When I open my eyes, moonlight is still shining through my windows and my wife’s breathing is still soft and rhythmic. I know I won’t get back to sleep so I just Imagine. When there is nothing to do, it’s all there is. When everything is gone outside, when your body has been reduced to rubble, when your emotions are running rampant and every thought clouds your brain with fog, all you can do is Imagine.
I focus in on one single thing, one detail, one moment, one idea and I circle around it, staring at it, examining it and dissecting it. The thought this morning is My Fourth Round. I try to Imagine what one level deeper will look like; I Imagine it as a deep sub-basement. A cellar. There aren’t many people here and those who shuffle around in the darkness are pale and sinewy. I Imagine a nurse in the not-too-distant future pulling an IV out of my arm and saying, “All right, you’re done,” and then I Imagine walking out of the hospital and entering into the sunlight and feeling alive and free and while I lie there in the darkness, in my True Reality, everything still seems far away and unattainable.
People say to me, “One more round! Just one more round! The light is at the end of the tunnel!” and I see the light but it doesn’t look like it’s getting any closer. I understand that time is passing but why does it have to happen in Matrix bullet time?
I push my blankets back and drape my legs over the edge of the bed. I need to pee. I stand up and take a deep breath and my wife turns over and says, “Are you OK?” She’s like a mother with a new baby, sensing every movement in the silence. I say, “Yeah. Just gotta pee, ” and I smile and she says, “Shout if you need something,” and I smile again, open the bedroom door and exit.
Walking through the darkened house, I hear a faint click-click-click of computer keys and round a corner where I find my dad sitting at our dining-room table doing work remotely on his laptop, a twice filled bowl of Cocoa Puffs next to him. He looks up and smiles but doesn’t say anything. I say, “Hi,” and, “What time is it?” and he says, “Seven a.m. my time. I’ve been up for two hours,” and I nod, and doing the simple math, figure it must be around 5 a.m. here. I pee and walk into the kitchen and he keeps typing without looking up.
I want to sit down at the table and speak to him and ask him what he’s doing or ask him how he’s doing or ask something, anything that will fill the silence in the kitchen. Click-click-click.
I open up the cabinets and the fridge, searching for food that I won’t eat; some repressed muscle memory pushing me on, not wanting to face the fact that I don’t fully know the man sitting in my dining room even though I’ve lived in the same house with him my entire life. I open up a cupboard filled with frying pans and just stare at them, trying to look busy. I say, “What are you working on?” and he says, “Building my website,” and I say, “Ah.” I pull out a box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch and a bowl before putting them both away. I consider going back to the bedroom but the darkness in there is just too heavy and I know I’ll drown in it. I end up sitting down at the table and staring at the back of his laptop, at the glowing logo. I say, “What’s your website about?” and he says, “Cars I’m working on . . . building stuff.” Click-click-click.
I am dealing with complete anarchy in my personal life and pushing forward every single day, one step further, one step further, one step further and here I am, sitting at a table in an empty house with my biological father and I have no idea how to confront this situation. I have no idea what to say, what to do. I try to make a joke but neither of us laughs. I start to feel funny (strange, not haha) and just lie my head in my hands. He asks if I’m OK and I say, “Sometimes.”
My sister enters the room. My mother enters the room. My wife enters the room. Cereal is made. Oatmeal is made. Toast is made. Orange juice is poured. My sister sits down next to me and says, “What are you doing?” and I say, “What am I doing-what? What do you mean?” and she says, “Your tongue is kind of a weird color,” and when I examine myself in the mirror I see that it is indeed the same shade as raw beef that’s been left in the sun for too long. My wife says, “Do we need to go to the hospital?” and I turn on her like a corner and say, “No, no, no. No hospitals. No emergency rooms. No nothing,” and my dad says, “If we need to take you to the hospital, you will go. I will overpower you. I can overpower you,” and I understand now, today, what he meant, but at the time it inflamed my emotions. Even though it sounds like a joke, he wasn’t messing around. He wasn’t being coy. He genuinely meant what he said. He would bear hug me and drag me kicking and screaming to the E.R. if it’s what my wife said I needed.
I turn on him next and say, with as much acidity as I can muster, “You touch me and I will fight you.” At first glance this looks like the eternal power struggle between father and son, a story as old as time, but on second glance it’s just my struggle. To control something. Anything. He raises an eyebrow and looks at Jade, who looks at me and so I say, “The E.R. is a waste of time. We’re going to show up, sit in a waiting room for two hours. They’re going to draw some blood and tell me to hydrate. I don’t need a replay of The Adventures of Blood Vomit. I don’t need Christmas Eve take two. I don’t need to stay another night there. What I need is to relax and take it easy. I did it your way last time and it was a total bust and now we’re doing it my way. This time it’s my turn.”
Grasping at control.
Jade never answers. Instead she just exhales deeply and turns away. My dad turns back to his laptop. My sister’s phone buzzes and she reads a text. I say, “Who’s that?” and she says, “None of yer bizzznus,” and I say, “Is it your boyfriend? Is it that guy I met? Is it Jes?” and she glances at my dad—click-click-click—and makes wide eyes at me that seem to say, Shut up! So I do. She texts something back and I say, “What did you just text him back? Was that Jes you were texting? That guy you were dating? The guy I met?” and she says, “I told you to shut up,” and then she walks outside.
I met Jes about a year previous and we’d only spoken on two separate occasions. He was a nice enough fellow but had recently, I guess, gotten involved in and charged with conspiracy to manufacture marijuana and was going to be doing some prison time. No one was really sure which members of our family knew or did not know so my sister was very sensitive about the subject being broached at all. My extended family is full of strange secrets and double-crosses and so most things, regardless of how lacking in logic, are just taken with a grain of salt.
I stand up and move to My Yellow Chair before closing my eyes. I’ve been up for about two hours and it’s starting to make me feel strange, light headed. I say, “Church this morning?” and my mother says, “Yes,” and my wife says, “If you’re OK,” and my sister is outside, and my dad goes click-click-click.
I shut my eyes and nap.
When I wake up there is an electric movement in the air that says something is happening. Grab your things, c’mon, let’s go! It’s time! I slide my feet into a pair of old yellow sneakers and stand up. “I’m ready.”
My mother spruces her hair up. My wife spritzes herself with perfume. My sister changes shirts and jeans and shoes and then shirts again and then ties her hair back and then lets it down. I feel strange again but, since feeling strange has become a complete recurring theme in my life, I simply ignore it and soldier on.
We all gather by the front door and my mother says, “Mike, are you ready to go?” and my dad looks up from his computer and says, “Huh?” and my mother says, “To church? We’re leaving,” and he goes click-click-click . . . CLICK, and then shuts his laptop and we all walk out the door.
In the car I lay my head against the glass and feel the bumps in the road gyrate my skull and shake my brain. Next to me I can hear my sister click-click-clicking on her BlackBerry, every button a stapler to the temple. The problem with those phones is that even if you silence the “clicking sound” feature, those buttons are just built to click. Click-click-click! CLICK-CLICK-CLICK! CLLIIICCCKK!! Click-click-click.
I turn to my sister and say, “How is work?” and she starts to tell me about her job and about how she thinks her boss doesn’t like her and how she’s thinking about quitting and all the scandalous things that happen there and I nod politely and ask questions and in the front seat my dad says, “These billboards are all in Spanish. I can’t read Spanish. Wait, I think that one says something about the number three… and maybe something about a burrito.” I say, “That’s El Pollo Loco.”
My sister says, “So what are you going to do when you go back? Back to work? Are you going to have the same job or what?” and truly, truly, it’s a fear that has weighed on my heart since this first happened, since this all began. What next?
Will I be able to just jump back into my career, back into my job? Will I be able to sit in an edit bay for ten hours a day after knowing that death is imminent? Will I be able to commute an hour each way and wile away in a cube while my life escapes through me one moment at a time? I don’t know.
I don’t think so.
When I am released back into the world I want to break the social norms and destroy the constraints and I want to live by a set of guidelines that work for me because, quite frankly, the ones I’ve been using aren’t really blowing my hair back. I don’t think humans were meant to live like caged chickens and . . . .
. . . I begin to speak; to relay these thoughts to Theresa. I begin to pour my heart out, wearing my fear on my sleeve like a patch. I turn my head and glance back out the window but continue to talk. The words are coming easier and easier, the fears becoming easier to speak about. It feels good to get it off my chest and then, suddenly, my sister just blurts out, in the loudest voice I’ve ever heard, the word, “HOLA!”
That’s what she says. She says, “HOLA!” and she nearly shouts it, like she’s welcoming the Chilean soccer team back to their home country after winning a major victory. “HOLA!”
I turn my head to put this interruption into context and I see her . . . on her phone. It was on silent so I didn’t hear it ring. Apparently I had just been talking to myself. I look into the front seat and see my mom and dad both staring straight ahead in silence.
I am pouring out my heart to the world passing by. I say, “Are you kidding me?!” and my sister says, “What?” and I say, “I’m sitting here talking to you and—“ she just holds a finger up over her lips and says, “Shhh.”
How dare you shush me! My brain explodes in rage and indignation and I raise my fist in the air, but my sister merely mocks me. I whisper-shout, “You think the cancer kid can’t beat you up?! You think I can’t take you down?! Well, you’re probably right but I’m going to remember this! All of this! HOLA, indeed!” and then she puts her finger to her mouth and shushes me again, violently, truly wanting me to hush.
I say, “Who are you talking to?” and she mouths, “Shut up! Jes,” and I say, “Jes? Jes, your boyfriend? Jes, the guy you’re dating? Jes, the guy I met?” I pause and then say, “Give me the phone . . . . ”
Theresa glares at me, unsure how to accept this challenge. She knows we’d met before (twice) and she knows that we got along all right (twice) but she has no idea why it is I would want to talk to this man after having not seen him for close to a year.
She says, into the phone, “My brother . . . wants to talk to you . . . . I don’t know . . . . I don’t know . . . . Is that OK? OK.” And then she holds out the phone and I reach out for it but she pulls it away at the last minute, leaving me grasping at air. I say, “What?” and she just raises her fist in the air, mocking me again and says, “I’m serious.”
I push the mobile device to my ear and say, “Hello. Jes?” And he mumbles something, sounding unsure, unsure of our conversation, unsure of himself, unsure of everything. I say, “What’s going on?” and he says, “You know, not much, uh . . . . ”
We sit in silence for a moment and then I say, “So, you’re going away for a bit?” and he agrees and my sister slaps the palm of her hand against her face. I turn my head and look out the window and I say, “I just wanted to say that I think we’re both going through something very unusual and I hope that when we come out the other end we can be very different people. I hope these things change us for the better and uh . . . keep it together, man,” and he says, “Oh . . . uh . . . thanks. Thank you,” and I say, “See ya,” and hand the phone back to my sister who just stares at me for a moment before speaking into it and saying, “Hello . . . hi. Yeah . . . I don’t . . . know . . . . ”
Years later, the two of them will be married and I’ll stand up for them at their wedding, not simply because they asked me to but because I believe in their marriage. Prison will affect and change Jes in fantastic ways and when he comes out of the darkness, he will be a new man, ready to embrace life for himself. Today he’s one of the kindest, most thoughtful people I know and I would put my personal reputation on the line for him at any turn.
Life has a very funny way of changing us.
We take the Highland exit and I mentally take note of the spot where I slipped into my grand mal seizure. I don’t know it then, but I’ll red flag it for the rest of my life. A mile up and I take another mental note of the spot where I woke up. I mark the trees, the light poles, the bus stop. I sigh and everything swims in front of me for a moment but then is gone. A few miles later we hang a right on Wilshire and pull into the parking lot of the church.
My family shuffles down the sidewalk, I leading the way for a change. I turn around, perhaps too quickly, and say, “Remember to silence your cell phones,” and everyone reaches into their pockets to do so. When I turn back around I feel something in the very furthest recess of my brain, a white mist. Then I feel something in my toes.
We enter the lobby and find ourselves standing in a throng of individuals. I’ve just walked a block and am feeling extremely exhausted . . . far more tired than I have any right to be, even in my present state. I think, “Something is not right. I need . . . to sit . . . down.”
I take two steps toward a support column in the center of the room and that white mist suddenly makes a lunging maneuver from the back of my brain and circles around to the front. The feeling in my toes shoots up my legs and into my thighs and everything is becoming a strange water-color painting.
My wife says, “Are you all—”
And then I feel my knees buckle and the weight of the world is on my shoulders—every screaming child, every warring nation, every lusting adult. Every prayer is being shoveled on top of me and I’m slowly drowning. God reaches down, grabs the room and spins it like a top (or perhaps a dreidel, depending on your religious orientation) and my right foot shoots out to establish my balance and my left foot shoots forward to counter.
Someone says something else and I’m trying to stand up but it’s all so heavy and spinning and then the words are just electrical motor engines and the darkness on my brain consumes my eyeballs and the world around me fades . . . to . . . black.
*** *** *** *** ***
When I open my eyes it takes a few moments for my reality to click on but when it does, it’s just like a light; everything is illuminated. I’m here, the church, the people, the embarrassment. Don’t be embarrassed! But I am, I’m lying on a floor in a room filled with strangers who are all staring at me. Drink this! A cup of water. Great. I would love to throw this up in front of you all when I’m nice and ready. Don’t stand up! Great, I’ll just hang out down here. Just lay down! No. Absolutely not. I will not look as though I’m taking a nap in the center of the floor. I understand what happened here was a little weird and everyone is a little freaked out but I don’t need to lie down. I am a grown-ass man.
I sit up cross-legged and say, “Jade, please help me up,” and my dad says, “Just hang on, John,” and I say, “Help me . . . up,” and they do because, unless they’re going to pin me down, I’m not lying here like Lieutenant Dan.
My sister says, “Whoa. Your tongue is . . . really white,” and I say, “What do you mean, white?” and the rest of the my family suddenly makes a noise like a vampire seeing a cross and even a couple of people standing next to me take a small step back. My wife snaps a photo on her phone and shows it to me.
Oh, I think, they meant white. Like paper. Or snow. Or a ghost. My tongue had been drained of all color and now it just looked like someone had shoved one of those weird albino dog turds between my lips.
I clap my hands together and say, “Well . . . so . . . to the hospital then?” and without any verbal agreement, we all just turn and start walking back to the car.