I didn’t deserve to live. He cocked the gun and pulled the trigger. I squeezed my eyes shut and shook violently as I heard the hollow “CLICK” next to my ear. He did that twice more and then released the chamber to show me there were no bullets inside. He put the gun back down and laughed. He took the handkerchief out of my mouth. He took a sip of beer and then poured about half of it down my throat. I gagged and threw up. That really pissed him off. He slapped me hard across the face. He untied me from the pole but kept my hands tied together, dressed me, and threw me in the closest. I don’t know how long I stayed there, but I remember I cried quietly the whole time, praying he wouldn’t come back.

It went on for years.

I’m not sure how one becomes a victim, or how one is able to continue to be victimized. I don’t know what makes people vulnerable to the evil indulgences of others. I don’t know how or why one remains vulnerable and can be sought out time and again. Doesn’t matter much, I suppose, so long as the cycle ends at some point. When I was teenager I was revisited by this nightmare from my childhood. That started my great descent. The man who, from the time I was 8, abused me in the most horrific of ways, returned. It sent me spiraling into a kind of hell from which I have only recently been able to escape.

At that point in my life I had no idea how to deal with what had happened. In hindsight, of course, I could have maybe mentioned this horror and dealt with it in a way that mainlined the circuitous route to “healthy” adult I ultimately ended up taking. Instead I slid further and further into a gripping despair that followed me right into the heart of adulthood. Instead I tried desperately to numb the pain by any means necessary.

The downward spiral continued after 4 AM, finally consuming me sometime around 6, I think. The loss of control is what finally pissed me off and pushed me over the edge. I’ve never had much control over anything in my life. Who among us does, I suppose? But the utter lack of control finally broke me that night. I started shaking. I couldn’t control it. I continued crying, unable to control it. I walked outside to gain comfort from the moon, then back, and then began the relentless pacing. Then the pain set in, and the nausea, and again it was beyond control. Fuck it. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to hold on then.

Heroin’s voice still wakes me sometimes in the middle of the night. It’s the silence between each beat of my heart, and it talks to me when I’m surrounded by nothingness. It teases and begs, daring me to chase its magical fucking high. That first high, the first time I shot it. The one that gave my body the most intense, euphoric feeling I ever felt. The one I could never get again. Now I’m trying to chase life before I take the shot that kills me.

Our pasts are supposed to be behind us. Mine isn’t. It sometimes feels like it’s coming at me from all sides. I can’t escape it. Will it ever be behind me?

Sobriety is a decision. I have to fight like hell to take away addiction’s power. The easier choice would be to say “Fuck It” and use.  Heroin’s high is magical, but as I gain some clarity, life is starting to look a lot better. Still, I know the power it has all too well. The power that has yanked me back from the cusp of health and life too many times and made me run  back to the needle. The feeling in my gut is stronger than a craving. I sometimes feel like I would do anything to get a fucking hit.

Dope wipes away the memories that haunt me. It takes away the pain. But as soon as the high wears off, all of it comes back, rushing at me at full force.

Heroin is a fix for the raw nerves. It erases my memories and fills me with a sense of peace and safety. It makes all my pain disappear.  The beautiful silence of the nod, the euphoria… But then the deafening scream for more once I start to come down.

The warmth I know heroin could give me is loud and insistent. It causes my heart to race, my mouth to water, my veins to ache. God, how I crave its release. I just need a taste.

My palms are sweaty, my veins pulsing, my head throbbing. The desperate need is begging to be fed.

The triggers cause intense urges. They pull my desperation and darkness to the surface, threatening to break through.

While the physical part of addiction is gone, the mental part is still quite present, and often persistent. It’s especially loud tonight and I fear it will always have a voice.

I came back to Boston more than 2 months ago. Boston isn’t the place for me anymore. There’s nothing here for me now. It’s my past; it’s not my future. I have to leave. Because of reasons, I can’t leave it behind completely. But for now, I’m ready to take the next step.

Ghosts That We Knew

I’ve been thinking about family lately. My friend D is in New York visiting his mom, who’s been in the hospital for a week or so. Over the past several years, D, and more recently his fiancée, R, have become the closest thing I have to family. I long ago lost faith that unconditional love actually exists. Certainly I’ve been so fucked up for so long that I stopped believing I deserved it. Tirelessly, they have been peeling back the layers of my defenses and forcing me to see my own humanity once again. They have been loving me, and though I’ve struggled with it at times, I’m desperate to embrace it. They’re not afraid to know me at my core, the damaged me, the vulnerable me, the me that I don’t show anyone, ever, because the pain of rejection, of betrayal, long ago became too much to bear.

One hundred and eleven days ago I was pretty strung out on dope. I’d been living in a closet in some shithole in Boston, terrified that the cops, or worse yet the dealer I owed money to, would be coming through the door any day. I was sick and freezing and didn’t want to live to see another sunrise. One hundred and ten days ago, D and R opened their lives wide open to me. They took me into their home, they cleaned me up, they cared for me, they brought me back from the hell that I’d been in for so long. They’ve become my family in every way that matters. Far more so than those with whom I share DNA.

Anyway. That’s a story for another post to be sure. For now, suffice to say that D’s visit with his mom has tapped a deep well of emotion in me as I think of him at his mom’s bedside, visiting with her, caring for her, loving her.

I’m tired tonight. I haven’t been sleeping. The vague punchiness I experience with fatigue began as I closed my eyes and recalled one of the last conversations I had with my cousin several years ago. I held the phone listening to my cousin talk. I was happy she had called. After 45 minutes of animated chat, she said she had to get going, and promised we’d talk again soon. I was a little sad when we hung up. That wasn’t unusual. There was always a lot of noise when we were on the phone together. A lot of laughing and sharing of stories. When we hung up, the silence was deafening.

That memory hit me hard tonight. Alone in this hotel, curled up on the chair with only my computer screen illuminating the room, I suddenly had the feeling of being in a Stanley Kubrick movie.

How to put this. In his movies, I think there’s a kind of vast silence underneath everything. It’s an expression of detachment and alienation. So I guess now’s as good a time as any to write about family.

For the first 8 years of my life, I was raised primarily by my grandmother and grandfather. I cherish the memories I have of that time with my grandparents. Their house was always warm and safe and full of love. I remember sitting quietly with my grandmother on the sofa, snuggled under her arm for hours as she sewed. And I remember the wondrous aromas that came from her tiny kitchen on a daily basis. At night she would read to me and kiss me on the forehead as she tucked me in under a quilt that she had made herself.

Besides my grandparents, the one thing I could always count on when I was growing up was my relationship with my cousins. Until I was 10 I was the only child in the family living in Boston. I had cousins—on my father’s side—in Ireland, and I had cousins in Maine, but I was it in Boston. I had three cousins in Maine. I was close with all of them, but the oldest and I shared a special bond. From the beginning she was more like a sister to me than anything. Though we lived in different states, we saw each other fairly frequently and often talked on the phone and wrote each other letters (this was long before email…when we actually used pen and paper). When I knew she was coming to visit I would talk about it for days before she arrived. I could hardly sleep the day before she came, and I was a complete nut case on the expected day of arrival. My aunt was always running late and I would sit and stare out the window watching for their car to drive up the street.

I saw them mostly on holidays and school vacations. Those were undoubtedly the best days of my childhood. The four of us spent hours together playing and talking.  We took long walks around the neighborhood and my oldest cousin would lead us on countless adventures. She could talk us into anything, and we usually ended up in trouble, but I for one would never have questioned her. We walked through the field in the back of our grandparent’s house and sat on the hammock, swinging back and forth lazily as she held our attention with countless stories. We climbed on the roof and hid out from the rest of the world, basking in the late-summer sun. Nothing else existed. I was happy.

Holidays with the family were always interesting. The only time my whole family got together was Thanksgiving. We would gather at my grandmother’s house and hold our breath hoping this year would be different. My family never could gather in one place without a war breaking out. To escape the insanity, my oldest cousin would lead her sisters and me down to the basement. We ruled our own little world down there and it served as our refuge from the madness of the adults. It was in that basement at the tender age of 11 that I shared my first bottle of rum with my cousin. Stumbling upstairs a few hours later, I was sure we were doomed. But the family seemed to think it was amusing.

The last great childhood adventure I had with my cousin was when I was 12 and she was 13. My grandparents took us on a 3-week road trip to meet our relatives down south. We rode in the back of my grandfather’s Buick and amused ourselves during the long hours of driving between stops. The trip was a coming-of-age for us both, and it was the last time we shared in such an adventure. I was Sal Paradise to her Dean Moriarty and we were “On the Road.” I had a sister for those 3 weeks, and all was right with the world.

My cousin is dead now. My family has been decimated by addiction and she too fell victim to it at an early age. One night several years ago during one of my short-lived attempts at sobriety I was asked by her sister to look for her and bring her in for help. Her sister knew I’d be able to find her, and I did. But instead of bringing her in, instead of keeping a level head when I saw how much trouble she was in, I succumbed to her pleas and my own demons. We both ended up using that night. I woke up from the nod. She did not.

More memories tonight. This time of one of the last times I saw my grandfather. I had left Boston around 2 and took the train into the town in which he lived. It just sort of happened. That’s not close to where I lived. But it’s where my grandfather lived and I needed to go there first. I took a cab from the train to his house and felt only a bit of hesitation as I ascended the steps. I was praying my uncle wouldn’t be there, and he wasn’t. My grandfather shuffled over to the door, carrying the tank of oxygen that had become a permanent fixture for him and greeted me with a warm smile. I spent the next hour or so catching up with him. I told him about my garden. He was proud. I knew he would be. He told me he was looking forward to bowling and poker starting up again in the fall. I kind of sat there unblinking, saddened by the thought that he was clearly fooling himself if he ever thought he’d be well enough to leave the house to play poker…forget bowl. He’d been an avid bowler for as long as I could remember. Poker player, too. I inherited neither of those proclivities. Addiction though, that one I got.

He looked old, my grandfather. Older than I remembered him. He was gaunt, his face drawn tightly and sunken around his skull. He was pale and worked hard for each breath he took. It broke my heart. Still, the first thing he did when I sat was ask me to have a cold one with him as he cracked open a Miller High Life. I’m good, I assured him, and poured myself a glass of lemonade. We talked for a few minutes about the Red Sox and the weather. Inevitably he brought up my grandmother. My heart sank as my eyes filled. I looked around the house that was for so long my home. It was still warm, but different, less familiar.

When he excused himself to use the restroom – an activity I was confident would take a while – I took the opportunity to roam around the house a bit, taking in the memories, and letting them wash over me. I started in the kitchen and was transported back instantly to the Thanksgivings and Easters past when my grandmother would be slaving away in this room, cooking and baking, filling the small house with the most amazing, mouth-watering aromas. Suddenly she was standing at the stove, stirring something on the range, asking me to turn up the radio, which was playing some Glenn Miller song or other. I turned it up and we danced – as much as one can dance to Glenn Miller – as she stirred and I taste-tested her latest concoction. Her hearty laugh filled the kitchen, bouncing off the faux-brick walls, filling me with joy and comfort. She pulled me close as the last notes played and I got a nose full of the scent that defined her: Estee Lauder dusting powder. God, how I loved that smell. She held tight for a moment, then kissed the top of my head and told me that she loved me more than the stars in the sky. “I love you infinity,” I replied.

I was thrust back to reality when I stole a glance around the room and noticed the two items that reminded me roughly that this was a scene that would never again play out. On the baker’s rack next to the refrigerator lay the folder that held the paperwork from Hospice, the folks that had been entrusted with her care in the final days. It was a blue folder and it contained everything from a list of her medications to notes on how she was feeling on a given day. The folder was thin because my grandmother died mere days after hospice was called in. The last nurse to see her left the folder there and it had never been moved. I wondered quietly to myself what the hell my family was thinking by leaving it there. The second item was just as devastating. My grandmother had this old block calendar hanging on the wall behind the back door in the kitchen. You’d have to move and turn the blocks to the appropriate number each day. It was tedious, but she loved it. I looked at the calendar and sure enough the date it reflected was thus: Wednesday, April 12, 2006. The day she died. Are you fucking kidding me? They erased her voice from the answering machine, but this they kept? It brought me back immediately to that horrible day.

I left the kitchen and made my way to her bedroom. Her pillow was still in its rightful place on the bed, covered in her pink silk pillow slip, her favorite. I lifted it and inhaled deeply. Then I lay down for just a minute and imagined her arms around me, singing me to sleep, protecting me from anything and everything that could hurt me. I started to cry just as I heard my grandfather emerge from the bathroom.

We sat for a while longer. I made him a sandwich: ham and cheese on wheat smothered with mayo, with a single leaf of lettuce and a slice of tomato. He ate heartily, which I was pleased to see. At least he still enjoyed something. We made our way to the family room. He took his seat and I sank deeply into my grandmother’s recliner. How I wish she was there. I folded my legs up under me and rocked, imagining our last days together when she was in this chair and I was next to her, holding her hand, comforting her as she had so often done for me. I closed my eyes and let my mind wander as my grandfather provided commentary on each news story that came across CNN’s screen.

I spent the better part of the afternoon with my grandfather. Neither of us mentioned the cancer that was ravaging his body. He didn’t comment on how shitty I looked either, which was a relief. I left around 6, hugging him longer than I normally would before I walked back down the stairs to the waiting cab.

It’s amazing how memories like that can steal the breath from your lungs without warning. The memories have settled in around me tonight. As I type this I’m sitting on the little balcony of the hotel that has served as my home since shortly after I returned from California nearly 2 months ago. The oppressive warmth of this day has been replaced tonight by a crisp breeze that makes me shiver each time it blows. A few minutes ago I went inside to retrieve a sweater to wrap around my shoulders. I picked up my grandfather’s cardigan from the dresser and pulled it tightly around me. I keep my grandfather’s sweater and my grandmother’s apron with me because they are physical connections I have to people I loved so deeply that their absence made me less than whole.

As I enveloped myself in my grandfather’s sweater, I bent my head down to see if I could still detect his scent on it. I couldn’t, of course; it’s been 3 years since he passed. Still, I inhaled deeply as an image flashed in my mind’s eye of him wearing this sweater and his tweed fedora, whistling a Sinatra song as he walked out the front door to go play poker with his buddies, winking and smiling at me on the way out.

I wonder why when someone dear to us dies do we smell their clothing. I suppose anything that stimulates a visceral memory for us provides some desperately sought-after comfort. I wonder what, if anything, someone will keep to remember me by. Is there anyone in this vast and cold world that will sit as I am now shrouded in a piece of my clothing and smile at the memory of the person I had such possibility of being?

I’m ready now to close my eyes against these past few days and try to figure out what comes next. That was a fun trip down memory lane. And to think that it all started with some exploration of the Kubrickian sense of isolation that resulted from the memory of a conversation with my cousin, leaving my anxieties to grow large via the magnifying effects of solitude.