Exit Wounds

Honk and I hop up to the bar, preening, magpies looking for shining girls. I’m all slicked-back hair and the kinda cheekbones you get after laying in bed for weeks eating nothing and listening to sad music. Honk bundled me into the shower and a clean shirt like ‘Do you think this is helping? You gotta get back in the game.’ Watching me brush my teeth like my mother, ‘Where’s your self respect at?’

We scoot around and knock back sour shot glasses and dance with girls with glitter-streaked tits and those glow in the dark rave sticks I remember from back in the 90’s – I remember Blue Lou once got ‘em confused with the sherbet ones, stoned out of his mind like, and bit the end off and had radioactive yellow all around his lips for a couple of nights.

I’m jiving with some girl under the orange strobes and I get this shudder running through me. I feel like ghosts are thick and close in here and I hope Honk is okay – he’s done up like Baron Samedi in a tailcoat and eyeliner and the girls are over him like pretty ants making sly, sliding eyes at a lonely honey jar. I try and focus on the mermaid shoulders of the girl in front of me, painted artful green-blue.

‘What’s your name?’

‘Annie, but most people call me AK!’ We’re shouting at one another in that eardrum-busting intimacy you get anywhere people are trying to figure out if they can screw to a bassline.

‘AK?’

’47!’ she yells, her hand picking out that pop-pop, wrists flickering.

‘That’s my lucky number!’

She spins around so I can see the lotus flower tattooed between her shoulder blades, between the thin ruby straps of her flimsy Indian cotton top. She tips a finger under my chin. ‘You’re cute.’

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The room spins and I gotta find Honk. I look over the jostling folks for his top hat, and I think I see it, but the face underneath is some pointy-chinned pixie-woman, all appropriative Bindi’s and the same fucking Indian cotton tops and patchouli oil. Honk’s type all over. I hope he ain’t snorting anything. I watch silver bangles glinting as arms raise themselves up to the beat, hypnotised like watching sunlight on the water. Annie is trying to grind her hips into mine and I’m just kinda standing there like my sleeves are stuffed with straw, like my eyes are painted on a sack and I got an old pitchfork handle up under my coat and it’s real awkward.

When I wake up I know I ain’t slept with anyone, and not just because the rest of the bed is the same sick unhappy fossil I got dragged out of last night. You can tell when you’ve shared a bed with someone, there’s a warmth there that doesn’t leave when they do.

I shuck myself back into my fraying blue denim pants and I need a coffee because I’m itching everywhere. Scratch under my chin and find this weal like a big bug bite, a white lump under the surface like a spider egg. But I can’t kid myself cause I know it’s weeks of shit eating their way out of me. Pints of cheap alcohol and metal sweat and bad convenience food that you cook under a pierced plastic film. Honk is there, watering the goddamn plants. He slumps into a chair and hooks his long pale foot around the table leg. He ain’t smiling, he’s looking at my phone like a black brick on the side, by the shiny green plant leaves freckled with tap water.

‘You don’t have to do it,’ he says first off. No preamble or nothing. I go check my phone and Jack is there like a ministering angel saying Man that sounds tough you wanna catch a flight and come straight out? Come stay in the cabin, we got plenty trees and whiskey and boo ain’t no trouble.

When I don’t say anything he pours me out some strong black. ‘Come on, you don’t have to do that, I’ll take you to the sea, huh?’

It takes a while before I can get my head around it. I push my hands out like I’m trying to show off the size of a fish I caught and let my hangover do the honest talking. ‘It’s no good, man. I can’t just go put my feet in the water, I need to…I need to put the big water between me and it.’

We just wait a while, listening to the traffic through the thin little window panes. We aren’t in St Anthony’s now but somehow the beds are still all floor mattresses and the hob rings are always crusted up with pasta sauce and the sunlight still filters through a sweatshop Om. I can smell ancient cigarette ash like this rickety two-floor over the electricians is our own personal Pompeii. I get a crazy sweat on, I don’t wanna be found by tourists in the same terrified position, palms up against a rain of fire.

He asks it straight. ‘What am I gonna do if you take off to fucking America? With that crazy bitch in the middle of no-place?’

He means Boo and their marital troubles, but I just murmur all noncommittal, ‘He says she’s okay now.’

He snorts, ‘This ain’t the way to get over it.’

Just then, I hear someone come out of the bathroom. It takes me a second to place those seaweed green shoulders but then her face slots into my memory like a penny.

‘Hey AK.’

She wraps the towel tighter around herself, eyes wary like her body got caught speeding. I stare at Honk.

‘You got some nerve, son.’

He just shrugs, sips his coffee. ‘More than you, yeah?’

I’m booked on that plane before 47 fires out through the front door, all stained flannel, and recoil and exit wounds.

Ordinary Pain

Grief is a glass jar.

I said this to a strange woman in church once, as we sat and stared at the colours bleeding through a window as the sun went down. Green stems snaking around an angel in robes of red and blue. I looked at the detail in the golden feathers of the angel who was standing under what I think was a lemon tree – although I have never seen a lemon tree so perhaps it wasn’t – holding an open book. Nothing legible was written there.

I can’t remember the kind of day I’d had, but I know that church well enough to know that I don’t go there when I’m in a good place. I go there to wrap the silence around me, to breathe in the dusty skin of all the compassionate stones who remember some of the worst days of my life. They swallow my footsteps the same way the gentle earth outside has swallowed the footsteps of almost everyone in this parish and washed them down with more stone.

‘Grief is a glass jar in your head, full of a terrible rotting black liquid, and the aim of the game in our society is to walk around without spilling any because if you do, it will seep down through your brain and onto your tongue and everything you think and say after that will be stained with it.’

The woman was silent, just shifted on the pew as the thick muffled thump of the clock hands boomed above us.

‘Your breath becomes foul with it, and once it’s on your skin it never washes off. Everyone you used to know avoids you in the end. What happened to processing this stuff? What happened to wearing black for a year and eating bread and salt and wearing a necklace out of their hair?’

The quiet stretched out ahead of us both like a road. Then the woman reached over a took my hand. Hers was wrinkled and spotted brown like a hen’s egg and her hair was a brittle cloud tinged with the blue-violet of an oncoming storm. Her son’s name was in the book of rememberance on the far wall and she had been eating bread and salt for years, and she knew the weight of the glass jar and the taste of that rotting fluid very well. We said we’d get a coffee sometime, but addiction ate me the same year and I never did.

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Years later I’m sitting in a semi-circle of addicts in DBT, the faux leather chairs are wipe-down for those moments when someone’s detox overtakes them and they vomit up the jacket potatoes that are part of the wallpaper of days in the clinic. The booklet held in front of me says that immersing your face in cold water can be a calming physical coping strategy for dealing with ordinary pain.

I spent the rest of the day wondering about those words. I guess ordinary pain is not getting the job, or realising your ex has moved on, or breaking up on your birthday, or realising you shelved your dreams to have the children you weren’t sure you wanted but felt you should have, or watching an old friendship become distant and awkward, or falling in love with someone you can’t have, or your house burning down.

When I got out of treatment I sat in a meeting where a man’s mother had died only a few hours before. He said he could have been in the pub but he preferred to be with us. He could have talked all night and that circle of people would still have been there, like the petrified, ritualistic mummies sometimes found in ancient caves. A circle of frozen addicts, in awe of the sacred.

His face had the same stain as the woman who’d lost her son, as so many faces I’ve seen across the years. Etched like battery acid by that foul corpse fluid of grief, embalming us while still alive, draining us into premature age with the effort it takes a heart to pump stagnant water. I thought about that booklet then, watching him collapse. In my mind’s eye I saw him putting his face into a sink of icy water. I thought of all the counsellors who would tell him there was no out-of-order death, we expect our parents to go before us, so what he was experiencing was just ordinary pain.

I’m sure that booklet has many valuable things to say, I’m sure it can help many people reconcile conflicting thought patterns and find better coping mechanisms for their individual problems.

I tore it up when I got home.