What do holidays really mean to someone largely estranged from their family of origin?
Maybe it means you start dreading the holiday season from about the day after Halloween, until January second. It means you get to listen to your friends talk about going away to see their families, or what gifts they plan on giving their loved ones. You don’t want to fucking hear it, because you don’t really have a family to go home to. You can’t even imagine what that’s like.
Maybe you think about how the last Christmas you can remember spending with your family of origin, your solution was steal two bottles of wine from the store before making the several hour drive to your mother’s house. It turns out, if you and your mother just keep drinking, that makes the holiday and one another’s company actually bearable.
You spend Christmas Eve drinking wine. Mom drank from a glass, you drink straight from the bottle. You look at dumb shit on the internet, and didn’t talk about anything of any consequence, except mom shows you this cool website where you can look up people’s mugshots. She shows you your cousin’s latest arrest photo, for her latest arrest on meth possesion.
“Look at what drugs did do her face!” She drunkenly exclaims.
“She was such a beautiful girl growing up.”
Then shit gets weird. You half drunkenly start to think about saying something to your mom about the patriarchal weight put on physical appearance, and how damaging beauty standards are, how maybe your long lost cousin’s addiction boils down to more tragedy than the ravages her demon of choice have taken on her face and figure. You think the better of it, and keep your mouth shut. You turn your laptop away so mom can’t see it, and quickly type in the name of your neighbors who assaulted you as a child. These are the real life monsters that lived under your bed that your mother denied existed.
And there he is. One of the faces that has haunted you most of your adult life. Your mom denied he existed all this time, denied your experience was real, and told you to get over it, and there he is. Right there. It’s the face you know so well, but with added mileage. The years have not been kind, and maybe that’s just what you wish on this asshole. You wonder if it means something in some grand universal sense, that you are happening to glimpse this face for the first time in over twenty years while sitting in the same room as your mother, who you rarely see. You think about some grand tapestry involving threads of family, violence, neglect, mental illness and despair that weave themselves together to be torn apart as sure as night follows day.
You think about saying something to mom while you’re both drunk. You wonder if the conversation won’t go differently this time. Maybe the wine will soften both of you. Maybe the wine will alleviate some of the bitterness that has accrued over the years.
You realize you are maybe too drunk. You think the better of it, and go to bed.
You can’t sleep and you answer a craigslist casual encounters ad or two. You try and work up the nerve to go have anonymous sex in the town your mom lives in. Sure enough, there are lonely men who like effeminate boys in this place she moved to for it’s southern conservative values, even on Christmas Eve. You drunkenly think for a second about how maybe this is replaying childhood trauma in your adult life. You tell your brain to shut the fuck up. Stop ruining your night. Anything to fill the void, you guess.
Self preservation prevails. You fall asleep in the guest room. You don’t drive drunk. You don’t go to some stranger’s house and get choke fucked by him until he cums and you leave before he even pulls the condom off, or bother to ask his name.
You drift to sleep and you think of the void.
The void, that great colossal emptiness you are constantly filled with weighs heavily on you. It is your oldest, and surest companion. You stare at the shadows on the ceiling, and you are sure they are staring back at you. You’ve known this since you were a child, and you sought the company of FM radio waves washing through your room at night to keep the abyss at bay.
You feel all that void this year too, as December drags on. The daylight is short, and the nights are long. The dark feels goddamn endless. The dark feels abyssal and gigantic. You have too long to lie in bed and think about where it all went so wrong. The mornings barely push their light through the curtains in your room, and it’s so cold. You don’t want to get out of bed. You think about lighting candles, or doing ritual to bring light back to you, but you don’t have the strength today. Maybe you will tomorrow.
You think about the Christmas when you were fifteen. It’s one of the last fond memories you have of your family, and even that memory is stained with poverty and depression. This was the Christmas just before you and your mom lost your house. The house is dirty, and constantly filled with blue cigarette smoke. Mom stays in the house and chain smokes all day. Sometimes you go to school, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you go out with friends, sometimes you don’t. You get uncomfortable when you are around your friends and their nice families. When you are home, you stay in your room listening to records and staring at the ceiling.
You and your mother decide that even though you don’t have money for presents, you should both go to K-Mart, and buy one another at least something to open on Christmas day. You find something you think your mother will like, and you think about how little money you have. The heat has been turned off twice this winter already, and it’s a fucking cold one.
You do what any sketchy broke fifteen year old would do, of course. You secret the present away in your rad teenage punk leather jacket. This is after all, the K-Mart where just months ago, in the warmer, seemingly invincible summer days your friends would have you go in to the store with your mohawk spiked up to run distraction while they shoplifted to their little teenage criminal heart’s content. This is the K-Mart where some hick managed to drive a riding lawn mower on display outside into his buddies waiting pick up truck and not get caught. You think you are doing great, presents secure in your jacket, and saving this meager twenty dollars at the same time.
“Goddamnit, kid. Do you realize store security is trailing your around the store?”
You hear your mom’s voice behind you. Oops. She manages to explain to the store security guard and employees who have assembled around you that you are doing your last minute Christmas shopping together, and you were simply just trying to hide your purchases from her since you were in the store at the same time. You weren’t actually trying to steal. She promises. She insists you are a good kid.
“Of course that’s what I was doing.” You agree vigorously.
They let you go, and just before Christmas comes, you and one of your older friends go steal a carton of cigarettes from the convenience store two towns over for you to stuff in your mom’s Christmas stocking late Christmas eve. You wish she wouldn’t smoke so much, but not much else seems to make her happy.
Twenty years after that Christmas, the void pulls just as hard. You sit at a bar with one of your closest friends, while she finishes her beer and you drink water. You talk about how neither of you have any family to go to this year. You didn’t really have anywhere to go last year either.
“Fuck it. We’ll buy each other presents. We don’t need our shitty moms.”
You both smile. You talk about trauma, love, and loss. You talk about the difficulty and depression of the season. You talk about moving on, and moving away from destructive patterns. You talk about legacies of mental illness and despair, how they leave their long shadows. You talk about how you can almost see the light moving in at the edges of the dark.
You put your jackets on. You leave the bar. You hug and part ways, walking different directions on Fourth Avenue. You walk home through the fog, and think about what you are going to get your friend. You think about how to move through the sadness that has persistently followed you for these last two months.
No, fuck it. You think about the sadness that has followed you for almost as long as you can remember. Maybe this year you’ll beat it. Maybe this year, as this holiday season and it’s fake happiness fades into the the background and the winter days start becoming incrementally longer you’ll find new ways to thrive, instead of just surviving like you always have. Maybe all this hurting is really just growing, and the bad times melting away like muddied snow come the spring thaw.
We sat in my dark living room one night. It was a Saturday. I had turned thirty two the night before. I decided to have a weekend of celebrating. Friday night was the dinner party at a classy restaurant. Saturday night we were going to get rowdy. I had bought a bag of mushrooms just for the occasion.
The room is lit solely by a single lamp. My friends are laughing and fidgeting with the music. I walk into the kitchen and take stock of the scene: There are dishes in the sink, but not that many. The kitchen still seems dirty. Molly and I’s apartment is decrepit and cold. Everyone agrees on this. It’s like no matter how much either of us clean, there is still a layer of grime on every square inch of space here. It permeates absolutely everything.
On the kitchen counter there is a brown piece of cloth, which has the bag of mushrooms on it. Around the bag of mushrooms are a single candle, and three runes, carved out of an elk antler. Raidho, for a safe journey, Elhaz, for communication with the gods, Eihwaz, for spiritual will and exploration of the mysteries of life and death. You see, we could use some magic right now. It’s been a long winter in this cold apartment.
I’ve said it once, I’ve said it countless times; when Talya died, something left this town. Molly and I spent an increasing amount of time in this house. We spent an increasing amount of time by ourselves, at home, with the curtains drawn. There had been a few times when Molly would be out, and run into someone, and they expressed surprise at doing so.
“I thought you had moved away.” They said.
The winter before this one, I lived here alone. The day I moved in, Adrien and Talya helped me carry boxes into the house. Upon entering the front hall and seeing the acid induced nightmare murals the hippies had left all over the place before they got evicted, Adrien nearly dropped the box he was carrying.
“Girl, we need to paint over this shit like, now. I’m worried one of those will come to life at night and murder you in your sleep.”
Talya was equally horrified. We loaded all the boxes in quickly, and then immediately went to the hardware store to buy as much paint as possible. Adrien and I spent the next two days covering the murals with as much primer and brightly colored paint as possible. We finished painting and arranging furniture just as X’s “In This House I Call Home” came on the stereo.
We did our best to clear out the bad energy and make it feel like home. I convinced myself that it was almost charming, in this bohemian sort of way. I was living in a dilapidated eighty year old tenement building, but that something positive would come out of it. I’d walk home up the hill late at night, and imagine myself as a tortured artist living in squalor for my art.
I guess I got some writing done that year. The themes of living in ruins so long you think it’s all you deserve showed up again and again.
I also frequently told myself that this would only be temporary until I found something better, and similarly affordable. Molly moved in sometime during the previous summer, knocking the rent down to just over two hundred dollars each. The affordability then sort of outweighed the squalor and the discomfort.
All of that had been before Talya’s suicide, though. It had hit Molly and I both like a ton of bricks. In the wreckage and aftermath, both of us were not the same people we had been, and it seemed like neither one of us could hold our heads up. We stayed in. We shut out the light, drank too much, and tried to sleep whole days away. I fell out with my best friend, a completely devastating, and life changing heartbreak. I broke up with my self-absorbed boyfriend. The grief and loss in the house was palpable. I wanted to leave, and I felt like Molly was attached to staying both for financial reasons, and to further wear our suffering like some morbid badge.
Maybe the survivor’s guilt was palpable too.
We made smoothies for the mushrooms. They were mostly made of vodka, ginger tea, and blueberries. It made sense at the time. Molly, Josh, Lisa, Lily and I all poured ourselves portions. We made a toast, and started drinking. I laughed nervously and wondered what I had gotten myself into.
This apartment is too cold and feels haunted. We’ve been battling the roaches in the kitchen for a year now. I think they’re gone. The landlord is a slumlord, and won’t fix the heat. He has a twin brother who is addicted to crack and comes over sometimes pretending to be his brother to collect “part of the rent, and just a little early.”
Like we can’t tell the difference between the two of them. It’s funny, except when it’s not.
I close my eyes and listened to the sounds of my friends. The drugs are probably diffusing throughout our bloodstreams now, making headway to our brains. Josh and Lisa are on the couch, huddled together and giggling. It’s not just the drugs. You can see the sparks between the two of them, whether they admit it or not. Lily and Molly are putting last touches on their makeup and getting ready to go out. They down two more shots, and walk to the bar where we are going. I think they’re feeling it.
I hadn’t been able to really feel much in the months since summer ended. I mostly felt like so much of the light and life had drained out of me. No matter what I did, I couldn’t seem to recapture any of my spark. I was even in massage school, and even that wasn’t bringing much solace. I felt like I was going through the motions, pantomiming at life.
I had hear that mushrooms sometimes helped people feel lighter. I had heard that sometimes they helped you feel more connected to the world, to the people around you. I could use some of that right now. That was why I had chosen to do them with Lisa and Josh, two of my nearest and dearest. My friends’ faces looked radiant and beautiful, even in the grime and dim lighting of this apartment. We had been down this road before; the one where we try and make our way back after tragedy and heartbreak, I mean. Josh and I were forged in those goddamn flames.
Most days it seemed like the world couldn’t find a way to be gentle with any of us. We did our best to be gentle with each other, with results that ranged from soaringly successful, to mixed, to flat out disastrous. I wasn’t sure what was about to happen, but I felt cautiously optimistic.
None of us were ready to leave, but I was starting to feel it. So were Lisa and Josh. God, their smiles were getting lighter now. They were infectious and perfect. I could almost feel light. We put on an Om record with a slow build up. Thebes, the opening track off of God Is Good. I closed my eyes and leaned my head on Josh’s shoulder, and felt myself traveling out of this room, and into vast, sunbaked desert plains. The music was warming my body now, even though the room we were in was likely fifty degrees, at best.
But fuck it, this record is too slow, and we were about to go to goth night for my birthday anyway. We put on the Soft KillAn Open Door LP. I was time to pre-game with one of my favorite post punk records of the last few years. This winter had sucked about as much as anything had ever sucked in the entire history of things sucking for me, and this LP had been on heavy rotation in this cold house, a constant source of solace.
The opening notes of the second track A death in the family rang like a herald to tragedy itself.
“Like a death in the family
Lose a piece to the void
Regain trust slowly
I carry you wherever I go.”
I had lost so much that fall. Almost everything I had thought I could rely on, or place faith in fell apart within a matter of months. There Soft Kill was summing it up, and putting it into music for me perfectly. Loss. Loss of trust. Loss of faith.
We are laughing and dancing now; the three of us in this cold room. I close my eyes and sway gently along to the music, letting it take me somewhere, anywhere, but this cold room, and this reckless, ruin of a life. I feel like every word is being sung directly to my wretched, broken heart.
Lisa is completely alight, and spinning around the room, like the most elegant dancer, looking completely resplendent, yet completely out of place in this awful room. Josh is doing his doing his characteristic “hop giddily around the room and shake my dreads like a woodland sprite” dance. It’s not really that different from how he normally dances, but the drugs make it, and him infinitely more charming. He moves, and for a moment I swear I catch a glimpse of a thousand tiny dots of light falling from his hair when he shakes his head.
A brief moment of silence, and the next song begins.
“Silence the words Falling like walls Borders comfort Borders comfort But you won’t hear me My only truth Take it and burn Just don’t leave it here with me It walks these halls And I need sleep It walks these halls And I need dreams”
The interplay of the drumming and sparse chords are completely hypnotic. The music fills the room and fills our bodies. We are dancing faster and harder now. Josh and Lisa become frenetic. For a single, crystalline, rapturous moment, all is well. The world makes sense again. My smiling, dancing friends, driven by the music, and out of the harsh eyes of the rest of the world. Just where they have always been, where they will always be safe. Even in this awful building, they are safe. They were both precious beyond gold, so were Molly and Lily, wherever they were. I couldn’t stand the thought of any of them hurting for another minute.
It doesn’t matter that I am a stumbling, shambling disaster, dumb enough, or obstinate enough to continue living next door to the source my greatest heartbreak. It doesn’t matter that this house holds so much darkness and badness behind it’s roach filled walls. For a brief moment in time, the three of us had managed to fill it with love and light. It was like all the sweetness and joy that had drained right out of me in the last six months returned, even if it was too brief.
And then, the dark crept back in. We think we’re ready to go out. Josh insists we should probably just stay in the house. There is a birthday party waiting for me though, and I want to leave. We lift the needle, and take the record off the turntable, and put it back on the shelf. We blow out the candles that have been illuminating the room, lock the front door, and step out into the world.
The night sky is dimly red, in that strange winter way. The night is cold and crisp. I pull my jacket closer to my body for warmth. I’m wearing a gorgeous party dress and a trench coat. It’s maybe too cold, but it’s my birthday, and I want to look good, damnit.
By the time we are down the hill, and across Charlotte Street, and walking back up the hill towards downtown, the dread is starting to creep in. I’m thinking leaving the house was maybe a mistake. The dread is starting to creep in. That great, awful, emptiness that has been there for the last six months is starting to creep in. Terror is rising in my belly.
I look to the sky, and I’m sure the gods are not there. I’m sure that the dark goes on forever, and I am alone. I can’t even see the stars through the clouds.
“Odin? Frigg? Thor? Please?”
By the time we hit Church Street, I am beginning to lose it. Waves of nausea are crashing against the walls of my stomach, begging for release. I lean into a bush to try and vomit. My body does it’s best to reject the poison I seemingly just ingested. I try to tell Josh and Lisa that I feel wrong, but the words don’t come. I can’t talk. I know I’m locked in, headed for a waking nightmare now.
The lyrics of a punk song I loved at twenty-two come to mind.
“Welcome to the hell in the darkness.”
I had wanted to so much to feel some sort of connection again. This wasn’t fair. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. Everywhere I looked, I just felt more emptiness and isolation. It overwhelmed my fragile senses.
For a moment my perception shifted. Josh and Lisa had turned and noticed my terror. They were trying to reach me. I could see the panic scrawled across their own faces, likely a reflection of my own. They were trying to reach me, and I was trapped. I was gone like I was adrift in a dead sea, below an empty sky, like a butterfly in a jar. They were pounding on the glass. They were calling my name. I couldn’t hear them. I couldn’t reach them. The void pressed around me, filling my body, shattering my illusions, turning my heart to ice.
I heaved again, trying to push all the poison and nightmares out of my body. I closed my eyes. I immediately regretted it. When Talya died, the police had found her. None of us had had to see her body. I could see it now, clear as if I had seen it in real life. Clear as anything. She was slumped against a tree in the woods, bleeding out.
“No. No. No. Please. Not this. Anything but this.”
It was too late. I was locked in. Headed for waking nightmares. The hell in the darkness.
I did my best to make it to the bar. I really did. We made it in, and Alien Sex Fiend was blaring from the sound system.
“I walk the line between GOOD AND EVIL”
Holy shit. I can’t be here. Josh. We need to leave, like right now. I need to go home and change my clothes. I need to cover up all of my skin. This is bad. David Rose tried to say hello, and wish me a happy birthday, and I muttered something about being sick, and ran back out of the bar. I never even saw any of the friends who had shown up for my birthday. Supposedly Marty and Adrien looked so good. I never even saw them.
Josh and I practically ran back home. He was sweet and soothing the whole way.
“We’ll just change our clothes, and walk around until you calm down. I don’t like that bar anyway. We got this.”
God, I fucking loved that boy in that moment. Here I was being that person, the one who ruins their own goddamn birthday by being too much of a mess, and his response was to just go with it. I change my clothes, grabbed my knife and pepper spray, and put Hope the dog in her harness and leash, and we were back out. I couldn’t stay in that haunted apartment. Trying to vomit in the bathroom again, I had an epiphany that at least three people must have been murdered there. It made sense at the moment.
Everyone knew there was some bad fucking energy in that place.
I thought that a walk through downtown would help calm me enough to go back to my own birthday party. I found that if I just kept walking, I could feel some semblance of calm. I couldn’t close my eyes. Every time I did, it was the same image of Talya.
I got a text message from Lisa right then. I had a hard time getting my get my eyes to focus. It took a minute to read what it said.
“Did you leave? Why did you leave? Why did you leave without me? Nobody has a real face, and they keep hugging me. There’s no faces. Please come back for me.”
So there we were, back on our way to the bar. Again. We hadn’t thought to just grab Lisa when we left the first time. That would have been way too rational. So we walked back across town to scoop Lisa up out of a sea of dancing faceless bodies. We began walking in the general direction of my apartment. None of us really knew where we were going, but I insisted we keep moving.
As we made our way towards home on Hilliard Avenue, a car sped by us and the passenger yelled out “CUT YOUR FUCKIN’ HAIR!” We assumed it was directed at Josh. Josh had incredibly long dreadlocks, which he had been growing since fifteen years old. Lisa and I both froze in our tracks, this random angry man’s voice now reverberating through our crashed out, drugged out skulls.
The car got stuck at a red light. The world moved into slow motion. We saw Josh’s face shift into a broad grin. He took off running.
Josh. Infuriatingly charming even while not on hallucinogens. It was impossible not to like him, even when you wanted to be furious with him. I’d seen him talk his way out of countless situations that I was sure would end up with one or all of us in jail.
One time he managed to sneak at least six of us into an overpriced show by convincing the door guy we were the opening band’s road crew. Or were we just the opening band? Either way, the show was so poorly managed, it didn’t even begin until well after midnight. We gave up and went home around three am when it appeared that the headliner wouldn’t be playing until near four. As we left, we attempted to demand our money back.
“I thought you said you were with the openers. Get the fuck out of my sight right now.” An enraged door guy growled.
It was like that with Josh. Years later, and across the country a mutual friend would do his best to describe him to another friend who had never met him:
“It’s like he always pushes something to the farthest limits of what he thinks he will get away with, and then just barely pulls it off.”
It was so true. Another time, during a particularly cold winter he decided to just bypass our gas meter altogether, and turned the heat on. We lived like warm, well insulated kings and queens for a few weeks. The December temperature may have been dropping to the single digits outside, but inside we were cranking the heat up to 70, and having dance parties in our underwear.
The gas company caught on eventually, of course. They turned our gas back off, and put a new lock on the meter. Josh simply cut the lock off, and turned the gas back on. We were back to living like toasty royalty. Who did those fuckers think they were, anyway?
The fun was over when the gas company cut service off to the house entirely. We toughed it out for a month with space heaters before we could convince the over-frugal Josh to just call the gas company and get it turned on legitimately.
The gasman came and explained to us we were in a lot of trouble. Not even he was supposed to access the meter without express permission. He was going to call our landlord. The other housemate and I started to panic. We’d get evicted for sure.
“What are we going to do? The landlord is going to be so pissed!” I said, trying not to hyperventilate.
“I’ll just smile at her, and tell her it won’t happen again.” Josh replied.
“You’ll just smile at her and tell it won’t happen again?”
That won’t possibly work. I was sure of it.
But it did. Time and time again.
Sometimes you got the feeling the boy was incapable of turning the hustle off.
“Did one of my best friends just run a scam on me?” I’d find myself thinking.
Friendship is so complicated like that sometimes. You end up being faced with the very harsh reality that the people you love aren’t perfect, and can sometimes have parts inside them that are downright fucked up. It’s so true for me. Something a member of the band Zegota once said on stage at a show has always resonated with me:
“We all ended up in this room, and with punk rock for a reason.”
It’s true with friendship too. We end up with one another for a reason. We fall in love with one another for a reason. Sometimes it’s just so goddamn hard to see, or to hold on to when shit gets rough, and get rough it will.
The trick is learning to love unconditionally, and without judgment. This is a feat that I have not mastered, or even consider myself overly skilled at, much to my dismay.
Back on our mushroom trip, Josh had just reached the passenger side of the car who had heckled his hair. It was a man and a woman in the car. Maybe they were a couple. I never knew. The woman was behind the wheel, looking slightly embarrassed. The man, who had yelled at Josh was in the passenger’s seat. He was wearing a sleeveless shirt and gym shorts. It was February and freezing.
Josh knocked on the window; eyes gleaming, pupils dilated, and shit eating grin a mile wide. Lisa, Hope and I stood back a few feet.
Tap tap on the window, like a polite gentleman.
“Hello! I was wondering if you had a problem. It’s such a nice night. I’m having such a nice time out with my friends. Why did you feel the need to comment on my appearance?”
“I just think your hair looks fucking awful.”
“That’s okay. I think your face looks fucking awful.” Josh quipped back.
Josh was still smiling. It was disarming. Even from several feet back. Surely this pointlessly angry man would wither under his charms.
“You just need a trim.” The man snarled.
“You know, that is exactly what I said to your mother last night.”
The smile never left Josh’s face. The man in the passenger seat on the other hand; his face turned a deep shade of red, and twisted into a snarl. He turned to the driver of the vehicle and snarled:
“Pull this fucking car over right now.”
Somewhere in my body, I sighed.
“Here we go.” I thought.
Somewhere more present, I began to panic. Shit shit shit. This man was going to try and fight Josh. I glanced over at Lisa. She was breathing heavily. She clearly had the same line of thought.
She was whispering to me now.
“He’s going to try and hurt Josh. We have to stab him. Are you ready? We have to stab him.”
Lisa had put a hand on her knife. I did the same. Surely it wouldn’t come to that.
Josh proceeded to belittle this angry man until he deflated and returned to his vehicle.
“Just get back in the car. Nobody cares about you. Nobody wants to fight. This isn’t anything. You aren’t anything.”
He dismissively waved his hand, and as if casting some diminutive spell on this man. He seemed to utterly shrink, and got back into the car, and his companion sped off into the night. We walked back to the apartment and I spent the rest of the night hiding in a sleeping bag on the couch.
When everyone else got home, we watched a dumb movie to try and come down. I could only manage to raise my eyes out of my sleeping bag. The rest of my body needed to be hidden, or I would start to panic. Whatever door had opened was terrible, and I was having a hard time closing it.
Josh would occasionally bemoan the crass humor of the movie, and lament us not watching a more sophisticated film. Molly would look over derisively and slur
“Whatever creepy-nails! I just saw you laughing!”
Josh had long fingernails. I forgot that part of the story, because it’s not really important, aside from it led to Molly’s nickname.
Eventually, people went home, and those of us that remained fell asleep in various parts of the apartment. Lily and I slept in my bed for a few hours. When the morning came she went to nurse her hangover at home.
Years later, the story of the near fight would diverge. Lisa laughed in that way that made her eyes crinkle, and her entire face lit up.
“It wasn’t like that at all. Josh did belittle that stupid man, but you and I were also holding knives, and openly talking about stabbing him.”
“For real? I thought we were whispering, and just reached for our knives.”
She was still laughing.
“No. Not at all. We were very audibly talking, and had pulled our knives.”
Shit. All this time, and we had been telling two different versions of the same story.
I was never the same, either. I maintain that, all these years later. It was the darkest period of my life, and I managed to do the stellar job of pushing myself further into the dark with one drug fueled night. I’ve always struggled with depression and anxiety, but they came on even harder after that night.
Whatever door the drugs opened, it didn’t want to close.
Sometimes that summer, after the panic had started for real, I would think I heard death calling me. It would creep in especially late at night, irregular heartbeat and panic setting in. I would sit on the hood of my truck, with my boots on the fender near the woods just off Beaverdam Road and try to decide whether I should answer or not. When my body would eventually wear itself out I would go and try and sleep at Ed’s apartment, but mostly end up hyperventilating and swearing I was going to die in my sleep.
And sometimes during the sweltering southern days, I would make my way through town like a ghost haunting myself. During the day, and in crowds of people, it wasn’t death speaking to me, but something much worse. There were factors surrounding Talya’s death that we rarely spoke of, and when we did they were in hushed tones. Everyone said she had never been the same after it happened. Some folks even intimated that it was only a matter of time.
Sometimes I would hear that man speaking to me too, a mocking whisper slightly above the din of the crowded streets.
I never admitted to anyone until now.
Whatever door opened, the only way I figured out how to close it was to leave home.
I’ll probably be sober forever now, but I’ll never feel the same.
I saw my father buried at twelve years old. After the funeral we had one of those weird post-funeral parties at our house. I always hated those. I hid in my room for as long as possible. I laid on my bedroom floor and played an old beat up Nintendo, trying not to think about or feel anything. Occasionally, someone would make their way upstairs and do their best to assure me that my father was safe, or in heaven, or watching over me. I would smile, or nod, or say thank you. My bedroom would then fall into uncomfortable silence until the person would feel awkward and leave me alone.
I couldn’t feel it. I couldn’t feel anything. I just felt that overwhelming numbing, isolation. I wasn’t positive anything of my father remained aside from a pile of ashes contained in a small box handed to my grieving mother. I felt how empty my family’s home felt now. It was January. It had been the coldest winter in one hundred years. Some nights when the winter sun went down to the west, you swore never coming back.
I spent the remaining winter months existing in my own tiny Fimbulvetr. I never saw or felt my father’s energy any more after he died. I couldn’t be sure of the solace of safety of an afterlife. I just felt an all-consuming emptiness filling the quiet house, and creeping in behind my mother’s eyes. At the funeral the preacher had talked about heaven, and god’s plan. I held my grandmother’s hand. She leaned over and softly told me that when she felt like she was going to fall apart, she counted the roses at the front of the room. Within a few weeks, we threw all the roses away, and it was just my mother and I in an empty house, standing on a quiet street. I was pretty sure god wasn’t there.
As an adult, I find myself taking breaks from whatever I’m doing to stare into a corner, or an archway. I have done this as long as I can remember, and I always wonder why. What am I searching for in those empty corners? Is my heart looking for something my eyes can’t see? Sometimes catch myself and realize I have been staring at a doorway or archway for several minutes. Am I looking for ghosts?
The year is 1996. We are fifteen, Forrest, Adam, Chris, and I. My father has been dead for two years now. This house is growing in it’s clutter, creeping dread, and all-consuming despair. The walls are yellow with cigarette smoke. My mother is gradually becoming less and less functional, and more and more a shadow of her former self.
My mother is out of town for the weekend. With the internet being newly available, she has found another escape, one that will gradually consume her. Through the use of the internet she has found a way to reconnect with a boyfriend from before her and my father’s marriage. They strike up a long distance romance, and decide to go on a cruise together one weekend in February, just after Valentine’s day.
Tonight, this house my mother and father bought on a hill is our playground. I am getting drunk for the first time. Because we’re kids, and because we don’t know what we are doing, we are getting drunk on that nausea inducing a little bit of this, a little bit of that from every bottle in the liquor cabinet, just a little so nobody will notice combination all teenagers do at one point or another. We mix it all together with cheap orange juice someone got before they came over. This is the kind of thing that seems like a pubescent good idea. I have no idea how some of my friends’ with more protective mothers talked their parents into letting them hang out with me for the night.
We sat around the kitchen table, with the lights dimmed and candles lit. We smoked cigarettes, and drank our awful teenage drinks. We played music as loud as we wanted into the night. The Cure, Sisters Of Mercy, Black Flag, and The Misfits were on heavy rotation. This was the year that both Punk, and Gothic rock carved a bloody, blacked space in my heart, one they have yet to vacate twenty years later.
We made small teenage talk. It consisted mostly of our friends, how much we hated school, and the bands we would someday start. Our words became more and more pronounced and slurred, as our smiles became wider and wider. At some point, we realize that Kevin has come home with his girlfriend, and is upstairs losing his virginity as we hang out downstairs getting drunk.
Kevin is an older kid who’s parents are friends of my mother. His father took a new job in North Carolina just before his senior year started. He had really wanted to finish high school in Pennsylvania, so my mother took him in. He’s kind of creepy, and is difficult to live with. He’s one of those relic 80’s rocker dudes with a mullet, and perpetual greasy Metallica shirt. He just turned 18. His last girlfriend was still in middle school. This one is fifteen. We make no attempt to be quiet and every attempt to be louder, hoping to ruin his romantic evening.
Chris mentions he brought his Ouija board with him, maybe we should goof around with that for a while. It’s late at night, and I’m stumbling and warm with drunkenness, so I concur. I add to the plan by suggesting we step into my mother’s room, the room my father died in, and try to contact my father. Everyone is quiet for a moment, then nods there drunken agreements. Chris gets his Ouija board, and we set our drinks down on the kitchen table. We trudge up the stairs to my mother’s cold room. Ever since my father died, she sleeps with the television on as loudly as possible, and the thermostat nearly as low as it gets. Sometimes I wake up at night and hear her TV blaring through my wall. I never understood why. I just knew some things were between my parents, and not mine to understand, some of my mother’s sense of loss must have been the same way.
We take our places on the floor at the foot of my parent’s bed. All four of us place our hands on the oracle. My head is swimming.
“Is anyone here?” I ask.
Our hands move to the “Yes.” position. I swear I’m not moving mine. I don’t ask the others if they do. I play along.
Sure, whatever. One of my friends could have very easily moved the oracle to reply in the affirmative. I’m not freaked out yet.
“What is your name?”
Okay, now it’s getting weirder. That was my father’s name, but still… One of my shithead buddies could have figured that out, and is playing a prank on me while we’re drunk. Teenage boys can be mean, after all. I know our telephone number is still listed under his name in the phone book.
“Fine, Mr. would be ghost of Josh’s Dad, what is your father’s name?”
I am drunk and smarmy, and think I have my friends shown up.
What the fuck? That is my grandfather’s name. It’s not a common name. Can you even think of anyone born pre-1920 who had that name? This level of knowledge definitely would have maybe taken more than the sleuthing skills of a liquor drunk ninth grader in the mid-nineties possessed. Especially since this was kind of right before the internet was widely available to everyone, and in dial-up no less. I am now freaked out, and need out of my mother’s room. It feels like the temperature has dropped several degrees in the last five seconds.
Just then, the bedside lamp on the night table just next to the spot where my father’s body was found snaps on. A picture of my mother and father from their wedding night that has been on the nightstand as long as I can remember falls over. For a minute, my eyes catch a shadow move right on the bed where my father had slept. It looks as if it is in the shape of a person. My friends and I stare at one another in a moment of pure, unadulterated fear. We all get up and are practically pushing past one another to get out of the room. We leave the Ouija board where it is. We’ll come back and grab it in the morning; when the morning sun creeps in through the windows, and this room is less filled with menace. My mom won’t be home until Sunday afternoon anyway.
I go downstairs to the kitchen, and pour myself another vodka and orange juice. I put on my jacket and step outside. Pennsylvania in February, the sky is that weird winter red color and the earth is dusted with snow as far as the eye can see. You can see the lights of the baseball field a few miles to the west, and the lights of the K-Mart parking lot the next town over, but not much else. This is home, and I feel stuck here. I’ll return to this spot over and over again in my mind throughout my adult life, either on the road, through years of traveling, or through memory and a seeming lack of movement.
My friends and I finish our drinks and run through the empty street, drunk at three in the morning. Chris is well over six foot four, at 15 years old. He looks so funny to my young and drunk eyes, a childlike gentle giant sliding through the snow. Forrest and Adam share a cigarette and laugh. It sets my mind at ease, four fuck ups, sliding around in the snow. The alcohol sinks to my belly, diffusing through my blood stream. I think about what my life will be like now. Am I going to turn into a teenage alcoholic, or drug addict like everyone seems to expect? Just barely a year ago Johnny Rotten screamed the words “No Future!” to me through a battered stereo for the first time.
It was like entering a secret world. It was like finding a hidden path, or a secret doorway. You didn’t know where it led, but you didn’t care. You didn’t care because what really held any meaning anyway? All I knew were these cold rooms, my mother’s despair, and my teenage hopelessness. How was I supposed to look forward to anything else?
I don’t know where my father is. I don’t know if god is there or not. I just know that I feel that same old great emptiness when I reach out to feel either one of them. I’m thankful my mother doesn’t ask me to go to church with her. I’m thankful that two years have passed and people stop trying to talk to me about him all the time, and then getting uncomfortable when I just stare at them blankly.
Tonight I know this and this only: I have three friends, some records that are meant to be played loudly, and a silly haircut. Punk rock is changing my life, these distorted chords are changing every single thing about how I see the world around me. I’m excited, and the world feels new for the first time since I was a child. Night follows day, and spring follows winter. One day, I will escape this town. That much I can feel, that much I can rely on. If there is a heaven, it’s not to going to be found here.