Breath in. Breath out. That’s what they tell you in mindfulness exercises. Focus on your breath. Focus, focus, focus.
I focus on taking one step at a time as we finally leave the roller coaster, both of us a bit woozy. I focus on the cracks ripping through the sidewalk, the result of erosion or cement just too tired to keep itself together anymore. I focus on the bitter breeze biting in the night and nibbling on my neck. I focus on anything but myself.
Shattered bones Used as skipping stones Over an ocean deep Red Spilled blood From a leaking heart Used to loving a place That held no love For a body made of Different parts
I sing these words over and over, a clock wounded up and let go, the ticks never stopping. I don’t know where we are going, for the road blends in with the cliffs on the right but stands apart from the ocean on the left. Cars pass us by, shining a light that is soon swallowed by the night. Black, black, black. That is all there is.
“So let me tell you about the first time I was in Ireland…” I begin, wanting to keep the clock going, never stopping to rest on the hour. But my companion stops, gluing their feet on top of a rock facing towards the see.
“No,” they say, the resolution firm. ” I do not want to here that story, at least not now. If you don’t tell me what I want to hear, what I need to hear, I will gather up the postcards I have and go back. Then whatever your purpose would be incomplete.”
I scoff. ” Go ahead. Your threats don’t scare me.”
But the memory is stirred. It slipped in when I was sleeping, a thing I had long tried to bury. I know things didn’t go as planned… Yeah, sounds like a bad experience… The dismissals come, and I am ashamed. It should be processed and done with already. I’ve played with it enough, my lack of skills tossing it back and forth in moments where it shouldn’t have been tossed. Yet the ball is waiting at my feet, always waiting and rolling back even when I’ve kicked it far under the bed. What I thought I had unpacked has another drawer that goes much deeper. How can I get over a place which has affected how I am? I cannot join a sports team without mistrust and apathy; consciously and unconsciously I avoid my teammates who, thanks to this place, I believe can be nothing more than instruments used to achieve a goal-winning, and I avoid coaches, in which my first instinct is to snarl at them like a rabid dog. I distant myself from groups because I’ve learned that no matter what I do, no matter how hard I try, I will never be good enough. I flinch and panic if I do something wrong and I don’t understand, promising I will be good. I flinch and panic when someone leaves abruptly. “Please don’t leave” is the thought that ran through my head when I was at a wedding, and the Engineer asked why didn’t I go get my car. Little remnants have been left behind, shadowing each interaction, creating doubt and fear and a sense I’ll never belong in a group setting.
I’m fine, I tell myself for the hundredth time, I’ve talked about it against my will and I’ve talked about it when I was finally able to put it into my own words. I’ve talked about it when it was right, and I’ve talked about it when it was wrong.
But I wasn’t fine. Why else would I talk about what happened on long island unless it was to scare away new people? Yes, it was a strategy I used- dumping information to test their limits, and I knew I would be too much because everyone I met previously thought I was. I relished it, hoping they would go away so I wouldn’t have to like them. Because liking people always did hurt and it was better being alone, even though that hurt too. Each dose was a little self sabotage I thought I deserved.
I wasn’t fine. The cracks are still there, sometimes filled and patted down, other times ripped wide open as an unexpected earthquake hits and shatters everything I worked hard to rebuild and repair. Sometimes I have to start over, but each time I do I use something a little bit stronger.
I’m fine, I’m fine. Because I have to be.
Then there is him. The Sympathetic Predator.
“I am getting ahead of myself,” I say with a grim smile. ” New York is not all bad, but most people would rather here the bad news first, then the good news. One, people hate the bad even though it is a unfortunate side effect of life, preempted by what could amount to a whole bunch of philosophical discourses on human nature. And two, hearing the good news last makes it easier to hang onto, pushing the bad stuff away. So I will give you the second part of the bad first because it needs to be broken up.” I also do not know if they will be able to handle the bad all at once.
I lived on Long Island for a year, foolishly believing a change of scenery would be good for me. Fresh out of high school, I was a duckling learning to stand on their own two feet. But I couldn’t stand; I fell into a pit with no means of getting out, and I needed those means. “I will not treat you any differently; you will not get special treatment,” my coach whipped me with a tongue once honeyed and sweet, and it was then that I shattered. There is a fine line between accommodation and special treatment, and where I am forced to accommodate for others whose minor inconvenient discomfort is greater than my debilitating one, they cannot accommodate for me. She wanted me to be just like everyone else when in some ways I am not and can never be.
When I failed to be fixed the way my coach wanted me to be- nine hours of therapy( a lose-lose situation as it turned out because she would simultaneously allow me to miss practice to get treatment while also being extremely angry I was missing practice to get treatment), residential treatment, smiling all the time while hopped up on a constant array of drugs- I was punished in as many ways as possible without understanding why. Isolation was her cruelest method, keeping me away from the people who were my only friends at the time because the sports environment was too restrictive to permit anyone else and teaching the people who were my only friends that I was a monster. All this one from mistake stemming from untreated depression and an undiagnosed disability.
“When they see you as a monster, you start to believe you are a monster, and that everything you touch turns to ash. You believe you ruin everything, that you are unlovable and that no one can handle being around you. Everything is your fault- you put them in a situation that no one should be in and that no one knows what to do. But really, its the system at fault for not preparing others and not providing adequate help of resources. Getting a therapist sometimes isn’t enough, or is impossible financial wise and compatibility wise- its easy to give up if you go through therapists like you go through clothes. You didn’t understand; you were considered standoffish when really, you just didn’t understand. Thank goodness for the psychology department; they fed you two graduate students who worked hard to teach social skills, rules of boundaries, and what makes people a friend.”
I see them absorb each word with a blank expression. We continue walking, as with all our journey with no direction, letting our feet guide us to the next destination-keeping in mind any incoming traffic of course. A biker flashes its front light as it nearly blindsides me, and I stumble, grabbing onto my companion.
“Why didn’t you turn back from this place?” they say quietly, loud enough for only the birds to hear, and I stretch my ear.
” Because I was determined to see the year through. I fought and did what everyone said: I returned to winter training camp ready to show everyone who doubted me up-and I did, even when they were reluctant to pair with me or be on my team( I can’t tell you how many derisive, fearful notes I received telling me to “never say you can’t, or you’ll bring everyone else down with you”, “don’t you dare cry out there,” “we need you to keep it together, things that made me feel worse and more guilty), I went shopping and bought a dress even though I didn’t want to wear a dress, I wore said dress when someone asked me to do it for them despite how uncomfortable it made me, I got up on essentially a stripper pole to gain some laughs; I tried to be everything they wanted me to be, but in the end it wasn’t enough,” I pause, catching my breath. My chest swells, and the floodgates open, the water filling every space so there is no air left for me to breathe. Having them write this postcard is harder than I thought, and I can see their hand waiting, trembling, waiting.
“There are places you can go to that will be bad,” I continue. “Bad things will happen, and lessons will be learned in the harshest ways. Sometimes these lessons are lessons you shouldn’t have learned and it will take years to unlearn, like trying to quit smoking or biting your nails; it becomes a habit not easy to break. And these places, these places you might think to reclaim with different experiences. But not all places can be reclaimed as your own, for the toxic is too much, covers too much.”
Tick-tock, tick tock The clock sits on the wall The hour hand stuck On lucky number six Tick-tock, tick-tock Their lucks run out As it moves again Past the number of times They won Against the fastest of Runners They won The publication rights To stories They never believed were Any good They never believed Anything they did was ever Any good. Tick-tock, tick-tock The clock sits on the wall Counting down the seconds Stopping On lucky number six Six times they tried Drowning Sinking Hanging Leaping Suffocating Bleeding Because they never believed They were Good enough Tick-tock, tick tock The clock sits on the wall Tracking the days The weeks The months It has been since the Sixth The lucky sixth Which would be Their last Tick-tock, tick- tock The clock waits to turn To lucky number seven Lucky because they would Finally believe They were Good enough.
After leaving the hospital, I went and resided in two hotels before settling in Jones Beach- apparently the university had no room for me. I got to know it well, and it was there that I learned to enjoy things. I biked through down every street, smelling the fresh fall air and the crackling fires simmering in quiet backyards. I explored up and down the beach thoroughly, eyeing the spot where a stage floated on the water, used for summer concerts. I took pictures of everything, mostly seagulls and squirrels, lounging cats and dogs, capturing every little detail because it was something to do, something that made be feel better. There was a point when I thought I would head into photography, but I left that behind when I finally left Long Island. I left behind something I love with everything I hated, and I can’t go back for it. Some places can never be reclaimed; some places still hold the shed skin of who you used to be and who you don’t want to be anymore.
I’ve tried to get some of it back, taking only what I know I’ll miss. I miss taking pictures, so I’ve made the effort to take a camera everywhere I go. A phone is not the same, but it will have to do in order to compile my book. Unfortunately and fortunately I took away the one good thing about my coach: she told be to keep a scrapbook of all the things that make me happy. So I filled it up with pictures, and I’ve taken post it notes and scribbled the kind words spoken to me or the memories I shared with people I never thought could ever like me. It’s strange; as much as Long Island hurts- and its hurts whenever I’m in Penn station and I see the sign to the Long Island Railroad, or when I’m walking through neighboring New York City because its proximity is right there- I am thankful for the little things it has brought.
Another strange thing: for the first few years after I left, it didn’t bother me if I returned. I returned a few times, due to The Sympathetic Predator and The Mindless Stalker, and after the experiences with these two men- actually five, but two are actually a good ones and gave me the “normal” awkward dating experience while the other three I met through being in a vulnerable, desperate position making it easy to be taken advantage of- there came a sudden dread, a squeezing of the lungs, and I couldn’t breath. It hits sometimes on a random, regular day. Maybe I’m just sitting there listening to a song when another song comes on, one I listened to get me through the days where I was trapped. Again, I suppose I could have left earlier, but I was determined to see the year through until financially I couldn’t afford to stay on a poisoned island.
From the hospital- an interesting place full of interesting characters with different needs and different, colorful personalities( I can still vividly see an holier-than-thou orthodox Jew go at it, teeth bared, with a tough-as-nails, Bronx bred black woman who wasn’t about to be pushed-over)- I met the only other person my age, Ms. Smiles, who was there because both of her parents were unable to care for her, dealing with their own mental illness in separate group homes, and she had her own battles with bipolar disorder. We became friends; I was desperate for one and I think in hindsight she needed someone to help her. Ms. Smiles never had a stable home life and needed someone to be dependent on, so she became dependent on me. I happily obliged. I visited her upon release when I wasn’t supposed to, bringing her McDonald’s, and when she was released I visited her in Jamaica Queens- a place I recently discovered is not exactly the safest place in New York, which made sense as I drove past questionable neighborhoods and establishments, yet I was so dead set on having a friend I sacrificed my safety.
“I may have sacrificed other things, too. Long Island may have easily taught me to listen to what people say they want and like, but I had to learn the hard way that people could do whatever they wanted to me. With Ms. Smiles, I drove her around, often to questionable places, to buy her a fifty dollar burner phone or a test, to pick up her mother and then get involved in a fender bender caused by a pissed off New Yorker. I accidentally cut her off and she retaliated by ramming into me. Then she claimed I hit her and I could either go to court where two people dealing with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia were my witnesses or pay 300 bucks. I paid 300 bucks to avoid the mess. Or I’d go with her to meet up with some older men in an underground bar-“
“You did what now?” they ask in disbelief.
“Hey, there was a pool table, so it wasn’t all bad,” I say waving my hand nonchalantly. “Although the dude was. He seemed nice and charming, which is to say it was all a trap. He was nothing like the Techie I met at Bar Social- by the way, after they gave me their number, I was promptly smuggled out by one of the not so bad ones for being underage- who was genuinely kind, although a bit of a pothead and a bit forgetful as they forgot their wallet on a date in which we agreed to split the bill but whatever, and turned out to be that guy who likes to spew derogatory insults after being politely rejected.”
After that guy came the Sympathetic Predator. He came around the same time as the Mindless Stalker, who I thought we could be friends, thought he wanted to know me and he did, except it was to use as a chip for all the paper thin reasons we should be together(just because we both like to play pool does not mean we should date, but also the fact that he wouldn’t take no for an answer was a big red flag that I of course ignored even though I knew it was a red flag) and he developed an unhealthy obsession which may have somewhat reflected my unhealthy obsession to find friends in all the wrong people.
“It sounds like I’m an idiot,” I don’t hear them at first, but my heart plummets as they finally catch on. Our feet start to slow, veering into a familiar direction of sand and crashing waves. Crash. Breathe. Crash. Breathe.
“I think in this case, it’s more like I was missing something that everyone else was born with. A scarecrow without its brain. A tinman without its heart. A lion without its courage. What should have been there was missing, and I stumbled around without Dorothy, without Toto, without any guide because I’m already supposed to instinctually know. If I knew, I would have been better, done better, and maybe I would have been watching another basketball game with the Twins, or having another movie night with the Squad from Floor 2. I lost things because I didn’t know things, but slowly I am picking up pieces of the manual, although I do say yes to everything; if I don’t, I’m afraid I’ll never see the person or people again.”
Under the moonlight Where the ghosts crawl On eight legs Glowing Across the sand Soft and wet I walk Crash Under the moonlight The shadows dance And laugh and Tease The ghost with the Broken leg Left behind Crash Under the moonlight The water rises and Falls And I walk Picking up the broken Ghost Who can walk again If given the right Directions.
I was a mess, constantly juggling but constantly dropping. The Sympathetic Predator swept in like all predators do- taking the prey when its alone, then luring them into its trap. He found me sitting alone as I often was, with my spirits low. All it took was one friendly smile because that was all I needed- not the pitying ones that came from the few good teammates who wanted to try but didn’t know what do to( their coach iced me out, so I was iced out too, no longer welcomed after being cut loose). So I walked and talked with him, eventually going to Applebee’s out near Stony Brook on a fairly regular basis, driving around a marina whose name I forget, and spending more and more time at his house, helping him get close to the nearest ramp.
What made the Sympathetic Predator so sympathetic was that he had been in a car accident which left him with some damage in the brain and the nerves, and he required a cane to assist the left side of his body. He was often forgetful, constantly needing reminders as I assisted him with psychology homework. He was determined to finally graduate, and as I learned from the two graduates, it was good for a friend to be supportive. So I supported, and I thought he supported me. We went to a concert out on Jones Beach. The floating stage carried Soundgarden, a band not much to my liking but I knew he loved it. It hurt my ears being so close to the speakers, but we had to be, although I’m not so sure because throughout the concert he was using his disability every which way he could: front row seats, getting ahead of the line for a T-shirt and food, then laughing about it afterwards. He always laughed at things I didn’t find that all funny.
Then he would laugh whenever I said no, or when I said to stop, I didn’t like that joke. He would keep making the joke, and for a long time I said it was his brain injury, that he didn’t remember and I just needed to keep reminding him. But no, I didn’t need to remind him, especially after one night when I knew he knew better. Every time I went over, I had to share the same bed, despite me expressing my discomfort in the idea. He said he couldn’t let me sleep on the floor like a dog, thinking he was a gentleman, when in reality I wanted to sleep on the floor like a dog. In my sleep, he kept putting his hands around me and I initially said no, but he wore me down. He did a good job at that, and I was in need of friends so I tried to please him. I kissed him when he begged me several times to kiss him, I let him give me a hickey when he said he always wanted to give a hickey- and lets just say it was one of the most awkward experienced I’ve had, and I’m socially awkward. I did almost anything he wanted because he looked so upset when I said no. I allowed him, just like some of the others, to push me around because I was not strong enough yet, or understood yet, how to stand firmly on two feet. I was struggling to swim, and I took every hand offered, whether genuine or mischievous I couldn’t tell. A hand was a hand. The Sympathetic Predator lowered his hands, and I caught him. ” I thought you wouldn’t notice,” he whispered humorously. He knew. He knew I didn’t want it but didn’t care. I didn’t sleep the rest of that night. From that moment on, I saw less and less of him.
“One day I made the mistake of answering a text from an unknown number. I asked who it was, and it was him. The conversation already started, he asked for my address and I foolishly gave it to him. He sent me a book he wrote, a published book, and it riled me with anger. How dare he. How dare he write a book full of pretentious words and claim he has always been a poet. Perhaps its my own insecurity, my own jealously of working for years to get a story out there and he puts together poetry when in my time of knowing him he had no interest in writing. I should burn it, and maybe one day I will so I can get rid of him, get rid of his touch which I thought couldn’t reach me anymore. But in a way it is already fire, for the book burns me to write, to let the words flow on paper in a way I want them to. Me. No one else. No one gets to take the words away from me.”
They are silent. We stop and sit on a bench, rusty and old, with one of those silver plaques stamped across the middle. ‘ Rob and Sue Tennessey’ it read, ‘ Forever carved in our hearts. Two artists who always beat as one.’ Cheesy and sentimental. There is a shift in the wind, and it blows from the north, over a lighthouse shinning its orange light over the darkening waves.
“Long Island was beautiful. Well, parts of it. Hempstead was a little questionable, for you could find blood at the steps of a McDonald’s. And there were some good things about it. Rugby. The Other You. Photography. Some of your professors. There is so much to cover, I’m afraid there just isn’t enough room. But the thing is, Long Island is a part of me. I would not become who I am now, or met the people I’ve met, if I wasn’t unceremoniously kicked off of campus and the team, if I didn’t get diagnosed or struggle. This place tested my resiliency, and I know if I can get through that, I can probably get through anything.”
They still are silent. As for me, I am out of words. I look out at the ocean. Crash. Breathe. Crash. Breathe. I can’t help but think of the group I was in, all those drills I thought were meaningless. You can’t address my problems, I thought bitterly, Because you don’t know what my problems are, Doc. It goes much deeper than the surface and I am more than some anxiety-depressed individual who just needs a better control on my emotions. No, I need more than control. I need understanding.
Crash. Breath in. Breathe out. Crash. Breath in. Breathe out. Here I am, doing one of those stupid mindfulness activities anyway. I glance at my companion. Their hands clench the pen and postcard, and I move to slid it out of their hands.
“I wish you never told me that story,” they finally say.
“I know. Hell, maybe if we find the right officer, we can make you forget,” my dark humor misses the mark, and they stare solemnly, almost reverently, out at the ocean.
Crash. Breath. Crash. Breath.
I crumple the postcard. Maybe one day I’ll burn it.