photo and illustration by Shasta Fletcher and Shaun Lawton
When it happened, I remember not feeling anything, just disconnected from the world, or at least from being human.
I know a lot went into the process of even being able to do it—to leave the relationship as if it was the dead end situation I knew it to be. Yet, because children were involved, a certain level of guilt crested like a breaker and, eventually, after too long, the mind starts to come back, and the breaker crushes one’s soul.
But, that is not what is truly revealed—no! What is shown to those who sink under the guise of guilt is something...richer. The swirling undertow opens one to possibilities never conceived.
Why one would want to explore these possibilities is beyond me, but when the guilt has run its course and is heaving and out of breath, well, what is left afterwards?
Discarding with preconceived notions of reality, one opens one’s eyes for the first time. (And what is reality anyway? What is this mottled mirage that corrupts all of our lives, bending us under its deceptive force?)
Wallowing longer than necessary, well, that’s just pathetic. So many lost souls succumb to the ache and allow the malaise to rule the rest of their lives.
I knew what I needed, though. I just needed to feel tethered to something again; to feel human, again.
That’s where you came in. Meeting you—victim of many disintegrated relationships—we somehow connected. As odd as it sounds, it seems you have always been there for me.
Initially we slept in the back seats of broken down cars at the junk yard. We found a hub of hope within each other; warmth amidst a freezing winter.
What you gave me beyond the matching mindset (though your relationships were more transient, you felt similarly adrift), was the tether I needed to feel human again. I remember laying next to you, your naked flesh pressed against mine, and listening to you breathe; and finding within your breathing, the ability to copy it, to ride the inhaled and exhaled breath.
Through this simple practice, I acclimated myself to something I had thought I had lost, and felt in touch with being human again; to being in touch with somebody again.
Eventually we moved up to hotel rooms—a week’s stay here, a few days there—as we picked ourselves up, piecemeal work and begging on the streets and finally, a studio apartment more like a cardboard box, but it would be home for now.
But you brought something with us that ruined everything.
Because of the way we had tumbled together, I did not see the whole of you, just what was needed for me to get by. I was selfish, but my selfishness was a direct result of feeling like everything was spinning down a drain and there was nothing to grab on to, nothing to stop the descent.
There are times when one has to be selfish, to survive.
I saw the needles and your bruised arms, saw the glaze in your gaze, and knew something was amiss, but I did not take a stand because I figured, maybe, that you needed to hold on to something as well.
I just wished it was me...
We had conversations, talked about it. You knew you had to kick, I knew I had to be supportive through this.
But I allowed the gnawing guilt a place to roost in my head. I knew I had to go see my kids, to talk to them, say something, anything, desperation—the one vicious bastard that erodes true thought—forcing me to leave you on a night when I knew you really needed me.
Still, I had to go, had to try and see them, but was turned away before I made it to the door of the apartment, the ex-wife acting as if she does not even know me, seeming more scared than anything else—“I’ll call the police if you don’t leave us alone!”—me, shrugging my shoulders, skulking toward her, pleading, “But honey, I just want to see the kids,” and the worried look on her face, this time her response more firm: “I’m calling the police. You need to leave—now!” And the boy looking up at me, curiosity set in his blue eyes, me saying, “Son...” and him stepping back as his mother pushes him into the apartment, the girl in the background, playing with dolls, oblivious, but his look—his look—the bitch had obviously brainwashed him, corrupted him, done something to make him not remember his own father—my rage crested, “Let me see the kids!” and she slammed the door shut and I heard the confirmation from behind the green painted wood as the boy asked, “Who was that man, Mommy? Why does he keep bothering us?” and the ex's response: “I told you before, Tommy. There are those among us who are no longer human; they might look human, but they are not. We have to deal with them with a firm word or more. That thing has become fixated on us, ever since your father passed away, as if its soul can replace your father’s, but no...” and me feeling completely confused for more reasons than her deranged, inconceivable explanation—her lies!
Tommy? The name is not a part of my recollection.
I shudder, body buckling, vomiting in the hallway, but nothing pours out of me, whatever remains inside empty of substance.
I feel dead and know I have lost everything after the brutal verification the preceding scene has shown me, the aftermath of listless months trying to stay afloat with you; you being the only thing I really have anymore, but you having me and the addiction, and I’m not sure if I am first on that list.
The proof of where I stand is apparent when I get back to the studio apartment.
The door is unlocked and slightly ajar. The room smells bad, but I wonder if the mess is just the result of our lack of focus. I mean, most of the time we just embrace and hold each other, trying to keep breathing, when not drowning our existences in menial work and begging at the intersections and whatnot.
We are at least trying, and that is better than the pathetic par (the streets are crawling with the pathetic par), though slipping often as we try.
I strip off my clothes and snuggle next to you on the stained and torn mattress. Pulling bundled, filthy sheets over my feeble body—cockroaches scuttle away at my intrusion—I whisper “I love you” and “I’m sorry I was gone, I had to see my kids, but...”
The words die in my throat.
You don’t stir, don’t respond. I am not one to think much of it, but then I realize two powerfully blunt truths: You are cold in ways that make my skin hurt.
And you are not breathing.
My tether, my anchor to this world and the pain and fury of being human, of aching in ways that scrape out the hollow within and leave a vacancy where the soul should reside—you are not breathing!
I shake you a little, “c’mon,” but you don’t c’mon. You chill the emptiness with your barren presence.
I hold you because there is nothing else for me to do, there is nothing else for me to say—oh, a dashed off, “I’m sorry for leaving tonight”—but that is simply the punch-line to the joke that is my existence.
My eyes tear up, but it’s little more than dust. I have no tears to shed. I have nothing now, nothing forever. I have failed this relationship, too, and there is nothing left for me to do but hold you and wonder, yes wonder: why am I still breathing?
But then, the joke is completed as I realize my breath is nothing more than a memory of when I was more than a shadow...
And you turn to me and ask, “What’s up, babe?” in a voice like sandpaper and ashes and I cry out, “Why are you alive?” and you smile and I see in your stained yellow teeth something twitching and crunching and you say, “Because we have each other, to remind each other, of what it is to be human, even if you have not come around to what you are now, which is something less,” and I squeeze you with all my might and there’s nothing there, nothing of substance, just like what did not pass from my bowels in that distant hallway a few hours ago.
What you said sounds too much like what I think, and it’s time for me to come around.
The sheets are devoid of anything but stale smells and my quaking body and the needle that still protrudes from my scarred arm.
I force myself from their tangled grasp, slouch into the bathroom. The mirror is broken but I can still see my reflection—our reflection—skin draped sickly over a hunched skeleton splashed in the middle like a shattered ripple across a restless lake; restless because I convulse in disgust, scratching scabs off of bruised arms.
Off of dead arms: the bruises indicative of decay, of death.
I move closer, staring into the void that is my pupils, my eyes; eyes I used to know so well.
The mirror disavows my presence: the fog of breath is absent.
I hit the mirror with my bony fist; it is not the first time. My reflection splints even more, pieces raining to the sink, the floor.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men...
Each piece holds a sliver of my soul, of what used to be my soul. Of what was abandoned, but has never found a home after...
What remains is the body, the rotting flesh and abysmal vestiges of what once was human.
The silence of my scream, the bloodless stump that is my ragged hand, the soot collecting on my transfixed orbs, all is grim confirmation that the monkey riding my back is a weighty gorilla intent on breaking it.
Having opened my eyes to the possibilities, it is made excruciatingly clear that my reality has been shaped by the needle, ever since my death, the death of my soul, and the bewilderment that accompanies my being, my still being here, existing somehow, a zombie but not a zombie, a dream of being human again.
But the dead souls drift through the dead flesh, corroding my thoughts with their needs, and this one, with this wife and two children, this one crowds me but cannot take over this worn out flesh, because this one is more recent, as I once was (a jolt amidst the contemplation, an epiphany: this is not even my body!), a novice to this deathstyle, and all I have are the lies I believe as true, and the hallucinations that flash as memories, but not just my memories, many memories of many other lives. It is all a part of its insidious lure.
It. The human blood in the syringe.
I want to bleed again, to be human again...
I look at the torn fist, maggots squirming in the tattered wound, as if they have been there for a long time.
The body slumps to the floor. Its reflection stares at me from different perspectives, silently wishing for a death already experienced, but not finalized in this cruel limbo world between.
I would sigh but I am unable to as this body is lacking the one thing to instigate this sick confirmation within myself.
It is not breathing.
But its veins are hungry...again.