“If you need a rooftop, Buddy, I’m your guy. Game recognizes game.”
Bill is cooly draped over his chair, lengthy limbs like tributaries of an oceanic torso, oceanic in that it is at once broad and seemingly charged, and he is wearing an athletic Henley which emphasizes his swimmer’s build. He is sixty, but a Paul Newman sixty, just with a longer face, lips drawn over his front teeth in a manner that suggests he’s wearing a mouthguard at all times, a pugilist in repose, and to that effect, he dons a beanie drawn low over his brow, which he wears indoors, his eyes beneath something of perambulation while he is thinking, the chair he sits in too small for him or he too tall for it, and everything looking like he is about to speak.
“Game recognizes game,” Bill repeats in a genteel fashion that betrays his Southern roots. He shifts casually, legs crossed far away and at the ankle. Absently, he scratches his left pectoral and leans back in his seat, mouth puckered in self-satisfaction, nodding. The way Bill speaks: there is an antebellum quality to it, vaguely rhotic, with an emphasis sometimes on first syllables. His vowels are glideless and how people end their interrogatives with a rising intonation, Bill seems to end every sentence in an almost evaporative fashion, his words like dissipating steam. He gives the constant impression that he is marveling something, the way his exclamations are half larynx, half lung.
“You looked like you were mad-doggin’ me from across the room,” Bill later says, chuckling, and it’s true that in group session I often try to telepath William from my own position in the circle, there being something unspoken between us, a matching vulnerability, and he always catches my eye without ever looking at me directly–neither indirectly for that matter. We share a tacit acknowledgement regardless. It’s said that plant roots sometimes speak to each other in subsonic intimations, what exists underground amounting to a subterranean Babel, but the language Bill and I share is more altitudinal, far and above the ground, why Bill mentions rooftops. When he was a kid, Bill would climb a tree to its highest point, the point being to just sit as high as he could, ignoring his mother’s entreaties to come down. As an adult, the trees could be overhead waves twice his swimmer’s skillset, or speeding white river waters, and I don’t know if he’s a billy-goat but I’d imagine scarps of mountainous basalt, too; insurmountable things made assailable, else reckless situations he’d simply reclassify as ‘adventurous’. These look-God-in-the-face type undertakings–‘status quo’ he’d call it–constant elevation with the sidewalk unfamiliar.
“I haven’t had a rooftop recently,” I confess—we hug—and it’s true, the stars are recently far away. It was last year when I knew what Bill knows, and I knew it in a noradrenal way, not an adrenal one, were one to consider the brain a cloud and the volley of neurons flashes of coruscation, unlikely and all-directions lightning. I talked too loud then, I talked too fast; where Bill’s voice is soothing, long in the vowels, mine was rapid-fire, my decisions as fast, impetuous. Sleep was an inconvenience: I’d have missed the light show where the fulgurations of brain-sparks were like a million wax candles encapsulated in tiny glass globes, my own Rue de Montmartre of serotonin street lamps. It was all light, in luminescence and in velocity, wattage and speed. Every day was the best day and how could I close my eyes? The light show, after all, would still have been there—it existed behind my eyelids.
I texted my friend one night imploring him to look at the stars, ‘John Oh my God the sky’, and were it the fact of the sky I don’t know, or simply the great sheet of the universe acting as a convenient mirror to my synaptic goings-on, but I felt compelled to fold myself into the velvet divinity of the moment, if the sky a cathedral ceiling, one that I could touch with outstretched hand. The stars, however, were frustratingly distant, our prescient connection interrupted by the inopportune placement of a heaven between us. I placed John in my pocket and looked around the backyard. A rusted patio chair appeared suddenly as makeshift Jacob’s Ladder and, with caution something of an afterthought, I mounted the back of the chair to hoist myself onto the garage roof. I half-jumped from the backrest and found handhold on the tarpaper shingles, legs dangling and chair toppled backwards. Elbow by elbow, I pulled myself onto the roof, maybe a mere eight feet off the ground, quixotically but somehow satisfyingly closer to the stars. I flopped onto my back and tucked myself close to the attic, soon the constellated sky and the insides of my eyelids one in the same, a communion of pinpoints where the fireworks of my brain matched the cosmos, me asleep, smiling, with the moon on my chest. I set to snoring.
“No—I haven’t had a rooftop in a while, Bill,” I admit, and in saying so, feeling very much like a burnt match. “But I heard you in meeting today,” and I pull out my phone. “Even wrote it down: ‘Anxiety is the bellwether.’”
“Ho-ho-ho, Thom,” Bill’s eyes widen, “That’s right. The surf advisory is up and let me just say”—he nudges me with a shoulder—”my affairs are in order.” He claps his hands and rubs his palms together. He giggles, too, which always seems odd counterpoint to his sighing drawl, not quite a blemish but a fleck in his otherwise mahogany.
Bill intends to go swimming, and it’s the kind of water that demands a skillset, which he—in his broad chest—seems to encompass, still it’s the anxiety that is enervating and which, more than the machine of his body, is better part to his adventurousness, the ‘bellwether’ as he puts it which indicates the ocean is his for the taking. “I’m not reckless,” he always clarifies, one finger extended, “I’m never reckless.” What Bill knows is that anxiety is chemical twin to excitement, and when given to invulnerability, you answer every call.
Bill, mind you, is not an adrenaline junkie. Bill is not a thrill-seeker. Bill just knows that once you’re running at breakneck speed down a mountain, dodging skree, without looking at your feet, that it’s impossible to fall. This is not looking to feel alive—this is simply being alive, how it is. There’s a difference. Existential. Chemical.
Bill leans in, conspiratorially: “I’ll tell you what,” and he pronounces the ‘h’ of ‘what’ like a celluloid cowboy, “You weren’t here last week, but the counselors got on me, said I should maybe be seeing someone, medications—y’know the whole lot, like they was needing to take down a charging elephant.”
I think of the blue pills I’ve been taking the past half year, the ones that took the stars away. “Well, all that’s needed to stop a charging elephant, Bill, is for someone to stand stock still in front of it,” I say. “Elephants respond to fearlessness.”
“I like that, Thom, I like that,” Bill muses. He leans in close again. “They don’t get it. This is the reality, the status quo.” Bill smiles self-assuredly, and I envy him. The brain is a restrictive organ, the manuals written on its workings necessarily more restrictive, and to be like Bill in this minute, to counter what could be considered an episode—“I’m bipolar as fuck” Bill has told me—to own one’s mania as preferred and higher conscience, is to not so much be a charging elephant in need of the takedown, as to be one in need of the letting alone. Bill shakes God’s hand on the regular; it would be anathema to shake out a daily scrip. Bill’d lose God’s address.
I think to a doctor I recently had, we were seated side by side in utile chairs, no office, the only two people in the hallway of a residential facility, and it was a long way from the rooftop, an even longer way from the stars.
“So,” he said, reviewing my chart, “You’re on a mood stabilizer, but no antidepressant.” He stroked his beard in doctoral fashion while helicoptering his pen over the paper.
“The last psychiatrist wanted to treat my hypomania,” I offered as explanation. The hallway was appropriately sterile, purposefully washed of color, nothing too excitable and everything suggestive of interior. It made me feel similarly taupe, were I myself a color. This was probably the intended effect, but when, however, you’re used to feeling orange or gold or yellow—any Crayola more vibrant—taupe may as well be proof of your erasure.
“When you were manic,” the doctor asked, “Did you go on massive spending sprees?”
Engage in reckless sexual behavior?”
“Endanger yourself regularly?”
“What were your symptoms?” he asked finally.
I thought about being a charging elephant crashing through the savannah; the fact that momentum increases given greater mass, greater velocity; that I could endlessly multiply myself by operating in the forces at my disposal, by merely moving in transfer. I thought about exploding my own environs, the way the elephant kicks up the ground in four-legged run. I thought about being comfortable, hurtling forward, in my own bulletproof and elephant skin. But I said nothing to that effect.
“I was happy,” I finally settled on. “Every day was the best day.”
The doctor leaned back in his chair and clicked his pen. “Well, he said, clipping his ‘l’s in a Punjab accent, “There’s nothing wrong with being a little happy from time to time.” He took momentary pause, then scratched out a line in my chart.
“I think we can find something more agreeable to your situation.”
Bill dons an upholstered vest on his way out the door, with a fur lined collar that is faux angora—he sometimes wears this with shirt sleeves, which is wild—and, as is custom, dips his shoulder slightly when exiting the room. It’s as if he’s displacing the universe necessary to his departure. He wears flip-flops.
“Game recognizes game….”
I follow shortly afterwards, drafting Bill as it were, though without as much brio, my ensemble consisting of spent match black and sensible shoes. I walk out into the parking lot where the lights are the kind that leach the color from the cars. The stars are barely perceptible, and even were they present—face-of-God present—I can’t find the matching cosmos in my head. I close my eyes momentarily and hope that the nothing I see is just intermissive rest, that the light show will 3-2-1 restart, and soon. But my eyelids refuse to act as screens, and instead return to being the simple shutters they otherwise were. I shrug, and, Buddha on a biscuit, it’s all I can do in the minute. The sky, after all–as the parking lot lights serve to accentuate–has presently gone out.
Oh, Bill, I smile as I get into my car, my genteel friend. I imagine him following the bellwether tomorrow, he cooly acting out his magnificence, and were that bell available to my ear,
I’d probably not pursue it to his lengths, but our affinity is there, and if ever there a rooftop to share with the sky begging a need closer, I know the guy who happens to have God’s address.