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Day 130: Papers

“And why are you holding on to those…carrying them around so long?” and Alex, she gestures to my satchel, which is discarded against the armrest across from me. A ‘First Class’ delivered envelope, 8 1X2” by 11” is, by now, dog-eared and protruding from the haversack. It is bordered with green triangles somehow signifying its importance. It remains unopened.

I pause. The room smells of some essential oil—surely a eucalyptus blend—and, unlike other therapist offices I have resided in, Alex’s is more cluttered, less…hygienic. There no bland inoffensive abstracts on the wall, no damask. Certainly, the walls are the typical Taupe no. 11—maybe ‘Cordova Cream’ or ‘Tomayo’. The couch is a dangerous white above which hangs a wood print: ‘It’s OK to Not Feel OK’.  I feel ok, at the moment at least. I’ve been able to sustain some joie de vivre, and to me that’s problematic. I shouldn’t be feeling ok; fuck happiness. It was supposed to have left October 13th when the door closed on the Hygge home forever and Jenny left me cadaverous in the orange leather chair. An otherwise blithe spirit dispirited. No, joie is not what I should be feeling. I’m stuck on ‘should’ as in ‘I should be miserable’, ‘I should make use of these rocks in my pocket and just walk into the river.’ ‘I should exeunt.’ I should, I should, I should.   I instead feel ok, which is blasphemous right now, and I learn to shower every other day and God forbid bake cakes.

Light the candles, it’s my goddamn re-birthday.

“I don’t know Alex,” and forever the poet, I seek the right metaphor. To use words to describe other words. I’m in once-remove.

I go pedestrian. “Well, it’s not like I won the fucking Publisher’s Clearing House or something. I’m not endorsing a check. I mean, to just SIGN on the line—I can’t do it. This is an existential receipt, not a Point of Sale.” I pause. “Ever see Sideways, or read the book?”

Alex gives a pursed lip smile in apology and shakes her head. Her face is fairly unlined. I’m suddenly aware of her age without her usual COVID mask. My beard, it is white.

“Well, the protagonist—Miles—he’s a frustrated author. Lovelorn. Giamatti plays him. Typical suffering artist, but he’s also a wine aficionado. In his possession—” and I remember this—“Is a 1960-something Chateau Cheval Blanc. He aims to drink it only when the time and place is appropriate. When the time is right. Like when he finally lands a book deal or gets married to Maya—she’s played by Virginia Madsen—or something.” I trust Alex is understanding where I’m going with this, but I choose another example as a slight detour.

“Look, it’s like the meme I saw the other day with a miserable woman sunk in a heart-shaped bathtub. It goes: ‘I listen to the same sad song on repeat to ensure it does enough damage’.”

Alex doesn’t break eye contact but says, “You’re punishing yourself.” She says it blandly. I can’t tell if it’s a question. I look at the satchel. I scan the room. There’s a photograph of a toddling child on the wall and she’s maybe two. Alex is off next week; she’s probably going on vacation with su hija. The papers, there they are. And WE used to vacation.

I raise my eyebrows, then lower them just as quickly.

“Sure,” I acquiesce. “Like a ritual. Needs ceremony.” This is not uncommon. There are purification rites: walking on knives; piercing one’s corpus with skewers, being dragged by chariots. Having a bleeding heart ripped out of one’s chest like in ‘Temple of Doom’. The bleeding heart one–that sounds about right.

“Let’s call it that. Rite of purification. Or incorporation. Something. I dunno—ask Margaret Mead.”

We’re off topic. We were supposed to be stuck doing origin work, as in: “Tell me again about Hermann Kafka leaving Franz out on the balcony? You know, tell me about your father, your mother. Tell me where this fuckery all started.

“Tell me again how your Mom told the 5yo you that you would one day hurt your wife. Tell me. Here’s some bilateral stim.”

But I’m talking about Jenny, and now Alex has diverted me to the papers. I placate her to change the subject: “I’m probably gonna sign them today anyway. I have a plan”, which is genuine and I have my favorite Sakura Micropigment 01 pen in my pocket to prove it. Alex and I—we go back to origin stories.

(It is true: I hurt my wife. Fuck if my mom wasn’t right. Just 40 years too soon and because I was throwing a fit over a Lego design gone awry. But I digress).

I walk home. Amethyst is about two miles distant from where ‘It’s OK to Not Feel OK’, and I have a stop to make on the way. A place to feel decidedly un-OK, which I’m masochistically looking forward to. Kinduv like the other week when I read authors’ suicide notes to feel better. Anne Sexton’s “I am like a watercolor. I wash off’ was my platitude of the week and it lent me some gorgeous pain. (They say misery loves company but I do a fine enough job when left to my own devices. My Curriculum Vitae includes ‘advanced degree in Ruminative Studies’. I get the job every time).  I have my phone queued to Jens Lekman because the devil’s in the details; I feel rather than hear the near-soporific swell of strings, which begin the song:

There will be no kisses tonight

There will be no holding hands tonight

Cause what is now wasn’t there before

And should not be.

There’s the ‘should’ again, its requisite twin ‘should not’ and I should not be thinking as I do, with the bougainvillea blossoming purple about the Girl from the City of Twelve Bridges who decorated the cakes at our wedding with blue and purple sepals—I should not be thinking about that, it’ll ruin the delicious dour—and I remember instead my last kiss with Jenny outside the Park Blvd. farmer’s market, and how I even texted her a ‘thank you’, that I would cherish it like I cherished kissing her and loosing the freesia from her hair in our wedding night suite. She was in a drawn bath and I was kissing her, her and her sunburn, which was in the shape of the bridal dress; I remember our almost-first-kiss—more fondly even than the actual first—when we leaned against each other on the Grape St. Suspension Bridge, lovers swaying eighty feet up in the air then, this before the suspenders would snap, heads touching in fond affection.

<The tom-toms rise>

And I will never kiss anyone

Unless it burns me like the sun

But I remember every kiss

Like my first kiss

Like my first kiss

Every first kiss—and I’ve had less than ten—has been something of helios, much like Jenny’s wedding day blister, red and raw, hot and shiny. And every first kiss has a place emblazoned in memory, its own sensorial address. To wit: the patch of gravel in the pitch-black cul-de-sac, too much lipstick; chlorine blossoms and wide mouths in the sauna; back supine on the beach, pushed down with breath-taking force, oh Jesus fuck; tobacco and wine, a single crowded barstool, the husband watching; lips sweet and wet like broken fruit, sweet and wet, eyelids closed to it all and that sacral warmth, Svadhisthana omigod.

I know I’ve broken hearts I understand

Some firecrackers blow up in your hand

This is torturous thinking. I relish it. I’m a half-mile to home and the streets have crossed Avenues, all the tree-named streets in a row—Quince and Redwood and Spruce—traversing Fifth and Sixth. A building towers upward and this is the edge of Balboa Park, a nondescript senior living residence like some extinguished lighthouse above Uptown. Balboa Park sprawls southward for the most part, eucalyptus like the fragrance of Alex’s office, groves of it down the length of Sixth. Also, the mismatched conifers—firs mainly–and you would think the hydrangeas would bloom pink beneath them in this, the acid soil, but—no—the hydrangeas are purple like Jenn’s wedding bouquet and like the sepals that garnished the cakes the Girl from the City of Twelve Bridges had hand-decorated.  The sepals are vibrant. It is March, the blossoms haven’t yet faded or been overtaken with hoarfrost. Purple, too bright to be a bruise, the bruise is my heart.

I could’ve gone many places, really, but Alex is right: I’m punishing myself and why not the mother lode? I’m interested in the main vein, not the subsidiary offshoots, like the Cliffs: that was an option, the bluffs high above Black’s Beach where the sedge grows in the winter, sharp enough to cut your hand, and where softer things grow in the spring. Fireburst aloe and sea fig and shoulder-high grass. “There will be lots of memories here,” my friend Ryan said when I introduced him to this spot near thirty years ago and, indeed, along the fingerling ravines, the sandstone and basalt, the panoramic vistas of the Pacific, Jenny and I spent our moonlight days here, half-clothed above the ocean spray in deep embrace, making fervent love a hundred feet above the beach. Across the way a palladium of a house, torch lit, and it was Barbara Streisand’s, can you believe it. Talk about misty water-colored memories, the way we were, and how we would pile back into the car with sex-warmed cheeks, hair tousled with smiles white in the moonglow. We would drive past the UCSD campus, where I went to school; I had the art studio code and there were nighttime walks here, too, beneath the creaking eucalyptus trees threatening to drop their limbs, and we would sneak into the painting room and lay on the floor among the half-finished canvases, pretending cinema in a tangle of discarded coats. Something sfumato like the charcoal sketches and conte drawings, our bodies gradually shading into one another.

This, though—all of this—the Cliffs and art studio, the foot lit tree we named Margaret at Cliffs’ egress, these are capillary places and things our bodies visited in halcyon days, before Jenny’s mother died, before we were wed, before my family dissolved when my brother was arrested one August night. These are capillary places and things, not venal. No, not venal; I want to open my fucking wrist.

“There’s something deeper here,” Alex says, “We need to go back.” And Alex has disrupted me from talking about Jenny again—about a recent argument we had over these goddamn papers—and I sigh.

“These are recent things, which is why you feel more inclined to go there—the memory is fresh.”

Of course, Alex is right. I am momentarily frustrated, but one must visit the origins. Thing is, I’ve had twenty-six years with Jenny, and that to me seems origin enough—twenty-six years ago when I really began, when Jenny, prim hostess of her bedroom kingdom, introduced me into her life. Being codependent as fuck, I am stuck to that silly girl who drinks pink tea, the girl with the thrift store A-lines, and burgundy hair. Also, her blonde-headed ‘now’, my new Bohemian; everything else seems momentarily irrelevant. I’m immutably her, or she’s immutably me, or something; but, yes, let’s talk about my mother.

“Sorry. Just devouring the hurt.” I’m eating my pain and I’ve forgotten the aperitif. I’m suckling at the wrong breast. I’m milk-drunk on Jenny’s tit.

“Thing is, Alex,” I return to the subject of my childhood, “You ask me to rate my traumas—give them a numerical score.” This is classic EMDR method, and I’ll be palming a bilateral stimulant any session now, I’m sure. Using both sides of the brain, which I already thought I did. “You ask me to rate them, and nothing seems to register the 7-10 like you specified. I mean, I HATE getting in trouble—why as an adult child I’m repulsed by authority—” I emphasize ‘repulsed’ while meanwhile hating people who are not to blame. “Every time I’ve been in trouble, it rates the same as when—I dunno—like we talked about: that my mom predicted me hurting Jenny before I even fucking MET Jenny. All those times I was lectured in Sunday School—when I’d ostensibly black out mid-reprimand–those times I projected my wrongdoings on to some other fucking kid: they’re all, like, the same.”

 I’ve failed my homework. Apparently, I’m a malfunction. Shit, authority really screwed me to the wall, but I could be eating crow as easily as pheasant here. I don’t taste much of anything. Except that I’m not OK in the grand scheme of things besides feeling okay now, among the ‘Cordova Cream’ and white pillow cushions.  I think to later. I’m gonna make another re-birthday cake tonight. Olive-oil scented buttercream. Chiffon. Meyer lemon. Wait—what?

Alex: “You may not find the moment just yet, and let’s make it sooner than later—” no pressure—“Because that will help you diminish the Negative Belief you have of yourself.” Alex is textbook here and I again remark the evenness of her face. I think, cynically: “there’s nothing an old soul hates more than a new soul acting on borrowed wisdom.’ I wrote that once. About Jenny. How sneer. Maybe now about Alex, too; perhaps I’m a dick.

I nod while looking at Alex’s shoulder. I know we’re racing for the prize here because I’ve intimated enough about the rocks in my pocket, and that’s how Virginia Woolf went in her mortal swim. I nod twice. I feel the Sakura Micron stab my side momentarily as I readjust on the couch. I need to affix a signature. I need to find the mother lode.

It’s 12:30pm and I’ve stopped at the senior residence, that concrete observatory, at Balboa Park’s entrance. In the leeward side of the tower is Eighth Avenue and there are Irving Gill numbers here, Requas and Drydens: I know my San Diego architecture well. I light a cigarette before going further.

And I will never kiss anyone

Unless it burns me like the sun

But I remember every kiss

Jens sings while I meter my draws. You’re not allowed to smoke inside of Balboa Park. It’s ordinance and I’m not looking to break laws, just break my heart. Upas is the tributary into Eighth and I remember driving it that June day, partially cloudy, in Ryan’s parents’ Tiger roadster. It was a tony detail—that roadster—me in a wedding suit with hydrangea-purple tie, sprawled in the cockpit while Ryan confidently drove. “Lookit you, so fucking cool,” Ryan remarked, “Totally relaxed.” My hands dangled in my lap, the cockpit had my legs outstretched and riding low. I WAS relaxed. I had the assuredness of a man completed, or about to be, and I was in want of nothing, not at the moment. A man waits his life for this; I was a quarter-century old and the preterite tense would be benumbed in lieu of a forever present.  Jenny and I would exist instead in the ‘will’, the future perfect. As in: we will retire to a shared park bench at the age of 102. As in, ‘we will always be in love.’ We were already sfumato, having fucked on the studio floor among the unfinished paintings; we were already and also chiaroscuro, a complement of light and dark, she ebullient and me her shadowed other. Yin-yang. Ouroboros. I was relaxed, so certain, and I never doubted a thing driving the short segue of Upas. All we needed was a rite of incorporation; we needed to affix signatures. Like I need to affix one now. I extinguish a cigarette, the preterite unwelcomely present.

(“I think I love you more than you love me,” I iterated an argument for Alex. “And Jenny, she says, ‘I think you’re right.’”

“That’s a ‘ten’. Alex. That’s a fucking ‘ten’.”)

The Marston House sits at Balboa Park’s north-most extremity. It has an Eighth Avenue address. The House is a classic Craftsman, steep-roofed and gabled, just more of a celebrity than the other Craftsmans north of Marston Hills. It features a formal English garden, a serpent-mouthed fountain. There are trees lining the eastern border, some of which bear fruit, and in the modern day they serve to block the coursing traffic of the 163. There is a low thrum regardless, an insinuation of cars, but otherwise the acreage is quiet, idyllic even. This is where on June 9th, 2002, Jenny and I wed. This is the mother lode.

 I am increasingly aware of the Sakura Micropigment ‘01’ in my inside breast pocket; it’s just above my heart.

“Alex, you know what?” I am talking about ‘Sideways’ again. “Thing about Miles: he winds up opening that bottle of Chateau Cheval Blanc, just in a fast-food restaurant. Some fucking McDonald’s or other with yellow plastic benches He’s got the wine bottle brown-bagged and he’s pouring into a red plastic cup beneath the table. I mean, his book deal fell through, Maya’s essentially told him to ‘piss off’, but *this* is the moment he chooses.  That’s why I carry the papers. Who knows: I may wind up in a Jack in the Box somewhere. I may break my sobriety, sign the scrip, drink a fifth or something! Hell, that’s what got me here, right? (That and my charming milieu of mental offences, plain fuckery I tell you). That—that–is why I carry the papers.”

Except Marston is not the Jack in the Box unless the residence has exchanged its historical status for a business permit. Cheeseburgers al fresco in the English garden, pommes frites for everyone.  No, Marston remains Marston, and I am not Miles today. I’m Thomas Daniel Hofman—that’ll be my Hancock—and I’m here to hurt.

Jens is replaced by David Byrne. Our song: ‘This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)’. On our first Christmas, Jenny gifted me with the ‘Stop Making Sense’ CD featuring this tune. We celebrated a humble holiday, our diminutive tree stretching to its tallest height by virtue of an available end table—it was maybe all of five feet this tree, makeshift stand and all—and we exchanged few presents. I remember Black Oaxacan figurines of birds from the Mingei. The CD. Maybe one or two other niceties. We kissed though bereft of mistletoe and listened to The Heads sing:

Home is where I want to be

But I guess I’m already there

I come home, she lifted up her wings

I guess that this must be the place.

It could have been our wedding song—that would later belong to ‘In My Life’, which now never ceases to underwhelm me. It just doesn’t hold the weight of Naïve Melody, the latter’s image of a winged woman singing into a man’s open and receiving mouth something of simple gorgeousness. Jenny, she wore wings; my lips, they were parted. I received it all.

These days, though welcoming and invitingly orange, Amethyst is not my home. I have no home. Jenny’s not there. We don’t share the same space. She’s not next to me, we’re not holding down the mattress with our paired weight, she’s not underneath me in the throes (how I miss making love—I haven’t so much as touched myself in five months); her wings are neatly folded in between her shoulder blades, at rest for now and I am loathe to think they will unfold again for someone new. It is my least favorite thought, though I know it an eventuality, and I hold a double standard: I’d fuck anything that moves to pretend being whole again. I need le petit mort to parry the bigger death. I need to take myself to the point of release and shiver spasmodically into someone. The Girl from the City of Twelve Bridges, I knew her halfway, and I’m halfway to contrition.

I’m just an animal looking for a home, you understand. I’m sorry.

The Marston House is in view and I remark firstly the giant firs which stand sentinel at the parcel’s entrance. I have a photograph, the large one you have blown up when purchasing wedding pictures, and it sits at the foot of my bed at Amethyst. In the photo, I am insouciantly leaning back against a tree, cradling Jenn’s forearms as we share a kiss. Her bouquet is in hand (the day’s welcome trespasser had been a lady beetle, which’d found home among the sepals) and—the camera caught this perfectly—there is a light from the morning sun, our heads enveloped in some Byzantine corona. We are a gold leaf fresco, something Justinian. We are a contrapposto. She leans into me and I accept. I accept, and in remembering, I touch the available fir, which is reddish and scaly; I turn my back to lean against it, just like in the photo. The space is empty in front of me—I see the expanse of Marston’s front lawn where we had also taken pictures: Jenny in the grass, then me pretending handsome with hair cut too short. I remember the photographer vaguely: we wound up on her gallery wall, and she cried during our ceremony alongside her husband, her assistant. Love was in the air, a contagion, a stubborn lady beetle descending and holding onto the day’s floral offerings. I remember this. Jenny’s dress had hand-embroidered butterflies; we released Monarchs like spent and gilded leaves. We had such a lovely day.

Something is wrong here. I take pictures of the empty fir with my phone, with my eyes, which are stubbornly dry. I feel okay. I feel okay: that’s what’s wrong. I want to feel ‘not okay’ and immediately. I want instant gratification, an instant DISsatisfaction. I want to be empty, I want to be a room without furniture; I want my heart to know its hollow. My Cheval Blanc needs to be opened and I want a fifth of New Amsterdam, rather I want to want one. I am in the cathedral after all. I’m paying my tithes and I have been penitent this whole time, these past six months, so why is it I feel nothing? Make my re-birthday cake mean something tonight. Olive oil buttercream will be nice. I’ll use the fancy Oleamea. I’ll light a votive. Fuck.

“Alex,” I am telling her something original, “My best friend died when I was young—I was thirteen, remember?—and you ask me what does my adolescent self feel.

“Jason—you know I talked to him the day he died. Well, actually, I talked to his mother Judy. And she said Jason was receiving morphine. That they were making him comfortable. He was on the living room sofa—I can picture this—with his one remaining leg, one stupid leg left. And I hear Jason in the background, right? I hear him. He says, “I love you, Thom,” and he can’t muster the exclamation point, but it’s there. I was fucking thirteen. I used to explore the sewers with him, play Dungeons&Dragons all night. We never said, ‘I love you.’ I mean, we were too young for that and we were too busy—I dunno—doing Boy stuff. Girls and spiders and RC cars. I certainly didn’t know how—it wasn’t said at our house. I hung up the phone and I didn’t say, ‘I love you’ back. I didn’t say it back.” I pause.

“Anyway I sat in the back of the car later that day—my parents were grocery shopping and I was in the Nissan Stanza with my brother. I was playing with some cassette tapes my mom and dad bought for me that day—this consolation prize—and my brother, he says, ‘Aren’t you supposed to be sad or something?’ I remember putting on a frowny face—I tried to look all sullen and shit. But it was fake. I mean, two cassettes! Score! Alex: I didn’t know,” and I gesture with an errant hand, “I didn’t know. This was all too big for me. Like staring at the night sky and feeling afraid because you know it goes on forever, and I didn’t want to think of Heaven or Jesus or eternity—all these things scared me. I just didn’t know.” I repeat: “I didn’t say ‘I love you’ back. You know?”

And you love me till my heart stops

Love me till I’m dead

“Jenny.” I whisper her name to the fir. This is affect. I’m trying to conjure something. The memories are intact, but the feelings attached are once-removed. I am staring from six inches within my skull. Perhaps deeper into the cathedral. That may work. In the meantime, it’s not okay to feel okay; I wish for the opposite, because the haversack is surprisingly light and my pockets are empty of stones. “Oh, Jenny,” I repeat her name as I’ve done the past six months, sometimes upon awakening. Where is the accompanying somber, that palpable feeling of loss? Is this my consolation prize, my two cassettes in the form of a comfortable numbness, a lightness even? I don’t want it. I want something venal; I want to leave a red handprint on the tree. I want more than anything to cry at least. ‘I’m not okay’, I try and convince myself. I can’t be, I say, walking deeper into the Marston lot. I haven’t been. Two weeks ago, I was searching for some miracle of magnanimity from anyone, from Jenny even, when the feelings were so low as to be mortal. And now I want them back. I need to affix a signature.

I’m beneath the gable, and this is where Jenny and I had our first dance. Again, it was ‘In My Life’ and it’s not worth even changing the song playing over the headphones. I remember not remembering the song as it played that June day. We had a cantankerous and diminutive guitarist, hair like a toupee, unnecessarily feathered with a classical guitar near half his size. At last minute, we had asked him to perform ‘Autumn Leaves’ instead, but he flatly refused claiming lack of advance notice. So Beatles it was. There IS the line ‘I loved you more.’ I think to that. I think to that godawful exchange:

“I think I love you more than you love me!”

“I think you’re right.”

 And I hurled a book across the room out of sheer impotence–‘The Language of Letting Go’ maybe, how appropriate would that have been—a kinetic act to direct something, if for a second. Something smashed and it was also my heart. I threw a book because an old soul hates nothing more than a new soul guided by borrowed wisdom.

 I’ve told Alex this story; I tell myself now. Jenny was Isolde to my Tristan, but then there was the proof of inequity and I feared abandonment in a way that pitted my core.

(“A ten, Alex. It was a fucking ten”).

Except I don’t feel a ten now. I’m benumbed. I pragmatically take pictures, for there are details I remember:

  1. The old window awnings, red and white striped, sagging swaths of canvas above pebbled glass panes.
  2. The supporting walls and their stone templates, the overhanging soffits,
  3. The brick inlaid porch beneath our feet as we danced cheek to cheek, eyes closed.
  4. The window formed by the supports, the place people stood as we shuffled our embrace—people I did not even notice until coming to after the last chord was played.

I may as well be inspecting the house for termites, photographing the slow decay; the act of photographing is just an exercise and I’m like a crime scene photographer, shooting door knobs and corpses and spent shells. I am documenting a static thing and there is no inner movement. I’m as dumb as the support beams, six feet of corpus, and hollow. I move on.

Lastly the garden, an Imperial affair beset with rows of rosebushes. In June they would have been deadheaded, I don’t remember. I just remember orange flowers, which the Monarchs took to upon release and the chevron of hedgerows which Jenny and I navigated together to reach the aisle. We marched arm in arm, we were inseparable and there was no pomp of groom walking first, bride walking last. We held hands as we stared straight ahead toward the mouth of the serpent fountain, the wall inlay that served as altar. We walked slow, and I retrace the steps now, just as purposefully. Surely this will loose something, my chest is tight and wanting of release. Spring forth flowers of romance, all your dying petals and incumbent thorns!  Explode my chest, turn me inside-out. I stop at a large urn planted mid-lawn. It overflows with tendriling flowers, yellow-orange, and Jenny and I had paused here, too. To separate hands would have been ill omen, but we had our protective spell at the disposal: “Bread and butter, bread and butter,” we whispered. Bread and butter never separate—there was the fact of us and, even with fingers trailing either side of the urn, momentarily unlinked, we were inseparable. Forever would be.

“Bread and butter,” I whisper now. “Bread and butter, bread and.” I don’t say the last ‘butter’. I pass the urn into the mouth of the serpent; I stand where I stood that June day, in view of the gardener’s house and its archway. I could pass through it, but I think—I think– I’m done. I feel nothing. My Sakura is capped, will remain so for now, and rests close to my unmoved heart. Fuckit, I’m okay.

Postscript: I write this on March 26, 2022. I am in Jenny’s apartment tending to the Boys while Jenny vacations in Idylewild. She will be gone for three days; meanwhile I sleep on our old couch, rather I do not sleep. I write. Jenny has sent me a photo of her atop Idlewyld Mountain this morning and I inexplicably cry. I have just written the words ‘bread and.’ No ‘butter.’ I cry, and text Jenny as much. There is no reply, but she doesn’t know I’m writing this. She doesn’t know this is in fact the mother lode, the Chateau Cheval Blanc. I miss her. I sob, but quietly, so as not to alert Cayde. I’ve baked a cake. Happy re-birthday. I uncap my pen.

Six months from today, Jenny and I will be divorced. She probably doesn’t remember this, but I first told Jenny I was going to marry her on March 30th, 2000. We’ve been together for 26 years. Bread and butter, bread and butter.

Bread and.


Murph and the Fata Morgana

Passing through the furthermost finger of Hospitality Point, where there are cobbled jetties populated with pelicans and cormorants, a gray whale erupts the waters and draws sudden breath.

“Do you get seasick?” Yippers asks.  He’s actually Yip—Keith Yip (though everyone refers to him as Yippers)—and he is piloting the boat.   We’re a two-boat caravan, actually: Yip and I have a pelican en tote, the boat ahead of us has three sea lions and a team of videographers from somewhere out of country.

I cock my head in a fake ‘lemme think for a sec’ but immediately reply, “I dunno.”  Truth is, I’ve never been out on the open ocean.  Harbor excursions, sure, and kayaking in the same-said point we’re now exiting, but never a venture too far beyond the breakwater or past the white buoys that bob in cautionary stop-sign fashion: ‘Now Entering the Ocean.’

This is ironic because I’ve lived on the coast all of my life and have worked at SeaWorld for half that.  Yippers registers surprise at my greenness, and he has stories about weathering violent waters in half the world’s oceans; in comparison, I just had a pretty good day, once, catching the surf at Tourmaline and landing a sunburn. Regardless of our experience gap and there being jury out on whether or not I have sea legs or—more importantly—a sea-agreeable stomach, Yip and I are on a mutual mission: we’re releasing rehabilitated animals back out into the ocean.  He’s the charge of sea lions; me, the pelican. 

There’s linguistic play here.  Sea lions are pinnipeds, which, when you boil down the Latin, means ‘feather-footed’; my pelican is obviously and fetedly plumaged. In which case, it’s a return-to-the-ocean celebration for all manners of feathered things. 

The sea lion pups: they were nursed back to health after having been rescued–debilitated and dehydrated—from San Diego shorelines; the pelican was, too, but just stubborn on return, flying back to SeaWorld often and needing a final deep-sea release to remind him of his home out and among the waves.  We named him Murph.  Because of the Law and all.

I’m not seasick upon exiting Hospitality Point, and it’s a grand gesture that a gray whale arced its back in acknowledgement.

Fifteen minutes past the wave-breaks and there being only horizon at this point—blue sky met by the denser blue of water—we cut our motors for a minute.  There’s something of a curiosity eddying the waters and we round the boats to witness.  It’s a shark—rather half of one—something dredged up from somewheres deep, floating and purple at the top of the waves.  It’s a carcass of something in the cow-shark family—neither Yippers nor I can exactly identify it—but it’s come a long way to surface seeing as it most certainly was a trench-dwelling thing.  What’s amazing is not only the fact that we came across this rarity (and quite by accident) but the play of sunshine in that aqueous moment.  The light is of remark: directly overhead and soundly noon-ish.  We can see down and beneath this open-mouthed carcass and approximately thirty-feet below the surface.   With the motors of our SW boats extinguished and us just floating, there is the lapping of water against the hulls—unmistakable in its hollow, slapping sound—and there is thirty feet of vision revealing a virtual cyclone of blue sharks swimming below.  They circle, scything tail fins cutting an underwater ballet made up of simple and practiced pirouettes.  Occasionally one breaks formation to nab at the cow-shark which is certainly done but still the conductor in all of this; the carcass gives up meat.  We remark this in wonderment because it’s nature in its most present tense and we’re accidental witnesses to it.  Yippers hauls the carcass halfway onto the boat—for a picture, at least—because in our awe we also want to document this and report back to the shark experts at the SW campus: ‘What’re we seeing exactly?’  What type of shark is this?’

We eventually leave the cow-shark to its posthumous stay atop the waters.  Our photos have been taken, our curiosity piqued, and it’s now half-past noon.  We’ve already seen a gray whale and, in a rafting moment, the spectacle of shark eating shark.  The boat plows forward and, while lurching at the bow, I repeat to myself over and over like an excited school-child: “This is amazing this is amazing…”  The salt and iodine run their negative charge, and grebes dive into the swells with red-feathered bottoms disappearing suddenly shy of the boat’s edges.  The grebes: they take advantage of the boat’s surge and pulse downwards when the boat’s wake lifts upwards.  I see bottoms of feet and the constant disappearing act the grebes manage, ducking just short of recognition before becoming a trail of bubbles, pink toes folding in accordion-fashion, green-water enveloping them.  Occasionally they surface and it’s a wide-eyed something (the boat’s very much the intruder here) and with crest feathers exaggerating their surprise, pupils pinned, they simply dive again.  It’s only a clumsy gull that actually takes to the boat’s wake, dumbly shaking its feathers and clapping its red-spotted bill.  Clap-clap.  The gull is smart and lazy all at once, certainly expecting a meal out of this, expert at looking unperturbed in the white-froth aftermath of a motor.  There are flashes of metallic fish to the sides of the boat but otherwise the ocean is calm.  The gull constantly preens its feathers in the incessant back-spray, and, in doing so, is fairly ridiculous.

Murph taps at the front of the crate with his hooked bill.  We’re almost home.  In the boat ahead of us, the sea lions bark.

The boats stop twelve miles off the coastline.  To my eye, it seems a random place to stop, because—left and right—it’s just anonymously blue.  In actuality, though (and were you to cast a weight on a mile-long string over the boat’s rig) we’re suddenly much further out than we were mere minutes before.   Below us, there’s an unexpected and precipitous drop.  The ocean space beneath our hull is now thrice as deep: there’s a trench evident by SONAR; it can otherwise be known by aid of a precisely illustrated and underwater topographical map, which we don’t have at present. This is all to say, we’re actually SOMEwhere despite an above-water feeling to the contrary.

 The gulls wheel overhead as if circling an abandoned FunYun packet left on the beach; we bob up and down, though on a very specific coordinate in the middle of a blue nothing. We’re miles away from the shoreline yet the gulls don’t seem to know it. To them: the skiff equals shore.  We don’t have fish, though, nor Fun-yuns today. 

I begin feeling a slight bit nauseous.

Motors are cut twelve miles out.  Twelve miles to the right of us is La Jolla, out of sight at present, and where I went to school; there are limestone cliffs there that run sheer on down to hidden beaches. Unlikely eucalyptus trees cap the in between ravines; there are otherwise seasonal sedges that can cut the hand in wintertime and softer springtime flashes of mustard grass and sea fig.

(La Jolla is pretty.  Some guidebooks translate ‘La Jolla’ as ‘the jewel’, which is an appropriate and tourist-friendly description.   It’s a misnomer, though: ‘la hoya’ equivalents to ‘the jewel.’   ‘La Jolla’ translates more properly as ‘The Hole’, perhaps in reference to its coves, or perhaps also to its mostly hiddenness: an oceanfront made up of reclusive pockets despite the fact of its famous mile of shoreline—public and well-visited—just north of the SeaWorld campus).

Twelve miles out, though, guidebooks don’t matter: La Jolla serves as a triangulation point, this time the easternmost one.  Usually it serves as the westernmost one, which I say only by nature of having been generally inland-bound most my San Diego life; also because I spent a lot of time on La Jolla’s cliffs looking out west to the horizon where our boats are currently staid. 

The horizon is actually only a mile distant.  There’s a simple math to this, but a math confounded by the arc of water which is big and refusedly measurable. It means I’m twelve times away from what I can see from the shore, and further out than I imagined I could be.

There’s a sudden whale-spout and Yippers and I take note.  We don’t see the exhalation, rather hear it.  I’m fighting the nausea that occurs when a boat stops.  The skiff is floating atop the waves rather than cutting through them and the loss of momentum has my stomach something of a bolo bag: bloated and certainly changing shape.  I’m without Dramamine.  

Yippers is at the wheel, my head is resting on my knees, and the whale spout sounds north and to the right of us.  We both instinctively look. 

“Lookit that, willya,” Yippers says, quietly.  We do, expecting another Grey Whale.  An exhalative cloud breaks the surface, plumed.  Then there’s another.  Two backs arc out of the ocean: leathery, smooth.  The respirative spray dissipates and seeming miles of backbone course the surface.  We are in awe as they slip at last into the ocean.  There are telltale caudal fins. 

‘Blue whales.  Those were blue whales.” Yippers whistles. It’s a moment.  My stomach, in knots, flattens briefly.  There’s a long-ness to a Blue which is an incomparable sight:  the Gray in contrast is warted, knobby and small, should you consider a school bus small; the Blue is a feat of flesh, aquiline and steel-colored.  Rivulets of water eddy about those last fins upon surfacing, telltale signs that there are twenty extra feet of caudal mass piloting some submerged tail flukes. 

This is the largest animal on the planet.  Nothing else has been as big.  When you see one, you know:  rivaling creatures fashion tar pits; there are skeletons on display in Natural History Museums.  But the Blue is big and effortlessly so.  And we’re seeing two at once.  In sheer cardiac-size, there are two VW Beetles afloat in sacks of blood and corpus pumping yards from our boat. One feels diminutive, thimble to a large and impossible embroidery. I forget my stomach.

Murph is increasingly impatient. I can see the hook of his bill through the carrier’s wire grating, poking curiously through. He’s necessarily tucked back in his nook, the encumbrance of his beak and gular pouch taking up the majority of the space, but I peer in and see his eyes, comically on either side of his narrow head, like soap bubbles halved and affixed to his face, a googly-eyed something. He doesn’t blink. The gray-brown tuft atop his cranium is erect and comical, too, a millenary mistake; it will be yellow come two years from now but at present it is a dusty color and more of a cowlick than a coif. It grazes the roof of the carrier.

“It’ll be just a few minutes,” Yip says as he rests an arm on the boat’s throttle. Across the water, camera crews—they’re from the UK, I think—are readying cameras, adjusting light diffusers and reflectors, a busyness of charcoal scrim shades and tripods, to capture the imminent release. The boat neighboring ours has three carriers, one sea lion apiece, arranged in a row at the back of the skiff. I can’t see them from where I sit, arms still wrapped around my midriff in pretend insouciance (I’m feeling every air bubble in my stomach), but I can envision their sea lion faces, vibrissae at attention and eyes all of dark soporific liquid. They are the epitome of cute, canine, with pointed faces unlike the harbor seals which also frequent these waters. Their distinctive ear flaps are nominal things, like the ends of balloons tied off, and the auricles rest back on their skulls.

Jody is Yipper’s counterpart on Boat #1, and she has donned a SeaWorld jacket and gone from contrapposto to camera-ready as the videographers give her the signal. Microphones are on point. Though we are only a few yards distant, Jody’s words are lost in the oceanic lull. Sounds are erased out here in the soundless deep. The opposite of white noise. It’s a clear afternoon, one o’ clock now, and the marine layer is non-existent. The sky is cloudless, the sea not glassy but ripe for Fata Morgana as the horizon is thermally inverted; there is a band of haze above the mile-distant water.

“Sea lions…health…why we do…best part…back into the ocean,” I catch part of Jody’s address. I know this speech: I’ve heard it many times and have experienced its import in full. Releasing healthy animals back into the ocean, back into the skies—back into whatever blue, is the best part of a rehabilitator’s job. This is my first time with pinnipeds, but I’ve let loose hundreds of pelicans; ducks; a number of gulls, egrets, and Great Blue herons. The main culprits for debilitation in my line of work are twofold, and they are opposite: savvy and lack thereof. Pelicans fill their pouches with fish and what better place to find food close to surface than at the end of a fisherman’s line. Savvy, kinduv. I’ve disentangled scads of Pelecaniformes from nylon and barbed hooks, twists of wings and pierced gulars like grotesquely knotted marionettes.  Snip-snip, scissoring wires and bolt-cutting hooks. As to the lack of savvy: the majority of pelicans that come in are juveniles who have not learned to fish, nor have found the convenience of the wharf or bait station. They plunge-dive fruitlessly, especially when the waters are warm and fish have run deep, and wind up emaciated for lack of nourishment. Two kilos sometimes—a third their weight down before becoming torpid and land-bound.  Murph is the latter. Well actually a little of both.

Murph had grown accustomed to our faces (in ‘My Fair Lady’ style). After a stint of rehab, he was released not once, not twice, but thrice–each release further away from the SeaWorld campus. And each and every time, he would stubbornly return to perch atop the outdoor pens, floppy feet slip-slapping the chain-link mesh, forever eyeballing the food trays of capelin. Let me in, let me in! He knew where to go—where to go to “diet” at least. He’d  be allowed readmission once his weight dropped enough to warrant another round of calories. Murphy’s Law: free bird doesn’t like freedom.

The moment has come. I see Jody kneel to release the pins on her pinniped carriers, so I ready myself at Murph’s. The grates swing open for the sea lions and, on cue, the pups hobble out in goofy-flippered fashion. They wriggle with their little hind ends until at skiff’s aft, then slip into the water seamlessly as if transforming instantaneously once aqua-bound. They are streamline and grace. I hope for similar grace with Murph, perhaps a winging away in low camber over the water. The pups meanwhile, take to the sea with aplomb, poking their heads above water in quick reconnaissance—a perhaps impish good-bye—then as quickly disappear. There is applause.

“OK, Murph—your turn.” Yippers looks amused, still leaning against the helm. It’s not often we take to the Trench to release birds—it’s usually sea dogs and dolphins. Murph misses his cue as I swing the gate open. He slaps his feet—once, twice—then cocks his head. I have to wrest his beak gently and coax him out. He half-opens his wings in complaint, then acquiesces as I slide him from the carrier. Yip emits a chuckle. The cameras are staid, so there’s no documentation as I pin Murph by his humeri and steady him over the ocean. I have one hand on his bill, finger slid in between his mandible and maxillae to allow him to breathe. I half hoist him outwards and let go. I hope for some drama, but Murph just plops unceremoniously into the deep and sits. He bobs impotently and paddles his feet as if treading water (though he’s perfectly buoyant), goes absolutely nowhere. I imagine he blinks, but I see only his back, and it takes him gumption and a good three minutes before he decides to—’well, guess I gotta go’—scoot. He swims eastward, which is at least opposite SeaWorld, and toward the open sea. Then he stops and again bobs. It’s the most undramatic release ever, but though lacking theater, Murph is at least where he belongs. There is that.

We ready the boats to leave, camera equipment and refractors folded. I’m thankful to feel the thrum of a motor: movement will settle my discombobulated stomach. Carriers are stowed, and the sea lions have disappeared. Only Murph remains steadfastly motionless as the skiffs rev into an about-face and head southwestward. Twelve miles return trip—should take an hour or so. Another twenty minutes and we’d be in Mexico waters, the golden bull ring coastal and Tijuana glinting like a rhinestone tiara. Yip accelerates and we pull alongside Jody and crew as we cut across the glass. We leave a wake, the only whitewater this far out, until—seemingly out of nowhere and behind us—appear tiny crests in the distance.

Jody is the first to notice as she’s not piloting, but rather taking in the view. She signals to Yippers who peers over his right shoulder and smiles. “You’re in for a treat,” he drawls, and slows the boat some. He knows this is my first time—that, and he’s never tired of oceanic wonder despite his veteran status—so doesn’t explain, just keeps peeking over his shoulder. “You’ll want to lay down in front,” he directs. I oblige, taking my place on the bow, and look over my shoulder, too, as the crests materialize and outwardly multiply. Soon the horizon is glittery with flecks of white, and—wow—there are scything fins cutting the water, blunted gray triangles cresting and falling sinuously in the water. They look like penny arcade horses, operating as if on rigs, up-down, up-down, fast approaching. We collectively decelerate, our own wakes slo-churning twin trails. We are beacons.

Quick as silver, they are upon us! Hundreds—literal hundreds!—of dolphins fast-tracking through the sea, metallic bombers with hourglass signatures on their sides. “Commons,” Yippers laconically says. Delphinus delphi, and a super-pod of them! They overtake us and we gas the motors slightly to keep up. I cross my arms beneath my chin and lay horizontal with the water. There are dolphins within reach, all pulsing aquiline muscle, just feet from the bow. In, out, through: they dart intrepidly, no time for acrobatics, blurs of gray and white just speeding in one collective direction. I see their caudals pump up and down in meter, their blowholes occasioning a quick exhale-inhale, backs occasionally cresting the surface, eyes determinedly open against the flow. They move like the hands of kahiko dancers but in fast-motion–perfect sine wave–graceful, lithe, and exceedingly able.   

I am dumbfounded. I remember something seemingly unrelated, something from adolescence:  I saw the Grand Canyon when I was younger; the endless ravines of silt and ash and sedimentary rock; the limestone and basalt. It was too much for me to take in, sitting on the East Rim and looking out across the Canyon, the whole thing didn’t fit my eye. And I’m used to things fitting in a viewfinder: <click>. I like taking pictures. But the Canyon scared me, kind of like looking at the sky and knowing it goes on forever, and feeling suddenly infinitesimal. Things just too big with nothing to define the corners. And I feel like I did as the young canyoneer, when surrounded by the dolphins in their vast juggernaut forwards, not knowing which direction to look. One can only be in it.

The dolphins are echolocating something it seems. They swing right, slightly east, but unwaveringly south. Jody and Yipper exchange shrugs, and off we tack to follow. It’s apparent we weren’t their destination. We have time; we adventure. The dolphins lead us on a diagonal, then a straight ahead for about twenty minutes. We’re not too far off course and the contagion of dolphins has us not caring either which way. This is a gift.

In the distance is a shape? THIS is Fata Morgana now, striations of lines, not static though. Whitewater reflected up and down in the sky, floating waves—something is moving. Black specks rise and fall relative to the horizon. What is it? As we draw closer, the image snaps into focus. We are approaching a froth of water in the middle of nowhere. The black specks grow wings, and there is a flurry of activity close to surface. It is a feeding frenzy, and every animal in the nearby area has somehow been alerted. There is probably some shallow-dwelling school of sardines or mackerel in transit which has piqued the interest of not just the dolphins, but sea lions, harbor seals, and their aerial neighbors the pelicans. The sea dogs somersault in the foam creating hundreds of individual splashes, and the dolphins, as well, are leaping and twisting back and forth, their acrobatics finally at play. Pelicans fold their wings tight to their bodies and plummet, seemingly buckshot from the sky, their pouches fully open and extended to swallow the water and whatever fish with it. They break the surface post-dive and wing upwards, so there is a yo-yo of aviiformes, plunging and rising, plunging and rising. The gestalt is incredible, and we stop our motors at a respectful distance to gawk.

Yippers gives another low whistle, and we are otherwise mute. Pods of dolphins are descending from all directions—not just the pod we followed—and how could a school of fish be so big as to sate so many appetites? The scope of the frenzy is big, Taj Mahal big, Mt. RUSHmore big—it is monumental and just as beautiful, the animals competing in a mutual trapeze, a real life Cirque de la Mer. We watch the water until it calms slightly, a boiling pot turned to simmer, and—respectfully—we idle away slowly, our senses having been satiated by this accidental and serendipitous feast. We tack left and return home.

‘How could this be,’ I ask myself, ‘That so much splendor was afforded us in three short hours?’ A gray whale, two blues, a trench-dwelling shark, a megapod of commons, and the menagerie of every feathered and finned thing in the surrounding environs descended on one spot: it was as if Poseidon himself was orchestrating a thank you for returning his children to the kingdom, a languorous Murph included. Speaking of, I look over my shoulder to see if our wayward pelican is hot-tailing it in pursuit of our wake but—no—just the erstwhile gulls again as we approach terra firma.  They clap-clap their bills, vermillion spots on their maxillae red flares of greeting. Again, no FunYuns, sorry.  We dock anonymously enough, empty crates and full hearts. My stomach is even normal, and my legs have proven seaworthy. I de-boat comfortably, take one last look at the horizon. That faint black speck could be Murph. Maybe? The day has proven that, if anything, more fantastic things can happen.

Postscript: Yes, Murph did return. One day later.


Day 120

“Dare I say, Grant” and Grant is my house manager—a genteel Bear with a dyed-blue mohawk currently combed down over his pate—“Dare I say, Grant—today is a good day.” It’s been a while. Grant lights up because he has seen me disappear into myself the past couple of weeks, and he has been kind to offer “whatever help you need.” This is what the House is for. We’re all on disparate journeys and there is an undercurrent of loss, heroes in the perhaps making , maybe not. We do what we can and there is a congenial mirth, a camaraderie even as we can sometimes be ships passing in the night.

Grant smiles and my roommate Tony is correct. Damn if Grant doesn’t look like a thirty-five-year-old Haley Joel Osment—something about the eyes and the cherubic cheeks.

“Glad to hear,” he expresses, “That’s really good news” and there is a slight Arkansas twinge in his voice, which is left over from a childhood in the South. Something Delta. Appropriately his chosen drag queen name is ‘Delta Variant’ and I can’t help but laugh (I’m Felicia Salume, by the way—it’s a House game). He offers some prosaism about sobriety, and it is true that I have 120 days, but that’s not what I’m really celebrating. I just feel good for once. I don’t take my fourth months for granted, mind you, it’s just that I can’t drink so I don’t. Simple for right now, which is a feat for someone who almost fetishizes complication. (David Foster Wallace, of a similar bent, was dumbfounded when writing ‘Infinite Jest’: ‘you mean these needlepoint samplers ‘one day at a time’ and ‘you are where you’re supposed to be’ actually work? He had respect for the Rooms in ways that the more exploitative Chuck Palahniuk does not).

The night prior I spent at Jenny’s, which is sometimes difficult. Our once Hygge home has been recontextualized into the confines of her apartment and it is familiar to the point of nostalgia. Nostalgia is an oft misunderstood term: it’s not as saccharin or amber-hued as it’s made out to be. Nostalgia literally translates to ‘the pain of returning home.’ And it is painful, everything in its right place but not, us decantered into what is now Jenn, me the wine diamonds at glass’ bottom. There is the sofa and chaise, the erstwhile chair, an unsatisfactory light though, which, like an existential dimmer switch, never fails to depress my mood. Venetian curtain blades clack, Cayde usually has the TV too loud, and Finn sing-songs his content. Despite the low light and the white noise, I manage to photosynthesize here, which can’t rightly be said for the struggling fiddleleaf in the apartment corner. Make gray cells green, this my family.

There is the wafting of Jenn’s perfume, and I wish to venture into her closet and cast my arms around the empty dresses hanging there. I don’t, but the want is there, an almost need to pretend her decolletage, her neck, her hair (!), her lips to my ear, and it’s a wantonness that has vegetative root in my gut. But I don’t. “Oh, Thom. I never needed your poems,” she has said. She never needed them, but they are there and will always be should she ever desire listen. I am a poem and she was the finger drawn circular along the goblet rim that made me sing. I am the wine diamonds, she is the wine. Together we are a volume, just now a volume separated. Alone together, together alone. I will always love her.  

I photosynthesize in the apartment, like an areole awaiting blossom, hoping to grow sunwards and away from the otherwise gloam. It has been stubbornly dark of late, the Escitalopram not punching the synapses, no lightning pulses of serotonin. I sit in the garden at Amethyst errantly wasting cigarettes and ruminating once unfathomable things. I read Virginia Woolf. My pocket is full of stones. I read Anne Sexton: I am like a watercolor. I wash off. I read DFW: a man jumps from a burning building not because he is suddenly afraid of falling, but because the alternative is so much worse. I think these things. I think that love is a burnt match skating in a urinal. I think love is pecuniary. I think I’m forever unrequited. I think Kurt Cobain’s last album was supposed to be entitled ‘I Hate Myself and Want to Die’.

Still, I photosynthesize. Cayden and I have a ritual of feasting and watching adult content on television: Breaking Bad, American Psycho. I fucking hate Jenny’s stove (electric range be damned) but I bang out tikka masala calzones and tournedos and tagliatelle. Cayde’s never eaten so good. We lay on the couch in opposite directions on the couch, legs intertwined. He intermittently farts. “Jeezus, Cayde,” and it’s as if we’re back on Herman Ave. I bathe Findlay and he dresses himself in undersized pajamas and wears some ice cream for dessert. We snuggle in bed because he asks for me and he grips my hand like he used to, rubbing his palm over the blade of my thumbnail. His breathing slows and he inserts a thumb into his mouth, eyes closed in parabolic slits. My eyes are staid and open and my heart opens to receive this, the light, the grey cells green. I miss my Boys. The loneliness and love are competing tendrils growing inside of me. There is something splenic, a phloem for black humour sprouting from my gut. There is love there too, something more sanguine and housed behind my ribcage. My body, it is a confusion. Oh, Jenny, I miss you, and I know you wake up, too, and wonder how it is we are so alone. Alone together, together alone.

But today is a good day. Four months since my orange chair purgatory back in the Hygge home, resolute bottle of vodka, records spinning on repeat. My friend had come down from Modesto and kept me company for four days. I was numb, bordering on a counterintuitive happiness, like the euphoria before dying, dying which, I reserved for later. (And die I did mid-January, then again early March). I spun Death Cab on the Crosley and sang with my friend: “Lushing with hallway congregation, my best judgement/ Signed its resignation/ I rushed this. We moved too fast, trips into/ The guestroom.” Moving too fast; also in torpor. An occasional bath which my friend insisted, sitting with my knees perpetually drawn up, hugging my body. I stopped going to work. All this four months ago knowing I was going to disappear somehow. But today is a good day, 120 days since.

Grant tells me he’s happy for me, and I believe him. Corpses are unsettling. I’M happy for me. I paw the air in expectation of the usual malaise, but it’s not there. The sun has not yet burnt its way through the marine layer, it’s gray, and the light is peeking. Challah, I think, fresh from the bakery. A bread pudding for the House. I am planning. This is good. Hillcrest is not yet bustling, its rainbow crosswalks untraversed and the storefronts still half an hour till open. The Hub is not a hubbub, University is whooshing with the air brakes from early morning buses. I sport a gray blazer and burgundy pants, sunglasses and headphones. I am in my uniform, I am me. I’m rested, but not too rested, and there is a difference. Pigeons alight; the crows are not so urban this antemeridial hour. Challah, butter, chocolate medallions, milk, chicken breast for the poaching. African black soap. A ginger beer and a Newport. I could be telemetrically transmitting all of this, a collection of datapoints, my thoughts are so concise. The sun makes its appearance and I decide, no, this is not a fluke. I’m, dare I say it, happy. I text Jenny and Cayden—I do every morning—to wish them well today. I tell them I love them. Cayde thanks me for the calzones and I promise to put them on rotation. It’s the least I can do.

My dad says I have necessarily fucked up Cayden for life. He says ‘broken home’. My dad, he is Hermann Kafka putting a young Franz out on the balcony and locking the door. I am ashamed. Cayde has endured a lot, but he is resilient and we have a particular love that is a tornado cellar through all of this. Getting better, as today, feeling photosynthesis and stretching toward the sun, we regain. When first I went to the hospital, he cried, said, “You don’t understand, Mom, he’s my favorite.” I don’t believe Cayde has a favorite, I don’t. Still, the father-son bond is strong and by nature of our early cementing, there is the hope that all this will make us stronger. What better way to teach a son than to teach him redemption? I wrote:

“And never mind the change in weather—though I prefer afternoons of high nimbus and when the sky is a Crayola-blue—I look forward to picking up my kid everyday. Especially on Wednesdays when he’s home early and I’m the one to gather him from class. I didn’t grow him, per se, I was not his avenue into this world, but he’s me in part; and more importantly he takes that piece of me and makes it better because he is that kid who’s remarkable, who could’ve invented the rainbow or something and wouldn’t be any less remarkable than he already is.

I see his blond head at the curb, which is the cue for my heart to do it’s jump-thing. It’s the jump-thing every time, because seeing him is recognition and love at once, and there’s that emotional spike, that adrenaline, when chemicals understand they must be employed like fireworks when I rest eyes on him, him my kid.”

I do not lock him on the balcony where I currently stand, cold and lambasted by my own father. Cayde is warmed by the thrumming of my still hummingbird heart, the heart I’ve written about, which vibrates more than it beats. And if hummingbirds do not take sustenance every quarter of the hour, they fall into torpor. May these last few years just be that: a temporary torpor. Today I’ve found flowers on which to sup, and though I’m heartbroken as fuck, I’m probably more me than I’ve been in a while. It is today and I am making bread pudding. I will go to self-storage, avoid the minefields of wedding photographs, and loot the place of its kitchen gadgetries. The House needs bowls, a mixer, my roommate needs a spice grater for his teas—I have all these things. It is today and I have a plan.

The woman at the bread counter—she could be Zoe Kravitz—is hurried and is almost taken aback when I ask her how she is before placing my order. “What’ll you hav—oh, fine, ok.” ‘How are you?’ is as important sentence as ‘I love you’; I didn’t ask it of Jenny enough, I regret. Oh, I regret. “How are you this fine day?” I ask Zoe. And I claim to be “Fantastic as always,” which I always used to say when ringing groceries at my now defunct job. It’s not true—a few short days ago, I felt the weight of rocks in my pockets—’rockys in my pockys’ as Cayde used to say when collecting stones—but why explain that I was the ghost of Woolf begging Jenn for some magnanimity, a life preserver to save me from holing up in the Lafayette and drinking into Oblivion.

 “What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that – everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer.”

Zoe remarks that she is fine and asks my order again. Challah, it turns out, is only baked on Fridays. Right—the double helping of manna on Friday to last through Shabbat on Saturday. I forget. So I get brioche, which is not the same, but I have a loaf of something—give us this day our daily bread. The sky is clear outside and I venture down the block to Whole Foods for chocolate medallions and Dutch cocoa.

A text comes through: it’s Alex, my therapist reminding me that I have an appointment tomorrow. I’m not sure yet she can handle me; I’ve a history of outsmarting therapists in an almost willful manner. I’m tired of being left out on the balcony by authority figures, and authority figures are not just parents or clergymen, but the residents of wingback chairs in cloistered rooms. The quiet measurers of the mental abacus. I just want to be enough. Grade me but give me an ‘A’ necessarily, please. A kid looking for affection needs a good grade to get it. Alex—she is looking for me to identify the negative belief I have of myself. Ironically I ask Jenny (codependent much?). She delivers a good answer and I just revealed it: I don’t deserve love lest I perform and perform well. Continuous performance my poet friend Maggie used to say, the exhausting and forever tap dance for affection, validation. I am hole and not a whole unless I am filled by an other. I have bad self-sustain. I can be indignant, blindingly arrogant in self-defense, when no reward comes down the pike. It is bruised ego. It is Franz knocking on the balcony door looking for an answer, looking to be let in. I’ve been failed too many times looking for a love unconditional. I am trapped because I’m led to believe that I must meet certain conditions to earn unconditional love—it’s a paradox. “Thom, I never needed your poetry.” But, goddamit, if there is one true thing: I’m a fucking poet and that’s not an act. It is true, though, I write the bones so you can see my skeleton—see me stripped, just SEE ME and hopefully love me. Maybe I’m not simple enough, no I’m not simple enough, and in trying to write down the bones, I sometimes fail to get right down to the skeleton and I wear a bone suit instead, which is not the same; it is another form of donning a cloak. “You hide behind words,” I’ve been accused. But I’ve lied only by omission, by overcomplication. “If you tell the truth, if you’re so confessional, why don’t you write about the alcohol?” it’s been parried.  Ouch. Stymied. I’s always been there actually. I just hid it in plain sight. From my first big blog entry:

“ Like the pool water finding form on the under-lobes of philodendron leaves, guilt just precipitates, finds home.  Doesn’t matter what I have or haven’t done; that guilt I always feel when disciplining Cayde becomes something real, and it finds deposit in recollections of my guiltiest moments.

I’m sorry I yelled at you, Cayde.  I’m sorry for yesterday.  I’M SORRY FOR THIS EVER-PRESENT RED CUP, the lack of stars, and this highway which is long and too curvy and which makes you throw up.  Sorry, Cayde.  It’s all my fault.  Tomorrow we’ll do better. Sorry I punched a dent into your wall at age 2 and that you actually remember that.”

From the same piece:

“Later, at the Best Western in Mariposa, I watch the traffic pass on the 41.  I’ve sat myself down curbside with a plastic cup of juniper ale.  The cars pass and their brake lights are something beautiful: streaks of red down the highway.  The sky is not what you’d might expect crowning the Yosemite Valley.  It’s muddy and flecked with very few stars.  Not exactly what I was hoping to show Cayden.  The Milky Way is still something he hasn’t seen save for the telegraph points present in our San Diego sky, the stars that barely suggest the galactic sweep hidden beyond our view.  I remember the first time I saw the Milky Way in its full splendor, the moment it really hit home that we were looking outwards through the cosmic arm of a giant spiral.  The stars set slowly in their great arc as satellites traversed the same curvature–just more quickly–and there was the sense that orbits were relative, and circular.

Cayde will not experience that this trip.”

From a later piece, when experiencing anhedonia following a detox:

“I wonder what Cayde thinks; I wonder what anyone thinks. It’s not every day you suddenly disappear. Cayde bustles down the path, Winnie the Pooh still sagging beneath the beltline. I had checked out, checked myself in. It was one bridge crossed, but there were multiplicities of them stringing canyons. It was Luke embarrassed by his aluminum horse and wanting two legs back. It was Sad Bill sad trying to row his skiff to shore. It was me drinking six pints in quick succession at ten o’clock in the morning hoping that at least one would hit its mark; that one would banish this oppressive and governing mortality; that one would finally correct the misaligned chemicals and quell the constant feeling of simultaneous explosion and implosion.”


“Cayden’s neck is long like mine, and, with head tilted back, he looks somehow more adult. I remember when he was two, when I explained the Children’s Moon to him from our shared vantage point in the backyard fort. It was the only moon he was awake to see then, a white and limnal disc in chambray sky. I offered him this, the proxy moon, when he was two, its nighttime counterpart a year later; I gave him the moon done up in chalk and silver.

Cayde loses the bee in the burgeoning sun and squints up at me. His right eye is still closed, bangs insouciantly caught in his lashes. He’s the love of my life, there among the bees and pea gravel, in front of a house with unknown residents.

He’s the love of my life. I feel nothing.”

My bridge is only halfway crossed at this point, toxins having evacuated enough room for the nothingness to otherwise settle in. It’s to be expected. The serotonin is gone from my system, a string of chemical pearls unstrung. There will be thirty more days of this leadenness, time to write everything down in absence of feeling, words as proxy for actual emotion. There will be thirty more days, minimum, before the silver light comes back on.”

These things I have written. These are my truths. I didn’t say them simply, but I said them.  Do you still like me? Ironically, do you like me more? I continuously perform. I’m gonna have a helluva session tomorrow. But today is a good day. I have challah (Whole Foods had it), I’m Lyfting to storage, I’m gonna wade through pieces of me, and find my potato ricer at least. Pommes puree for dinner. Herb-butter basted pork chops and charred broccolini. That should round out today. And I’ll call Tammey as usual, and write. Last I left off, I was in Kava Bar’s side room at a meeting, an upturned euphonium as Christ’s corpus, listening to fellow alcoholics explain the Miracle while I felt the lack of thereof. It was the longest day and I almost didn’t survive. A cliffhanger certainly. But I’m here. Hello, World, how are you? May the day be filled with love and hope. Onwards.


Day 105

Depression is palpable despite it being a coruscation of neural flashes and otherwise ephemera. Ask anyone who has pawed the air upon waking, 6am maybe, with the uncertain question, “Are you here today?” Depression will always answer and with its particular plummet: it is a plane and it is definitely crashing.

6 a.m. and I have slept in my clothes again. The open window lets a chill into the room—fresh air at least—which my grandmother’s quilt is unfit to quell, and I am cold as the ceiling fan blades do their slow rotor. It is here today, this depression, just as it was not five days ago; the inconsistency is baffling and serves to somehow make the depression worse. Were it present every day, there would at least be comfort in its erstwhile reliability, like the ibis returning to the Nile on the annual, harbingers of the coming floods. No, this depression is trickier: it wings in according to its own almanac. Waters rise one day only to recede the next. I have dealt with the waters before, and when they were constant, the pills not working and my fingerprints something of erasure having soaked in the baths for so long. This time, this 6 a.m., I am surprised by the flash flood. It is not supposed to be like this, for I am well, considering—I look down at my hands and the fingerprints are intact, which means the self is intact, and I haven’t been one with the waters in weeks. I almost felt ashore, the Escitalopram and lack of drink slamming  me onto the silt, shipwrecked  but hull intact. No, there has been a breach and fuck if I’m all wet: It is a ship and I am definitely sinking.

I walk to get coffee, every step just one step that’s not falling down. It is cold, not bracingly, but enough of report that the coat doesn’t work and I pass by my friends in the ‘Rare Society’ steakhouse parklet who have endured the night in cardboard and tatters. A man, he pushes a grocery cart in the middle of the street and it is full. Sundry clothes, the requisite bags of cans, something almost architectural protruding above it all like some junk parapet. He provides pathos to the morning: “Why?” he shouts. “Why? Why?” and he is broken and cannot rewind. I feel him with every ‘why’, the question we ask as placeholder for lack of a more specific query. In the moment there are no answers—not even questions for there to be answers to—and my bones are bone-sharp buried within. I am particularly cynical this morning. There is no tenderness, and I inwardly snarl that ‘tender’ is at heart just a pecuniary word. The world offers me nothing, and this is not a way to start one’s day, transactionally bereft. I need something, some miracle of magnaminity because I am an alcoholic. For me to drink is to necessarily die. When you know that dying is the option and that it doesn’t seem necessarily unfavorable, an alcoholic brand of suicide seems tenderness of a different currency. As is, my pockets are already lined with stones, and it would only take a river. I am a car, and it is definitely crashing.

I get my coffee. I lean against an available trash can and have what will be one of too many cigarettes today. Cigarettes are markers of time, as were drinks. Smoking is an addiction of chronology moreso than chemistry for me, time a catenary in between rolls of lit paper. I know there will be too many today, as time is tauter this morning, and of nagging essence. I don’t know why or essence of what. It just is. I refer to the mathematic I have in my head as to how much alcohol it would take to kill me, and know that it is doable. I know that 44 is a viable die-able age. I am a watercolor and as Anne Sexton wrote in her passing, I know I will wash off. It’s ok, this tacit permission.

The man in the street has ceased yelling ‘Why?’ Perhaps he found an answer, or perhaps he found a new question. He has filled space momentarily, the town crier slipping down the avenue. I put out my cigarette and trudge back toward Amethyst. It is safe there. Amethyst is an oasis painted orange despite its aubergine name and I pay a relative pittance for its haven. There are six steps leading up—I count—and I am already tired of counting. For example, this is the 105th day of my sobriety. For example, this is four months since Jenny left. For example, this is all a negative integer approaching zero. I’ve forgotten my calculus but I remember the language of approach and there’s something to that, something about never getting there. It’s ineffable and zero is something in a bell jar. Whatever. The bell jar can be smashed.

I resist sleep. I slept for the better part of three days earlier in the week and one must have a plan in between lifting one’s head, then refunding it to the pillow. Never lifting one’s head is cheating. It’s principle. Again those pecuniary terms. ‘Tender’, ‘principle’, ‘refund’. ‘Debt’ is pecuniary, too, as is ‘amends’ and to settle one’s account with the existential registrar, the pillow must be resisted. Procrastination is too easy and is also sign of hidden anger, resentment toward a task, resentment too toward the assigner of said task. I don’t know who is the taskmaster here, who wags the figurative finger, but it’s pointed in my face and I heed the call-up. Resentment is to be avoided at all costs. This much I’ve learned.

I light another cigarette on the back patio where there are aloes and grey-green succulents of substantial tooth and flesh. Flowers have not yet sprouted but it is February; the sourgrass has not yet exploded chartreuse. Dandelions are busy doing their thing all pappus and stalky and I sit unimpressed by it all. Four fifths of vodka. This has suddenly presented itself as an option to be reckoned with, a Winehouse proportion certainly, but one as blithely offered as, “Coffee, or tea? One lump or two?” The other option lies at the end of a pack of cigarettes, and the telepathic push necessary to move the clock arms forward. To have these options even be options in the first place, and for them to make the scale beam horizontal, is absurd. I demand a recount. First rule: don’t believe all your thoughts.

Recount comes one pack of cigarettes and thirteen hours later. I receive an official job offer from Whole Foods, I actually eat something of substance—creole shrimp atop a bed of macaroni and cheese—and subsist. By the numbers: four ventis and three ginger beers quaffed; two phone calls to my therapist; four to my best friend in Arizona who, by her account, wishes she could just give me a hug already; and two meetings. The first one I attend is out of necessity, heeding the alcoholic wisdom that meeting-makers make it. And making it this morning takes on a deeper significance when thoughts venture into mortal absurdity and within the brain is manufactured impasse.

(My roommate said something funny this morning if I can break the Fourth Wall momentarily: when I finished the sturm und drang of this piece’s beginning, he simply said, “You could’ve turned off the fan.” Perfect Beckett wisdom—touche. The town crier shouted, ‘Why?’; Tony essentially asked, “What for?” He could’ve also said, “Penguin dust! Roman coin soup!” It would’ve made the same difference) .   

The second meeting of the day is of greater report. The Kava bar sits on University Avenue on the easternmost edge of Hillcrest, before the Avenue takes a precipitous drop beneath the Georgia St. Bridge and into University Heights proper. The Kava Bar is as it sounds: it is a bar, there is a bar top, there is a barback proffering brews. Minus a jukebox and the obtrusive glare of TV screens, the establishment is much like any other brewhouse in Hillcrest; it’s just that kava, despite its mollifying properties, is non-alcoholic. Kava, which comes from the Polynesian word ‘awa’ for bitter, is root extract from Piper mythisticum. Like alcohol, though, it hits the Central Nervous System as well the liver. It is imbibed to abate anxiety, to provide a calming effect, and ameliorate the symptoms associated with benzo withdrawal. As can be intuited, kava is very alluring to alcoholics: it’s alcohol but not. The fact that it is mind-altering has the community in a quandary: is it a viable replacement, or is it verboten? This is not the first time alternative drugs have been the debate among the Rooms. Some die-hard old-timers eschew even prescription anti-depressants. They instead champion the ‘miracle of the Program’ alone as ameliorative: a straight, no-chaser brand of relief. But even Bill, founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, was known to chemically wander, campaigning at one point for the use of mind-expanding psychedelics he said, to heighten understanding of the Higher Power. I just know, I’m disallowed from all mind-altering substance and, as resident of Amethyst Landing contractually obligated to place my hand over my glass were kava to be offered. Ironic then, that I find myself at Kava Bar for an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, eight o’clock on the longest day of my sobriety.

The Room is through a wood-paneled door adjacent to the bar, and really it is like being in a brewhouse again having to wave down the barback for a drink with a fistful of dollars. I get my cold brew and walk through the door into a cinema of candles and folding chairs. The room is dark, but not too dark, and the votives act as footlamps as if in some primitive theater. Everyone  is underlit, which adds not only to the ambience, but to the cast of anonymity: one can make out details, but details which don’t lend themselves to a full gestalt. The man next to me, he has a spike through his ear; the woman in front of me has an embroidery of hair. I stupidly wear flip-flops with my brown peacoat. I find a seat in the back opposite the stage where the Leader is currently speaking. Behind her is a curiously illuminated stool atop which sits an upturned brass instrument, a euphonium maybe. There is a potted plant. An open door leads to a utility closet.  

The Leader speaks not in a hushed tone, but reverent nonetheless; her cadence is perfect so that even when her story goes sideways, there is no faltering, and the redirect is a gentle and rhetorical entreaty for forgiveness—“I’m an alcoholic, please excuse me my distractions.” She is a good speaker and exudes the serenity people who have witnessed the miracle do: we’re antennae to it, we alcoholics, and can gauge when a person has finally and lastingly approved of themselves. To hit a valley, then climb a peak necessitates going twice the distance, and the accumulation of experience along the way rounds the voice; in the Speaker’s mouth therein lies a pearl.

I am rapt. As Cheever says: “the tonic or curative force of straightforward narrative is inestimable.” (He is also attributed with saying we tell stories when in danger or pain, to wit: “I expect as I lay dying I will be telling myself a story in a struggle to make some link between the quick and the defunct”). In the Rooms, we all harbor and–Lord-willing–share our stories for we are all very afraid, even when we are seemingly not as with the Speaker, for in our bodies is an incurable disease that cannot be excised. It pervades our spirit and guides us into alcoholic thinking as with my thoughts today. It ravages us, has us as the town crier shouting an interminable ‘why?’ while pushing a grocery cart of regret, the salvages of a life.

I am rapt. I close my eyes even. I am not praying, though I could be. The votives, the liturgy of the Room—it is like a church, people in half-light, the euphonium our makeshift corpus. No, I am not praying; I’m just accepting the tonic that is offered in the otherwise Kava Bar in Hillcrest in San Diego in this, my 105th day of sobriety. I am relieved I have made it to nightfall. My bed is two blocks away. The fan, Tony, is still on.

It is my turn to tell a story, to link that quick and defunct, and I admit this to be my hardest day in sobriety. I didn’t elaborate the machinations of my thinking as I do here, except to say that ‘to drink is to die’, which at surface seems hyperbolic, and in my stupid flip-flops appears moreso—like prophesy coming from a pig—but it is a necessary way to think, this all or none ruminating. ‘I can die’ is the same as ‘I will die’, semantics be damned. If I didn’t think this way, I’d risk everything in a heartbeat. The pull is that strong. So I say it, my mortal algebra, but then tell a story of gratitude.

You see, I am bipolar as well as alcoholic, and both afflictions (for lack of a better word—they both are in the DSM-V) have their genetic roots. My paternal grandfather was alcoholic, though sober when he died, and my maternal grandfather was what they called at the time a ‘manic-depressive’. As fate would have it, they both lie in mausoleum crypts across the street from one another. One day, in the height of mania and when I was newly sober and dwelling on a Pink Cloud, I visited my grandfathers, kneeling in turn at their final resting places. I did not offer funereal flowers, nor lamentations of any sort—I thanked them instead for what they unwittingly gave me by nature of their twisted genes. My maternal grandfather inadvertently lent me God’s address when he passed on his bipolarity—to be manic is to know this—and my paternal grandfather gave me a disease, certainly, but he also gave me access to the Rooms, a members-only club, through which to salve the spirit.  A Room, I went on, is a place to be vulnerable and ‘vulnerable’ stems from the Latin ‘vulnerabiis’ which literally means to wound oneself. We metaphorically draw knives across our arms in good faith; healing necessitates there be injury, It is a sacred ritual of sorts and, as a seasoned AAer once told me in a veritable twist of the kaleidoscope, “You see, we don’t HAVE to go to meetings; we GET to go to meetings”, which is an impassioned way of recognizing the sacrosanct nature of the Rooms, the holding of space for others and the space otherwise being held for us.

I finish as I begin: “My name is Thom and I am an alcoholic.’ This ends Day 105; the depression it abates, and, as always I carry onwards.