Saturday, November 12, 2011

Approaching November 17th

Laying here in bed, I find myself wishing that I could think of something more productive to be doing with my time but lacking the basic motivation required to act upon that desire. I want to sleep, and wake up to a different life somehow...one in which I haven't almost entirely destroyed any hope I might have for a worthwhile future with a seemingly endless series of stupid choices and poor decisions. Wouldn't it be nice if things could be solved with such simplicity, to just sleep away a miserable existence and live in dreams from there on out? Too bad I can't help but feel that somewhere down inside I would know that I was only dreaming and that the replacement life was illusory in nature. Self-awareness can be a terrible thing sometimes.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Unspoken: Chapter Two [Draft #3]

     The afternoon was already upon him when he finally woke up from what he assumed must have been an untroubled slumber. Ever since he was a child he never remembered his dreams, but he always knew when they had been nightmares; something troubling yet ill-defined would carry over into those first waking moments and sometimes linger until he had gone through some of his morning routine. He was pristinely at ease this afternoon though, and he felt well rested, so he could safely assume that his sleep had been undisturbed this time. He was grateful for that small blessing, because nightmares had been uncomfortably common over the past few years, and he didn’t like how that lingering unease would filter further and further through his day tainting the rest of it with something approaching low-grade dread. This was especially true on the days when he knew that he had a shift at the institution ahead of him. The place was, at best, unnerving on the most innocent and comfortable days.
     He stretched until he felt as if he might strain a muscle, rolling himself towards the edge of his bed before sliding his legs over the edge. He plodded from his bed into the bathroom and stared at himself in the mirror under fluorescent lights for a few minutes, zoning out in the process. He wasn’t an unattractive man. He was honest enough to admit that to himself without feeling overcome by shame brought on by his sense of modesty. It had been a couple of weeks since he had shaved and he eyed the razor on the countertop momentarily, but he didn’t feel any overwhelming motivations to rectify that situation just yet, so he casually disregarded the thought almost as soon as it surfaced.
     He felt like he was getting plenty of sleep, but he could make out faint, dark circles under his eyes just the same. Otherwise he still looked as healthy as he could have expected. His skin was unblemished, but he’d always had a fairly clear complexion, and decent hygiene helped to insure that it wouldn’t become any cause for concern in the near future. It was almost disappointing, he thought, that he hadn’t started developing the gray hairs that his mother was already showing when she was his age; he always thought that maybe a moderate amount of gray in his hair might make him look somewhat distinguished, but he wasn’t really in any rush to begin his way along the downward slope of the aging process.
     Finally done with his self-appraisal, he slid his boxers down to the floor and stepped into the shower. He always spent more time in there than was necessary or typically expected of a man, but he loved the sensation of the hot water, almost to the point of scalding, against his skin. Underneath the high-pressure stream of water, he closed his eyes and unconsciously imagined Leyna doing the same thing. He saw the beautiful contours of her form as he had only imagined it numerous times before, without her clothing obscuring the glorious sight. He imagined the water beading up on her pale skin, glistening in the steam-filled air of her shower. Even after sleeping for hours after seeing her, he just couldn’t dislodge these thoughts of her from his mind. He took these distracting musings as a sign that it was definitely time for him to finish up his shower. He wasn’t going to accomplish anything productive while fixating on her naked, wet figure in his imagination.
     After he was done with the abbreviated version of his daily grooming process, he padded through the living room to turn on his television before making his way to the kitchen to find something to eat. The options were limited since he hadn’t been motivated to take a trip to the grocery store in the past week, but there were sufficient alternatives for him to be satisfied with what he had.
     Nathan’s apartment was sparsely decorated, and upon casual appraisal hardly would have appeared lived in at all. Most of the furnishings that he owned were remnants left behind after the sale of his family’s home, things that he couldn’t quite part with for a variety of reasons. He hadn’t kept much, but sentimentality had required that he hold on to a few things, primarily the things that he found some utilitarian purpose in retaining in addition to the sentimental attachment. He subscribed to an almost monastic lifestyle, in large part because of the substantial amount of his income that was devoted to paying back his student loans. He had accumulated more than the average amount of debt due to a last minute change in majors that he felt he had to undertake. Far too frequently as he looked around his apartment he was reminded of the life that he had lived, of the history that had led him to the present, and the life that he was living now.
     During the final semester of his senior year at MIT where he was pursuing a degree in chemistry everything changed for him, his mother’s deteriorating mental health began to degrade at an accelerated rate.  The doctors referred to the collection of symptoms as early onset dementia, what he knew to be a catch-all diagnosis that definitely seemed to fit the conditions. It was painfully obvious that his mother was no longer capable of reliably providing care for herself, so he was forced to make a difficult decision, and his choice was to move back home and insure that she was being properly cared for and supervised. He regrettably withdrew from his courses, packed up the meager belongings that he had in the dorm that he resided in, and began the long drive back home.
     The following months were excruciating and depressing for him. His mother had always been a pinnacle of stability and strength in his eyes, something timeless and enduring. Seemingly overnight she had been transformed into a stranger parading around in his mother’s body. Her appearance seemed different as well, weaker than it had been previously. It was only a few months earlier when he had been home or Christmas break, blissfully unaware of his mother’s deteriorating state at the time, a decline that she was actively working to hide from him, skirting around any symptoms that she had manifested in his presence and chalking them off as nothing more than weariness taking its toll.
     It was a few months after he had returned home when he finally began looking into the programs offered by the state college that was located only a couple of miles from his family home. Because of the circumstances that he currently found himself surrounded by at home or maybe just because something in his priorities had changed, or perhaps it was something else entirely or a combination of numerous factors; whatever the cause, he found himself enrolling for classes the coming fall as a psychology major.
     His course schedule, though not terribly demanding in comparison with the work he had been doing at MIT, required that he hire a nurse to provide part-time care for his mother. Though the transition from MIT to where he was now enrolled had negated his scholarships, it had freed up the funds that he had earmarked for his first couple of years in graduate school, money that he and his mother had laboriously set aside for years. Instead of graduating the previous spring and beginning work on a Master’s, he was starting almost from scratch as an undergraduate again. All of his previous credit hours had transferred successfully, but almost none of them had any relevance toward his new focus.
     Paying the nurse out of the same account that he was tapping for his tuition, from the same funds that he had painstakingly set aside for the pursuit of an advanced degree that he knew would likely never be his, he shouldered a whole new collection of financial burdens by taking on another three years of student loans in order to obtain his psychology degree.
     Those three years had slipped by in a blur for him, no time for reflection or pleasurable pursuits. The time he didn’t dedicate to his education was spent caring for his ailing mother, her overall state of mind deteriorating further and further with rapid progression. A cocktail of medications did occasionally provide brief intervals of behavior akin to her former self. Every now and again he would connect with a former childhood friend, but for all intents and purposes there was neither the time nor the inclination in him to maintain anything approximating a friendship with anyone that he encountered. So, beyond his mother and the short interactions with her nurse or one or another physician that was evaluating his mother’s condition, he spent those years alone.
     He was relieved that his mother appeared to be reasonably lucid during his graduation ceremony, but that could Justas easily have been a figment of his hopeful imagination. It was, after all, less than a month later when she attempted to commit suicide. A moment of clarity had apparently led her to believe that she couldn’t bear to live the way that she was, as a shell of what she once was and a burden upon her only son. Unsuccessful as the attempt at self-termination may have been, it had effectively brought an end to his mother’s higher brain function.
     The period after graduation became something less celebratory than he would have preferred. In her attempt to relieve Nathan of the burden that she felt she had imposed upon him, his mother had created a whole new series of responsibilities that fell upon his shoulders. He was frantic to find some way to care for her now, keeping her at home was impossibility, and the finances required to maintain her simply were not there. After going through the difficult process of selling the house along with almost everything of value that was contained within it, he was left with enough to keep what was left of his mother alive with the assistance of machines for a couple more years.
     Nathan found himself left with fundamentally nothing, and more than enough debt for a single individual to comfortably carry; he was forced to accept the first job that was offered to him. This was how he found himself working overnights at the mental hospital. The pay really wasn’t horrible, the work itself was far from challenging, and the benefits were definitely well worth overlooking the fact that his occupation was certainly a step down from what he was hoping he might be able to obtain. It wasn’t the sort of facility that he was looking for, and the position wasn’t even close to what he thought he should be able to find, but he wasn’t in a position to be altogether too picky.
     His initial reservations against accepting the position were proven less relevant than he had feared. The environment was actually stimulating in ways that he hadn’t even considered, though he admittedly found the place a little spooky in the late night hours. The silence provided him with time to think, something that he quite desperately needed to do, after spending so much time at the frantic pace that the previous years had forced upon him. During the course of the previous few years, he had gone through his life almost wholly unaware of just how little time he was taking for himself, how little he had even entertained the thought that he might actually need to take some time for himself.
     Now, he actually had that time, and he was beginning to learn the benefits that could be derived from silence and time not spent dedicated to pressing responsibilities.
     More than the silence, though, something else was having a very profound impact on his state of mind and the personal realizations that he was becoming aware of since he had accepted this job. That thing was Leyna.
     He only worked with her occasionally, no more than two or three days during any given week, but those relatively rare periods of time quickly became the best thing about his week. He found himself almost perpetually thinking about her whenever his attention was free to wander. He was very much unwilling to assume that his thoughts of her could even potentially be a negative thing.
     Nathan didn’t have much of a dating history, and that was putting it kindly. His experiences with women were limited primarily to caring for his mother for the past handful of years, but he wasn’t unfamiliar with the concepts of courtship and romance. The fact that his most recent serious relationship had ben while he was in high school was a bit of a stumbling block for him, but nothing that he didn’t feel that he could overcome if she would give him the time of day. It was just going to take him some time before he could build up the nerve required to begin sincerely expressing any thoughts of a romantic or intimate nature in an extroverted manner. He had no difficulty admitting these thoughts to himself, but admitting them to another living, breathing human being might take a great deal more concerted effort.
     The fact of the matter was that he was almost terrified of sharing any of his thoughts with her, anything of a personal nature, at least those thoughts that pertained to her. He had been out of the dating world long enough that he lacked the confidence in his ability to adequately convey what he wanted to say without making a complete fool of himself. It had been years since he had experienced the advances of a woman, at least anything less subtle than a prolonged glance or maybe a smile, so he wasn’t even sure if he would recognize interest from anyone, especially someone that he desired so strongly himself. Any perceived cues could easily be nothing more than his wishful thinking taking hold and distorting something totally innocuous and transforming it into more than it really was.
     In reality, he needed her to do something very obvious, something clear and not easily open to misinterpretation on his part. It was going to continue being a nightmare for him, these feelings seething beneath the surface, fighting to break free of the restraints that he had imposed upon them. He knew he would probably never open his mouth and express what he so desperately ached to say to her, not without something from her giving him the faith in himself necessary to take that leap. He already felt mildly alienated around her, petrified at times that she could see right through the mask that he deliberately wore, and into the core of him. He knew those fears were ridiculous and verging on being outright paranoid at times. If she were aware of what he thought of her, it would be a damn clear indication of her lack of interest that she hadn’t said anything. Of course, there was a chance that she was just as plagued by doubt and insecurity as he was, even though he couldn’t begin to comprehend how she might have cause to feel that way.
     It wasn’t healthy, what he was doing to himself. He knew that he couldn’t keep dwelling on his unresolved and quite likely unrequited desire for her. It was enough that he had her friendship, or it should be, he kept telling himself. It was obviously unlikely that anything good could come of his thoughts always finding a way to return to his wishful thinking regarding her.
     He needed to get the hell out of his apartment, to do something active and productive. There was a well-stocked exercise facility on campus, and as alumni he was welcome to take advantage of the equipment any time that he wished. That was precisely what he needed, something to get his blood pumping, to distract him from these thoughts of Leyna, it was necessary that he take action to change his state of mind.
     He had a gym bag always ready in his closet. He grabbed the bag, turned off his television, locked the apartment, and headed out. She couldn’t haunt him all the time, it wasn’t good for him to allow it, and he was damn sure that exhausting himself through working out would clear his head for the first time in a couple of weeks. Even if it didn’t work, it was worth the effort of trying.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Unspoken: Chapter One [Draft #3]


            The acoustics carried the rhythmic sound of footsteps on sterile institutional linoleum in echoes down the darkened hall. In the stillness of the night, those echoes were like haunted whispers from some tragic, haunted past, murmuring seductively into Nathan’s ears. During the daytime hours, the mental hospital was an entirely different place, humming with sometimes erratic activity and displaying plenty of life. At night, it had the quality of a tomb.
            Occasionally there would arise the faint noises of sleeping moans or mutterings from one of the patients disturbing the silence, but for the most part their sleep was unbroken, the magic of sedatives producing peace where otherwise there might have been turmoil.
            As he walked down the corridors of his assigned ward, peeking into the occupied rooms during his routine circuit of this particular branch of the facility, the only thing that he could focus on was how much he wanted to hurry back to the common room shared between his ward and that of another co-worker of his. Leyna had fewer patients under her wing in the rooms on her rounds, so she would probably be back in the recreational area well before he finished up with his.
            This was what he looked forward to during the shifts that they happened to share, as relatively infrequent as they might be. The building itself was an eerie place, that much was true. And that alone was a satisfactory explanation as to why it was so important to spend the nights there with someone else rather than alone, in isolation within the staff offices located on the respective ward that one was assigned to.
            He could hear the muffled audio from the television as he approached the door into the common area. This was their routine on the nights that they were both there, sitting together and watching television, conversing on whatever happened to cross their minds, it was perhaps a bit banal and mundane but he spent every day anticipating the nights when he knew that he could look forward to her presence there with him. Neither of them suspected it, no one did yet, but the comfort he derived from these routines was something that Nathan would look back on with desperate longing in only a short time. Outside of the walls where they found themselves, something insidious was beginning, the world was changing in ways that no one could see yet, but nothing would ever be the same, and no one would remain untouched for long. For now, he was blissfully unaware, and in that tranquil ignorance everything went on as it had day after day.
            He used his identification badge to disengage the locking mechanism for the door rather than go through the trouble of pulling his keychain from his pocket, and as he opened it, he asked, “So, what are we going to be watching tonight?”
            She turned towards him where she was sitting, a smile stealing across her face. “I do have the first season of Beverly Hills 90210 with me on DVD; we could start with that and go from there,” he replied before turning back to the television, her smile transforming into a devious smirk as she did so.
            He couldn’t mask the look of disdain that immediately spread across his features, and clearly she wasn’t oblivious to his natural response to her flippant suggestion either. Without looking up from the sofa where she was still grinning she muttered just loud enough for him to hear her with a mocking pout to her tone, “Don’t judge me.”
            “I would never dare,” he replied, his tone one of mocking apology to match her own.
            “I could feel you judging me, your judgmental eyes boring a hole into me. Don’t try to deny it,” she said in her typical deadpan manner.
            The television displayed some animated program, the product of equal parts surrealism and the counter-culture desire to cross the line into poor taste and offensiveness, more than likely a fair amount of drug use in the mix as well. It didn’t matter what was being broadcast though, not to him, it was only background noise. Only occasionally did conversation lapse and attention shift to the screen and what was being displayed upon it.
            “So, what are your thoughts on abortion?” she asked abruptly, after a period of silence. He was too accustomed to the seemingly random shifts in conversation to be taken aback by the sudden question arising without preamble; though he was a little bit curious as to whether there was some personal reason inspiring the query.
            “Well,” he replied, “personally, I’m sort of against it. But I don’t think that other people should be expected to see things the same way that I do.” He paused for a second, trying to frame his thoughts, hoping to put things together coherently. “I guess it just seems wrong to me when a person or a group of people tries to force other people to behave as if they believed the same things that the group in question does.
            “What about you?” he continued, “What is your opinion on the subject?”
            “I just don’t like the thought of having anyone tell me what I need to do when it concerns something so personal,” she responded. He nodded, realizing that there wouldn’t be any further elaboration from her on the subject unless he happened to push forward. His timidity won out over curiosity though, and he refrained from asking her if there was something specific that had led to that particular issue being on her mind.
            The conversation continued on from there, spanning the hours as the end of their respective shifts approached, as all of their conversations did.
            The specifics of their dialogue weren’t of the greatest importance to him or apparently to her, but the conversation and companionship were both comforting and frequently entertaining, even when a good deal of the discussion was of a fairly superficial nature.
            There she sat; fewer than three feet from him, sharing the sofa, at opposite ends, while all he could think about was how much he wished that she was closer than she was. They talked for hours, subjects dissolving into tangents, discursive and without discernable pattern. The whole while he just couldn’t stop himself from thinking about how much he wanted her to move closer to him, to make some sort of indication that she was looking at him in the same way that he couldn’t help but look at her, with desire and growing affection.
            He imagined that he caught glances from her now and again, suggestive of something kindred to his own impulses regarding her, but he couldn’t silence the fear that spoke up in his mind, insisting that he was just letting wishful thinking play cruel games with his mind. He didn’t dare go out on a limb and express his desires to her, for fear of losing these opportunities to share her company and to enjoy this torturous proximity, knowing that the risk was simply too great that she would take his advance as an offense. Because, no matter how excruciating it was for him to have her so close while plagued with this fear and uncertainty, it was still the single best part about his nights these days and the one thing he actively enjoyed about his job. These precious hours in her presence made the days spent looking forward to them more than worth his while.
            She appealed to him in so many ways, and he longed to express these things to her in some way that might somehow win her affection. With words or with actions, he didn’t care about the specific form that expression might take; he simply wanted to lay everything out on the table. It ran contrary to his nature that he was having such a difficult time keeping these thoughts bottled up inside. He wished that he could pride himself on his candor, his willingness to always let everyone around him know precisely where they stood with respect to him, but that was not who he was. He wanted nothing more than to be a more confident man, to be the sort of person who would never hesitate to share what was on their mind; yet, here he was, afraid to do so much as touch on the surface contours of what he found himself thinking of her.
            Within only the first couple of weeks that he’d worked with her, he felt a definite irresistible bond with Leyna. It wasn’t just that she was as attractive to him as she happened to be. Attraction alone was a common enough thing that it could easily be dismissed. There was something more beneath the surface, a barely perceived connection that he couldn’t reconcile with what he knew of life and relationships, even solely for himself.
            It wasn’t enough that she appeared to share some of his ideological leanings on the surface. Even combined with his intense physical attraction to her, these apparent ideological similarities would not be adequate to explain the sense of resonance that he felt whenever she was even remotely nearby.
            The earlier years of his college education provided him with ample means to try and describe how he felt, but nothing that he would ever dare to say out loud to her. Oppositional charged ions could not have experienced a pull as powerful as the force that seemed to draw his attention steadily toward her. The gravitational attraction of a singularity seemed like it must pale in comparison with the lure that she held over him. Even without her near he found himself focusing on her, remembering her face with vivid clarity when he closed his eyes, the sound of her voice. She existed within his thoughts with the same sort of concrete reality that she enjoyed in the real world that they shared.
            The concept of soul mates would cross his mind if he believed in the existence of the human soul. All that he knew for certain was that something mysterious, some impetus that he did not, and perhaps could not, understand was making her so enticing to him that it felt almost magnetic in nature.
            He didn’t know a lot about her really. The details of her life were primarily an unknown variable for him, but he was getting to know her better every time they had occasion to visit. He absorbed every new bit of information that she revealed with something approaching rapt pleasure.
            It was particularly pleasing to him when she made an off-hand comment later that night about being sexually deprived, assuaging his slight concerns that there had been a very good reason for her to have been thinking about abortion earlier on in the shift. Looking at her with a bit of puzzlement, he wondered how the hell that could even be possible. The look on her face as she had spoken was one of total sincerity.
            “You have sex,” he insisted, incredulity quite apparent in his tone.
            “No, really I don’t,” she replied with an ever so slight frown manifesting on her lips. “It’s kind of sad, actually.”
            “Oh really?” he asked sarcastically, assuming that she was being absurdly self-deprecating for some reason that he hadn’t yet discerned.
            “No one wants to get with this,” she said with a self-effacing grin as she gestured towards herself like she was on display, the mannerism and the words seeming to reinforce his presumption that she was joking, but there was something about the tone and the look in her eyes that implied a hint of sadness.
            He could never quite tell whether she was being sincere or facetious when she said things like that. He had to assume that her choice of wording was intended to imply sarcasm, but even if she was making a joke, he sometimes had to wonder how much of that humor was designed to provide a mask for feelings that weren’t altogether so far off from what she actually said. He knew enough about her by now to be confident in his belief that she didn’t have the most positive self-image, for whatever reason.
            She didn’t think that she was pretty, as she had stated once before. He found her to be magnificent, radiant even. He saw her so differently from how she appeared to imagine herself, their perceptions so diametrically opposed as to seem like they couldn’t possibly be describing the same thing.
            She was not only beautiful to him, but enthralling in a way that he couldn’t explain; something that held him captive like a siren would have in an ancient Greek myth. Yet he could never seem to tell her any of this, not without risking far more than he was willing to lose. It was a tragedy to him that he wasn’t able to share with her that he could guarantee that there was at least someone who definitely found her attractive.
            It really wasn’t just that he found her attractive though; there was something about her character that he admired. She had none of the difficulty expressing herself that he was experiencing where she was concerned. She could be stubbornly evasive and truly pigheaded about things that pertained to her, but she also had little difficulty when it came to speaking out when she felt there was a need to do so. He’d always felt more comfortable in the background, remaining under the radar whenever it was possible to do so, but she was more than willing to make waves if she felt that that they were required.
            While he silently mused over earlier elements of the conversation, they continued to talk, his attention only marginally there.
            “I don’t think that she means to be condescending,” she explained, now discussing one of their superiors at the hospital, “but it pisses me off just the same when she comes across that way.”
            “Well, of course it does; no one likes to be talked down to,” he replied.
            “I’m going to have to say something to her, just to make her aware of it,” she decided, a determination that he probably would have neglected to make.
            His attention drifted again as he watched her lips forming words, as her tongue subtly moistened them at irregular intervals. He watched those supple lips part as breath exhaled, and he longed to feel that breath against the sensitive flesh of his neck, the texture of those lips against his own as the pressure behind them increased. He yearned for the sensation of her lips parting, and her tongue brushing against his lips as it slid between them. He wondered if it would feel as exquisitely beautiful as it did in his imagination.
            He knew that he really should say something to her, that he shouldn’t just sit her petrified by fear. Sooner or later these visits would end, and inevitably there would come a time when he may very well never see her again. Any possibility, no matter how remote it might be, of reciprocation would then disappear. By then it would be too late; all of those probabilities that he considered, whether high or low, would have collapsed to zero. Even knowing all of this, he just couldn’t bring himself to act. He could rationalize it to himself, saying that if she interpreted it wrong, he could end up losing his job. But he knew that she would never take things that far, even if she weren’t able to return his attraction, which was just another small thread in the tapestry of what made her so beautiful to him.
            He sat there wondering why she couldn’t take the initiative and provide him with some sort of clue if he was right in suspecting that maybe there was something mutual, an advance that was unmistakable for anything but attraction to him. Of course it was always possible that she really just wasn’t interested at all, in which case it made perfect sense that she wasn’t showing any overt interest. But maybe, he told himself over and over again, just maybe she was simply as afraid of rejection as he was. He knew that, giving himself flimsy, poorly thought out excuses to keep his hopes up was unhealthy. As long as he could conceivably think that there was even a marginal chance of her feeling the same way as he did, he could avoid beginning the painful process of coming to terms with the fact that this infatuation of his was a dead end street.
            The night came to an end sooner than he would have liked, they always seemed to, and they once again went their separate ways. He saw their parting as an almost physically painful thing while fairly certain that, to her, it was just the end of another day.
            He dreaded the passage of the next few days, the intervening period of time before he would again share her company. He knew with confidence that she would be on his mind far more frequently than was truly reasonable. He was aware, with utmost clarity, that he probably wouldn’t cross her mind at all. He accepted that, but still he hoped that he was wrong. If he thought prayer was anything more than masturbatory, self-indulgent activity, he would be praying that she couldn’t shake him from her thoughts the entire time that they were apart. But if he were a gambling man, he wouldn’t take odds on that ever being the case.
            He walked slowly out to the parking lot, unlocking his car by remote when he was still a dozen feet distant. He slid behind the wheel, rotated the key in the ignition, and drove away from the facility. His final thoughts as he left the parking lot were about whether he could find some reasonable sounding justification for showing up that weekend when he knew that she would be there. He dismissed the thoughts immediately as being more befitting a stalker than a potential romantic partner, and he knew that he was flattering himself with just the internal suggestion of that potential being real anywhere outside of his imagination.
            The sunrise was beautiful, if not a little bit of an annoyance when he was forced to travel directly into the glare that it produced. The clouds from the thunderstorm the night before had obviously started to dissipate sometime during the night while he was entirely and intently focused on something else.
            The long hours spent in the common room shared between their two respective wards had been enough to usher in a new dawn while he remained totally oblivious to the passage of his time.
            The world was washed clean for a brief period of time by the storm that had raged through the evening before and into the beginning of the early morning hours. It never stayed clean for long though, and even the temporary interval of rain-induced cleanliness was illusory in nature. Nothing had actually changed.
            Nothing ever really changed, or so he thought. If only he were right, because the changes that were coming were something that he could never have imagined in even his most feverish nightmare.
            His morning drive from the hospital grounds to his one-bedroom apartment was always a chance for him to unwind, to let his mind wander towards a center, a place of emptiness, somewhere subdued and without pressure. It just seemed like more and more often that place of peace and internal sanctuary was more difficult to reach after the nights that he spent with her. Everywhere that his mind would turn, seeking peace, there she was.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Written April 5th, 2011

I claw at the shadows cast by a me that could have been.
Desperately trying to catch up to where I know I should be now.
I see him in the mirrors when the lights are low enough.
But I can never step through that divide and into his shoes.
I'm chasing the wake left behind by a better man than me.
Will I ever catch up to where I'm supposed to be?
I see him in the reflections in your eyes sometimes.
Is it really me that you love, or is it the trace of him within?
Will there ever come a time when the two of us are the same?
I'm trying so hard, as much for you as for myself.
I don't know if all that effort will amount to anything.
For you I keep on crawling forward.
I do everything for you.

Written April 6th, 2011

All my life I felt like I was waiting for something.
Like a pressure building in the back of my mind
I thought that it would be the end of the world.
I watched and waited all these years for some sort of sign.
My eyes were always searching in the wrong places.
I thought it was the end, but it was always you.
I sat here hoping to witness the world burned away.
Instead it was the end of everything I believed was true.
You brought me to my knees like no one else could.
My mind is spinning every time I look your way.
I'm broken down, confused, and scared to death.
But somehow I know that you are here to stay.
You're the death of who I knew myself to be.
All of my illusions dissipate with you right here.
I've become a stranger to myself, someone new.
I am desperate to believe you, telling me to have no fear.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Exorcising Demons [Second Iteration]


                It happened again and again, just as it always seemed to. His mouth would open, and out would pour the hate. Like some black sludge of indeterminable origin it would spill out from between his lips like a flood, threatening to drown anyone in its path. This was simply how it happened every time, without fail, it was like a clockwork mechanism in its regularity for the past couple of years. Sullivan would drink, he would cease thinking, and he would begin to hate.
            The words that poured forth were always razor sharp and bitingly cold, and they always seemed to cut to the bone of whoever ended up being the intended recipient. More often than not, that recipient turned out to be anyone who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time; these poor individuals would invariably become the victim for no particularly good reason. Day or night, whichever it happened to be, it always turned out the same. He didn’t genuinely hate any of these people, he didn’t even know them half of the time, they simply got in his way somehow, and so became the arbitrary focus of his anger and a loathing which had nothing at all to do with them. This was how things had gone on for years; it was the well-worn rut that he had worked himself into. He was entrenched in the pattern; he drank, he ceased to think, and he started to hate.
            He had married his high school sweetheart almost immediately after graduation and Linda knew precisely what to expect when he came home at night from the bar. Often she would pretend to be asleep on nights when she wasn’t even remotely weary at all. On those nights she would lay in their bed, eyes tightly closed, and daydream hopelessly of a better life for them; a life in which her husband’s dreams had actually come true, one in which he had not turned into the monster that he was making himself into these days.
            There had been a time, not altogether so long before when he had been a man with dreams, lofty ideas of the future that they would be sharing as husband and wife. His writing had never taken off, never gotten anywhere at all, though that could in large part be due to the fact that he was never quite able to bring himself to complete anything that he had started. It seemed that inspiration or motivation, whichever it might have been, perhaps it was both, were lost almost as quickly as they had been found. His musical career, the thing he once believed in so passionately, had for the most part become a non-entity to him. He would sing and play guitar for a local cover band every other Saturday in the dance club/bar just down the block from their apartment, but he felt unfulfilled with the whole experience. There was usually a pretty decent turnout on the nights that they played, but this just wasn’t what he had dreamt about and worked for through all of those years back to before they had even come to know one another.
            His dreams had not consisted of performing two or three times a month in a dive of a club for a troupe of alcoholics, criminals, and underage misanthropes. He was far too good for the life that he found himself living, and Linda would be the first to agree with his assessment. He was too good for this life that had become his increasingly overwhelming nightmare, a nightmare that seemed so grand that it was spilling out and becoming hers as well; both of them knew it, but Linda was the only one who seemed capable of seeing that he was becoming more and more the one who orchestrated each new movement of the nightmare rather than working towards what should have been his purpose, to overcome them and turn things around to build the reality of his dreams.
            It was obvious, though perhaps not to him, that he had given up on the future which he had always imagined to be ahead of him; and rather than fight for his dreams he became the one who held him chained in a perpetual state of disappointment and failure. There was no way that she could show him the truth. His eyes had become so much more securely closed than her own on those terrible nights when she found herself feigning sleep.
            He had never hit her though, over the four years that they had been married, or in the two years prior to that wonderful day during which they had been dating. Regardless of how vicious his temper might become, she knew that he would never lay a hand on her in anger. Never once had he gone so far as to raise his fist or so much as slap her, no matter how much he might happen to drink, or how much anger he would let build up inside, he still had at least that much self-control.
            Sullivan’s father had been a horribly abusive man, to both his wife and his son, and loathed the man to this day for those things that he had forced his mother and him to suffer through. He did at least have the willpower necessary to not follow too far down the road in his father’s footsteps; though he did succumb all too readily to the seduction of alcohol, which was one of his father’s vices as well, he did avoid the other things that his father had seemed to find himself irresistibly drawn toward.
            There were plenty of times, strangely enough, when Linda would find herself wishing that he would just lash out in such a way, inflicting physical harm as she knew his father so often had. Perhaps that would be less painful than the poison that seemed to flow so easily from between his lips, perhaps it would take something like that to actually make him feel the guilt that he should have been feeling all along. Just maybe he would feel that guilt for hurting her then, for doing something so directly harmful, that he should have felt for the less obvious hurt that he had been causing her through less physical means for the past few years. It never happened though, no matter how many times she secretly and silently uttered that wish to herself, or how frequently she strove to aggravate him further in the apparently vain hope that it would force him to react impulsively and violently.
            He would not raise a hand to harm her; he loved her too much in his own deluded and distorted way to hurt her like that, no matter how much he hurt her otherwise. If only he could just see how much more he was hurting her with every razor tongued comment, with every glance that he shot her, his eyes filled with resentment. If only he could have seen just how much damage he had been doing her all this time.
            It wasn’t as if he wasn’t a violent man at all. He merely had an aversion to violence when directed towards loved ones, and that was a category of persons that was diminishing rapidly with time. His late night affectation of sarcasm and his own form of refined hatred had a tendency to cause him more problems than if he were to have asked for them openly. Sometimes, and more and more frequently, there would be calls to Linda from the hospital in the middle of the night. Some man, or a group of them, would have grown so tired of his ceaseless aggravation that they felt compelled to bring it to a stop. Sometimes the calls would be from the police station because things had luckily worked out in Sullivan’s favor, perhaps because he hadn’t quite reached the point of drunkenness where he had lost all ability to defend himself when the situation had come to a head. Either way, it amounted to approximately the same thing, robbing Peter to pay Paul. Bills were neglected in order to pay the new bills that he incurred. Food was left off the table so that he could supply himself with his drinks.
            Every bitter swallow of whiskey or vodka stole food from their mouths, just as every fight that he started, which ended with him in jail or the hospital stole savings from their accounts. Linda worked hard though, as a clerk in the nearby convenience store, which was only a five block walk from their apartment. Long hours with short pay, but it made ends meet for the most part, and she had stopped allowing herself to expect anything more. He worked hard himself, and typically while suffering through a hangover, working a lathe on an assembly line, dead end work for a dead end life as he so frequently joked, less and less humor behind the words. It was up to her to insure that they kept a roof over their heads though, as he spent his money almost as quickly as it was earned. He didn’t seem to appreciate the sacrifices that she was forced to make, not to anyone watching from the outside; but in reality he felt crushing guilt for all of the things that she did for him while he seemed incapable of doing anything for her.
            They fought with each other more often than was healthy, presuming of course that some fighting might actually be constructive to a relationship. Money, or more accurately their lack thereof, was one of the greatest causes for concern, especially where it concerned his irresponsible squandering of it. Directly related to the primary cause of dispute within their relationship was the secondary, his drinking, which walked hand-in-hand with his wasting the money that they did have. Nothing she could say ever seemed like it could get through to him; nothing would apparently break through the mile-wide wall that he had laboriously erected between them.
            That was all window dressing though, setting the stage, building up to the present by helping to understand the conditions of the past, the substrate upon which everything to come was constructed.
*
            One night Sullivan comes home from the bar, many hours after the night’s performance had concluded, the distinctive scent of vodka permeating his clothing, his hair, his breath. He stumbles through the door after struggling with his keys in the lock for close to five minutes and begins shuffling aimlessly through the apartment, no real purpose or destination coming immediately to mind. Linda had stayed awake this time, fed up and prepared for a fight, tired of trying to choke back her pride and suffer through the life they were living in silence.
            Her words, not for the first time, are as hurtful as his own; and she watches with mixed pleasure and sadness as she sees his features shift painfully with each strike that hits its mark. She fights with him for hours, sunlight beginning to filter in through the blinds, poisoning one another with contempt that neither one of them truly feels, via words that neither of them truly means. She screams at him and he screams right back at her. In one another’s faces they shout words at the top of their lungs that should never be spoken by anyone to someone that they care about. Each of them claims to feel a loathing towards the other that neither actually feels, the words taking on strange and hurtful lives of their own as they cascade outward.
            After what has stretched on unnoticed into hours of this angry back and forth he registers the hint of sunrise and tries to just give up and walk away, dismissing everything that she is saying. She grabs his arm with strength born of desperation and pent up rage, accumulated through years of silent terror and suffering, she spins him back towards her; knowing somewhere inside, correctly or not, that if he walks away this time, it will be for good..
            She reaches out to him for a number of reasons beyond solely the residual anger still burning strong from the fight that has suddenly come to an end, not the least of which being in an apologetic gesture and final struggle to hold on to the one man that she had ever really loved.
            When he shoves her backwards away from him, it is a defensive reaction to what he instinctively felt must be imminent violence, something left over from his childhood and nurtured by his years of bar fights. Maybe it was his level of intoxication, or maybe he just wasn’t fast enough to catch her fall when he realizes what he’s just done, his reaction only instants too slow to stop what had been done.
            Linda’s head connects with the corner of their antique oak dining room table with an unmistakably cruel sound that he knows he will never forget. He drops to the floor beside her, cradling her ragdoll head on his lap as he tries to manipulate his cell phone blind from tears. His head hits the open palms of his hands, tears mingling with blood as they escape from his reddened eyes.
            There are no calls to their apartment from the police station that night, the only person who could have received that call being cared for in a hospital bed. Likewise there was no call from the hospital, as the only person who could have received that call was locked away in a jail cell, unable to sleep, sobered by the events that had just taken place.
            This was how their marriage ended, a grim note of horrifying reality. The only phone call that anyone made that night was the frantic, breathless, and nearly unintelligible one that Sullivan placed to 911, mortified and disconsolate at the sight of the blood that was spilling from the gash on the back of Linda’s head.
*
            She didn’t hang on for long in the hospital intensive care unit, no matter how hard the doctors struggled to save her life. Perhaps she had simply lost her will to live; maybe it had been eroded over the years that she had spent in a prison of recrimination and despair. The impact during her fall had killed her that night, but its effects were excruciatingly slow and she held on without regaining consciousness for a few hours.
            The dreadful news of his wife’s passing comes to him in a cold and barren cell, word that Linda has passed away in the early hours of the morning. Finally, instead of poisonous hatred and bitter cruelty, it is a flood of unintelligible pleadings distorted by violent sobs that flow forth from his lips; he continues until he loses consciousness, whether from shock or mere exhaustion, but no one seems to hear his prayers.
            He displays no interest in leaving his cell the whole time that he remains there, needing to be prompted into doing anything more than simply sitting there on his cement cot and staring blankly at the wall, seeing nothing. The next couple of weeks pass by in a barely noticed blur for him, he attends trial where it is determined that Linda’s death was accidental and that he wasn’t considered to be responsible for the unfortunate turn of events. He doesn’t care; none of what is being said to him matters anymore. Everything is muted and faded. Ultimately Sullivan is released into a world that holds nothing meaningful for him anymore.
            He makes his way home, barely registering his surroundings, dreading what is coming. He knows that she is gone, that she can never come back, but he still sort of expects to see her when he walks through the door. Inside everything is silent. Nothing has been disturbed since the night that she was carried away by EMT’s and he was escorted through the door in handcuffs.
            Sullivan walks through the empty apartment, struggling to hold back the tears that threaten to obscure his vision. He pulls his phone from his pocket and calls the landlord to assure himself that he won’t be evicted because of the events a couple of weeks previous. The sympathy he hears on the other end of the line makes him want to choke; no one should have sympathy for him; for what he has done there should be no response but contempt and disgust. He thanks the man and disconnects the call.
            Needing to do something, he drops to his knees in the kitchen, pulling every bottle from beneath the sink, carelessly searching for any cleaning supplies he can find, before scrubbing at the blood that has dried on the tiles where Linda had lay on his lap, her life slipping away. The process of cleaning up the evidence of what he’d done takes far longer than he might have expected if he was even halfway aware of the time that he spent down there on the hard floor. Finally he’s satisfied, his hands raw and stained with the very substance that he was removing from the ground in front of him, he smirks to himself at how appropriate that seems.
            He doesn’t eat anything, not a trace of hunger urges him to even attempt to do so.
            That night, in a home that no longer feels like home to him, a place that seems crowded to him; populated solely by himself and a ghost that he feels is present in every square inch of the space, he sits before an old broken down typewriter that he had inherited from his mother. For a number of hours he remains just like that, hunched over the obsolete machine at the dining room table, and he finishes the first full story of his life, the first true accomplishment in all of those years he spent writing.
            The tale that he poured out onto those sheets of paper was one of ghosts, parallels of the same ghosts that haunted him in this former home, and in those pages that he typed he finally said all of the things that he should have said to Linda long before; before everything had been eroded by his constant anger, before he had stolen her from himself. He wrote his first story to its completion and began the process of exorcising his demons, a process that he knew would take years to complete if it ever could be carried out to completion.
            Hours after returning to the apartment he rose from his chair, his back stiff, and his eyes weary from the strain of staring so fixedly upon the words that he was writing. He searched out every bottle of liquor that he had owned and he stored them away in a hall cabinet that he locked. Later on, as he tried to clear his mind that key was thrown from the window of his car along the side of a country road somewhere in near complete darkness on the moonless night.
            For a number of nights after his release from one cell into a far more suffocating prison than the first a storm raged outside, showering the city in torrential rains. He would find himself wandering the rain swept streets for hours, always half expecting to see her face when he rounded a corner or when he looked up while crossing the street. Somewhere in the back of his mind he had started searching for her, to no avail, praying out loud at times that he might find her somewhere in his wanderings. Some part of him had broken as a result of what happened, and there was no denying that he had become a little bit unhinged, and this hopeless struggle to find her where she couldn’t possibly be was merely a symptom of that damage.
            He spent hours in the cemetery where she had been laid to rest, an event that he had not been present for though they had asked him at the jail whether he would like to be escorted there, knowing how cruel it would have been to bar him from the event. Kneeling at her gravesite, begging her to come back to him, crying out that his life was worthless to him without her; he broke down again and again, each time hoping that someone might hear his prayers, that she might hear him and forgive him for what he had done.
            Exhausted by his lamentation he sometimes ended up sleeping there on the cold, wet ground; only to be chased out in the morning by either the police or the groundskeeper, just to find himself falling asleep there the next night all over again and subsequently being removed from the premises.
            The storms passed however, and without the rain he did not venture out so much at night in those first couple of weeks, without the rainfall to cover up and wash away the tears that descended almost constantly down his cheeks.
            Though he did ultimately move away, he would come back at odd times, without any particular regularity. For years after his release from that cell he would still return there to her grave now and again, especially when the rain was falling particularly heavy.
No matter where he was though, when it rained, he would find himself soaked to the bone, shivering, walking aimlessly through the night, begging and hoping that he would end up stumbling into his lovely Linda somewhere along his path and she would take him into her arms and she would make everything ok. This was never to be the case, he knew, Linda was never to be found; and he was to remain the way that he was, miserable and alone.
He prayed, with screams of utter desperation, until his throat was parched and on the verge of bleeding from the strain that he might wake in the morning and find everything as it had been before; before he had stolen from himself the one real and true thing in his life. He pleaded with the empty nights that this all might somehow have been nothing more than a terrible dream visited upon him as an omen, like the visitation of some unseen Ghost of Christmas Future, or some other such entity, to steer him down the proper path for his life. He begged that some ethereal being might hear his plight and accept his meager soul if only he could spend just one more hour with her, untainted by the mistakes of his past; within the loving embrace of her beautiful arms, enfolded tightly around him, assuring him that everything would always be as it was right then.
He would have given anything to have anyone accept his bargain, to make things right, to change his past, to have her back with him again. He saw the error of his ways now, with intensity in glaring contrast to the alcoholic fog of previous years. If only he could bring himself to take just one more drink he thought, he might not suffer so greatly now; but he could never do that to her, to betray her memory in such a way.
Often he considered that this was simply not fair, this punishment for his crimes. Far better for him if he had been the one to die, to suffer damnation in some Hell of vast proportions, than to live like this for one more day.
For all of these things, he continued to pray, day after torturous day, month after month, year after year. No saint could claim to have the same sort of devotion that he displayed. Nothing ever changed though, no prayer was ever answered, but still he persisted in the vain hope that perhaps he might get through somehow by sheer stubbornness and dedication to something, anything that might be listening.
It was with his head shaved down to the scalp that he returned to work like a dead man, barely participating in the world around him. A rebirth that arrived too late, his renewal manifested itself physically. He paid his penance every day, humbling himself before any god that might be watching; waiting to discover that something that might be good enough to earn him the miracles that he desired. He worked diligently, harder than he ever had before to prove himself to whatever set of eyes might be watching over him, that he was worth the effort and that he was deserving now of his Linda’s love in a way that he never had been before; that she might be returned to him. Just more unanswered prayers, he began to see that maybe he needed to do something more, something that might catch the eyes of his beloved wherever she might be.
*
It was with a great degree of apprehension that he sent that first story that he’d completed out to a couple of magazines that seemed appropriately geared towards the sort of material that he had written; and he had almost forgotten about having done so a month later when he received a response from one of them. They had loved it and wished to print it in the issue that would be published in another two months. She had always believed in his talent, if only he could ever bring himself to complete anything that he started; pushing him in little ways to do what she knew his heart was set on doing, encouraging him when his momentum faltered. He believed that he had finally found the way to honor her memory in the way that she would most appreciate, a way to keep her there with him in a way that he couldn’t otherwise.
He continued to write, in a frenzy of creative inspiration; he really put his mind into working on music the way he always wanted to as well, spending evenings at the apartment composing songs that seemed to flow out of him of their own volition. It was as if he had no power over himself, no choice in the matter, these were the only things that he had done since the event that provided him with any capacity to get by.
When the band started performing again after a couple of months away from the stage, he asked them if they wouldn’t mind trying out the new original pieces that he’d been working on in the evenings after he left work. The response was unanimously positive when he shared his material with them during their next practice, and during the subsequent performance they incorporated a couple of the original works into the set that had always previously been nothing but covers. As he stood there at the mic, his voice gradually becoming more confident and certain, he closed his eyes for a moment; and when he opened them halfway again, he saw her there in the crowd, staring back at him with the sweetest expression of pride in her eyes. He began to cry just a little bit as the words he had written for her erupted more passionately from his mouth.
Another month later and the band began to perform every weekend instead of every two weeks, something that the rest of them had always wanted to do, but he had refused to put that much time into what he had considered a pointless venture. More of the set was comprised of original material that he was writing in his free time, and there was something about these new songs that were inspired in such a way as to have the effect of consistently increasing the crowds that showed up every week.
Stranger to him than the increased numbers was the difference in the quality of their audience, it was no longer just the same troupe of alcoholics and criminals that appeared there; there were couples, students from the nearby college as well as those from the local high schools who were able to obtain false identification, there were even businessmen and other professionals out there now and again. The response was astonishing to him, validating all of those times when Linda had insisted that things could be different than they were if he would just believe in himself and put in the time required to make his dreams come true.
In the midst of the moderate success that the band was discovering in their regular venue Sullivan was able to finish a novel, a feat that he never believed he might actually pull off. The usual tense wait between submitting query letters and manuscript to agents that he suspected might find the material suitable to their particular interests wasn’t nearly as bad as he had feared it might be. The agent that did reply with positivity did so with an almost contagious enthusiasm, and Sullivan was sold. Throughout the process of the following rewrite he and his agent developed a fairly good working relationship, and he knew that he had made the right choice in accepting them to represent him. Less than a year after Linda’s passing, Sullivan signed a rather impressive contract with a publisher, not top of the line, but somewhere above middle-of-the-road. He was happy with the way things were working out, but there was always a large part of him that remained consumed with regret, especially the new regret that she wasn’t there to see how he was turning his life around.
It could have been his name on the dust jacket of a novel that was selling surprisingly well or it could have been simply that the quality of their performances were simply that good; but it wasn’t long before the band was meeting with some degree of commercial success. It turned out that some of those businessmen who frequented the weekly performance happened to be record executives, men who had heard through the grapevine that there was this fantastic group that was building up quite a name for themselves.
Soon they found themselves in a real studio, working with a producer, recording material that would constitute an album that he had never believed he would make; in all of the years that he had spent filled with resentment and self-loathing he had never once thought that he could get this far. She would have been so proud, he knew, and he continued working ever harder.
Within two years of Linda’s passing he was no longer working a day job. Sullivan’s second novel was selling better than the first and that one was still steadily selling in paperback. Songs that he had written were playing on the radio, something that took him aback whenever he happened to catch the music as he passed a running car or a business with a stereo operating in the back. They played in far more locations than just that single bar, at least once a week, performing all over the city, and shortly all over the state.
            On stage, no matter where they played, he reached a point where he felt a sense of something approaching euphoria when he could gaze out over the audience and see her there, her face the only clear detail in the crowd of faces that otherwise blurred together.
            Success fed into further success and it was only a short while later before they were touring the country, and then the world. Though he lived well and brought in more than enough income to live the sort of opulent lifestyle that he wished he could have provided for Linda, he refused to take full advantage of the moderate wealth that he was accumulating. What good was the money if he couldn’t share it with her?
The first thing he had done, once the money was available, was to buy the apartment that he and Linda had shared from the owner of the property. He kept the bills paid, to keep everything in working order because he felt like it was necessary. He locked it up and let it gather dust while he moved into a place that held none of the painful memories that haunted him every moment that he had spent there; it was just too alive with the past for him to cope with being there. It was too valuable to him though for him to give it up altogether. It had been their home; it would always remain the only place that he could imagine calling a home. He didn’t take anything with him from the apartment when he moved into the spacious penthouse where he took up residence. In his mind it seemed too much like disturbing a shrine to even consider removing anything from there; and in a very real sense it was a shrine, as unhealthy as it might have been for him to treat it as such.
*
The world was his; he had become precisely what she had always told him he could be. There seemed to be no end to the inspiration that he was drawing on to build the life that he was living, and he knew that it was all because of her.
Every song that he wrote was for Linda’s ears, and he prayed each night that he spent on the darkened stage that the words and his voice were reaching her wherever she might be. He hoped that somewhere she was hearing the torture and remorse in his voice that was only for her, the terrible longing for her lovely presence. Sometimes while he sat in the lonely penthouse that he rented, composing something new he would see her watching him in his peripheral vision, and as long as he avoided turning to look at her, she would stay for a while.
None of the success really meant anything to him without her, neither the fame nor the money; he did it all with only the dim and fading hope that it might somehow serve to gain her acceptance and forgiveness for the horrible mistake that he had made. Whether there was any manner of god out there to forgive him or not didn’t matter in the least, what mattered to him was that she somehow forgive him.
Anyone who got close enough to him could see in his eyes that he was a haunted man; it was easy enough to observe. There was something dead inside of him, but somehow that only seemed to increase the appeal that kept drawing new fans to each performance.
He did it all for her though he knew inside that she would never see what he had done with his life, and especially that he had built it all for her. After a while it wasn’t even that he saw her out there in the audience watching him anymore, he would stand there on stage each night and see her in the crowd, in the face of every woman who stared at him adoringly for no good reason in particular, in the face of each girl who looked up to him with admiration in her eyes. Their features would not remain their own, and they somehow always looked just like her.
Linda’s voice was the one that woke him every day, but she was never still there when he opened his tear-soaked eyes, as he knew inside that she wouldn’t be. He could still smell her though, the scent of her on the air that he breathed that first moment upon waking.
He continued exorcising his demons with a voice that inspired all of those who heard it, a voice that inspired them to take nothing in their lives for granted; to hold on tightly to everything that was good and beautiful in their lives because happiness was just too fragile of a thing to last, especially if you couldn’t find it in yourself to truly appreciate it.
*
There was an underlying tone, often subtle, but always present, to every word that he wrote; a tone of despair and loss, failure and the difficulty of achieving redemption. His characters were always trapped by a past of misery and suffering of some kind; always haunted, like he was, by ghosts that never seemed to relent in the torture that they inflicted. His artistry was a mirror image of his tainted soul, haunted and filled with despair.
On the occasions when he agreed to take part in book signings and other such events he always found himself daydreaming that the next person in line would be his beloved Linda, that she would be right there waiting for him to look up, with that sweet smile on her face that he missed so much. He knew better than to actually expect anything of the sort, but he was still consistently disappointed when he looked up to see a pair of eyes that was never even half as lovely as the pair that he longed so desperately with all of his broken heart to see in their place.
He went through the motions, just like he did with interviews and all forms of public interaction, he was polite and respectable, chatting when it was appropriate; but there was always a distance that just couldn’t be bridged, a chasm between himself and anyone who took the time to speak with him, something that was apparent to everyone. Interviews never failed to culminate in him expressing his longing for a lost love, her name never spoken aloud, but well known by anyone who was even remotely close to him, and subsequently known by everyone who happened to use the internet. The whole story was available for anyone who was interested, the world being what it was, a place where secrets simply couldn’t be sustained. When asked what he used as his source of inspiration his routine response was that he found himself most inspired by the vastness of his own ignorance and stupidity; and the mistakes that those aspects had caused him to make.
It was clear to anyone who cared to notice that he was suffering, but he did so in silence for the most part, never choosing to share his burden with anyone; the secrets and worries that he carried with him everywhere he went. Sullivan was living in a perpetual hell from which no one might release him, a hell of which no one was fully aware. Linda was the only one with whom he chose to share the pain and agony that he felt, and she was the only one who might be able to release him from the chains that held him securely in the hell that he had made for himself.
Years after losing her he still broke down in tears pleading with any gods that they might let her hear him, and in hearing him she might decide to console him in his torment. These times were really the only times when he used a medium aside from his writing and the music to express the feelings that he felt so vividly. His band, though often depressed simply by their capacity to pick up on his overpowering sense of self-pity and despair, were never forced to hear these things put into words, beyond the words that he chose to put down in lyrical format.
He didn’t live a monastic life, celibate and alone; but those temporary relationships that he did involve himself in, few and far between as they might be, were nothing more than physical encounters for him. None of these women, as sweet and compassionate as they might have been, were ever allowed to listen to his miserable tale of loss and self-destruction; he would talk to them, but the conversations never approached any of the things that he found most important. He was a generous lover but there was never any feeling involved, not from his end; and the distance that he upheld promoted a distance in the women with whom he would sometimes share his nights.
It was assumed to be a peculiar eccentricity that during lovemaking he kept his eyes closed tightly, for fear that he would see that this woman entangled with him, whoever she might be, was never Linda; and years later she was still the only person that he held any real desire for.
In the mornings, when the woman would go her separate way, he broke into tears and fell to his knees at the sound of the door latching closed; begging his beloved Linda for her understanding and forgiveness. He was always plagued by guilt, as irrational as it might have been, for what he had done the night before; and after each time he would spend hours on the floor, his knees stiffened and sore by the pressure on them, crying tears of remorse and self-loathing. He prayed that Linda might be allowed to return to him to save him from ever having to do it again. He needed her back so much that it hurt him, but those prayers, like all of the others, went unanswered.
This was how it went for years. Books were published, albums were released, and he became more successful than he ever would have dreamed possible; but there was an emptiness within him that never diminished, and he was left feeling hollow.
*
It was ten years later when Sullivan finally returned to the apartment that he and Linda had shared, to the only place that had ever been a home for him. When he made the decision to return there, it was for good. He put an end to the careers that had given him the tiniest degree of fulfillment since Linda’s passing, stating only that it was doing nothing to fill up the starving hole within him. He went through the steps of ending his professional life in the least disruptive manner possible, even going so far as to liquidate his finances and donate every dime that he didn’t need to a women’s shelter program that provided support nationwide.
He gave up the life that he had been leading and he disappeared back to the world that he had longed for all of that time; the world that had been his and Linda’s alone. As he opened the front door, stiffened by disuse, he almost expected to see her sitting there in the kitchen waiting for him; he even found himself hesitating for a moment, hoping to give the miracle time to manifest itself in accordance with his wish. She wasn’t there of course, and he walked into an empty apartment filled with dust, cobwebs, and the haunting memories of a wasted life.
Lyrics to songs that he used to listen to with her but hadn’t heard in years kept cycling through his head. One song in particular, by a band that he could not for the life of him recall, the title similarly forgotten, kept on rising towards the surface. If he could remember any of the details he might have been able to track down the CD which had to still be there in the apartment and give it a listen. A section of the lyrics kept circling around in his chaotic mind, something about missing a loved one and the world going up in flames.
For some reason he couldn’t quite shake the emphasis of those words upon his mind, perhaps because they so effectively mirrored his own thoughts as he walked through the empty apartment. The son had originally been written in reference to the year 2000 if he recalled correctly, and the widespread though erroneous belief that the world was on the verge of ending; but that was hardly the significance that he found in those words that night. Like all art, it had been reinterpreted by the listener and had taken on an entirely different meaning than what had originally been intended by the artists who had written it. Over the past few weeks those words had taken on a frightening life of their own within his mind, a life that he could not explain to anyone without eliciting concern, and so he had remained silent.
He sat down at the kitchen table for a while, time losing any meaning for him as he drifted away within his own mind; drowning in memories. Their whole life together here replayed in his mind with clarity that he would never have believed possible, especially considering the haze that he spent a lot of that time experiencing his life through. It was with determination that he stood from his seat, minutes or hours later.
Standing there in the kitchen he took a rusted steel pipe to the wooden cabinet that held the liquor that he locked away a decade before, splintering the doors and shattering them open with that single blow. He took up a couple of the bottles in his arms and wandered through the place that he had always thought of as his home, because it had been theirs, his and Linda’s. In the living room he emptied out the contents of a duffle bag that he had brought with him, a single copy of every book that he had written and each of the CDs that he had recorded, into a pile. Unscrewing the caps he proceeded to pour the liquid from the cursed bottles over everything that he owned, over the furniture that was once theirs but had become his alone through the same cruel twist of fate which had robbed him of his one true love.
Not a drop of the alcohol touched his lips; and though he was suffering from a deeper despair that any human being should ever be forced to endure, the temptation to drown his sorrows in the drink was entirely absent from his heart and mind.
He went through the whole apartment, stopping to collect more bottles as he drained those that he had grabbed. Finally he made his way to the bedroom where he tore every article of clothing that had been hers from the closet and drawers, things that he had not touched once since the day that he had returned to this lonely and haunted home from his stay in jail so many years before, tossing them into a pile on the floor and soaking them with the final contents of his bottles.
He walked across the room and closed his eyes, lying down again on the bed that had once been theirs, and to him still was. He reached into his pocket and pulled out an almost empty pack of cigarettes, the brand that she had always smoked, and removed the final cigarette. With a match he lit the cigarette, breathing in the taste of stale smoke, the bitter flavor rolling over his tongue, reminding him of a time when he had kissed lips which somehow had distilled the acrid residue of smoke and converted it into something sweet.
He squeezed his eyes tighter, took the still burning match and lit the whole book aflame before tossing the matches aside onto the pile of her clothing soaked with the liquor which had, so many years before, caused so many problems and destroyed the life that he missed so badly.
He opened his eyes only when he felt the shift in temperature indicating that the fire had caught hold and what he saw assured him that it was going to burn steadily. Intermingled with the flames and the familiar surroundings he watched as ghosts and demons disappeared in the wash of purgation; his beloved Linda and himself and the past that should have been, the future which they had always dreamed about, which he had never forgotten. He watched it all burn away, in the flames that spelled the redemption for him that had been waiting and calling out to him all of these years.
In all of the agonizing years since she had passed away he had been unsuccessfully lying to himself, convincing himself that he could live without her just so long as he kept himself busy enough, so long as he lived for her memory. He had been so wrong and he knew finally that there was nothing that could be done to repair the damage that had been done so long ago.
At first the heat from the flames felt familiar to him, like those nights years ago and the warmth of Linda’s body pressed up against his while she slept in his loving embrace. Tears flowed from his eyes only to be almost immediately evaporated by the intense heat from the fire which was growing ever more rapidly as it discovered more fuel for consumption.
He felt her warm breath upon his skin, and then he felt nothing at all. He prayed that she might be waiting for him with her arms outspread to accept his fragile and shattered form; without his demons left to haunt him, he might finally reach the heaven that he had only ever known with her love, a peace found only in her arms, the perfection that was known to him only through the love that he could remember from her gaze.
He muttered a final silent prayer, asphyxiating as he did, and then he simply was no more.