With Feet at the Edge of the Abyss, Part 3
“You know what your problem is? You need to lighten up.”
The man is bald with a trimmed, black goatee. His eyes are sunken and dulled. By the inflection in his voice it seems like he didn’t introduce the conversation with this point. He must be responding to something I said.
When I fail to answer, he elaborates on his advice to fill the space. “I look at you and all I see is me when I was your age—how old are you?”
“Twenty-four,” I say.
“Jesus. You know what I was doing when I was your age? I was shooting heroin on a mattress in a foreclosed house with four other degenerates believing we were gonna be rock stars. Now, I can see you’re not as far gone as I was. You’ve still got some of that light in your eyes, though you’re doing everything you can to kill it. I’m sure you know that. But I’m gonna tell you something I wish someone had told me before I ruined it all by being a stupid fucking kid. I want you to listen to this. Really listen to me, Henry: Hating the world does nothing but make the world hate you back. I wasted my twenties being angry and sad thinking the world owed me something—thinking I’d never grow old and eventually it would all make sense once I got X, Y, or fuckin’ Z. But it doesn’t work like that. I destroyed what could have been my happiest years because I thought it made sense to feel bad. And now I’m fifty years old. Fifty. Jesus…fifty. You know what I know now? Despite everything I did in my power to destroy my life and feel sadness and hate the world, those were still the best years of my life. Because I was young. I had the whole world ahead of me. There was hope despite it all. That’s why I thought I could throw it all away. I would never have admitted that at the time, but it was true. No matter how much I destroyed my life there was this little flame inside me that said ‘don’t give up. There’s still time.’ But now I’m fifty. There’s no hope anymore. There’s no time. So lighten the fuck up. Appreciate what the fuck you have. Get your head out of your ass and smile, before you wake up one day and see a bitter, miserable old man staring at you in the mirror. And trust me, it will happen. Faster than you think. This whole depressed alcoholic shtick is a lot less charming when you’re fat, middle-aged and bald. You have hope. Do something real with it.”
The walls are blood red. The stools are red also, and they have tears in them. My stool wobbles when I sway too far to the right. Black lights glow in phosphorescent blues and purples across the graffiti tags covering the ceiling and walls like an invasive mold. Erratic punk music explodes all around me and drowns out any voices I would otherwise hear. There are paintings of naked women hung next to framed black and white photographs of midgets standing next to slain bears hanging upside down from ropes. The bar is busy. The people look like me—they look like they’re my age—but they have spiked mohawks and facial piercings and wear black leather jackets with patches sewn into them that say things like “SUCK MY CUNT, I’M A FEMINIST” and “BORN TO PAY TAXES AND FUCKING DIE”. I feel as though I’ve stepped into what Hell looks like to a Motörhead fan. I don’t mind this place.
Rebecca must be here somewhere but I don’t care anymore. It’s become far too interesting to play time-traveler and see where this takes me.
“WHAT WAS THAT?”
My head jolts up from the wood counter. Someone is screaming at me over the music.
“CAN YOU HEAR ME? I DIDN’T HEAR WHAT YOU SAID, MAN.”
I look over. It’s a man. The man is trying to talk to me. He looks like Zakk Wylde. He looks like he sells drugs. Am I buying drugs from him?
“I FORGOT WHAT I WAS SAYING,” I scream back. “I DON’T HAVE MUCH MONEY THOUGH. I GOT FIRED TODAY.” I pull on the collar of my shirt and point to my ex-employer’s logo over the chest.
Zakk Wylde looks at me for a moment. He seems confused. “WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT, MAN?”
I point at the logo again. “I GOT FIRED TODAY SO I DON’T HAVE MUCH MONEY. CAN YOU FRONT ME? I’M GOOD FOR IT, MAN, I’M GONNA BE A PUBLISHED AUTHOR. YOU CAN BE MY PERSONAL DRUG DEALER. LET’S GO FUCKIN’ HOLLYWOOD TOGETHER, MAN.”
He pauses to sort through what I’m saying for anything discernable. “YEAH, NO—WAIT, WHAT? NO, I DON’T HAVE ANY DRUGS. YOU WERE TALKING ABOUT THE BOOK, MAN.”
“FUCK THE BOOK!” I scream reflexively. “THE BOOK IS SHIT. PRINT IS DYING ANYWAY, FUCK IT. BUNCHA PIECE ‘A SHIT MILLENNIALS TWEETING NUDES AND SKIMMING BUZZFEED HEADLINES INSTEAD OF READING A GODDAMN NOVEL. FUCK IT.”
“BUT YOU’RE A MILLENNIAL, AREN’T YOU?”
“THAT’S BESIDE THE POINT.”
“THEN WHAT’S THE POINT?”
“THE POINT IS…” I think about my answer. What has me so bothered? There’s this drunken little voice growling something inside my chest. He’s hiding between my lungs, nestled up against my sternum, and he’s growling words. I allow the world around to grow quiet, and when I can make out the words the little drunken man inside me is growling so intently, I mimic the words to Zakk Wylde as if I’m the magnified voice filtered through the other end of a megaphone. As the first word falls off my tongue, I can already feel the avalanche of a booze-soaked diatribe forcing its way up my throat. It’s too late now.
“…THE POINT IS…NOTHING HAS EVER GONE RIGHT FOR ME. IT’S BEEN ONE MASSIVE FUCKING MISSTEP AFTER ANOTHER. I DESTROY…EVERYTHING I TOUCH. I’M LIKE THE SHITTY, BOTCHED, DOLLAR-STORE VERSION OF KING MIDAS. AND ALL I WANT IS TO BE BETTER. I WANNA BE NORMAL, MAN. I REMEMBER I USED TO SAY, ‘I’D RATHER BE FUCKED UP AND INTERESTING THAN NORMAL AND BORING.’ BUT THAT’S FUCKIN’ BULLSHIT, ZAKK WYLDE. I WANT A WIFE AND KIDS AND TO WAKE UP AND SMILE SOMEGODDAMNTIMES. GIVE ME THE NINE TO FIVE AND THE BEER IN FRONT OF THE TV AFTER WORK AND A YARD WITH THE WHITE MOTHERFUCKING PICKET FENCE AND THE COCKTAIL OF ANTI-DEPRESSANTS AND MOOD STABILIZERS TO KEEP ME FROM SWAN-DIVING OFF THE FUCKING ROOF. ANYTHING HAS GOTTA BE BETTER THAN THIS.
“BUT NOW THERE’S THIS BOOK. THIS IS THE BEST THING THAT’S EVER HAPPENED TO ME—IT’S ALL I’VE EVER WANTED, ZAKK WYLDE. BUT YOU KNOW HOW I ENDED UP WITH THIS BOOK—THIS GIANT FUCKING BLESSING FROM THE HEAVENS? BY BEING A SOCIOPATHIC, MENTALLY ILL ALCOHOLIC FOR THREE YEARS. NOW, WHAT THE FUCK DO YOU EXPECT ME TO TAKE FROM THAT, ZAKK WYLDE? THAT THE ONE GOOD THING THAT EVER HAPPENED TO ME WAS A DIRECT RESULT OF BEING THE WORST HUMAN BEING I’VE EVER ALLOWED MYSELF TO BE. IT’S LIKE THE UNIVERSE IS GIVING ME PERMISSION TO CONTINUE BEING A PIECE OF SHIT. IT’S SAYING TO ME, ‘DON’T CHANGE, HENRY. DON’T GET BETTER. IF YOU STAY MISERABLE, THEN YOU CAN FINALLY BE SOMEBODY. IF YOU JUST KEEP DESTROYING YOUR LIFE, THEN IT’LL ALL PAY OFF IN THE END.’
“AND IT’S NOT LIKE I HAVE ANY EVIDENCE THAT WOULD PROVE ANYTHING TO THE CONTRARY. THE UNIVERSE IS PATTING ME ON THE BACK FOR THE FIRST TIME IN MY LIFE FOR, ESSENTIALLY, BEING A BAD PERSON. SO I’M ASKING YOU, ZAKK WYLDE, NOW THAT THIS HAS HAPPENED, WHY THE FUCK WOULD I WANNA STOP NOW?”
The man stares at me for a long time. “JUST WRITE ABOUT SOMETHING ELSE,” he says. He drinks from his beer. “WHO THE FUCK IS ZAKK WYLDE?”
My face is twisted into a sob. I can feel the heat on the surface of my face as the skin puffs and tightens through the tears and stress. I am curled into the fetal position on Rebecca’s couch. Rebecca is there next to me, her arm loose over my shoulder. She is uncomfortable and doesn’t know how to handle this. Neither do I. I don’t know what’s caused this.
Her image fades in and out between blinks, and once the brief blackness is traded back again for the familiarity of her apartment, Rebecca appears in different positions, sometimes standing across the room, and I call out between terrified wails for her to return by my side.
An exercise occurs to me that my therapist had once taught me to use when amidst the throes of a panic attack. He called it a grounding exercise. I’m not sure if what’s happening to me is in fact a panic attack but it seems similar enough, so I try to retrieve from my fractured memory what the actual exercise is. The most I can pull is that it has something to do with focusing on anything physical and tangible occurring in the direct world around you—the point being to take yourself out of the intangible world within your head, if at least for a moment—but I’m so drunk that the most I can glean from the concept is to call out the name of the object closest to me, so now I’m screaming TABLE TABLE TABLE TABLE over and over like a mentally handicapped person as the tears begin filling the insides of my ears and the world becomes a giant bathtub.
Rebecca is there and she squeezes my arm to stop me, and says, “Calm down. Tell me what’s going on.”
“Did you know that penguins mate for life?” I say. Sobs and chokes cascade across the words like cement poured over a wilting garden.
“Scientists have studied them. They waddle around and find a mate in the colony. Then they fall in penguin-love and they never cheat with other, bigger-dicked penguins or get a penguin-divorce. They stay together forever.”
“Henry, what are you talking about?”
“And then they make an egg and the mom goes into the ocean to find fish to stay strong for the dad and not-yet-baby, and the dad sits there with the egg on his feet for months, Rebecca. He takes care of it. He keeps it warm and safe. And she always comes back.” My sobs are intensifying now. I’ve remembered why I am crying. “She always comes back. They love each other.”
“I want the egg. I want my penguin. Everybody else gets to have the egg. Everybody else gets their penguin. I don’t wanna do this anymore. I just wanna take care of the egg. I want my own penguin.”
Rebecca says, “Henry, I don’t know what to say.”
And she doesn’t. She doesn’t say anything else.
I close one eye and order an Uber, asking Rebecca to type in her address because I’ve forgotten what city I’m in, let alone what part of town. “I have to go,” I say. “Today is over.” This is the closest thing to a fact that I can think of so it’s what I decide to say.
And then I blink.
She has brown hair that looks coarse and brittle. It falls flat over her back and shoulders. Her nose is large and angular like a protruding triangle. I can’t see her eyes well enough in the darkness of the car. This bothers me. It’s hard for me to trust people if I can’t see the light in their eyes. Still, I carry on with mindless chatter, excited that the change in environment has measurably improved my mood.
Aiidongowantomayva is what my words come out sounding like, but she responds with, “That sounds like a day” and “Well, you’ll be home soon”, so from an outside perspective I must be making enough sense to sustain a dialogue. My tongue feels like it’s disconnected from my mouth.
Through the passenger window I can see shades of black and orange blending and pirouetting between each other as we pass through wooded roads and well-lit streets. We drive across a bridge and in the distance the city skyline burns with yellows and reds and blues all blinking and buzzing, and below us the river is solid and black. The current doesn’t seem to exist and it looks dead. I can’t imagine that underneath the surface there is anything any more alive than the stagnant river. I imagine that blanketing the riverbed is a graveyard of motionless, decaying fish and that’s all there is. Soon the whole city of blinking and buzzing colors will be no different, and this thought doesn’t feel saddening but only inevitable and I accept this.
The car stops. We’re outside my home. She is looking at me and I say, “You have cigarette?”
“Yeah,” she says. “Do you wanna smoke one with me?”
“Sure,” I say.
We step outside and lean on the back of her car. I light the wrong end of the cigarette so she takes it out of my mouth, turns it around and lights it for me. Under the natural light of the stars her facial features become more prominent, and by the forehead wrinkles and weathered, tired expression I can tell that she is probably in her mid to late-thirties.
She stares at me through the glowing cherry hovering in front of my nose and then says, “Do you wanna keep hanging out?”
Today I have not yet been left alone. I have become lost in the tedious storm of booze, barflies, blinding white noise, lackadaisical supervision, disarmingly poor social etiquette, black humor, masochism and self-hatred to the point where I can no longer recognize myself, all under the guise of either a celebration or a Leaving Las Vegas-style suicide mission, but in truth it has all only been for the sole purpose of staving off this exact moment. For the better part of a half-decade I have driven the hollow and numbing possibilities of excess to the brink of the edge. And for whatever reason it has not been until this night, this day of all days, that I have at last reached that edge, and am now finally left with nothing but the apathetic face before me, and the endless, black abyss of a realization staring back from beneath the ends of my feet: I am alone. And I am terrified. I am very, profoundly alone.
“Yeah,” I say.
She pulls out her phone. “I’ll find somewhere to take us.”
I’m not sure what this means but I want someone to take care of me so I don’t question getting back into the car.
“I’m off the clock,” she says. “Don’t worry, you’re not being charged.”
She brings us to a park in the woods. I know this park. When we were little kids my best friend and I used to go deep down into the creek at the heart of the forest and catch salamanders. They would hide underneath the rocks close enough to the creek that small amounts of water would seep in underneath and provide them with comfortable homes. They were small and black and had two stripes running down their backs. Sometimes the stripes were red and sometimes they were yellow.
“This should work,” she says. “Come on.”
I get out and stumble on the uneven dirt, and she grabs my hand and leads me down the dark path towards the creek. We stop at a bench and she sits me down next to her like a toddler. It’s pitch-black and warm, and I can hear the running water of the creek just beyond the veil of the shadows. This creek is still alive. The salamanders are still alive under those rocks. I know it.
I feel her hand on my face and then her lips on mine, and I kiss her back because that is what you’re suppose to do when someone kisses you. Then she is grabbing me and groping at me, and her arms are around me and she pushes me onto the ground next to the bench. She begins taking off my belt and pulling down my pants and she takes her pants off.
“Put it in me,” she says.
“I think I’m too drunk,” I tell her.
“Kiss me then.”
I do and it hardens, and she takes my hips and pulls me in towards her.
“Condom?” I manage.
“My tubes are tied,” she says. “Put it in.”
I don’t know if I want this. I don’t know where the line is. No one ever taught me this.
“Are you clean?” I mumble.
“Yeah, yeah, just do it.”
I don’t feel anything. She is silent as I do it. Rocks cut into my shins and knees until I know that in the morning the inside of my jeans will be stained with black, crusted blood. I don’t want this.
“I’m not gonna come,” I say.
“Alright,” she says. “Let’s go.”
We stand up and put our pants back on, and in silence we walk back up the trail I had taken a hundred times as a child. This park was my favorite place in the world. It was magical. Beautiful little creatures hid underneath rocks for us to find and the creek never stopped running and the trees swayed in the wind and protected us from the elements. Fifteen years ago this park was the most magical place I’d ever been.
We drive back to my home and she stops in the street, letting her car idle. We have not spoken.
“Do you even remember my name?” she asks me.
“Jordan?” I slur.
“It’s Jessica. Get out of my car.”
I step outside and close the door, and she drives away. I lie on the driveway and watch the stars until I feel the vomit rising in my stomach, and expel fourteen hours worth of liquor onto a bush. I walk up the steps, weave down the hallway, and collapse onto my bed, falling unconscious with every article of clothing still on me.
I do not dream.
Two months later the psychiatrist will give me a new diagnosis and I will go back on medication. And I will crash and burn.