At the family dinner, I planned to ask my mom and dad questions about their garden, and their rental properties, and what their lives were like when they were 27. Afterward, I would meet my pageant girlfriend for a concert at The Ryman. I was going to hold her hand and listen with my eyes and tell her I liked the music she liked. I was going to traverse the day without drinking more bourbon than my withdrawals demanded. And the next morning I was going to remember having been a good man and having gone to sleep the night before. But family dinner was an intervention.
And then I was in an interventionist’s garbage-littered truck. And then I was in the middle of the part of Nowhere that is east of Nashville but west of anything else, buying gas station beers and cigarettes, because for some reason I wasn’t supposed to show up to rehab sober. And then I was parked outside of a small composite building somehow attached to a double-wide trailer. And then I was inside the trailer and there was a nurse behind thick glass and a quiet giant standing behind me. And then I was signing my name on a line. And then I was in rehab.
The nurse moved her hands over the keyboard cautiously, pecking each key with her index finger. When I offered to type for her, she turned her gaze from the tops of her hands to me. Maybe the muscles in her face meant to form a smile, but she produced an upside-down frown. The nurse’s glass cell was housed within a larger room lined with sagging leather couches. Cups and paper plates sat on cheap wooden tables; down a hallway just wide enough for a single person was the kitchen and communal bedrooms and bathrooms. It was nighttime outside, and all of the overhead fluorescent lights were on inside.
Quiet Giant ducked even though the roof was higher than the length of his stretched body. I glanced over my shoulder and sought mutual understanding in his blank eyes, but there was none. I looked at the door through which I had entered, and then at the nurse. Her gaze was back on the tops of her own hands, but the index fingers were no longer pressing keys. I didn’t have to pee, but I did want the bizarre, frozen moment to end. I asked her where the restroom was. She turned her rolling chair 180 degrees and pointed with her whole arm, extended as if towards the horizon, and I took four steps to the single-person restroom.
The door did not close behind me; Quiet Giant filled the space behind me, between the bathroom and the main room. I gestured towards the single toilet, but he did not understand. I asked him if he wanted to go first. His hips were the same distance from the ground as mine. I wondered whether his torso, neck, or head accounted for his height. He handed me a clear cup with a top and said to pee in it. I told him the interventionist had forced me to drink gas station beers, but Quiet Giant said they needed to know if I was on anything else. I told him I was not, and he told me I would say that, and I told him it did not make sense to lie about something like that while holding a cup that tested piss for drugs. He told me to pee. I looked up at him and he looked down at me.
I said, “Okay, I’m going to pee,” but he said, “Yeah, I have to watch you,” and I said, “What?” He told me he needed to make sure it was my pee. I told Quiet Giant he certainly was not going to watch me pee. I imagined Quiet Giant had abnormally short legs but an abnormally long penis.
He said it was policy, and I said who the fuck carries other people’s piss with them, but he sighed and looked at the ceiling two inches above his eyes. I felt bad for him but remained committed to being mean. I stepped to the far side of the toilet and turned my body to face him entirely before dropping my jeans and briefs to my ankles like a child. I stared into his face until I finally started peeing and he did not stare back, but he did take the cup of my piss to the nurse. I followed Quiet Giant down a hallway of laminate floors. He carried the bag I’d arrived with, but it was not my bag.
Six hours previous, I’d walked into a restaurant I’d never been to. Sportsman’s Grill in Nashville, Tennessee. High-backed booths softened by green cushions ran along the four interior walls. The waitresses looked like lifers of the trade; they seemed bored walking with trays and notepads, and their skin and hair looked thin. Light from wobbling ceiling fans swept back and forth across the glossy tables while twangy country music played. My parents and a stranger were seated on one side of a circular table, in the center of the building. My mom was in the chair between my dad and the unknown man, but much closer to my dad, and holding his clasped hands.
I hugged my mom, whose eyes were red from crying, and patted my dad on the shoulder. The unknown man shook my hand, introduced himself as Pat, and said he was there to help my mom say something she hadn’t been able to say herself. I nodded, watched my own knees while sitting, and exhaled my head up, towards the people. The country music continued, the lights from the fans swept the surfaces of the tables, and the arm of a waitress placed half-gallon plastic red cups of water onto the table. She said something, and Pat said something, and she disappeared. Sweat from the cups formed pools of condensation.
My mom told me it seemed to her and my dad, and my sister and brother, and all of my closest friends, as if I had been trying to kill myself for some time. She told me that her real son had been missing for years, that there wasn’t any light from my eyes anymore, and that this was the worst moment of her life.
My teeth held my face together. I did not look at Pat or my dad, or at any of the patrons who might have noticed something uncomfortable happening. I kept my eyes on my mom’s, but I did not feel sadness or anger. I felt heat where my spine entered my head, and I felt pain in my lower back.
My mom told me I had two options: to do what they were asking, and go to a treatment center Pat had recommended, or to be entirely alone. Nobody to speak to on my birthday or theirs, no nephew’s basketball games to go to, or nieces to play hide and seek with. No mother to call on Mother’s Day and no father to call on Father’s Day. My mom found her cup with her eyes, my dad watched the sweeping lights, and Pat and I did not move.
I told my parents we would never again have a relationship. I spoke with a measured tone. I spoke through her eyes to them both, and to my distant siblings, and friends, and to Pat and everyone else in the restaurant and on earth. I told them their fucked up perspective was going to ruin my life. I told them I would go to rehab, but only because I wouldn’t let them pin the collapse of our family on anyone but themselves.
Pat stood up and said, “Let’s go,” and my parents said things I did not listen to while I followed him from the restaurant to the parking lot. A bag I had never seen before, the bag Quiet Giant later carried in the rehab’s hallway, was moved from my parents’ car to the interventionist’s truck full of garbage. Pat got in the driver’s seat while my parents stood some yards away. I handed my house and car keys to my mom and said, “Remember when I told you to listen for real, and to remember that I would do anything for you? This is that thing, and the last thing.” My mom was my person.
At the trailer-park rehab, which had creatively been named “Recovery House,” my intervention bag was locked in a closet and I was locked in a room. I did not know what was in the closet, but two men were in the room and each was occupying a bed. One of the men was asleep on top of his made bed wearing only boxers and a baseball hat. The hat was not set atop his face to shield light but snuggly fit just above his ears, as it would be worn by someone mowing their lawn in the middle of the afternoon. The other man looked to be the size of a baby and was swaddled in his comforter. Three cots were empty, making five in all, and other than a stand beside each bed there was not any furniture, closets, light switches, or decorations.
I knocked on my side of the locked door until Quiet Giant opened it towards himself and lowered his head beneath the frame. I told him the door was locked and he agreed. I told him I was far too sober to sleep, and he said he was sorry. I told him my room smelled like shit, and he looked over my head and into the room but said nothing. I asked if I could smoke a cigarette, and he said it was policy that I could not but to follow him.
The door clicked behind us, and I told Quiet Giant one of the men was sleeping on top of his bed in only a baseball hat. Stooping his neck, he led us down the hallway which included the kitchen, into an office, and onto a wooden deck by way of a sliding glass door. He lit a cigarette and I did too. I told Quiet Giant I’d decided to come there, and I’d been the one to sign myself in. I told Quiet Giant it was my girlfriend’s birthday. We were supposed to be at a show at The Ryman, but I was in that room with those men. He said I could not smoke a second cigarette and walked me back to my locked room. I was not too sober to sleep; I did so in the bed beside the swaddled, tiny, old man.
Within minutes, muttering and shuffling woke me. I opened my eyes to two old, dangling testicles. The old baby was totally naked in the dimly lit room. He was standing in the narrow space between our two beds, with his testicles drooping an entire yard beneath his acorn penis. As I closed my eyes, the old baby yelped and fell to the floor. Being a hero, I opened my eyes.
With his jeans bundled at his ankles, he looked even smaller than he was. Poop that was yellow like a newborn’s puddled on the floor beside him. I slid from my bed, knelt by his body but on the side without shit, and yelled for Quiet Giant. The man in the hat stumbled from his bed, coughing and gagging, and slammed his fists, over and over, on the locked door. The shit smell had been actual poop, and when exposed to air it seeped into all skin pores and cloth fibers.
Quiet Giant helped Old Baby into the shower while the nurse bundled the comforter and sheets Old Baby had been using as a diaper. Hat Man, wearing only a hat and boxers, snored in a kitchen chair with his mouth open and face angled towards the ceiling.
I sat between the hallway wall and floor and wondered where someone belongs when they don’t belong in rehab or elsewhere. I imagined standing before a high-seated panel of judges, a projection of my life playing behind me, and the middle judge, a man, asking me, “Son, I don’t understand. What happened to you?” I imagined opening my mouth to speak, raising my hands with my palms toward the ceiling, and then dropping them to my sides as my mouth hung open.
Quiet Giant stood at the end of the kitchen and told us we needed to go back to our room for the night. Hat Man and I returned to the room where Old Baby was already swaddled anew, asleep in his bed. Quiet Giant propped the door to our room open with a fan, and the stench moved in laps across our beds.
During the following days, I medically detoxed from alcohol. There were no clocks. The sheets were consistently the wrong temperature, and I moved beneath, above, and around them. My fingers scratched sores into my upper legs. I did not sleep as my mind fragmented. I saw a coworker who’d never been in my home, in my kitchen. I saw a version of my mom, older than she was. I watched a wolf, or demon, open the locked door to my rehab room, pace the floor beneath my bed, and stand on four legs above my paralyzed body. My sight was with closed eyes and my screaming was mute. When my condition improved to merely vomiting and shivering, I developed three complete plans for the future:
1. I would go to Mexico (one of my cards was not maxed out) and teach English. Or do something else. But I would not ever speak to my family again, and hopefully, they would mourn until they died.
2. I would enlist in the military. The Girl would cry and be dramatic before I left. I would not tell my family. One day a man would knock on my parents’ door and present a flag, and they would learn of the heroics I had performed prior to jumping from a plane without a parachute. I would not ever speak to my family again, and hopefully, they would mourn until they died.
3. I would live behind a bar where I also worked. In Idaho or Montana. I would grow my hair and beard. I wouldn’t want or need anything other than regular customers and periodic one-night-stands. I would take nighttime walks in the woods, listening to Bon Iver, until the bear from Legends of the Fall killed me. I would not ever speak to my family again, and hopefully, they would mourn until they died.
A woman who was not a nurse knocked on the door that I couldn’t open and strode to the side of my bed. Her hair was dark and the skin on her pale face was marked by off-brown spots. She wore jeans and a cardigan over a black collarless shirt, and she told me to stop being a baby and smoke a cigarette with her. Her clothes were too small, and heavily taxed by long, defiant strides. Somewhere, a staticky DJ’s voice manipulated vowels. Hat Man and Old Baby were not in the room. Officially, my detox was over. I followed the woman.
When she asked me if I had a jacket, I told her I didn’t know. She abruptly stopped walking beside a hallway door to work one of her many keys in the lock. With the door open, she looked up at me and asked if I had packed the bag. I shook my head no.
“’Cause you were too drunk, or ‘cause you didn’t know you were comin?” she asked.
“I left my house for dinner with my parents,” I said and waved my hand towards everything around me. She nodded and flipped through folded and tagged clothes in the bag. I imagined my mom stepping over and on the reflections of a Target’s overhead lights to buy this stuff. Her face like it was when she told me I’d been missing for years. I imagined her passing overalls for toddlers, basketball shorts, dorm furniture—totems of her abducted boy—her red, honeycomb-cart full of these tagged and folded rehab clothes.
“Well,” said the woman, “you don’t got a jacket, but we got a jacket.” She pulled a neon-orange bubble jacket from a cardboard box deeper in the closet. She lifted it towards me and said, “It may not smell real good, but you don’t either.” She closed the closet door and walked quickly down the hallway.
“What’s with the music?” I asked, following her into an office, through the exterior sliding-glass door, and onto the wooden deck where, days before, I’d smoked with Quiet Giant.
“New patient needs it,” said the woman, speaking towards the steps she was descending. The stairs led to a cigarette-butt tower circled by mismatched plastic and iron chairs. The woman sat, pressed her back against the seat, and flattened her face towards the blue, cloudless, morning sky.
“Can I need a radio?” I asked, easing into the least broken of the chairs.
“No. She really needs it,” the woman said seriously.
“She?” I suggested, crossing my own legs as I sat. The woman smiled and said, “I don’t think you’re gonna be interested.” I pulled my lighter and Camel cigarettes from my pocket, lit a smoke, and let my head fall behind the back of my chair.
“So,” she said, “just booze?”
“There was coke for a while, but about a year ago I left it in D.C. when I moved here. Well, Nashville.”
She told me she’d been a meth girl; I didn’t tell her I figured. She pulled a bulky vape from her pocket and kept it close to her lips between pulls.
She told me she’d used meth for much longer than she hadn’t, and she hadn’t used a drug in over four years. I told her congrats. She said, “Thank you,” but she “was just finally being a person and didn’t need praise for not committing felonies.” I passed my eyes over the marks on her face; I was glad not to have met the worse version.
She told me her first drink was given to her by her dad when she was 11 and she’d snuck another, and it was the best day of her life. She went on to get into pills until she couldn’t afford them and then did anything that changed the way she felt. The last few years she was using she did not want to at all. “None of that sounds very fun,” I said.
“No. It sucked ass. And on top of all that I fell in love with a woman, and that doesn’t work with most people around here. I was supposed to be Christian. Lotta people do meth but nobody is gay.”
“When I first got to Nashville, on the very first day, the first bar I went to was a gay bar,” I said. “I’m not gay, but I’m a flaming liberal, and I was scared the Tennessee people would be able to tell.”
“Gay bars are the best,” she said, “but I didn’t use meth because Christians hated me, or because my piece-of-shit dad violated me, or because the kids at school made fun of my thrift store clothes. I woulda been using meth, or crack, or somethin, either way.” I nodded without understanding and lit a second cigarette, anticipating a reprimand that did not come. She nodded at my smoke and said, “I quit when my husband got me pregnant, but I miss that shit every day.”
I asked about the women from before and she said maybe things would’ve worked out somewhere else or sometime else, but she really did love her husband. “You think it’s true?” she asked. “That I used to be a meth fiend and a criminal, and that I lived on the streets and in the woods? That I wanted to quit but couldn’t? And that now I’m a mom and a wife and my job has benefits and I’m not perfect at any of it, but I’m a whole person?”
I could tell we’d moved from whatever we’d been doing to whatever we were supposed to be doing, and I said, “Sure, of course. And seriously, I’m really glad for you. And I’m—I am sorry, whether your dad or those kids in school had anything to do with anything or not—that those unspeakably sad things happened to you. But I wasn’t doing meth in the woods or pulling up floorboards for copper or whatever. I was taking a literal model to a concert for her birthday. I didn’t just have a job, I had a profession.”
“Ahh, so your thing was different? You’re different?” she said, as if it were stupid of me to think I was different.
“I was making okay money and working in places with ping-pong tables and traveling the world and stuff.” I said. She tugged on her vape and popped up from her chair and looked down at me hunched in my plastic seat.
“So you gotta great job, you traveled the world, and somehow you ended up in rehab, but you don’t got any rehab problems?”
“I didn’t say I don’t have problems. I’ve got plenty. But they’re not problems this place fixes. Not problems like Hat Man or Old Baby. Well, I think it’s great that you do whatever you do here, but my problem wasn’t some mechanism wrong with my arm where it just kept slamming booze down my throat. My problem is I’m just really not how anyone thinks I should be. But they all want me to be happy, and that’s the only thing I can’t manage, so my family sent me here. I won’t be a problem for you, but I’m not going to stop drinking once I’m out of here.”
“Too bad. If you knew you were in rehab for rehab problems, I could probably help you get better.” She turned up the wooden stairs. I watched her go and slid my eyes along the side of the trailer where she worked. There was no fence, and for as far as I could see there was nowhere anyone wanted to be. I followed her path over the stairs and into rehab, watching my feet fill the frame of my sight until I was in my bed.
Later that morning, the nurse opened the door to my room and said to try and join them for lunch. She said I should try to keep something down. I slid my feet from the sheets of my bed to the floor and sighed with my standing. The kitchen was the hallway and the hallway was the kitchen, so I stepped into both for lunch.
A small, square table stood beside a single window, and I sat in the only chair facing outside. Hat Man, Old Baby, and a girl in her late teens came from the main room and sat in the remaining chairs at the table. A sprout of the girl’s electrified hair was held in place on the top of her head by a tangled hair tie. She wore bottle-cap glasses and an extra-large t-shirt with small holes to either side of its neck. I looked at Hat Man and Old Baby, but they stared at the bare table before them. From the radio in the girl’s lap, staticky rap pierced at high volume.
The nurse served us plates of grilled cheese sandwiches on white bread, with four to seven recently frozen french fries each. I watched the girl squish her sandwich into her mouth. She fit half of the bread-and-cheese square between her opened jaws and held the other half in her hands. Snapping her teeth down on the middle of the sandwich, she looked me in the eyes and violently pulled severed bread and cheese from her face. Crumbs covered the radio and floor, and Hat Man looked at me as though he, too, were sane. Beginning to smile, without breaking his gaze, he over-graciously thanked the nurse for “cooking.” The nurse cooed. Old Baby pulled his french-fries into smaller segments and mashed them into spheres between his forefinger and thumb. The girl chewed with her mouth open and sandwich bits rolling across her tongue.
I stood and meekly stepped to the nurse with my plate. I thanked her for the meal but reminded her that I was lactose intolerant. She asked me if that meant I couldn’t eat cheese? I asked her if I might be excused but she said to at least eat some fries. I wondered if Old Baby was lactose intolerant, too, and returned to my seat.
Radio stood while spitting half of her sandwich from her mouth, grabbed and poured Kool-Aid from the fridge, and then emptied half of the coffee station’s sugar shaker into her cup. Hat Man yelled, “Hey!” and the nurse shouted Radio’s name, but red streams were already dripping from either side of Radio’s chin. Hat Man said, “God dammit! You know what that does to you!” and Radio made a noise like a fart and turned the speaker side of her radio to his face. I dropped a balled-up french-fry from my hand, pushed my chair back with my legs, and went into the men’s communal bathroom. I was not sure how many days I’d been there, but I knew more than half of my thirty-day sentence remained. I sat on a toilet and pushed the skin of my face up and down.
The A.A. book they gave me explained how all alcoholics believe they are not alcoholics. My jaw clenched. The first story in the book is of this guy wanting and needing to never drink again, only to find himself drunk, at the bar. I imagined the people of my life, siblings and friends, reading his story and thinking, “Oh, goodness. Is Wilson like that guy? How sad!” But isn’t it obvious why denial as a prerequisite is problematic? If all alcoholics believe they are not alcoholics, who then distinguishes those in denial from those accurately self-appraising? Say someone asks my mom if she thinks she’s an alcoholic, and she says, “Uh, I don’t think so.” Well, “We know what that means!”
I looked directly into the fluorescent light above me. Aside from muffled Top 40 songs increasing and decreasing their proximity to the men’s restroom, everything was quiet. In a group, one of our counselors had said, “If you’ve ever wondered if you are an alcoholic, then you probably are.” But you know who wonders if they are an alcoholic? Anyone accused of being one. When my parents didn’t know what to do about a son who hated living, they called me an alcoholic because an alcoholic is something that can be fixed. When they called me an alcoholic, apparently I became one—because I wondered if I was.
The stall door was glossy and hazelnut brown, and, even though there was not a lock, I decided the bathroom was the best room. During my intervention, my mom had said, “All we’ve ever wanted is for you to be happy.” But she didn’t know what she asked for. What she’d always been asking for. They didn’t understand what sort of place they’d sent me to. The position they put me in. But they knew I wouldn’t go for my own sake. They knew I would for theirs and goddammit, fuck them for knowing I wouldn’t have a choice when faced with them or not them. Fuck them.
The real problem, which I’d only said out loud once, when drunk, was much more embarrassing than anything I’d read in the rehab books. The real problem was that I thought I was living the life most of the world wanted. And yet, since sometime in middle school, everything that was “me,” everything that felt but wasn’t an actual part of my physical body, had been experiencing a relentless aching. And there’s no rehab for melodramatic sounding shit like that. There’s rehab for people who drink hand sanitizer, or people who need music to keep them from slamming their heads into walls, or people who aren’t people anymore.
I stood from the toilet, stepped into the center of the bathroom, and realized there was nowhere to go that was any different than where I already was. My bed, the hallway, the main room. I wanted to want something. I wanted to prefer one room to another, or some person to another, or to have a reason to be doing something, but it was all shit. Whether I left the bathroom or not didn’t matter. I did not feel sadness, but the place between my skull and back felt hot, and my lower back hurt.
Smoking was the only thing I had. Smoking was the only cause that forced Recovery House to free us into the outside air. Smoking was where the conversations with staff were not clinical, and conversations with staff were the only conversations with two sides. Most importantly, smoking was because I wanted to. But smoking was a privilege we were allowed only after all four of us had each completed our assigned chores.
I’d finished detoxing a week earlier, and each of those seven days I’d wiped, swept, and mopped the kitchen. I cleaned the kitchen because Vape Staff told me the cleaning of the kitchen was my responsibility, and I cleaned the kitchen because I wanted to smoke. Conversely, each of those seven days Radio had danced, colored, pooped, or “hidden” in her jacket as opposed to cleaning the floors in the main room. Radio wanted to smoke, too, but Radio didn’t understand the cause and effect relationship between the completion of her chore and everyone being permitted to smoke. She also didn’t have any cigarettes of her own. As a consequence of these forces, for a week I’d been doing both of our chores so that we could both smoke my cigarettes. With each day my frustration with Radio, and with my captivity, mounted.
On the eighth day, I wiped, swept, and mopped the kitchen, but did not clean Radio’s floors. I glanced over the dirty laminate while walking to the sliding glass door that led to the smoking circle. I planted my feet and stared through the glass. I heard Old Baby’s walker slide into position to my right, Hat Man’s breathing a pace behind my head, and Radio’s radio pumping Katy Perry louder and louder as she stomped atop the floor she had not cleaned. Vape Staff exited the office, looked from her watch to the floor of dust and dirt, and said, “Ya’ll gonna miss your smoke break.”
Once on a golf course in Minnesota when my dad snarled insults at me, I raised a club over my shoulder. My dad’s mouth gaped and tears streamed over my face as I yelled that I wanted to beat the shit out of him.
I felt the same way now. I spun on my heel from human target to human target. I suggested Old Baby be moved to a nursing home or the grave. I complained of having to clear household poisons from Hat Man’s path so he wouldn’t drink them. I pointed out how absurd it was of him to be less embarrassed by 30 failed rehabs than going bald. And yes, we knew he was going bald. I spoke to Vape Staff as if Radio did not exist and demanded Radio be sent somewhere with strapped jackets and soothing lights. I asked why someone with no damaged reasoning skills was being held to the same standard as me, and more importantly, why my my freedoms were tethered to the actions of someone with damaged reasoning skills. I told Vape Staff I was super glad she’d stopped snorting meth long enough to have a baby—that the whole world was really, very grateful she reproduced. I asked her if she got off on having power over someone like me, knowing that if humanity’s lifeboat had room for only one person, she’d be left in the sea while I was given the seat.
My whole body was hot, and I knew my veins were showing, and everyone’s eyes were wide except for Vape Staff’s. Katy Perry did not stop singing; the floor remained dirty, and our bodies continued to stand inside a partially constructed rehab. Radio looked at Vape Staff for translation.
Vape Staff began to take a step towards me but brought her foot back beneath herself. She took a breath while looking at the ceiling and then said, “Every day you have chores at the same time, and every day they have to be done before you can smoke. And every day Radio doesn’t do her chores and every day you get more and more mad. Tell me, if she’s never done her chore but every day you expect her to, and then blow your lid when she doesn’t do it—which of you has damaged cognition? The one dancing instead of doing chores, or the one losing his fuckin’ mind about somethin’ that predictable?”
I said nothing. I’d become very heavy and tired.
Vape Staff said, “Ya’ll go smoke,” and I knew the command did not include me. She spun on her spot and over her shoulder said, “Well at least that was finally something real. Come on, smart man, let’s start pullin’ your pretty head outta your ass.” I followed her.
Vape Staff sat in a cheap computer chair behind a corner desk. One portion of the plastic-wood desk was between us and the other against the wall to my right. There were no posters or paintings on the walls, and books were stacked on top of one another, beside an empty bookshelf. The carpet was brown and thin—as hard and bland as the cement beneath it. She flicked a lamp on and told me to get the overhead light.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “Really.” I slouched into my chair and found places to rest my head and arms and feet. “I’m not usually that type of person.”
“What type of person is that?”
“The type that passes hurt around. Yelling. Screaming.” I looked at my stretching and lightly flexing hands.
Vape Staff pulled two stapled sheets from a folder, and I knew it to be a packet I’d filled out. The place operated on packets and essays and two books. I’d done the packets and read the books because I planned to demonstrate the ineffectiveness of Recovery House. I was determined my time would be punitive, not correctional, and I would be blameless.
“Financial Status,” she read, “$56,000 in debt.” I reclined in my chair and closed my eyes, allowing the oration of my ruin to land on my smiling face.
“Not quite the rich boy we all thought, huh?” She was smiling kindly.
“I think debt is probably better than being poor.”
“Guess it don’t take money to be a rich boy,” she said. “Relationships Status: ‘Family would prefer I be different or in another family. Girlfriend—never to be introduced to family or friends. Tired of being lonely surrounded by people. Decided lonely, alone, is better.’”
I nodded my chin with each of those points I’d made against myself. I ran the fingers of my right hand along my left forearm. I leaned my right ear towards my right shoulder, then my left ear towards my left shoulder.
“Emotional Status: ‘None. I’ve become who I will always be, and whoever that is hates being whoever that is. Wish I didn’t have to outlive my parents.’” When Vape Staff looked up from the packet, I winced. “Sure, no problems here,” she said sarcastically.
I mimicked her ironic tone and said, “As I said…”
“Employment Status,” she continued, her eyes back on the packet. “‘Was once a Senior Development Manager, but reduced to, most recently, Bartending. Which was not a success, either. I was fired when a server drank from my cup that she thought was full of orange tea. It was mostly tequila and she vomited on the floor.’ I thought you said you had a career or something? Moving on,” she said.
“Housing Status: ‘Rented room in a shared home. Nothing on the walls and bottles across the floor. Bed broken. Roommates complained to the landlord about me leaving the front door wide-open through the night, multiple times. I denied it, but it was true. One roommate stopped me in the hall, and cried, and said she thought I might die.’”
Vape Staff’s hands remained still, she allowed the packet to slide flat onto her desk, and she clasped the fingers from both hands together. She had one leg crossed over the other, and to the side of her desk I could see her bouncing both both legs with the ball of her planted foot.
“You better add ‘in rehab’ to that resume,” I said.
“In rehab,” she said through a smile. Her eyes held light in them; I could tell there was warmth towards me, from her, for the first time. I could tell I was safe.
“So,” she said playfully, “things ain’t so good, huh? Maybe they were once, but right now, today, things ain’t so good.”
“No they AIN’T,” I said.
“Okay,” she said, gently clapping her hands on the edge of the desk, “tell me the first real thing. Something actually true.”
“True, how?” I asked.
“How you yelled just now, that’s not from nowhere. Where’s that from? And don’t tell me you were mad or sad and it doesn’t have to be about alcohol, but tell me a real thing that actually happened.”
I watched shadows appear and disappear along the tops of my hands as the tendons beneath them flexed and relaxed. I sucked in through my nose and heaved big air from my mouth. I looked at the ceiling and then the yellow desk. I found her eyes.
“There are two things I’ve been thinking of, actually, and I don’t know why. And I like to think I can figure out why I’m thinking things. There are some years that I don’t, and nobody knows this, but I don’t remember anything. Like, I just can’t remember a thing that happened.”
“Okay. That’s okay,” she said. “Don’t worry about that. That happens. But tell me something you do remember. Tell me the pictures you see when you close your eyes or when you’re trying to sleep.”
I closed my eyes and knew the beginning of the true thing but pushed around trying to find something else. I was out of everything else.
“Okay. So, I know it’s not a huge thing. Like, I can’t imagine the shit you hear. And it’s embarrassing, really, and I don’t know what it has to do with anything, but the first thing was with my dad. I remember, he was wearing his super short shorts, a white undershirt, and always, he always had a cigar in his mouth. He stopped drinking before I was born, and apparently that’s when he started with the cigars. Anyway, he chewed on them all the time. In the car, on the couch, in restaurants where nobody could smoke, on the beach, in church, at my school.”
Vape Staff laughed a little and I did too.
“It’s like the bad guys in Captain Planet,” I said.
“Never saw it. Keep going.”
“Anyway, he was sitting in this puddle in our side yard. Muddy and sweating, and moving his whole body trying to do some yard thing. It was a sprinkler, or a sprinkler line or something. I don’t know if he was pulling or pushing, or what. But I was supposed to be helping him, and he asked me to go get a tool from his chest in the garage, and he said the name of the tool. I don’t know if it was some kind of wrench, or … well, I mean I think I would know a wrench. Maybe it was something else. I can’t remember. Anyway, I ran back to the garage, opened the chest, and looked at all of the tools. I couldn’t figure out which one was the thing he had said. I was little, maybe 11, but not young enough not to know. I know that. But I didn’t … hey! C’mon! That’s not fair.”
Vape Staff’s vape was sliding from her pocket to her mouth and she smiled at my protestation and winked me on.
“Well, I grabbed two different tools and brought them back to him, sitting myself down outside the puddle. Trying to buddy with him because I was pretty sure I’d fucked it up, ya know? Well, he was quiet and I was quiet and I knew it was a fuck up and he told me to listen when he talks. ‘Actually listen,’ he always said. And, how about that? The only thing I remember is him always yelling at me to listen to him.”
Vape Staff did not laugh or say anything.
“Anyway, so he tells me the name of a tool again, and I listen again, and I run as fast as I fucking can back to the box in the garage. And I must have taken forever because I held every one of those tools in my hands and tried to imagine how they could be used.” I showed Vape Staff a puzzled face looking at hands holding invisible tools and I smiled so she would laugh but she did not.
“Well, whichever tool I held seemed to be the very dumbest tool anyone would ever bring back to him, ya know? It’s like if you’re driving in a town you’ve never been in and someone’s riding with you who lives there. The person who lives there forgets to give you directions and then shouts ‘LEFT, LEFT, LEFT,’ as if you’re an idiot for almost going straight. I only knew I should know the tool, but I had no idea how I could have known tools, know what I mean?”
She nodded her head with her vape in her mouth. I pulled my extended legs in and moved to the front of my chair.
“I tried to figure it out. I flipped those things around in my hand and tried to imagine how they could be used. I tried to remember a scene on TV with tools in it. Sometimes I confuse which things I should have known and which things I’ve forgotten. Well, the names of tools aren’t and weren’t on the tools, and I didn’t think anyone had ever shown me all of the tools or told me what they were called. I figured if nobody had shown me the tools, or told me what they did, it was because that’s the sort of thing that any actual man would already know. And so, I probably took forever while he’s sitting out in the mud trying to make our house better, and he probably assumed I was being lazy. Because I would do that. Just forget I was supposed to be doing a thing. But I wasn’t this time. I was really doing all sorts of shit trying to get it right. But, of course, I came back with a lot of wrong tools, again.”
I set my feet away from my chair, again, crossed one leg over the other, and leaned backward so my head rested on the back of the chair. Vape Staff watched me for a moment and pulled the vape centimeters from her mouth and said, “AND.”
“AND what? That’s my point. I have no fucking clue.”
“AND,” she said again, “what’s the rest of our story? Finish it.”
“Oh. I dunno, it’s nothing. He probably got mad and I probably got scared and then he probably had to go get the right thing himself.”
“No, go back to where you were. Just finish it for me, will you? Close your eyes and finish it like you were tellin it.”
I dropped the back of my head towards the floor and sent an ‘ahh’ towards the ceiling. I closed my eyes, again.
“Okay. So, I went back to him with about as many tools as I could carry, and his face was mad the whole time I was walking towards him, but I had to go to him. My Dad was not always this way. He’s a good man, now. I think something was going on. I know he was on the couch for a while, around that time. But when I was little I never knew when he came home if we were going to play catch, or wrestle, or if he was going to lose his shit on me. And my sister, she’s 12 years older than me. She had it way worse. I mean, I think he abandoned her for a year. He was drinking then.”
Vape Staff interrupted with, “Wilson. What happened!?”
“I’m a parenthetical speaker! So, his veins showed and his face got redder and he started rolling his tongue around in his cheek and biting it, all of which he always did, and he lowered his face to mine and pointed his finger into the spot between my eyes and it vibrated. He just screamed and yelled, and he didn’t push me or yank me or belt me. I kept my eyes open. I stared right into his insane face because I knew I couldn’t do anything to him—he was still way bigger than me and controlled my life—but I did want to, really badly. Then he just got quiet, with his voice still quivering and his teeth still chewing his tongue, and he said something like, ‘How about for once, you don’t be a dumb fuckin’ faggot, and ya think before ya do somethin.’ And I know it’s no excuse, but he grew up in a different time, and I’m sorry I said the word, it wasn’t always that word. His point was that I was an idiot. Whichever word he used, that was always the point.”
The room was too quiet for too long. I opened my eyes and said, “Look, it’s like what you said the first time we ever talked. You mentioned a bunch of stuff that happened to you, but you said it didn’t have anything to do with you being a drug addict. Well, the second true thing rolling around in my head is that I had a friend kill himself. But it’s not that I was broken by his dying. The thing I’ve been thinking about is how I wish losing him hurt more than it does. I’m not going to go through that whole story, but right after I found out he’d killed himself, I didn’t sleep for two days. And you hear people say shit like, ‘I didn’t sleep at all last night!,’ but those people are lying. I’m saying, I watched the red digital numbers of a clock move from 1 am to 7 am. Two nights in a row. And this isn’t what you think, it’s not me saying, ‘Look how bad I’ve had it.’ Because the truth is, I wasn’t even sad during or between any of those minutes. I wasn’t sad at all. I mostly just thought about the details of the thing. Imagining him shooting himself in the head. Imagining him shooting himself in the chest. Both, because I didn’t know which he had done. Just thoughts, though, not feeling any of it. And if I’m really honest, I didn’t imagine that stuff much. I spent most of those two nights thinking of really stupid shit like which day my dry cleaning would be done, or my fantasy football team, or girls at work or whatever. And I’ll say this and I’ll shut up. The entire point of everything I am telling you is that I have seen how people look at me. I like that when I drink during the day in a shitty bar, people look at me like, ‘Woah, what is he doing here?’ I think I even started going to shittier bars because I liked people looking at me that way. And I’ve had people ask me—girlfriends or bartenders or drunks—they say, ‘Did something happen to you?’ They say it with real concern. I tell those people I witnessed my friend’s suicide, or my dad beat me, neither of which is true. I lie to them because that would explain me ending up being who I am. Those things—my dad and my friend—have nothing to do with why I am who I am. I don’t feel those things at all. It’s not booze, or my dad, or trauma. It’s that being alive is unpleasant. And I saw what Andrew’s suicide did to people. To his family and my friends. And I love my dad. And I love my family. So for me, there’s no suicide. There’s only drinking.”
I felt tired and heavy, and I could not remember what my point was. I closed my mouth and dropped my chin to my chest, rolling my face towards my right and then left shoulder, stretching my neck.
“Okay,” Vape Staff said casually, rocking a little in her chair.
“Okay, what?” I asked, watching her swivel.
“You think the whole planet is set up wrong, or you think you’re set up wrong. So, why not drink your brains dead? Well, Wilson,” she said, leaning her arms onto the desk in front of her and lunging her torso towards me, “first of all, it was wrong. What your dad did to you. It was wrong every time it happened. Just like what happened to me was wrong. And a friend killing himself is gonna fuck you up. Whether you think it did or not. And you did good just now. You told the truth. But now, my job, now that we are both in the real world, isn’t to help you figure out why or what makes you see drinking as the best option. My job is your solution. How to get you living while you’re still alive. Because there’s stuff for you to do. And Wilson, this is a promise: if you take my suggestions and actually do them, you will hurt other people less. And then you will hurt less. Forget about drinking or not drinking, and just think about hurting less and causing less hurting, okay?” She was smiling mischievously, and I straightened my back.
“Okay,” I said. “Whatever. I’ll do whatever.”
“Good. Then you go on outside, and you have you a smoke. But before you come back inside, you take ten whole seconds, and you choose whatever you want. It can be the sun, or grass, or all of nature, or time, or Jesus Christ. Anything you think is good, and has always been good, and will always be good. Anything like that, and you spend ten seconds imagining or looking at that thing and you just think or say, over and over, ‘help me.’” Vape Staff pulled her arms from her desk and leaned back into her chair, content with her words. I laughed with my mouth open but she did not join me.
“What?” I said. “Come on. You’ve got to be kidding?”
“Nope. You don’t have to mean it, but ten whole seconds,” she said without changing her posture, “or have you already forgotten ‘I’ll do whatever?’”
I didn’t move for a moment. My hands each held one of my knees, and I said, “Whatever. Yeah, whatever. I said I’d do whatever, and I couldn’t have fathomed something less helpful. But it doesn’t matter.”
I sat in the least broken of the mismatched chairs, alone, outside of Recovery House. Colors began to shade the light of the setting sun. I watched the smoke leave my cigarette, and I thought of this character in War and Peace. A Russian prince. This prince had a dad who loved him but was sometimes a jerk. The prince was born into unbelievable wealth, and into a class of society that was privileged, and the prince met a beautiful wife who adored him. He was handsome and clever, and even decently brave.
Napoleon was conquering Europe and storming the prince’s homeland. The Russian monarchy was falling apart. Suffering began to traverse class. The table was set for this prince to do something significant, something helpful, maybe even something heroic. Me and the characters in the book all wanted and needed the prince to be as good and as capable as we hoped him to be. Good enough to make things better. And, at first, he tried. He tried to do something about the invading conquest, he tried to do something about the stark wealth disparity in his country, and he tried to do something about his absent affection for his wife. But Napoleon continued invading, the peasants remained oppressed, and his wife died—seemingly sick with sadness. And the prince came to know invisible crookedness, a perversion of his soul, which cursed his actions. The prince bathed in self-loathing and delusions about his own power, and despite being born with everything everyone wanted, the prince was miserable. He left the city for the country, busied his hands with household chores, and entirely committed himself to cause no more harm.
Then I thought of towel racks. There were no towel racks in the shared men’s restroom of Recovery House. In the mornings, when we were finally allowed into the restroom, I stormed the space with a full bladder and damp towel. I peed in the toilet while assuming Hat Mat and Old Baby peed in the showers, and then I draped my towel over the curtain rod. While I soaked beneath the shower head, my towel did as well. I imagined the director of Recovery House checking boxes on a sheet of paper. “Soap,” “lights,” and “toilet paper,” checked. “Towel racks” unchecked.
A towel rack would have been nice. I could have rested my towel on it, and my towel would have been dry after I’d showered. Almost everywhere I’d ever lived, I realized, had towel racks. I felt grateful for those hundreds of racks that had kept my hundreds of towels dry. The racks were never in my way, I’d never hurt myself on one, and I guessed the same was probably true for everyone else. A towel rack wasn’t much of a thing, but it wasn’t a bad thing.
I stared at the ground beside the cigarette-butt tower. I heard my own breath for the first time in a long time.
My parents owned a rental house, not a Russian estate. My girlfriend was pissed about her birthday, not dying from heartache. And I may have been sad, but a fight behind a Walmart was the closest I’d been to war. I wasn’t a prince. I was dissatisfied with endemic privilege. My failures would not be the subject of hundreds of lectures but of a few text messages. When I crossed the minds of friends and family they would say to one another, “It’s hard to believe, isn’t it?” or “What a shame, huh?” I knew money would do nothing for me. I knew I would not fix any significant problems or play an important role in any story. But I thought I might be able to be useful, like a towel rack. I thought I might be able to cause no more harm.
I stood from my chair in the smoking circle and shoved butts into the cigarette tower. I heard radio commercials coming from inside, and pictured Hat Man, Old Baby, and Radio around our little dining table. Radio was probably mainlining sugar to spite Hat Man, and Old Baby was probably passing mashed balls of bread from his lips to his seat. Vape Staff was probably in her office where I’d left her, packing a water bottle or book into her large black shoulder bag. She’d probably be leaving soon and driving as quickly as she could to a home of love. Her husband was probably a good man, and her baby was probably swaddled in their affection. Vape Staff was probably happy.
I remembered walking down a snowy sidewalk in Denver, when I’d lived there a few years before. It felt like there were cords from my shoulders to my boots, and the cords were taut so each of my steps tugged me toward the ground. It was one of the winter holidays. The streets were empty, but the restaurants and bars were full. I remembered walking down the sidewalk while looking in the windows. Families, couples, and groups of friends seemed to exceed the capacity of the venues they shared, but their faces were red and everyone was smiling with their eyes. I remember seeing a table with people who looked just like me, who seemed happy to be with each other, and I wondered, almost aloud, “How do they do that?” My family had offered to fly me home, and coworkers had invited me out, but I’d known that taking a flight or joining a group would not have left me anywhere other than wondering what human thing I should have known, but didn’t, or if I’d forgotten something everyone else remembered.
Shadows were spreading from right to left across the facade of the rehab, and the orange jacket I’d inherited crinkled with my movements. I dropped my chin into my chest and saw that my shoes were pressed perfectly into their own prints. I moved my hands into the jacket pockets, closed my eyes, and remembered Vape Staff’s instructions.
Wilson (He/Him) is an MFA Candidate at Florida Atlantic University, and working in the field of mental healthcare. His work was recently published in The Florida Review and The Dillydoun Review. He was a finalist in the Under the Sun, Summer Writing Contest, and a finalist in the Arnold Kossoff “Pen-to-Paper” Writing Contest. He lives with Lou The Girl Dog, and she is in charge of his life. For more of his work @WilsonMacC.