Like walking into a dream, so unlike what you’ve seen. So unsure but it seems, ‘cause we’ve been waiting for you.
I felt like shit. My brain was leaking down the back of my throat, causing my tonsils to swell, and I was tired. Not only literally—ready to fall into a slumber lasting a fortnight—but also I was just tired of cyclically getting sick.
It was my own fault, I supposed. I needed to eat better and exercise more. Maybe not carry my past on my shoulders. And maybe wear pants when it’s fifteen degrees outside.
Making matters worse was the boredom that the sickness placed me in. It made the ordeal so much more excruciating to sit and sulk about it. And it wasn’t like I had the capacity to sit around and be bored. I had work, school, being editor of the paper, not to mention raising two little girls, who were just acting as carriers for the sickness anyway. I didn’t have to time to sit around and do anything.
But what was making all of combined even more fatal was that Gabbie and I were slowly falling apart. The love we had built with a combination of logic and understanding, and of natural flourishing was beginning to fade. It was too fast, too much, too soon. We had fooled ourselves into believing that we were ready for a life together, but we had overlooked the inescapable truth of being youths. “You can fight a lot of enemies and survive, but not your biology.”
All this was doing its best to drag me to my grave.
I trudged into my room one night, a room that was supposed to be a safe haven for me, a man cave, if you will. Instead I found some of my girlfriend’s clothes, a toy blow dryer Gwen got for Christmas, a diaper, and a wooden block. So much for serenity, I thought.
I opened the closet door and reached up for my half-empty bottle of NyQuil. I popped off the lid and finished it. I didn’t know how much I was really supposed to take, nor did I care that I had already taken sinus medicine earlier. Or maybe I had forgotten in my haste to fend of the cold.
It hit me quickly. The medicine soon turned my blood into red cough syrup. I could feel it slowly moving through my body, weighing me down. With each step the floor felt closer and closer.
I managed to find the bed, falling into the abyss of blankets and pillows. I vaguely remember watching the Celtics lose a game online, and I think Gabbie warmed up some food for me. The rest is a blur.
The stupor that followed was all too familiar. The haze inside my head scrambled any thought that tried to take hold, and let the dark crawl in over my eyes. I fell asleep, escaping the turmoil of the real world, as the sedative carried me away to the land of make believe. Or something like that.
Away from Gabbie and the bed that we slept in, my eyes stretched open, breaking free of the stickum that wanted to keep them forever closed. I was in my car, driving on K-7, headed to work. Snow flanked me on both sides, sprinkled over the dead grass. The radio was silent, and it took me awhile to notice it, but so was the road. I was the only car around. It looked like the world had ended.
The Earth had been purged of its infestation, leaving the stores and gas stations running empty behind them. Was I the only survivor? And if so, how? I was choking on questions that I wanted to ask, but then it hit me. What I had been waiting for my whole life, what I had knew would come when I least wanted it, had finally arrived. I had once again been stripped of what I held dear. Because, the rest of the world wasn’t dead, I was. I was sure of it.
This was my afterlife, the eternal emptiness that was I bound to exist in. My sins and fears had sculpted this place for me. It was mine and mine alone. I let the car slowly come to a rest in the middle of the road, and not even bothering to put in park, I sat there.
I sat there for years, decades, ages, dumb from the blue skies and open fields full of no one else. Anxiety tickled the back of my neck and I wanted to cough out tears. But I knew that it would do no good. The tears eventually retreated into my brain and were replaced with splashes of anger. I was angry that I was robbed once more. What I had loved so dearly, so fully, had been taken from me without regard.
The blue skies melted to orange and pink, and then were covered in sparkled velvet. The engine sung her lullaby, and instead of exiting the car and running until my lungs anchored me to the ground, I let it wash over me, let it run its hands through my hair, keeping me from the stratus of despair that was threatening to cloak me. But even still, the thought of loved ones coming to find me dead and gone nearly drove me mad.
It was the one reason I had never attempted suicide while in my darker moments. I couldn’t bear the thought of dealing a crushing blow to my family. I knew what loss felt like, and I didn’t want to hang it on them. But now I had. They would once again feel loss.
The agony of regret and began to wane. It hadn’t fully bled from me, but my body had grown tired of the constant pricking and stinging each thought gave me. It was starting to shut off, to not allow me to torture myself. I was now tired, and my back was starting to ache from sitting in the car.
I looked around, trying to decide where I was going to go from there. I needed a place to lie down, to rest, to close my eyes. Home was too far back; I was now closer to where I worked than to the first place that was my own. I wished that I could have just imagined a bed, right in the middle of the road, complete with my beat up pillow and torn blanket. Then a thought hit me, and another one, and another one.
What could I do in this vast nothingness? Did the laws of physics still apply? Could I teleport? Use magic? Or could I even imagine people?
My heart thumped from my sternum, excited with hope that I could imagine people, that I could populate this word with the ones I loved, and bitter-sweetly live with the ghosts of who they once were. I threw my foot onto the gas pedal and the engine took off, her voice crescendoing into the night.
I decided that the first place I would look would be the Wal-Mart close by, figuring that if there was one place I could find people, it would be at a Wal-Mart in the middle of Bonner Springs. But when I took the familiar turn, hoping to find cars littering the parking lot of America’s store, I was met instead with dose of disappointment. There were no cars. In fact, there wasn’t even a Wal-Mart.
There most definitely had been a Wal-Mart in this spot at one time. But standing on the grave of where it once lived was a bar. It was about the size of a small, three-bedroom-plus-a-sunroom house.
The disappointment had melted into my blood stream like a shot of alcohol and disappeared. Replacing it was an insatiable urge to go inside the bar. There was something sitting in there, waiting for me. And I knew even then that I was incapable of doing anything else, except going inside to find out what it was. I joked to myself that maybe it was God.
Fallen into this place, just giving you a small taste. Of your afterlife, here so stay, you’ll be back here soon anyway.
I pulled my Buick Regal into the non-existent parking spot near the door. I stared out through the windshield at the ornamental blinking bar lights that welcomed the thirsty and weary in. I was hoping to see what I was walking into, but I figured it wouldn’t be that simple.
I exited the car, walked up to the door, put my hand on it and waited. Maybe someone would resuscitate me and I would come lunging back into life, leaving the unknown as it was. Then again, my prayers were never answered anyway.
When the door opened itself for me, pushing my arm back into my chest, the sound of Curtis Loew danced out towards my ears. Finally, I was pulled into the bar containing my fate.
It was dark. The lights behind the bar did nothing but illuminate the marble floors, which combined wasn’t enough to fend off the darkness. At the bar was a hunched over body, looking into the mirror behind the bar. My shoulders relaxed at the sight of his angry face.
I slowly walked up towards the bar, still unsure about what was happening. I placed my right hand on the cold bar, next to the sweating glass in his hands. It took him a while to turn his glaze to me, but when he did every thought I ever had was open for him to see.
“Hello, Tommy,” he said.
“Hello…Dad,” I said to him.
Up walked a bartender with dirty blonde hair that was to her shoulders and partially covered her forehead. Her face was round and so was her smile. She seemed peppy and ready to talk. Her nametag read, “Aron.” I asked, “Aron?”
“Like ‘Erin,” she answered. I thought for a moment. “Your parents big fans of Elvis?” She shook her head and asked what I wanted to drink.
“Do you have Three Olives Dude?” I asked, not really wanting a drink. I was still tired, and my stomach still uneasy.
“Of course,” she said. She opened her stance to reveal a collection of bottle that stretched miles behind her, and must’ve included every known liquor.
“So you know how to make everything?” She nodded again, giving me a smile to acknowledge both my awe and my youth. “Okay, then I’ll have a Code Red.”
My dad was still looking at me, and when I announced my drink of choice, he tilted his head and squinted his eyes, “What the fuck is a Code Red?”
“It’s Mountain Dew flavored vodka, grenadine, and lemonade,” I answered him just as Aron finished making my drink. “What are you still drinking, Canadian Mist and Sprite?”
We both looked down to his glass, which contained two melting brown ice cubs. “Another?” Aron asked. My dad looked down to his drink and then to mine, before answering, “Fuck it, I’ll have one of those.”
She brought back his Code Red and placed it in front of him. He took no time in grabbing it and taking a long drink. He was thirsty, as if he had been locked in a coffin for five years with nothing to drink.
“What is this place, Dad,” I finally asked him.
“You tell me,” he answered. “This is all for you. Do you really think I’d have us meeting in some bullshit bar in Bonner?”
“I guess not,” I conceded. “But if this is because of me, how come Mom and the girls aren’t here?” My dad looked up to me, piercing me with his blue eyes as if to say, “quit being a dumbass.”
“Don’t overthink it, Tom,” he said. My dad had always possessed so much wisdom that sometimes I wondered if he wasn’t omniscient. It wasn’t just “normal” wisdom—the kind you spoke in riddles and hoped the other person figured it out—it was the punch you in face kind of wisdom. You felt like a dumbass for not knowing it. And my dad did have a tendency to act smug sometimes, making the self-discovery even worse feeling.
“So, being a ghost or whatever the hell you are, can you see everything that’s happened since you’ve died?” I asked.
“Your assuming that I would have paid attention,” he answered me. I waited for a laugh or even a smile to show that he was kidding. It never came. Which, didn’t necessarily mean he was serious, just that he wanted to give me shit. “But no, I haven’t been able to watch you and the rest of the family.”
“Really? That’s strange.” I paused. I then ballooned with a sense of excitement. I was going to share my own stories with the master himself in an afterlife bar.
“Really,” he answered. He didn’t like it, being dead. I suppose he was having some semblance of fun in the VIP room in hell, but there was always going to be a burning sense of failure inside of him for leaving us behind.
“Do you actually want me to share with you, or will it depress you even further?” I asked.
“Tom, you can do whatever the fuck you want,” he said. His face was relaxed, his eyes focused. He wasn’t going to begrudge me if I chose to share my life with him because he knew how much it meant to me. And as bitter as it would taste, he did want to know.
“Where do I start?” I said to no one but myself. I looked into the mirror above the bar, looked into a pair of very similar blue eyes that I possessed, hoping they’d tell me what to do, like so many times they had before. Like when I used to practice being an asshole in the mirror late at night. “I’m seeing a woman,” I finally said.
“Oh?” my Dad asked, eyebrows raised.
“Yeah. We’ve been dating nearly a year.” I pictured her long, mahogany hair mounting her high cheeks and transcendent smile. Her black-framed glasses slid down her nose, revealing her dark eyes, which I had gotten to know so well. The eyes that hard glowed so strong and eager, that had now become passive and worn down.
“What makes her a woman?” My dad asked, not letting the chance to fuck with me go to waste.
“She has two kids,” I answered proudly, as if her bearing children had any positive effect on me whatsoever. “She’s amazing, Dad, she is. She’s so fucking hard working. She’s sweet, but feisty. She’s the most intelligent person I’ve ever got to know intimately; and she’s unafraid of me.”
“She sounds like your mother,” he said with a bitter smile. I gave a small laugh.
“Oedipus complex aside, I think she does, too.” The center of my chest wanted to collapse into my stomach. I sat there and offered a summary of what made Gabrielle her, and with each epithet my insides burned at the thought of losing something so precious.
Gabbie was the best I was going to be able to have. Not because I was down on my own abilities to woo high caliber women, but because she was the epitome of everything that I wanted. Any girl that came after her was only going to be able to match who she was. She was worth more to me than anything I could offer her. And now I had lost her like I had lost so many things before.
“What are her kids like?” My father asked. He could be a real dick sometimes.
“Gwen is the older one,” I began, the image of a tiny Gabbie popping into my head. Her hair was black, her eyes even more so, but she was so damn cute. And playful. And smart. I once joked with Gabbie that one day we were going to walk out and find that not only had Gwen learned to play the piano, but that she had built the damn thing from nothing but her wooden blocks.” My Dad smiled hearing this, perhaps thinking Ashlee, who wore my mother’s image in the same way.
“And Addie…Addie is Daddy’s little girl,” I said. He began to ask something, but I shot it down all the same. There was no need to question it. “She’s a peaceful, tough ball of chubbiness. She does this thing, where she sounds like a Wookie.”
I waited for him to react, give a laugh, or something, but he instead looked confused. “Wookie?” I asked. He raised his shoulders and shook his head. My Dad never liked Star Wars. “Never mind, but it’s adorable. And they both took to me so well.”
I already missed rolling around with them both. I missed the fake wrestling with them; I missed singing for them, and with them. I missed lying with them, letting them crawl over me without any care of what they could hurt on my person. Whenever the possibility of Gabbie and I splitting reared its head, I had imagined what it was going to be like if it came time for me to leave. And even in conjecture the fear of losing them crippled me.
The pain, even in this supposed afterlife, began to resurface. I took a drink.
“Are you ready for something like that?” he asked.
My dad was indeed more omniscient than he was letting on. I wanted to be ready for it, I wanted to fight and struggle and hurt and cry, but I didn’t know if I was ever ready. It was something I had to struggle with every damn day. But the love—as long as it was there—was worth it.
I ended up not needing to tell my Dad, mainly because the tears did for me. He understood. I think. He wasn’t much older than I when he stepped into that role for my Mom. I knew he had to understand.
I put everything I could offer into our relationship, mainly because I figured that was the price to pay for her. And even with those creeping doubts, I still remained resolute that that was a fair deal. She was more to me than just a girl that I loved. I had to do everything to keep her, even if I knew I didn’t want her to keep me.
We moved our conversation to something a little more close, and painful, to him. Perhaps it was a peace offering, to pain with me. Misery loves company and all. I tried to tell him about my mother, his beloved wife, of his ornery kids, but I was checked out. When I walked in and saw him sitting at the bar, I was hoping to share a drink with my Father, and share stories, but my mind was hijacked by the thought of losing something so important. I cursed my carelessness.
Not to say that we didn’t talk. We shot the shit, me half-heartedly; about things I did as a kid, about women he did growing up, about me not playing baseball anymore, about my fatal last words to him, and the likes. We ended up getting incredibly drunk on the cocktail, the vodka releasing the tension out onto the bar.
“Dad, do you remember the time you knocked me out with the bucket?” I asked after he had finished his girl-sitting-on-lap-crash-the-car-story.
“Vaguely,” he answered. Of course he did, the fucker. He just didn’t want to admit it.
I didn’t push it further; I was lost in the happy, lovey-dovey drunkenness that had replaced the damning depression of losing love. But as I thought of it, it came back. Speak of the devil and he shall appear.
“You’ll be fine, Tom,” he said. I looked up at him, wanting for everything to collapse around me. “Just remember, there’s only two types of tragedies.”
I looked up at him. There was something about that line that didn’t seem right. There was something I was missing, and maybe I was over-analyzing it in my drunkenness, but the words were out of place.
“What did you say?” I asked. “Did you just reference Lord of War?”
He looked at me confused. “Yeah?”
I started to laugh. “I’m not dead, am I?” He didn’t answer me, but I knew. My dad would never give me some clichéd response, and he certainly wouldn’t quote a movie, let alone a movie that happened to be my favorite movie. A movie that I quoted all the time. A movie that I didn’t come to love until after his death.
“I’m dreaming aren’t I?”
“Well, yeah…” he finally said.
I hadn’t overdosed on cough syrup I had just robo-tripped. I had imagined my death, my loss of love, because it was the thing most prominent on my mind. My heart perked up at the thought of getting to see her face one more time, getting to see the kids’ face one more time. Even though I knew that it wouldn’t last.
We said our goodbyes and I walked away with a warmness on the soul. I woke up to find an alluring, intelligent woman with her arms around my shoulders. I had woken up from a dream where I lost everything. I had woken up from a dream that foretold what was to come.
Such a surreal place to see, so how did this come to be? Arrived too early…
I told her about the dream. How I shared drinks with my dad in a bar, telling stories, reliving the happiest and saddest times since he’d been gone. It was a story she would have listened to so intently once, but now only offered me part of her attention. She had checked out by then, and I guess on some level I did the same.
From there we would continue to struggle until the struggle became too much for us to bear. Fear strangled what was left of that scintillating love we had created, vanquishing it and leaving us to our own sad, lonely corners once more.
I lost her, and I lost those girls that I wanted to call my own. I had been revived from that terrible nightmare of losing it all, happy that I hadn’t, only to lose it all once again. And this wasn’t something I was waking up from. Maybe the dream was prophetic, maybe it was a premonition, or a warning, or maybe it was just setting me up for a poetic dose of tragedy I had grown accustomed to.
I miss her. That’s not true, I suppose. I don’t think I quite miss her, the person, currently living. I miss the girl who had found herself attracted, lustful after me when she discovered we shared a common discomfort. I miss the lip bite. I miss the girl who opened up, to let me see behind the goofy, dorkiness, to find a darkness that surpassed my own. I miss the girl who loved me enough to let me love her kids. I miss the girl who danced with me while we sung about streetlights, storms, and flying with no wings. I missed the girl who knew that the moment wouldn’t last, but decided to lace my fingers anyway, and was content to listen to my silver-tongued lines. I miss the girl I wanted to marry.
I miss the girl that I described to my father in a dreamland of Nyquil and despair.
Give me your hand but realize I just wanna say goodbye.