In the dark corners of obscurity I hid, back to wall, calves to pavement. My trembling fingers held a precious trip, an uncontrollable, treacherous thirst demanding its quenching comfort. Too soon I would be on the brink of desperation and gripped by that horrid fear that haunted escaping moments of lucidity. Unwilling to have it manifest, I administered the antidote...inhaled its healing ambrosia... then slumped forward till my forehead rested on the rough, pebbly asphalt. Now to wait for it to take effect.
How I loathed that ineffable transition from reality to relief. In it dwelt sharp awareness and regret, all bound tightly by a cutting sense of worthlessness. I closed my eyes tightly against the thousands of thoughts that threatened to take shape. Holding my breath, I began counting back from twenty. Twenty, nineteen, eighteen...I clenched my hands into tight fists, my knuckles popping out white and fierce against the boniness of my flesh. They were skeletal, marked by thick blue veins. Seventeen, sixteen, fifteen, fourteen...
How did I get here?
The question somehow forced its way past my deeply entrenched wall of mindlessness. I tried to stabilize myself and grip the gravel beneath my palms, my sweat making it slick under my touch. I began to rock back and forth, willing the drug to course through my veins. I didn’t want to think of how I got here - crouched behind the dumpster of a grocery store, at the mercy of venom I couldn’t live without, captive of a spell I didn’t understand. Thirteen, twelve... My senses were coming into focus even while they were spiralling out of control. And I could hear THEM whispering in my ear as always...breathing down my neck, sending my body into a terrible, clenching chill. I struggled to understand what they were saying but couldn’t decipher their chatter under the din of my own sharpening consciousness. Eleven, ten, nine, eight...as my shoulders began to sag, I felt my dread lift. It was happening...that sweet deliverance that paid for every second of struggle in full. I let myself free fall into it... Seven, six, five...into that warm pocket in the continuum of time where I was safe...where the voices are gone...four, three, two... I laid my body into its fetal position and surrendered myself to the darkness of destructive light. One.
Above me, the grey sky opened and winter’s first snow began to fall from the silent heavens. Unaware, I lay still, hugging away the cold until the cigarette fell from my frozen lips.
When I was a kid, I remember my Dad telling me that only the strong survive.
We were sitting on the banks of the Pugwash River with our fishing rods thrown hopefully out into the murky depths of the water, our reverent hush broken only by the occasional cry of a loon or ripple of water from our impatient shaking of the line. Dad was leaning laconically back on the soft grass within gazing distance of his prized Chevy ’51, fishing line in one hand, cold Cola in the other. The brim of his Stetson was characteristically low over his eyes, shielding them from the hot sunshine. I was sitting beside him leaning forward, feet in water, hands gripped tightly on the handle, waiting for that gentle, tell-tale tug on the end of my line.
The smell from the salt mines across the bay interlaced itself with the warm mid-day breeze, and together they danced across the surface of the river in synchronized perfection. All around us the trees rustled in quiet whispers, calling out our primordial reflexes to unwind at calm’s benediction. Our steady tranquility was only ever compromised with the hollers and shouts that a successful catch would bring.
That day I had my first catch. It was only a tiny mackerel fish, about the length of a fork but the way Dad reacted to my success made me feel like I had just landed the king of the river. He hollered out bursts of instructions for hauling it in, though his advice was unneeded as he practically grabbed the line from my hands in his eagerness to reel it to shore. When my catch at our feet, I stared down at its twitching body at the end of my hook, and felt a sudden, unexpected but acute sense of regret. I had caused its struggle, my hook puncturing his hungry mouth. I had killed a little bit of life.
“What’s the matter, Jack?” Squatted back on his heels, Dad pushed back his cap to meet my eyes.
“I feel kind of...I don’t know...sorry for it.” I confessed almost guilty, squinting through my glasses at my Dad’s stern face, framed by the sun.
Dad leaned down and picked it up from the ground. Taking my hand, he un-curled my fist and placed the fish in my palm.
“Feel how small he is,” He brushed his hands down his pants, and then waved one out towards the water.
“Out there are thousands of fish. Some big, some small. It’s the circle of life son, the food chain. Only the strong survive.” Dad was a man of very few words, and when he spoke I listened...but this time I didn’t really understand. It didn’t seem fair to me– how pitiable that the small, weak creatures should be caught while the strong ones swam free.
I’m not sure exactly when I first became aware of the fact that I was not one of the strong ones.
Maybe it was in Mrs. O’Brian’s second grade class, when she caught me with a stash of marbles clenched in my fist one morning during Geography. For some reason, Mrs. O’Brian had it stuck in her head that children who played marbles were no better than the devil’s spawn. Perhaps it had something to do with fact that a bunch of us boys had once been caught gouging a hole in the soil strip adjacent to her property for one of our tournaments, not knowing we were tampering with her carefully coddled geranium bed. We had gotten the talking down of our young lives and from that time on, she had instituted a strict, religiously kept ‘No Marbles’ policy of which I had been caught offending. Unfortunately on that day, I was the proverbial straw that broke her back.
“Jack, come to the front of the class,” she demanded in her gravelly voice. She had her arms folded across her heavy bosom, and she glowered down at me, anger hardening the lines in her face.
I scuttled to the front, terrified. I was not a troublemaker at heart, only cursed with the zealous forgetfulness of a growing boy. My tender conscience wilted under authority and my stomach rumbled with anxiety. She placed a thick hand heavily on my boney shoulder. My glasses tilted forward with the impact.
“Jack has been very bad, class and I have no choice but to administer the strap.”
I could smell perspiration emanating from her. I felt like I was going to be sick.
“Mrs. O’Brian....” I whispered weakly, clenching my teeth against the pressing illness.
She didn’t hear me, or at least pretended not to. She marched me to the front corner of the room and yanked me to face the chalk board. There with my face pressed against the dusty board, I felt my stomach give a foreboding heave and in front of the whole class and across my feet I promptly became very sick.
I can still hear the laughter of the class behind me.
Or maybe it was when I fifteen and first got offered a dirty cigarette.
Toby McInnis leaned over and whispered in my ear during recess one day that he had found something in his brother’s room that I had to see.
“What is it?” I didn’t want to be stupid in front of Toby, but my naivety couldn’t help but show in light of his intense tone.
He reached in his pocket and pulled out a cigarette.
"Want to try?" He hissed, pushing the butt of it against my tightly tucked in shirt.
I didn't say anything. The only people I had ever seen smoke were adults. Mom and Dad often lounged in the evenings with smoking cigarettes cradled in yellowed fingers. I had always thought it a gross habit -- the overwhelming, cloying scent of nicotine, the stained teeth and fingers, the smokey breath and rattling coughs.
"Chicken," He slid it back into his jacket pocket, taking my silence as a refusal. "I did it. It was a kick."
"Give it to me," I said suddenly and forcefully. Something was pushing me to conquer my weakness -- to be uncharacteristic and unafraid.
Toby's eyebrows raised, clearly surprised by my response. But I saw something in his eyes that caused my heart to jump, caused me to grab the cigarette from him as fast as I could and caused me to put it to my lips against my inner conscience.
It was a look of approval. A look that said I had impressed him, had crossed a line between being weak and being popular. It was a look that suggested that I belonged to something. And for my lonely, twisted sense of self-worth, that still felt like the little boy who had threw up on his shoes in front of the class, it was the best thing.
That silent sanction from Toby McInnis five years ago had propelled me on a journey of discovering a new world of acceptance. It took me kindly by the hand at first, leading me gently over the threshold of a place that felt like belonging. It wooed me into a pattern of reliance, a life of controlling how I could feel, how I could act. It was only now I was beginning to realize the high price I had paid. It had given me security yes, but demanded in return my sanity. And somewhere along the way, between being an innocent child fishing on the shores of the Pugwash River, to being a young man on the brink of depravity, I had become one of those helpless mackerels flopping at the end of the line -- struggling for air, while the strong swam free all around me.
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