Around Ten Years Ago.
Twenty-four hours and roughly 1800 miles after the blue lipstick in Radford experience, I sit brooding by a campfire. Eighteen hundred miles in a straight line, or as the crow flies. I had done anything but travel in a straight line. After stuffing my remaining pair of dress pants and shirt, along with the blue lipstick. My big mixed-breed dog, Rocky, whines a little and lifts one eyebrow, patiently waiting for the moment that we put out the fire, take a leak and pile into the back of the suburban until daybreak. The old Chevy is still ticking in the coolness of the night.
We’re not exactly roughing it, Rocky and me. I’m not grilling a jackrabbit or anything over the fire, although we had managed quite well at a little convenience store that sold basic food items: Rice, dried beans, vegetables (mostly hot peppers), ground pork (undoubtedly from a local farm, there was a “Not for Sale or Public Consumption” stamp on it) and some fatback. The past few years had honed my cooking over a fire with whatever you have at hand skills to a point of pride.
Scott LaSala, a native of Southern Georgia, had been my Jedi Master for outdoor cooking. We attended graduate school together, shared an office that was once a broom closet and did more than our share of camping and hosting parties. He taught me how to cook over coals, not flame, to start the fire early, how to properly utilize a dutch oven and how five or six bucks could feed a lot of people, especially if they were high and drinking.
Combined with my own kitchen experience and lifelong obsession with food, I had become a fairly competent cook. At least Rocky had no complaints. He ate his pork and rice with enthusiasm and wistfully stared at my beer until I felt guilty and dumped it in his water bowl. At around ninety pounds, he could handle one beer, but two would leave him staggering and glassy eyed the next morning, more likely than not impeding travel by constant diarrhea and vomiting. That is not a pleasant experience. I thought of the rest of the six-pack in the small fridge in the truck and decided to skip it. I had a nagging feeling that alcohol and I weren’t a very good mix anyway. Especially after missing an interview and ending up in a dorm room with little recollection of what had happened.
At that time, there had only been two places that I had been where the night sky was horizon-to-horizon stars. The American West, and a tiny island off the Gulf Coast of Florida. I had been blown away as I stared into the sky night after night, counting meteorites and marveling at the intensity of it all. The lights twinkling above me in all their glory is a distant view into the past – the very light I was looking at now had in some cases traveled billions of years to be here at this moment. This night was like that. Humbling, fitting for the moment, these lights so far above and so far in the past reminded me that my human speck of a life was barely nothing in the grander view of the universe. Surfing reminded me of that: Waves that had traveled hundreds or thousands of miles, invisible to the naked eye in their transfer of energy across massive oceans, only to end their journey in a moment of glory as they rise out of the ocean as some beacon of energy, flitting in their existence, fragile, to be ridden by a small person on a small board lucky enough to catch that moment in time and remember it.
Do we have control of our lives? Do any of us? I’ve always replied with a question: Does it matter? If you don’t know the future, you have no reason not to live your moment in time to the fullest. Time was annoying me then, the brevity and longevity of it directly connected to your mind and what you enjoy most. Do people really enjoy solving Fractals? Coding dilatational fracture tip mechanics into a language that a computer can understand so that we can better understand how rocks on other planets break under barely measurable rates of stress and strain, and thus, maybe, understand earthquakes better here on earth? Please. Somebody slap me.
I had been recruited into this work. Someone had gotten test results from military intelligence testing and IQ determination along with problem solving abilities while I was applying to be a fighter pilot in the Marine Corp. I thought that was classified information, but it isn’t. Bull shit. Nothing is truly classified. It’s only stamped that way so that the person really trying to get the information therein will feel they have actually accomplished something on their own and not fell into the giant spiders web that is becoming harder and harder to escape. Anyway, I was finished with the project in weeks, determined what needed to be done, fixed the code, adjusted the coordinates and spheroid of Mars so that the old data, which had been projected onto a planet not really shaped like Mars, could be geographically analyzed without setting up alternate coordinate systems, a maddening endeavor for anyone actually trying to get some actual research done.
I’d stopped in the small fueling station/convenience store not only to stock up on a few items but to feel out the town, see if there was any work. I’d accumulated a staggering number of general skill sets that I learned to quickly market in a new town. I’d wear my least ragged pair of Carharrts, grab my carpentry belt with my hand tools and show up on a job site looking for the boss. I’d make two campfire coffees that morning and if he liked it, then he’d hire me and pay me. Fifty bucks was my going rate. Cash. At the end of the day. You don’t like my work, I leave, no pay. No problem. I was always paid, and always asked to come back. I most often did, at least for a few days to work out some fuel money and stock up on water, diesel fuel, and service my old truck before the next trip.
The girl in the fueling station, sporting more tattoos than a Chinese Sailor, with piercings everywhere and a forked tongue, informed me nonchalantly that there was a diner down the road needing a cook for a few days. The current cook was coming down from a meth, heroin and alcohol high and would be better in a few days, but currently, there was no cook. I grinned at her, marveling at her piercings. “You wanna see?” She sizes me up, no doubt wondering if I would look cool with a trash can lid jammed into one nostril or something similar. “I’ll take a rain check, sweetie. Thanks for asking.” “Where ya staying?” She placed one black boot on the counter, ensuring that I would see her switchblade sticking out of the top. I vaguely pulled some bull shit about around, close buy, didn’t know, in the desert, in my truck…”I like your dog.” That stopped me in my tracks. I thought I had entered this little town unseen, not exactly out of paranoia, but I’d learned that it usually best to case a place before you park your truck. She must have seen my dog and the old truck. Hard to miss, actually. I thanked her for her help and headed for the door. I watched her in the window as I exited the diner. She was no longer interested in me but was instead inspecting her black lipstick in her reflection on the computer screen. I was glad she had a reflection.
The rest of my first hospital stay to recover from delirium tremens went without incident. Honestly, it wasn’t all that bad. My wife came to see me every day with Nolan, who was now nearly three months old. We really didn’t talk about addictions or drinking all that much – it seemed redundant and unnecessary. She was more hurt and concerned at that point than angry. We talked every day in person and on the phone when we could. It was her slow time of year, wedding photography had not yet boomed for the season and we were still in the grip of winter.
It had been a relatively bad winter that year. Heavy snowfalls and wildly fluctuating temperatures kept us on our toes and I had devoted much of my time to pretending to write my thesis and attending online classes that really didn’t exist. I didn’t have the heart, or the courage, to tell my wife the truth: That I had been released from the program on medical leave and ordered to stop progress within the teacher education program. That was a huge blow for me and I feared it would be a deal breaker for her, as she had personally paid the bills while I attended graduate school. There is nothing that can make a couple fight like money, particularly money wasted.
Graduate school had been a bumpy road anyway. I was still teetering between a total loss of control to alcohol and devoting myself entirely to the new program and the opportunity to be a science teacher, something I had wanted to be my entire life. I could feel myself slipping further into the abyss of addiction on almost a daily basis. Most of my classes were at night and I would rise early in the morning, before sunrise, to complete my homework and devote an hour or so to writing and studying for the upcoming classes. By the time I was through (this was before the arrival of our son) I’d be pleasantly drunk and have time to sleep most of the day before class. I honestly don’t really know how I held it together as long as I did. I’d deliver a stunning speech on the effects of reservation life and government aid on the health and education of the American Indians one night, then be barely coherent the next.
I dimly remember eating a Philly Cheesesteak one night after delivering a speech, the taste of it horrible in my mouth as I tried to sober up for the drive home. Radford is not known for fine dining in any sense of the word. But it does have a liquor store and the only fast food that I have ever eaten with any sort of regularity – Bojangles. To this day you could chase me around the room with a bag of that foul shit.
Just after that the University stripped me of my graduate status and forced me into a leave of absence. I believe only one person knew what was wrong, exactly, but everyone knew something was not right. I would deliver award winning research and scholarly papers one week and be conspicuously absent the next. I dimly remember giving a lecture on the effects of isolation on the children in rural communities, specifically citing research on the failures of our educational system on Native American children living on reservations. I was so drunk I had to hold onto the podium to keep from falling off the stage and swayed alarmingly on my way up the steps. I have no recollection of how I got there that night, only a foggy memory of eating an oyster sandwich at some bar in Radford while a cover band played a terrible rendition of “Blacksnake Moan.” The original version, if I remember correctly, which no doubt I don’t. I received a tentative standing ovation, followed by a barrage of questions, some of which I was able to answer, all the while smiling and bobbing my head like some sort of semi-enlightened yet confused sage. I was led off the stage by the person that I suspected, no, knew, how far I had sunk. Mercilessly, she left me alone with her business card and instructions to call a counselor the next day. I tossed the card in the trash and crashed on a couch long enough to make the drive home.
I threw up twice and went to the bathroom once in a field on the journey. My wife was waiting up on me as I chugged a small bottle of gin as fast as I could with a Bojangles tea for a chaser. I could see her small shadow with the beginnings of a baby bump through our kitchen window as she prepared a late snack/early dinner for me. My head swam sickeningly as the alcohol took hold and my stomach decided whether or not to deal with this torture at this moment. It did. I took a ragged breath and entered my home, where I pretended that I was not drinking; my stomach hurt from ulcers and briefly wondered how long I could live like this.
The rest of that early March hospital stay was rather uneventful. My hangover and tremors decreased throughout the week, and my cognitive skills improved. I still had a lot of shit buried though. I hadn’t told my wife how I managed to buy so much liquor, where I had been going during the day or why on some evenings I had been inexplicitly home when I should have been in class or working. I was still officially an employee with an engineering firm with whom my wife was also employed, I just hadn’t been getting any work or money out of that relationship. My nights were spent in an Ambien induced haze and the days worrying about what I was going to do when I got out of the hospital. I became well acquainted with the intern who came to see me every morning, and had great fun with the nurses, but I wasn’t well. My bilirubin values were off the charts, my blood platelets were very low and was constantly on an IV for hydration and vitamins.
My stomach slowly returned to normal, or as much as it could with hospital food. My wife managed to bring me food nearly every day and kept me supplied with books. I began to dread going home. I would remember this feeling months later as a woman lay dying on the floor of a rehab center with her wrists cut so she would not have to face the reality of life without constant supervision.
Doctors came and went, all with the same advice: “You can never drink again. We don’t know how you are still alive.” One doctor in particular was very stern. “Never let me see you in here for this again. You have no idea how close you came to dying.”
None of this fell on deaf ears, I was serious about remaining sober. I knew my life was at stake, my relationship with my wife, my young son and my family was in serious jeopardy. My father-in-law, one of the kindest, wisest men I’ve ever met, didn’t say outright that he would cause me physical harm if I continued drinking, but he came close.
My parents visited right out of the blue one day just before I was released. I was mostly upright by then, buoyed by my wife’s presence and careful nutrition by the hospital staff. I was in my hospital gown with blood all over my sheets. I had the dignity to pull the covers over the evidence that I was still bleeding, but hospital gowns are anything but dignified. My mother burst into tears. Alcoholism runs deep in her family and she bears the spiritual and mental scars of years of watching loved ones die from this affliction. My dad was just angry, but cautiously optimistic. They played with my son, talked with my wife and largely pretended I wasn’t there. When they did address the situation, it was with their usual bluntness. “I hope that you have learned from this experience, son.” My dad was deeply embarrassed that his oldest son was in this condition. As a pastor for nearly twenty years, this was an unexpected development in his eldest son.
I grinned at my dad and shrugged. “If you’re going to be dumb, you have to be tough.” My dad returned my smile with a stony glare. “Yeah, but you’re not dumb.”
I watched them go down the hall towards the elevators. My wristband doubled as a tracking device and I couldn’t follow them to say goodbye. They had driven two and a half hours to stay for fifteen minutes. My mom turned and gave me a quick wave as tears spilled down her cheeks. I waved numbly back, holding my baby son as my wife looked somberly on, her thoughts trapped and hidden behind her dark brown eyes. I climbed numbly back into bed, handing our son back to her.