I get it. It’s a buzz, literally. It tingles in your knees first, which is odd considering they’re usually just used as cornerstones. Your very foundation begins to sizzle. It’s been so long since I felt my entire body all at once before. The sizzling in the cherry moon is the onomatopoeia accompanying your limb’s newfound jolts. It burns across your scalp and into your eye sockets next. With a heavy head bobbing, your tummy fills with a lovely, ethereal sickness. It’s all consuming. For me, that’s three drags of a cigarette.
A cigarette, with which I’m not looking to build a tolerance again. Three is a lucky number.
It doesn’t matter how many times I smoke. That’s always the outcome. Any more and I want to throw up.
The club around me revels in their outlandish, extraordinary tales. I sit and listen, but I’m not impressed or disappointed. I just want them to know they’re heard. I know my place, and I keep my opinions to myself. I don’t tell them how I feel, because no one wants to hear how someone’s knees feel at the moment. They’re not interested in joints unless they’re lit. But, I get it.
Everything I have ever loved has had a previous owner. I carry the treasures of others securely in the crook of my arm and pretend they’re mine. A jacket my father stained with sweat around the collar and cuffs. A pendant given to my sister made of onyx and gold. Field guides from thrift stores with inscriptions and bookmarks and cramped annotations. These are my pickings. Stolen nostalgia is piling up around me. It’s warming me through the winter, but I want to find my own way out. When will I begin creating my own trail of artifacts? Who will want to exhume my spirit?
For each of us, the symptoms are the same. The rushing heart, the twitchy little fingers, the swirling stomach full of nausea. I remember my sister telling me what hereditary means. “You’ll get it too.” And I did, I do, and I will until I don’t anymore. Most of the time it’s only a nuisance, gnawing at the frayed corners of my nature. When the conditions are right, its hooks sink in deep. The women in my family have taught me many methods of eradication. Watching her baby’s chest rise and fall in its sleep calmed my mother. Gardening gave her a sense of control in a world that wouldn’t love her for the right reasons. For my sister, exercise and routine quelled the pent up rage that comes from being silenced. I have yet to create the algorithm perfect for my own body, but I have been working on piecing it together. Free writing allows me to scratch off the thickened skin of my uncertainty. Warm water soothes and tames and washes away anything I can’t acknowledge just yet. Epsom salts and scrap paper come together to create a papier-mâché coat to shield me from myself temporarily. I can’t say that it’s a cure-all, but I’m so relieved to feel warmth again.
The living room was always dark and warm and safe; mom kept the lights in the living room turned off. Thirty minutes before I woke up, she’d turn on the heating unit to “get the chill out” for me. She let me eat my breakfast on the couch with a tv tray. She didn’t let my siblings do that as children. My love for my mother knew no bounds. I remember crying, begging, pleading to stay home with her. Each morning, tears filled my eyes as the lump in my throat grew larger and larger until my cries turned into hoarse hiccups. Sometimes she’d hug me and laugh at my “big crocodile tears”. Sometimes, with a fist clenched around a whisk or a ladle, she’d threaten me to keep crying. Sometimes she’d humor me, roll her eyes, and let me stay. I know she thought I was faking, but the pain was excruciatingly real. Like clockwork, my stomach would twist into a mass of tangled knots every morning. I was expressing my emotional pain the only way I knew how. Physically.
I was always troubled, wound up tight, and confused. I thought it was normal to have achey muscles from the constant tension of dealing with not only life, but also the barrage of self doubt. I thought it was normal to think about what this place would be like without me. Is that what would finally show them that what I’m feeling is real? I don’t want to die. I never have. “It’ll get better” is stuck deep in my ribs and I want to see what better is like. But there’s a point when you’ve been so overlooked and so beaten down that you wonder, “When will someone notice on their own?”
Dust motes float silently through the stuffy, hundred-year-old air. Pews creak with every movement, even underneath the weight of my waifish, adolescent body. The organ rumbles bleakly to life alerting the congregation to stand. My lips produce noise, but I do not comprehend the meaning. “I detest my sins, because I dread the loss of heaven” was the last sentence I ever repeated in church. To this day, I have no idea what stopped me from reciting the next line. The Act of Contrition was branded onto my tongue at an early age yet I never took the time to grasp what it meant to me. Being born into Catholicism makes you Catholic, right? Baptized and confirmed, I would live, die, and go to heaven as a Catholic, right? Questioning my mother, the priest, or Christ our Lord were all considered sins, right? Tunnel vision was closing in on my line of sight. Thoughts swam in my mind as I stood staring blankly ahead at the crucifix. Frightened and hesitant, the voice in my head uttered something ever so quietly that would change my views forever. “I don’t believe.”
“Where are you off to now?” is my parent’s usual farewell when I’m back at home for a break. As I search for my keys, I’ll check the boxes of their list: Where, When, With Who, Love You. Two sets of haggard eyes watch the door shut behind me. Guilt builds up in back of my throat as I hop in my car and jet off to my destination.
Sometimes the guilt wins. I walk back inside my childhood home, sit down beside my mother, and spend some quality time with my parents. The three of us quietly watch a movie that none of us enjoy. When it’s over, my mother is snoring and my father has already crept off to bed. The silence is sickening as I walk down the narrow hall to my bedroom. My eyes scan the modest layout and come to rest on the focal point of the room: my bed.
I spent years of my life laying in that bed, obediently defeated. No one asked why I would spend hours, days, weeks, sleeping away my life. Confusion and melancholy filled my bones until they ached to be back in the safety of fleece and cotton. Not one hand reached out to dull the pain. Not one mouth spoke words of comfort. I was left to my own devices to escape. Where am I off to now? Anywhere but here.
The nursery rhyme “Little girls are made of sugar, spice, and everything nice” has never applied to me. As a child, I constantly snubbed compliments, shied away from strangers’ cooing faces, and enjoyed my own company best. My well-rehearsed mother would chuckle, look into the camera, and recite her favorite catchphrase; “She takes after her father”.
While most little girls were turning into princesses, I was slowly morphing into a grumpy, old man. My slouchy, lean figure is a carbon copy of my father’s during his teenage years. His pastel English coloring is displayed proudly across the sharp features he lent me. Our perpetually sour mugs are broken for one thing and one thing only: a good joke. Dad blessed me with the gift of quick wit and an elusive smile. When we’re together, you’ll hear us before you see us. Booming laughter and a hearty slap on the knee follow the delivery of every punchline. Once the joke is successfully ran into the ground, the comfortable silence we enjoy dearly returns.
I spent days writing this piece. Not because I wanted to accurately describe a beautiful relationship, but because I wanted to reveal the bitter truth behind a lovely exterior. My dad and I aren’t close. Due to our equally stubborn and lazy natures, we probably will never grow any closer. We’ll skirt the truth with humor and fall back into the safety of silence, indefinitely.