Beauty Walks a Razor’s Edge

I once sat for two hours watching him creep up on a skunk to catch a shot. I got lost around him, the way he stole time with a naturally sedated articulation and spread it out like night, talking about politics or to whatever was turning in his hands at the moment. Taking a drag, taking a sip, and sauntering back and forth with the pace of an old man on Sundays. I loved him. I envied him without jealousy.

published at Longridge Review

…My weariness amazes me
I am branded on my feet
I have no one to meet
and the ancient empty street’s
too dead for dreaming…
–Bob Dylan

He is standing at the end of the dock with a cigarette hanging from his dry lips. Late July sun is rising, warming his bare feet on the planks of warped wood–just inches above the water. His spirit belongs to older generations–an ancient part about him that sent him away from cities and busy people, never trying to chase or capture time. Maybe it was because of the rheumatoid arthritis; he had it since he was seven and now, at thirty-five, he’s found where he belongs–taking each day slow and steeped in chamomile, never knowing or planning for the next flare up.
He tinkers with cameras and foods and clay until they make sense in his hands, creating masterpieces in the long afternoons of tea and painkillers. On summer nights he sat outside his house, smoking in the dark, capturing fireflies with shutter modes, trying at it every time he noticed the camera buried somewhere on the counter.

He embodies that Beat-look–aged blue jeans worn thin at the knees and seat, torn and meticulously patched, fitted and worn white t-shirts, shaggy hair. He doesn’t go without his “old-man-hat.” He doesn’t give a damn about troubles or answers; he likes to watch the way things move and find their way. I once sat for two hours watching him creep up on a skunk to catch a shot. I got lost around him, the way he stole time with a naturally sedated articulation and spread it out like night, talking about politics or to whatever was turning in his hands at the moment. Taking a drag, taking a sip, and sauntering back and forth with the pace of an old man on Sundays. I loved him. I envied him without jealousy. I loved how he drew me into that world of his–like we were kids again behind that old red fence full of knots and spy holes, waiting for Spaghettios and blowing up frogs.
Mike has already had his hips, shoulders, ankles, and knees replaced. It comes and goes; it worsened when he reached his twenties. His bouts in his youth were shorter and he remained somehow elastic and tireless. I couldn’t keep up with him. Now they stretch and tear, and he gets so tired. When he cried to me I knew there was something so deep in him that I could never understand.

0000wwwww

…I was in another lifetime
one of toil and blood,
I came in from the wilderness
a creature void of form
“Come in,” she said, “I’ll give ya…
shelter from the storm…”

“Amos, I feel so fucking stupid, how I feel—but shit I don’t think I can do this again,” These are his words before another surgery. I silently cry too and tell him to find the Swimlot, and that Gram’s is watching over him. He always called while in Pre-Op.
I listened to him over the phone and watched him when we were together—amazed at how this wild boy had been defied by his own body. He was beautiful. Sometimes it got so bad he’d be in the hospital, worn away to his skeleton, his eyes protruding out of his hollow face. He was embarrassed when I saw him. Some days he couldn’t get out of bed, or turn doorknobs and steering wheels. But some days he could fish with me until the sky turned navy blue, and teach me again how to clean fish. His streaks of health, we learned, were becoming more and more sparse, but when he rounded back out into a healthy body, he picked up where he left off—as best as he could.

mike1

When his wrists are swollen, he fills space with dreams. He wants a sailboat, and he’s taking me away, out in the ocean. He tells me this as he sculpts his clay and I sit among my notebooks and laptop, writing the story I can never finish. Sonny Boy Williamson, Ali Farka Toure, and Billie Holiday take turns breezing through my yellow curtains, out my kitchen windows and down my stairs. I make him tea and tell him about the cherry blossom trees in Japan. He talks about oceans and masts and ropes while creating a sculpture with his very own, private signature—a kind of howling in metaphor in the sinews of his figures.

“Amos, we’re gonna do it someday. Man, just picture it—out on that water, the clearest, blue-green water. Just watching the sea and breathing in that air. And we’ll do just this, like we always have.”

…Not a word was spoke between us,
there was little risk involved,
…Try imagining a place
that’s always safe and warm…
”Come in,” she said, “I’ll give ya
shelter from the storm…”

I think he started sculpting for two reasons: initially, he was left immobile and looking for things to help the time pass (he has also become a chef, he tailors his own clothes, plants gardens, fires his pottery), but I think he also came to a hard conclusion about his situation—optimism is bullshit, you have to take what you get and appreciate it. He wracks himself blind with depression when his body gets so weak and he is so ready to take on the world. He can’t work; he’s on disability. He lost Lindsey, the girl he wanted to marry. He became addicted to his pain meds and put himself into Detox. The American Arthritis Foundation did a full spread on him and his sculpting in their magazine.

With Mike, every moment was almost captured like a photo in my mind. In southern Wisconsin, he and his family lived in an old farmhouse atop one of many of the green rolling hills dotted by islands of looming trees. We were about fourteen then, watching the storms come in in panorama, lightning miles away, the sky purple and green and then that yellow Wizard of Oz-ish hue. We’d watch and then sneak back into the brush and smoke cigars.
I remember the time we raced to my house in another storm. He had about a block on me. I ran as fast as my short legs would let me, splashing through growing puddles in my PF Fliers. The seat of my cut-offs was slimy in mud—we’d gone hurdling down the muddy slopes of Suicide Hill and splashed into Bay City Crick. It was a jungle down there. The spray-painted remainders of ancient sewage canals were broken bridges that loomed over the stream and bury themselves into the wall of the ravine. I imagined hieroglyphics and secret codes whispering to us. When we crossed them, every step could have fallen away from us, so we silently made our way, testing each other for nerve. Then it started to pour. Rain showered down through the canopy of leaves and thunder cracked.
“Yes!” we screamed, and made our way up the muddy path. I kept slipping and sliding, grabbing for vines and thorny branches to pull myself up. Mike was just ahead of me. When I busted out of the scratching brambles and woods, Mike had spiked it down the street, racing me to my house.
The rain stung my skin. My wet ponytail slapped me in the face—side to side—as I pounded the sidewalk. The storm put that yellow shadow on everything, making the grass and lilacs blot in electric color. I saw his skinny legs leap up to the front porch, and he waited for me, panting and soaked through his white t-shirt.
“This is friggin’ awesome Amos!” We paced on the porch.
“Should we go back?” My heart was pounding.
The door opened and my older sister, Nikki, appeared through the gray wires of the screen door. “You guys are gonna be in trouble. When dad gets home he’s gonna see you all wet and you’re gonna get it.” She disappeared. Inside I heard Cindi Lauper singing the theme from The Goonies. We went in and sat down on the carpet, reeling with excitement. Thunder echoed down the avenue.

…Suddenly I turned around and she was standing there,
with silver bracelets on her wrists
and flowers in her hair
She walked up to me so gracefully
and took my crown of thorns
“Come in,” she said, “I’ll give ya
shelter from the storm…

In a flash of chrome our banana-seat bikes tore us down Highway 2 towards the lake. The entire small town of Ashland swelled on a hill, rolling down into the point of it–the moody waters of Lake Superior. Pedaling downhill we took a short-cut behind Frankie’s Pizza where a gravel trail wound through the dense green. The crickets and cicadas filled our ears against the rush of air from our speed. And then, abruptly, the trees canopying over us cleared and there it was—the small field of thistle and weeds that led toward the stone ledge that dropped four feet to the water below.
Mike and I had no need for words. Our lazy summer days were filled with them. He was my cousin and my best friend, and to be eleven without permission is, I think, the last enchantment of childhood. We dropped our bikes and ran toward the ledge, the milkweed overwhelming us with that bitter wild scent. The blue sky seemed to span around us, leaving me and Mike in this world. His hazel eyes flecked in the sun as we grinned at each other and held hands. This was ours. This was our place. This was our moment; and we knew, somehow, that we’d never forget it.
Tank-tops, cut-off shorts, chucks and all—we swung our tanned our arms and counted out loud, looking only at each other, giddy.
“One….Two…THREE!”
I remember soaring through the fishy air, I remember the feel of his hand in mine, and then looking straight ahead at the same time we jumped into the cool, green water below, limitless.

This last August our families camped together in Delta, Wisconsin. Deep in the forest on an inlet of Spirit Lake, all was black in and outside of my cabin at four in the morning. I woke up and waited for Mike to meet me at the screen door. I heard a whippoorwill. Pine and birch and a smoky oak soaked the atmosphere. It was chilly. I gathered my fishing pole and gear and waited on the porch in the dark. I lit a cigarette that glowed the rails and hanging life jackets in a blinking red. I could smell the pond scum still dripping from the vests. The lake was barely visible, lit by the moon and stars in hazy electricity behind the black pillars of trees. In the distance, I heard his steps crunching on the gravel. I saw a faint red glow bobbing towards me. I smelled kerosene and coffee.
“Holy shit, Ame, you got up.” His grin was a casual half-smirk but his eyes were alive—we hadn’t been able to do something like this together in a long time.
“Coffee.” His gear and thermos clanked together and he picked up some of the bait.
“Where’d you get that?”
He held up an ancient lantern, “Some rummage sale a long time ago. Works great.”
He led the way into the darkness. I couldn’t remember the last time I was outside when the only light for miles around was from the stars. We whispered to each other but stayed mostly quiet. I took in the smells and sounds and dark shapes and fresh air as much as I took in Mike, limping ahead of me in a red glow.
The surface of Spirit Lake was covered in thick wisps of steam that lent to its name. A fog drifted around the upturned rowboats and shaky dock that had been there since we were kids. The fog pooled and spread and slipped around us. We slinked into the rowboat and the warm water bogged and recoiled against the hollow tin. I watched Mike’s silhouette against the backdrop of scattered diamonds, turning down the lantern, barefoot on the dock. He handed me the coffee and poles and untied us. We dipped in and over the water. The oars screeched and creaked. We went slow, listening to the oars and to the fish that flopped from the surface. I told him I’d row. The night before, at the fire, I saw his wrists and ankles were swollen ends to his skinny limbs.
“Nah, maybe later.” He breathed in deep. A loon landed close to our boat and we watched it. Its call echoed across the black lake. We sat and fished.
“Hey Amos, you know what?” The cigarette between his lips smoked into his eyes and he squinted and rowed a ways, leaning back. “Even with all the pain, all the….shit, all that I can’t do and will never do—all the shit you’ve been through–all the fucking hell, you know? I don’t think I’d change a damn thing—about life.”
It was a common, out-of-nowhere comment, both of us always comfortable enough to speak our hearts and minds at random. But this time it stopped me. The water bogged against the side of the row boat; I could hear the blue gill slapping against each other in the krill.
My mind instantly went through a million conversations between us—both of us thinking we’d never make it—him physically, me mentally. All the tears and the begging for help from God, yet to each other, over the phone. The late-night conversations beginning with his cooking advice and my musical barrages, to astronomy and philosophy and what Gram’s death meant. I saw my best friend, hardened and beautiful, the wild, charming blond boy who forever steals my heart. He hadn’t broken, nothing was taken from him. He had grown into a man in such a short time, and I still believe there is nothing he can’t do. And he made me feel–in a large moment of my life–brave and strong, like a person of substance—like him.
He looked over at me, one eye still squinting in the smoke. He grinned, knowing I felt the gravity of this, too. He said, “I know you know what I mean. Man, I love ya, Amos.” He brought up the oars, I dropped anchor, and we fished until well passed dawn.

…I’m bound to cross the line
BEAUTY WALKS A RAZOR’S EDGE
someday I’ll make it mine
If I could only turn back the clock
to when God and him were born
“Come in,” he said, “I’ll give ya
shelter from the storm…”

Save

A Space to Fill

I.
It’s the coldest January I’ve known
the white light coming in
through the protective glass–
white, I think, like my grandmother’s
white sheets she’d hang in June.

The white light coming in
takes me for a turn and
I think for a moment–
is it color? Or space? Like
the space we can never fill

and then I remember where I am
and why I am here.
Emptiness leaks out of me.
It’s hard when you learn
there is no God.
Now there’s the girl that weeps in my ears
but I can never find her.
At home I searched the house
for a crying child
until I realized it was in my head.

Out in the common area
I crouch over my puce tray
and take anti-psychotics,
mood stabilizers, speed,
and a mysterious one that
keeps the flashbacks mild. -er.
Patients ask me where I’m from,
do I have a home, if I want my
pudding, if I cut myself.
II.
The drive in the old red Chevy
is a quiet one, nothing but
white headlights
through the haze of cigarette
smoke, my stepfather
watching the road and
my thigh.
We are
outside of town
where the mental ward
sits back behind the snowy pines.

The sky is the only thing I see.
The only thing I don’t
have to think of.
It’s a place I’m already
falling towards.
I stare up at the stars
where I’m beginning to
recognize myself–everything means nothing.
My Catholic grandmother, June.
Even then I knew it was okay
to be lost when you’re
reminded
how small you are, how little
your voice is.
III.
Flashback. I nod
at Nurse Jo and she follows me
to my room. I lay on the
cot and tell her it’s coming.
She gives me a warm
blanket to squeeze and it begins.
The crying–an impression
of the child in my head.
Then I’m there–he’s
video taping me and
my step-siblings, and we
are not dressed; cajoled, his
soothing voice; encouragement.
There is water.
There is a blindfold on my
face and blood.
IV.
My mother comes outside
into the November air in a robe
and slippers, shuffling next
to my stepfather, crying.
My sisters and I keep our
distance, believing
that she wants us to.
She turns away into his shoulder
and I turned and stared
into the sky.
I thought about God,
about how the earth was really
just this round ball he had
in a box and for our nights, he
put a lid on that box and
punched holes in it for stars.
In my mind, God was a giant
old man forcing us to love
each other in a darkness
we could never fill.
V.

Nurse Jo asks me
to tell her what happened
when I come out of it.
I tell her about it,
and that I do not remember
too much more except
for the most chilling part–their faces.
My step brother and step sister
looked like dead children,
and I imagine I did, too.

 

I believed
he was the only one I could ever
answer to, the only power.
This is love.
He was a giant man forcing
us to love each other in a space
I’d never get back.

Soul Thief

PTSD: A Glimpse into the Bin

Listen to Jason Mraz–Details in the Fabric:

Drop Your Shame at the Door

The mirror above the sink is made of metal or tin, like a baking sheet flipped over, bolted to the wall. I don’t resemble much in the scratched reflection. There is this pointy, hollow, puffy-faced woman with black circles around her eyes. I see a physical creature, held hostage. Far, far away I think I remember her, at least a trace, for a moment. And a deep saddness fills me–fills me up to the jagged edge of sweaty palms, a burning stomach, a fluttering in the chest. ‘Stop!’ the word careens through my mind ‘Jesus stop!’, up and down the roller coaster in my head. I think maybe I have to stop getting so close to that girl, because it brings out my disease–makes me nearly quit breathing–or I want to quit breathing. It makes me run for the nurse, who’ll give me a blanket to hold and lay me down on a heating pad and softly speak to me about the facts of PTSD. Facts calm me down. I won’t be able to breathe when I first lay down–I’ll close my eyes and scratch at my face for the blindfold I feel wrapped around my head. Then I’ll feel blood, hot and sticky, coming from some kind of hole on my cheek. She gives me a pill. I’ll smear the blood away and look at my hands at the peak of the flashback, and not see red fingers; no blood. And I can see; no blindfold. It’s all just my mind, like a dream. I’m shifting in and out of different planes of reality if I’m not dissociating. I have no control. The monster never reveals himself, just the shame arises and I am naked everywhere inside-out;skinless. I’m a little girl. Just another little face that cowers before a perverse hand and leaves this place. “Fear is not your monster. Don’t give it a name. We are here to show you that it’s not your monster, it’s your teacher.” I wash my hands. I am nauseous. I can’t get it away–this blood of mine on my hands.
Focus. I stop spinning in my head by saying aloud the word Focus. I can focus for about a minute. Sixty seconds of bliss as I touch the objects around me and describe them, which should supposedly help me from sliding off the ledge into dissociation. I stare out the thick window, I stare at my cot, my twisted white sheets, my balled up blanket I hold close at night like a teddy bear, my plastic pillows, my untouched books, an old journal that looks at me during the long afternoons. Then I’m speeding up, frantically saying as I grab at random “soft, smooth, hard, cool, squishy, solid, rock, concrete…” and my pace is what scares me back into a panic and I feel myself step away–in one, loud thunder-step she’s gone, leaving me empty again. I don’t stand a chance here, I think, the only place where there is help. And I sit and cry in an empty shell.
Days pass in what feels like a month. Happy New Year I laugh to myself. Just days, I say, just some days and I went so far. How do I travel so much in a few days, locked in one building, the mirage of help where the nurses sit in their glassed-in office, watching us, laughing, sharing chocolates and Christmas cookies and new diets. How many shifts went by for them? I’ve become dependent on Nurse Jo; she’s the one person I choose to show my absolute bottoms to, and she brings me back to the room in the quiet building under the street lights that reveal showers of snow, gently, outisde. At night, after supper, I stare out the glass door by my room. I stare at the soft knolls of rounded snow, imagine the buzz from the halogen street lights, the crumple of weightless snow singing to the ground. I can’t go out there and touch it. I think of the recycled generations and VIP’s that have spent the same kind of nights here. I cry (that’s about all I can do). Hard. I cry because I’d wanted someone to carry me, carry me like water–as Saenz says. But I’d run through their fingers. I cry because here I am trying to carry myself, and I’m just so tired; I have no faith left inside. No faith in tomorrow, or even the coming night when it gets bad. I realize how alone I am and that I’m falling with nothing to catch myself on. Am I destroyed? Did I blow it? Will I get her back? I stop crying and stiffen up. I’ll find her. On my own, dammit. I’ll get her back. I won’t carry myself. I’ll push myself. I’ll fight for her, because she was once so lovely. And I cry again, because it all just hurts and I have no defenses left.

the panic of peace

scattered prose

LISTEN & READ: 05 – 4am

 The Panic of Peace

Flat affect.  What a depersonalized symptom to give the hider.  Yes, let’s play, you seek.  You seek out your DSM and professional books among the cranberry-colored spines with gold writing, or solid, knowing, black fonts.  And inside pours out six.  Six disorders I have because I fit the criteria like a glove.  I was better off not knowing. Yet it was something, a list, I could point to, aim the finger away from me.   I wanted to say “of course I have flat affect, I’m fucking stunned that somebody with six disorders can hardly be funny anymore.”  No I’m not dissociating at these times.  I’m very real when I am angry or crossed or hurt or doubted.  It’s when I’m scared or set by a sound or smell or the mind spins manically in and out over itself, that I calm down to dissociate, where I sit so terrified that they say “flat affect” and I’m so scared I don’t know what’s on my face.  I dissociate when I panic that I am calm.  That’s how messed up this body is.  I’ve stowed away inside again, that’s what we do, us big kids.  We’re an army– an army given cheap guns, yet known to be armed to the teeth with devices that a soul shall never ever pass, and they never will.  Security lock down—it’s a brilliant defense, this dissociation, but it comes back for ya.  You have to pay for it. It comes back when you’re almost thirty and thinking about a diet and reading the classics and going to school to become to become to become.  And then, wham, shot down.  It’s the early-on, unknowing that is most terrifying.  I was sure I fucked myself up beyond repair, that back in the day, I’d done some irreparable damage and I was going to die.  I saw death.  I breathed my grandmother’s name and practically ran to mental health holding my head, to stop the black images popping up with red eyes.  To catch my short breath, and the taste in my mouth…it was coming…the flashback.  Blindfolds, blood, and sex.  I’m a five year-old in heels, smashing my makeup on the ground, crying in the corner, banging on the locked yellow door.

So that’s the beginning, or shall I say, my first day, of PTSD.  Drove my ass right to the bin.  It was my first time but I always figured that I’d show up there some day.  I don’t know why.  I’m not one to prod my weird thoughts.  That’s asking for mayhem.  They shot me in the ass with meds and I cried all night and day after day.  I remember thinking that this was it, that it wasn’t so bad, they’d fix me of course, and I’d never be back again.  That was the baby version of PTSD, when the “psychotic episodes” or flashbacks were so minute they barely counted and I always came out of it squeaky clean, like it was a bad, dirty dream.  Soon, after my stay there, these “episodes” began to creep into my mornings, I started dissociating more when the panic rose when triggers were set off, my legs went numb, I tasted rubber in my mouth.  The flashbacks or episodes were lasting forever, on and off, at a moment’s notice.  Strange, scared thoughts and ideas whipped me around on a fucking roller coaster and flung me out of its seats at the peak of the ride.  Nothing was real.  I called to my fiancé who seemed like an oil painting and we were all dissolving and he’d never reach me.  “Talk me down.  Help me.  Talk to me.”  I’d demand with my voice in total control.  I couldn’t let anyone see that helpless chaos on my face.  It was like seeing your own death.  Yet you believe death would be easier.  You don’t trust yourself in the tub with the pretty pink razor.  What?! You’re screaming what to yourself because now the suicidal thoughts listed in the “DSM” are scrolling off the page and into your ears.  Oh shit.  The book.  The stigma.  You think as you sink “I’m one of them”.  Depersonalization disorder, dissociative amnesia, panic disorder, PTSD…there’s one more (besides the bipolar) but I can’t remember.  At this brief interjection of a strange paragraph I’d like to say “Gee, thanks.  Thank you step-father.  I have seen the light; the dark; and now I can’t see anything but exist as this open wound because of your own tormented soul.  Thank you for the lesson, thanks for not beating this one into me.  My flesh could’ve handled it better than my head, but could you have known?” 

Anyways, death.  Death.  But what’s left?  It got worse.  They couldn’t help me.  I was seeing things, feeling things, things were lost, demanding their recapture, and I couldn’t see them.  I’m five years old, sitting in the crook of my fiancé’s arm, with flat affect.

What the printed, sacred documents of the doc’s don’t tell you is that there is something very key to survival…as they end their chapters in comorbidity and the morbid–suicide rates.  They fail to mention the elements of two things that will save you: hope and love.  Now why would a book about the mind involve such artificial, baseless tones to their story?  You gotta figure it out for yourself, because each persons’ fate is different.  These two elements cannot be captured, their purpose lays in secrecy as they fill us all with blessing.  Hope is that last shred of light you see; it’s that part of your brain that drives you to the hospital for help, instead of into the tub.  Hope makes you wake up and face another day, giving you clues and signs everywhere that there is more, so much more…to life.  And in those signs beams love.  The love of the fiancé who holds you to his chest and waits for you to get better, knowing more than you do that you’re going to make it.  The love of the mother who doesn’t even have to speak, but sits at your side until your episode is over and you can look her in the eye with gravity.  The love of the sisters, who allow you to wail out your fear and struggle through your belief that there is no future, just nothingness and death.  They cry too, and you feel love because you’re not breaking alone.  And the love of a friend, a long-ago best friend—agent of dreams—who tells you as you sit back in the bin again that you’re not alone, she said “tell her I am with her.”  And she was.  This intricate web of hope and love has shown me something not many people get to see—just how undeniably soulful it is to have each other, and to love each other—unconditionally.  There is a greater purpose that must be so simple we can’t see it, but sometimes get a taste of it.  It’s so simple that your heart becomes light and made of pink love that streams through your blessed body that heals; it’s so simple that the mind can find a moment where it is at rest and calm and knows peace.  It can’t really be written—the love I’ve seen.