Diapers and Wanderlust

The aerosol smell of cheap sunscreen clogs my throat, making me gag a bit. I look up from spraying my leg, for what reason I don’t really know, feeling the sticky substance dry rapidly across my skin in the early morning light. I look across the parking lot, acres of cars, families pouring from them this hot September morning, all of them arguing, talking, and running, preparing for a day of entertainment amongst the cheap tourist wares and stoned teenage hawkers of boardwalk fries and floating rubber ducks. The beach seems to be nearly forgotten in this sea of dirty humanity, clad in black socks and swimsuits too small, children darting here and about, chasing one another with plastic weapons and performing imaginary martial moves copied from endless hours of mindless animation, portrayed in 3D on High Def Television Screens.

The smell of the sea and surf is here to be found, nonetheless, hidden away beneath too many layers of conflicting odors, confounding my senses. I feel lost and sick. I push the thought of unwashed bodies in the sunlight away and turn to the task of extracting my son from his car seat. My phone rings. It’s a forgotten sound. Another remnant from a time not long since, when my cell phone rang from early in the morning until I turned it off for a few hours of interrupted drunken sleep at night. I don’t recognize the number.

I do recognize the voice. An old friend. A relative, of a distant sort. Someone met an eternity ago, in graduate school, when the world was open and beautiful and ripe and there, in our palms, taken, plucked, picked and consumed with no thought of the future or what it may entail. I glance at the toddler in my life, his blond curls framing a face so much like his mother’s that I am unrecognizable in the equation of his existence. He’s enthralled with his tablet PC at the moment, so I humor the past and allow it to take precedence, if but for a moment.

The sound of his voice, along with the still ominous scent of sunscreen, and the suddenly darkened world behind my tightly closed eyelids, transport me suddenly back, through the years. How many? Fifteen? Can it be that many? I ask him and he laughs. He tells me of Scotland and Romania, of foreign soil and geological formations and bars and beaches and women and parties and travel and South America as my head rings with the memory.

I’m on a beach. It’s barely daylight, already hot, with the May sunshine burning through the morning mist, swept in from the Gulf the night before as I slept. I’m loading drinking water and GPS receivers into waterproof bags, rolling them through the directions printed on the heavy rubber canvas. The material is so worn from use, so pliable that the bags seem to close themselves as I snap the plastic fasteners and clip them into their appropriate places. Aerosol sunscreen once again sprays close by. One college student, still a sophomore, is deep into a adho mukha shvanasana yoga pose by the pines on the beach as the sun still hangs in the east, a red ball of fire. A tattoo of a smiling star surrounded by waving blue flame surrounds the mark on the small of her back, between dimples barely covered by a triangle of orange fabric.

The other girl drags a kayak further onto the beach, then pauses to apply sunscreen to her foot, her deeply tanned body complimented by the play of light and shadow on the beach around our campsite, which resembles a combination of research station, with laptops, GPS sending units and other equipment; and party spot, with empty beer bottles stacked carefully to the side of the dying campfire. Her hair is beginning to dread up, long and blond and streaked from the sun and surf, beads sending up winks of reflection in the early morning sunshine.

Her face is deeply tanned, belying the fair skin normally acquiescent in the remnants of the early morning chill. Her bikini is of the barely there type, green and hand made. I pointedly ignore her, go about my business of marking the transmitters set on barrier islands, some of which are similar to the bikini in their permanence above the smooth Gulf water. Geo-corrected to the correct satellite positioning, their location can be monitored to within a few centimeters, allowing us to continue the tedious task of monitoring sea level rise, which even in the early days of the second Clinton administration, was well documented by scientists.

I had the feeling then of something perilous, as the sun continued its climb out of the water, of something ending. This could not last, I thought, my bare toes dug into the silt of the campsite, the laptop on my knees, a third student crawling now out of her tent, oblivious to everything save the coffeepot, stashed on a flat rock by the fire pit, which was dug into the wet sand. My legs were caked in salt from overspray and my skin was nearly black from the sun. May was nearly over. It was time to pack our gear and return to our alternate reality.

I slam back into the present so suddenly that it startled me. The voice of my comrade in crime had gone silent, questioning, in the heat rays of the blacktop as I smell a diaper that needs to be changed. “Are you still there? Hello?” I realize I don’t really know the answer to that question. I stare at my phone for a moment, tempted to stomp it underfoot. It wouldn’t be the first time a phone belonging to me had met such an end. I stuff it into my pocket instead, ending our brief conversation.

My son comes into my arms eagerly, then fights immediately to be put down, putting all thirty pounds of himself into the struggle, heedless of the state of his diaper. I feel eerily disconnected from the entire scene, but my child is real and so is the smell wafting from his nether regions.

The sun begins to waft to the west as I finish the menial task and toss the ruins of his breakfast into a trash can, pushing his stroller, laden with child and the endless suite of articles necessary to provide him with instant relief from even a moments discomfort from thirst, hunger, boredom, heat, cold, germ, bacteria, flu virus, or anything else that may make his existence less than wonderful for even an instant.

I wonder at the places unseen, where I haven’t been yet been. I scan my body, rapidly, looking for the ever-present signs of advancing sickness. I am thrilled to find not much has changed. I wonder where my wife may be. My only son spins in his stroller, looking at me with a huge grin and I slow just in time as he charges out, his small feet splaying sand as he sprints towards the water. I laugh, and race after him, my wanderlust forgotten. First and foremost, for all the rest of my life, I am a Dad.

The Hidden Angel

The light was a bit bereft, perhaps, as you would expect in these shadow places, these places that don’t really exist except within the brief and waning memories of our aging souls. There is rug, made not of normal materials, but of spent climbing rope in one corner, by a great and aging, but still glowing wood stove. A pot of Tibetan Tea simmers on a partially open eye. A great mastiff, his muzzle aged but capable, wags his tail half-threateningly, content to be alone, but ready as always to wage war. A pair of tired old ice axes, the duct tape covering their grips sagging with age, hang nearby.

Cast your eye about you, if you dare! There, in a corner, are the rusting remnants of a mighty KX-500, the last king of the open class two-strokes. And there, just there! The aging hulk of yet another beast of a motorcycle, the mighty Ducati Monster SSR-2X, worth a veritable fortune on the open market if restored.

Over there! Another classic, a Mad River Explorer Canoe, designed such that it could be dropped from great heights by sea plane, found by others and warmed back into shape by feeble propane and mixed-fuel stoves. Another find! A mighty diesel powered military version suburban, obviously highly modified and lightened for rapid overland travel. Further deconstruction reveals a false floor, covered by what is obviously the great mastiff’s fur. One whiff of what would have been the contents verify that very high grade shine and Floyd’s Finest Green was once transported here, in the heart of this great mechanical beast.

Another cursory glance indicates more items of this ilk: Empty mason jars, jars of sex wax, mostly used; several broken boards, curious to those that know for they indicate the skill of the riders that plied their obsession on the great and cold waves of the Pacific, their heads hidden in the clouds and mist as the skill and courage of their riders was lost upon them. A small but mighty sailing vessel also catches our gaze, it’s sales ripped and torn, her mast asunder.

Massive amounts of empty bottles, the dead soldiers, the remnants of addiction past, line the walls, spilling from their broken black plastic bags, long since rotten in the emptiness of this place, devoid of memory. Screaming their misery and the hurt and the pain and loss. A shudder runs through any soul seeking solace in the corners of this mysterious maze of misery.

But this is not what we seek, amongst the lost ramblings and long sheets of paper chronicling the voyages of this individual. What we see is love. Has he ever known it? Has he ever shook the hair out if his eyes to look to the other? We find, as our eyes adjust, another place, not quite a hall in this curiously circular place, but an area that breathes a different breath. A bluer note. Something gentle. Tangibly different. Here we are filled with wonder, as we witness two little girls, sisters no doubt. There are scattered remnants of cobwebbed old things; a conch necklace. A battered old beach bike. A beautiful hat, somehow not fitting with the coal miners hat and gear we found before. A pair of impossibly high slip on shoes. A Martini in Italy, lifted not in gratitude nor love, but in victory. There are wigs, and vibrators, and other sexual objects, all shrouded in cobwebs, with no love lost.

We hear the broken footsteps of the man we seek, and we feel the attention of another, of a great love, a true heart as opposed to the object of our search. We know that she is female, and her power is as great as a fiery volcano, and as long lasting as an ice age. She is there, but she is new to this story that we are descending, a force of nature as huge as the mighty slabs our broken hero once surfed.

Then we hear the call of a newborn boy, and we first feel the emotion of the man we are exploring. We see him weeping as he holds the baby, his mother’s eyes indifferent.  We catch a glimpse, no, a full expression of the girl with the martini. We shudder, and step back, but the man is indifferent, uncaring. We fear for his soul. We watch as he breaks under the strain of her rage, her bitterness at wrongs long past, but never forgiven.

As we descend, in search of we know not what, images scatter about. Real ones. First steps. A tall and proud little boy, always in close embrace with his father. We see he shares his fearlessness, recklessness. We see him on the roof of a make-shift chicken shed, proudly reaching down to his father. We see him expertly swimming the channel, his father in mad chase. We watch as he launches himself down the steps of the cape cod house on his first bike, his face unclouded by confusion or indecision.

We also see the mother, her eyes distant and clouded, not sharing the bond between father and son. Then we see hurt! Oh, the hurt! The pain. The confusion. The retreat, by this once brave man, from his own. The same man who once laughed into the abyss now crushed and running in shame.

We see the boy and the man reunited, and for some reason there is a policeman present. We are astonished, as the man’s life revolves around this boy. They cry, and hold one another, and the boy whispers for his father to come home. The man cries, and his world collapses. He falls into the oblivion of his familiar ways, seeking solace from the old comforts, the false gods, the angry truth. He hides in the mist, ashamed.

We dive deeper, for there is more! There is a door, here, now, thick and ugly and bonded in such a way that there is no access. Nor is there a key. We peer through the keyhole, and gasp! This room is full of new and wonderful things, such that have never been seen. It is dusty, but there is homemade furniture, a glowing stove, the bubbling smells of good things, and love is here. The man is still locked in the battle of a thousand demons, and although he may have once had the ability to break down this mighty helm, no more. His strength is waning in the face of his battles.

We feel once again the presence of another, someone stronger than our subject. Someone, something, with a love as strong and deep as can be imagined, someone with battle ringing through veins, someone unafraid, unaffected.

But still, who has the key to the door??? We listen to the monsters rush towards our subject, we see him sink to the ground, unable to stand. We shriek in shock, and scream the question aloud, and then we hear the gentle tingle of a slight chain, and a mighty key is inserted into the lock. Who could bear such a thing, what warrior could possibly break such a lock, and free such a tired warrior, beaten now, gasping, on his knees, with his demons shrieking in delight? God himself has looked away, his job done, his hope gone.

She looked round – she was sleek and strong, and oh so beautiful. She wore no breastplate and carried no shield, nor sword did she bear. But her heart was pure. Then her eyes blazed back up the trail, an impossible combination of deep ocean green and sky blue. Her heart was pure, and she needed no protection. All her man’s enemies fell away, shrieking. The man shook, impossibly, then rose to his feet, across the hearth and into the room of laughing children and warmth and food, and love.

She glared across her hearth, and dared any to follow. Her eyes, so green now, showed no mercy for those who would harm her own.

The evil things fled.

The Falling

My feet were in the air, my heart was in my throat. I pulled furiously on the lead rope, hating the man on the other end. He had been recommended to me by a former climbing partner, someone who would no longer climb with me. She said I was dangerous. She said I took risks beyond what she was willing to deal. I am Southern. I smiled and told her I was terribly sorry, that I must have given the wrong impression. She was not Southern, and she did not smile. She glared at me over her gin and tonic.

Now, I was angry. I am rarely angry; it is an emotion that is as unfamiliar to me as snowstorms in July. Yes, they do occur, but they are abnormalities, far from the norm. If pressed, even now, I can remember every time that I was ever actually angry. The unfortunate thing, for me, is that when angry, logic, reason, tact, restraint, and every other safeguard of human emotion is abandoned in the heat of the moment. I was fast approaching that moment.

My climbing partner, met a few days’ prior at the restaurant in which I moonlighted, had seemed capable enough. He had recommendations. I asked around about him, as I’m sure he did me. He was a good climber, they said. He was a good second. He was not a lead, but he was good at belay, cleaning and so forth.

Ice particles hit my face. The rock had been almost unbearably hot, exposed as it was to the western sun. Lake Tahoe danced in the distance, not visible, but there, nonetheless. I could feel the wind off the face of the deep waters. In midair, I wondered briefly what it must be like, at that moment, to dive into its cold depths, to welcome the blue.

Even as the thought went through my head, I silenced it. I was not going to die. Not that day. Not with some spineless idiot tethered to the end of my lifeline. I had yanked and pulled on the rope all day, feeling his apathy at paying out line, feeling the hold of his fear. I was climbing, in those days, in the grips of mania, convinced of my own mortality. He, on the other hand, was terrified by me. All of the rumors of me were true. I was nuts. Bonkers. I climbed and surfed as though there was no other destiny for me, other than death.

I planted my feet on the rock wall and shove out. I screamed something about the asshole on the other end of the rope getting the hell out of the way as I fell straight for him. Passive protection anchors popped like sparkling coals as I fell, feeling the tug of each piece as it came loose. I thought I had done a better job at setting them, but in my irritation and haste, I had not.

They say that there is no time to think while you are falling. I beg to differ. Anyone who says otherwise has not fallen that far. I had time to think. I thought it was a damn shame that I didn’t get to climb more in Nevada and California. I was slated to be in Washington, D.C. in two weeks to begin a new job. I thought I wasn’t ready for that. I thought it sucked that I would never see my ex-girlfriend again. But most of all, my brain was on fire with survival. I tried to grab sections of the granite (orthoclase, I thought) as I fell past. My fingernails parted from my hands with miraculous ease, sending pain signals through my frontal lobe, although I ignored them as completely as I have always ignored pain.

Three weeks later, I was in the Outer Banks, on the opposite coast, still procrastinating. I didn’t want to start the new job. It was going to be my life, I thought. I camped, morosely, staring at the impossibly flat ocean. My favorite surf spot was a bathtub. Phosphorescence turned the sea impossibly green. I scraped my feet on the sand at night to watch the glow of my receding prints, reminded over and over of my own mortality.

That was October. In June of the following year, sitting in a bar at 11:57 a.m., a girl slammed through the door of the establishment, looked around impatiently, and grabbed her phone. She was wearing a white skirt and a black tank top. Her blonde hair was yanked back and constrained by a tie. She wore another on her wrist. She was in short heels, with no makeup. She was my blind date. She was my future wife, the mother of my son. I picked up my beer and watched her carefully. She called several numbers, irritated that no one was answering. My phone rang. It was not her, and I ignored it, as I am prone to do. I have issues with cell phones. Her phone rang. She obviously did not have issues, and she seemed irritated by the conversation.

Our lunch company was late. Ten minutes. We ordered our food, I ordered another beer. We ate, and I watched her carefully, as sunlight played about her features, rendering her beautiful. I wondered what she was like, where she went to college, if her heart had been broken before me. I had no idea that twelve years later we could break like fine china in the face of addiction, grief and loneliness. I had no idea that this was the one woman I would love like no other, for the rest of my life. I had no idea that she had been born on September 20th, and that one day, twelve years later, I would not be able to wish her happy birthday. I had no idea that we would travel across Italy, Mexico and Costa Rica together. I had no idea we would have a son, whom I would love as fiercely and completely as any human could love another. I had no idea how much I would love her parents, nor how devastated I would be when her father passed.

I had no idea. I was falling. Again.

The Boathouse Preview

My dearest family. I cannot express the sorrow that I feel. I cannot apologize enough, or sincerely enough, for my relapse into addiction. My sorrow, my pain, my apologies, my words: They are simply not enough. My actions must now speak for me. My day to day life must be my liaison, if such a thing applies. Every single day that I do not succumb to my addiction, every single day that I do not die from illness, is a battle won, a conflict scored in my favor. It would be so easy, at this point, to simply quit.

Three and a half years ago, there was a singular miracle in Roanoke, Virginia. There was a child born to parents, namely Laura Friedel Matney and Ronald N. Matney, II. The father had no real expectations of having a child. In 1997, he had himself checked for fertility, and the doctors decreed that he had 99.9% chance of not having a child. Nonetheless, on December 30, 2012, one Nolan Gray Matney, named after me, his father, and his Papa, his wife’s father, was born at 10:28 a.m. As his father, I was allowed to hold him first. The nurse released him from the bonds of the womb and handed him to me.

He did not cry. Instead, this child of mine, this miracle of birth, looked about in amazement. Truth be told, on that day, I was only five days sober. I had been drinking for years, and my son; this baby; this human being to whom I shall be bound for all eternity, looked about while I was in the preliminary struggles of escaping my addiction. I had fought through it all to be sober for that moment, but I was shaking badly. I held my son, my only son, close, and I cried. I handed him to his mother, my wife, glowing in the moment. She was so strong, so resilient. I admired her strength and courage, and loved her with all my heart. I still do.

He looked about. The nurses laughed and marveled at his alertness, and it seemed everyone in the hospital came to see him, but there was nothing to shake the bond between the new mother and her child. For hours, he looked about. He noticed light. He noticed when the nurses came and went. He noticed when I spoke. But most of all, he gazed at his mother in what can only be described as adoration. It was if he was finally thrilled to see his mother’s face. For five hours, this child of mine looked about him, and analyzed the world. My wife sang to him. “Wagon Wheel” was his first song. Eventually, he gave into his exhaustion and slept. So did his mother.

I stole about, feeling ashamed and a bit intrusive. The nurses looked at me warily. In December of 2012, I weighed 312 pounds. Today, I weigh 165. I was horribly sick. I was jaundiced. I shook horribly from withdrawals. I could not discern between what was real and what was not. But I knew this: My son had just been born. So, I needed to man up, and be a Dad. I had never before had this feeling, this feeling of fierce love, and protection, and humility; I knew that in order to be a good Dad, I was going to have to be a sober Dad. Not one bound by addiction. Not one sick and weak and disgusting and handicapped by mental disorders.

So began my journey into sobriety, chronicled in detail elsewhere on this website and in an upcoming book, “Out of the Weeds.” What I first assumed would be easy was not. My body and mind had become dependent on alcohol and I was terribly sick during withdrawals. I kept trying, and failing. My wife watched nervously, preoccupied with our new son, but astute enough to realize something was terribly wrong. For three long months, long after my diagnosis with terminal liver cirrhosis, I fought for, but did not achieve, sobriety.

At long last, in March of 2013, I was finally hospitalized. My body was failing. My mind was shot. The harder I tried to kick my addiction, the tighter its grip became, until I could take no more. For five days, the doctors treated me with Benz opines, pain medication and fluids. I was finally sober. My wife was overjoyed! I was somewhat dubious, still in the grips of addiction and still not quite sure about the not drinking for the rest of my life thing.

Those first weeks were the worst. I distinctly remember driving to the liquor store, sitting in the parking lot, and crying. I took care of my son as my wife returned to work. My life became entangled with his, as he and my wife were all that kept me sober. Boredom set in as the weather was horrible and outside activities were limited. As soon as I was able, I walked. I walked for miles every day, accompanied by our Labrador Retriever, who was vastly confused by his sudden demotion from his position as head of household.

Let us fast forward, shall we? I can tell of you of my subsequent relapse, on my son’s baptism date, no less. My wife’s parents hrew a celebration, complete with Bloody Mary’s, not three months into my sobriety. Everyone watched me carefully, to make sure that I did not drink. I did not walk the walk or talk the talk. To say that I relapsed that day is an understatement. The thing, is, aside from my wife’s brother, not one person knew. The months following were hell. I hid it as best I could from my family, but there was no mistaking that I had fallen off the wagon.

Then there came total sobriety, of which I have written about at length. Three years. Three years, and not one drink. I ran half marathons. I defied the odds. I astonished the doctors. But I still, to quote my wife, was not happy. I railed against my situation. I grew more and more unhappy, for reasons that I did not understand. I blamed others, namely my wife, who did not understand, nor did I, my anger. My resentments grew and became festering sores, replacing the whiskey blisters that permeated my soul in the beginning of my sobriety.

So finally, came my final straw. I relapsed. Big time. I fell so hard, and so far, that angels feared tread where I was. I made an ass of myself, over and over. My family looked askance at where I was. I checked in and out of detox. I went to rehab. Nothing worked.

The day I checked out of rehab, I took a cab ride to BWI airport, to discover that my truck sat on three flats, had been broken into, and did not start. I managed to fix the flats and work my mechanics genius shit under the hood, and got it running. I was three hours late to my meeting with my lawyers, who had prepared divorce papers.

I could not sign the papers. I sat in their office, and for the first time, began to take ownership of what I had done. Of the addict that I am. With tears running down my face, I confessed to my legal team that I loved my wife. That I loved my family. That I regretted what I had done with all my heart. As the assimilated that information, the phone rang. And rang. And rang. On the line, someone explained to me that my father in law, a man for whom I have the deepest love and respect, had passed. I sat numb. I wept. I prayed for my wife and son, for the first time, I prayed for them, honestly and truly. I prayed for them to be at peace, despite me. I prayed for my beloved mother in law. How terrible she must feel. I prayed for the family, for a great man had passed. For the first time, I prayed for God to change the me, not the circumstance. It was not to be taken lightly, nor in stride. I stumbled out of the office, poured myself into my truck and headed south.

The rest is history. I relapsed again. I nearly died. Again. My brother peeled me off the floor of his bathroom where I had lost over 80% of my blood. I recovered, despite myself. I fled deeper into the mountains, seeking solace in the rocks and moss of the familiar. Nothing would heal my wounds. Nothing. Now, here I am. Sober. Fighting for the ability to do the right thing. I prayed to God to change my circumstances. Then I realized that God is trying to change me. That is my only path. To change myself. To rid myself of the addiction, the selfishness, the pride, the wounded attitude. To admit what I have done wrong. To begin clearing the wreckage of what I have done. I pray that it is enough

What You Don’t See

I knelt on the ground outside the ER, retching blood miserably into the sodden concrete, already wet with the early morning dew. There was little in the way of conscious thought, just memory, wrecked by time and space and hurt and disease and loneliness. A single bit of mica winked in the streetlight as bright blood spattered. A life worth living. A life not worth living. A simple thing, really, a veil that parts on occasion and lets us see into our own souls, sometimes in the worst of moments. I wonder why I have drug myself this far, and then I feel the corners of the folded photographs in my pocket.

The nurse held the two pictures and looked at me curiously. I have carried the one for twelve years, not the original, mind you. It has worn through many times, creased and broken and worn, but never lost. I carry the file, the true original, in a zip drive. This rendition is dutifully worn, dusted from sunlight, creased from use, covered in memory and longing. A white hat. A flowered bikini. Big sunglasses. A surfboard rests in the sand nearby. You can’t see it, but I know it’s there.

I want to see more, see what else is there, what the picture doesn’t show. I try and tell the nurse. I desperately reach for the picture as consciousness ebbs, bends. Light distorts and I feel the gravity of the blood I have lost. I see the fine sand stuck to the girl’s legs, I smell the odor of sunscreen and Carolina air and peach shaving gel. I see the worn white slightly platform flip-flops, thinking who wears those? I see them in the top of our closet, twelve years later.

I smell the smoke of distant beach fires, the spray of hurricane winds. I see the worn toenail polish. I struggle to ask the nurse why the girl painted her toes but not her fingernails? I smell sweat and feel the chill of morning air as we run the early morning trail, mists swirling off the mountains, bodies floating, easy. I see a wedding dress with closed loop buttons, a thousand bobby pins scattered on a bed from hair that had never been more beautiful. The steps of a distant land. The smell of fish grilling over a fire. The smell of a stone wall in the suns early glare. My love seemed huge in the space of the room.

Tears roll down my face and the picture seems to fall. There are yells. I see the creases and the years, the western sun, a big blue barn. I see a sailing vessel, a family, a patriarch. A great man. Mild and gentle, wise and melancholy, so much better than me. A man who shared his daughter, his love, his life, with me.

The other picture is of a little boy, as blonde as his mother, in gray shorts and a blue coat. His brown eyes are frowning as he pulls on a branch that is lodged in the bay. I hear the putter of diesel engines, hear the shutter clicks of his mom’s camera. I see the sand lodged between his toes, the abrasions where his shoes rub his skin. I smell the warm skin of a healthy boy and I see a green room, with a toybox and trains and a changing station where I have attended to a thousand dirty diapers. I hear a mother’s voice, the sound of music and feel the love in the home. I hear chickens clucking gently and I feel the cool sweat of an early morning run drying on my face as I make coffee.

There are towels there, too; lying on the sand, one orange, one brown, and the same girl that wore the flowered bikini so many years before, even more beautiful, with her hat and smile and impossibly worn shoes. I try to pick up the pictures, as they lie in the tangle of cords and IV’s on my chest, but they slip from my grasp. The nurse places them aside impatiently, intent on saving a life.

I try to explain it’s not worth saving. I can’t. The nurse has a job to do.

Seven days later, I sit on a park bench in a distant town, watching the sun set. I’m looking at what’s not here. I am curiously at peace, for the first time in many years. Saddened beyond belief, I am prone to quick and embarrassing tears. I think of hiking a distant trail, as I once did, but the walk across the park is tiring enough. I think of the little boy, and the girl in the hat. My days of ruin are done. I feel old and beaten. Broken. No anger, only sorrow. My tears mean little, and are embarrassing to those who witness them. My beloved mountains no longer sing their song to me. My ancestors are silent, awaiting my decision. Waves crash on some distant shore. I can hear them, but they no longer beckon.

I spread the two pictures in front of me. The girl. The little boy. My wife. My son. Oh, how I love them! I weep conscious of the stares, hoping I am not arrested for vagrancy but hardly caring. I am so far from home. I am so far from two I love most. I’m not sure how to get back. The sun is setting in the west, low now, as birds cry their way back to their nests. My truck sits nearby, the tired old engine tick-tocking as it cools. A plane wings its way overhead. My passport and the last of my cash and credit cards rest in the zipper of my old pack. I wait for a sign, silently praying, for the first time, in a long time, for guidance.

A little boy suddenly runs through the grass in front of me, intent on chasing a cat just weaseled from his grasp. He is tall for his age, and blonde. My heart suddenly lurches, as it always does whenever I catch sight of a mass of blonde curls. I know it is not my son, but that is sign enough for me. I place the pictures in my pocket and grab my keys, paying no heed to the direction of the setting sun. My way is east. Home. To those I love.

I need some new pictures.

To Go Into the Night.

I bow my head and peer into the darkness. I have no idea of the future, nor much of the past. My son calls to me, just as he did in the hours before his birth, when I knew I was to become a father, when I knew that I was to become something I feared, long since, the responsibility of bringing another human to adulthood, to become a bringer of life, and wisdom, both of which I was sorely lacking. But I did. I faced my monsters, my demons, my doubts, my fears, and I lived! I lived.

The doctors said that I would not. That I could not. Ninety days. That’s what they gave me. One day more short than the previous. Each day a passing, a count. Each day a challenge. I did not bow before their wisdom, their collective experience. I fought. I screamed into the blackness. I shook with the delirium tremens, I fought the whiskey flees. I parked off the exits of Rt. 460 between the liquor stores and my house and I screamed into the night. I fought with all my heart and soul. The blackness came from within and without, and I relinquished nothing, not one thing, in my quest for my soul.

My wife looked on from outside. Everyone looked on from outside. I broke in the face of my sadness, my shame. I worked hard to regain myself. I failed.

In the quest for myself, I lost my way. I succumbed to the misery inside. I lost sight of the war, in search of the battle. I thought myself healed, my demons beaten. I was wrong.

I failed in my quest for perfection. I let down those who believed in me…worst of all, I compromised my son. My only son. My reason for everything. Once again, I went screaming into the blackness. I could care less of the consequences. Tonight, I dared the best MMA fighter in the area to beat me senseless. He could not. Its a curse, this life. How could I yet live, through all this? How am I yet still alive? How is it that I can laugh in the face of such misery, such pain?

I can go peacefully in the night if I could just be loved. For me. Not for what I can do, or what I can offer, or the protection that I extend. I am tired of all that. I have nothing left to give. I am just a Dad. Just a father. That is all I want. To raise my son to be what I am not. To give him promise to a future that is not mine.

 

 

Broken Bottles

My wetsuit clung clammily to me as I followed her out of the water. I hate the feel of the wet fabric, sticking, cold, unyielding. I pawed at my back, trying to find the zipper tab. It had been broken long before, making taking the suit off even more irritating than usual. The early morning mist blew in off the Pacific, fanning out over the wave pools caught in the basaltic flows of a point of land sticking far off the coast. She paused in the sunlight, carefully placing her surfboard on the ground beside her. She pawed her hair back out of her face, catching the wayward dripping strands in a tie magically rolled from her wrist. Without a glance at me, she peeled her suit from her body, and her skin was white. Trailing a leash and dripping polyurethane, she walked from stone to stone along the rough, barely-there path to the broken bit of sand above, where my old truck sat rusting, wishing for days without sand, nights without salty air.

The wind was cold. The tequila was not. The bottle winked in the sunlight as she held it aloft, inspecting the contents. The residue inside floated lazily around in the unyielding glare of the mid-morning sun. Our session in the surf had been cut short by a presence, real or imagined, skimming beneath us in the piercing blue water of the mighty western ocean. We had not commented on the likelihood of sharkiness this far South on the Baja, as most surfers did in those days immediately after the horror of 9/11. It was as if the mention of the Tiburon gave us something tangible, real to be afraid of.

The Old Man, Bonita, The Reaper – The Great White Shark was something in all of our minds, those of us who dared leave the U.S., once a homeland so safe, so excluded from the violence that plagued the rest of the world. For those who dipped their boards into the cold blue waters of the Pacific south of the world, our fear of the unknown, the terror that manifested itself real, was given life and realness in the cold terror of the shark.

We passed the bottle back and forth, and I wondered if her hair was blond or red. Streaks of both appeared as her ponytail dried in the sun. The bottle dangled from her fingertips when I passed it back to her. In a world inundated with tan, her skin was a mystery. Pale as a starlet, like the waning moon in early summer, she seemed untouched by the manifestation of brown. Everything was brown here. The sand, the dust, the rocks, the buildings, the people. Everything. My skin and hair had long since merged into one blanched dirt-colored uniform covering of bones and flesh. Years later, I would stare at myself in the mirror, marveling at the color and texture of skin sheltered from the elements, hidden from the sun by promotions and a corner office.

She was untouched by the world around us, as pristine as a newborn. Somehow plunked down in the middle of the finger of a peninsula of land surrounded on three sides by water, she appeared to have teleported there from somewhere safe, somewhere white. Buzzed from no food and the contents of the now empty bottle, I wondered where she was from. I dared not ask, for reasons I did not understand. She laughed at my attempts at humor, and I felt something stir, some loneliness for the mountains of green that I had left behind.

Nothing seemed real anymore, in this wasteland, this place where the dirt met ocean, where fear met peace and the waves washed every evening away into the future. A future no longer certain, or safe, or controllable. We walked the street of the tiny town, passing the day away. Her SUV was in the parking lot of the only café, a red beacon in an impoverished area, as out of place as a diamond ring in a bowl of clay. I wondered again at the strangeness of it all, then put it out of my mind. An easy thing, what with the tequila.

We shared Mexican Chocolate, walking the brick sidewalks, uneven and halting in the turmoil of the earth beneath. We ducked into a narrow alley, so close my fingertips brushed both sides. The wind blew hard and cold and I hated it and loved it at the same time. Her eyes were blue, flecked with green and sunshine and the sea. Her hair was blonde and red and brown. She was a natural brunette. Her hair was brown. Her skin was white. Her eyes were blue. The tequila was lukewarm the wind was bitter and I gagged a little, in those days before whiskey became a way out of the endless parade of sameness. Before my days merged into one ceaseless cascade of nothingness.

She was gone the next morning, along with her white surfboard and red SUV and black suit and blue eyes. The empty bottle of tequila was broken, with brightly colored shards of molten sand where a vessel has once been. I contemplated my doused campfire and stretched out sore muscles, still limber enough after sleeping in the back of an old truck for months on end.

I wish the bottle had not broken.