Sample Autobiography (4)
Sunday morning. The girls shook me awake again and I rolled over with an exaggerated grumble. My youngest daughter, Lola, climbed up on the bed to get a few quick jumps in.
“Is it church day, Daddy?”
It was. I tried to compose my mind as she jumped rhythmically between Arlene and me. My wife’s still-sleeping form caught my attention. There was no way she could sleep through this. I reached out and put my arms around Fiona, who stood beside the bed.
“Where are your sisters?” I asked.
“Julia’s watching TV and Sophia’s still sleeping.”
“Well, you’d better come here then.”
I hauled her up on the bed just as Arlene rolled over and tackled Lola. The girls fell into a heap of rumpled sheets as we wrestled them into a fit of giggles.
“Parents win again!” I said when we’d sufficiently unsettled the bed sheets.
Getting out of bed, the girls continued to try to hang on me as I struggled toward the bathroom. I savored these moments, when the noise of my family was enough to banish the other thoughts. It was in the quiet and alone times, when I considered how to tackle another day of sobriety; another day of church and of living that I'd so often struggled. That’s what many people don’t realize: that it’s a conscious effort every day to compose and prepare myself to live outside of the shadow.
After breakfast, we loaded our four chattering daughters into the car. That's when the tension started to build. Walking into the church was always an exercise in composure. I felt like an actor on a stage, playing the part. I greeted everyone with a smile and carried on conversations before the service with compassion that was genuine, even though a charade was being carried out all around us. Whenever I started to think this way, I would find Arlene in the crowd. Whether she saw me or not, it was enough just to look at her. I felt myself being grounded, and I gained from her the courage to go on.
That day, however, I noticed my frustration growing as I sat through the service. Recently, I’d become increasingly disenchanted with the church and the messages they delivered each week. No, that’s not true. I’d long been disenchanted, but I’d tried to adapt and fit into the mold. I wondered if it was in my nature to do this, again and again.
As I sat there, listening to a message of tolerance, I was reminded again of just how much the church actually tolerated. I remembered sitting before the Bishop as a thirteen year old boy, with my father beside me, in the room where my long mistrust began. I remembered a coldness and a disconnection from what I had long been taught the Church and the elders stood for. I saw myself enter the following years in a state of emotional torment. I knew that these thoughts were leading me down a path I did not want to follow, but the shadow was creeping and it was like an addiction; once it had its grips on me, it was next to impossible to free myself.
In the next moment, darkness closed in on me and I was in Pink again. In the old apartment building on Wilcox, two doors up from Hollywood Boulevard, everything from the molding to the bars on the windows was pink. I’d just come off of a bad trip and I was living there with Rich, who was the best friend I could ever hope for. I’d known him since we were ten years old and I’d lived with him a few times in the years since I’d been out on my own. I was used to his insomnia and he was used to me passing out from an alcohol or heroin binge and burning holes in my clothes or the couches with my cigarette.
The manager of the apartment building, Francisco, suspected us of being gay lovers (along with our parents and a few others), but that was probably just because Rich was kind of glamorous. I was clearly on yet another downward spiral, but Rich helped keep me going from day to day. That is, until he made plans to visit his sister in London for several months. When he told me this, I already sensed the darkness that lay ahead. I’d been getting strung out a lot worse and I didn’t know how I might function on my own. The summer of 1999 was coming to an end and the dread and loneliness encroached, even before he left.
When Rich was gone, I started making new friends at the needle exchange on Cahuenga. These associations brought me to a series of shooting galleries and piss-soaked squat spots. Still, I managed to keep the people I met there away from Pink. I always met my main dealer in the Sri Lankan restaurant next door to avoid letting him know where I lived.
Then, after Rich had been gone a month, I completely fell apart. I spent days and nights alone and strung out until at last I was completely out of money and totally alone. I tried to stay perpetually medicated to take away the pain of feeling anything at all. It had become an accessible solution when no other alternative had been available, and now it was a habitual way of life.
With no money, I was at a dead end. I was going through the worst kick I’d ever been on. I tried the usual detoxing tricks of pounding cottons, wringing them out, and shooting dingy water. Nothing helped. It was then that I noticed one of Rich’s two pet snakes had died. A horrible smell permeated the apartment; that smell that any living thing seems to recognize instinctively as death. Or perhaps I just noticed it because I was on the verge of such an untimely end myself. I’d always been afraid of snakes, although when I was trying to detox this fear took on a paralyzing quality. I did not go near the converted bookshelf in Rich’s room where the corpse lay.
Francisco stopped by often asking for rent, which I didn’t have a dime of. He asked me about the smell that emanated from the apartment and I told him I thought something had died in a crawl space somewhere. But I could see the terrified look in his eyes. He thought I had killed my gay lover, who hadn’t been seen in over a month.
Meanwhile, I felt like I was the one dying, in the midst of so much pain and loneliness. My world was a dark place, and consisted of no more than the view from my bedroom window of the Pacific Theater building next door. I knew then that if I had the strength to walk across the street, I would have taken the elevator to the top and jumped off. Thinking this, I began to have delusions of how I might kill myself, and imagined clawing through the wall to the next apartment in hopes of finding a gun to end the pain with. Never had I known such despair in my life.
After three of the longest days of detoxing I could recall, I managed to take a shower. I shivered and dry-heaved the whole time, but I knew I had to keep going. I had to get out. It felt like it took hours just to dress myself. Yet in those hours I had the presence of mind to know that I was not living but dying. I was, in the great scheme of things, standing on that precipice at the edge of the Pacific Theater building as surely as if I had bodily climbed there.
It was a hot December day in Hollywood and the new millennium was on the horizon. I pushed open the door of the apartment building feeling like my next move might be my last. My eyes were malnourished and could barely stay open under the blinding white light of the boulevard. Yet the day’s heat on my skin could be felt in every particle of my being. I closed my eyes and drifted on the waves of warmth. I stood on the corner, blinking under the sun.
Arlene squeezed my hand and I could feel the gentle pressure of her body beside me on the pew. Lately I'd been restless. Church had become increasingly unsettling. I knew the reason for this of course. Arlene could sense when I was in a dark place, just as I could intuit when she was in hers. I became aware again of the lightness and glow of the church walls around me. Was I the only one to sense the heaviness in that room? I wondered often if I would ever be free of the burden. Or if the false brightness of that holy place would ever resolve to truthfulness and clarity. There had been times when the church meant something more to me, like when Arlene was first called to it and it meant a new life and new hope for our young family. There had been times when I despised it.
I excused myself near the end of the service and sat out the remainder on a bench in the hall. I knew my God and I knew the singular purpose He had given me. When my daughters came out after the service, they saw me and ran to sit beside me. Those were the moments that made it worth it. Theirs was the innocence that meant the most to me. I met Arlene’s eyes and saw that she knew the significance of my struggle. That was the last time we went to church.