Hindsight is a motherfucking wrecking ball.
Sometimes I have these moments of an almost spiritual clarity that are so overwhelming that I can do nothing other than stare off into the void and then every molecule in my body feels like one giant tear welling up and trying to work its way out through my face. These moments always happen when I least expect them — pretty much confirming for me that to truly seek answers one must consciously cease seeking answers, which is something I have always felt intuitively.
You know what I am riffing on — those moments when you are standing in line at the bank and in the innermost part of your mind you suddenly see a face from your past and realize that the thing you said to them when you were angry not only really hurt them deeply, but also sort of freed you up from having to deal with being their eternal sounding-board for every little fucking thing in their life they were incapable of dealing with solo?
Yeah, that type of shit. It happens to me all the time. When I least expect it.
Being the type of cat who always seems to be looking for a much deeper spiritual/Universe-level type of meaning, I invariably end up spending some time digging through the mental hard drive after one of these episodes. Looking in between the interactions, trying to find nuggets of infinite wisdom that slipped between the cracks. Trying to make sense of the nonsensical.
Some folks might find that to be a waste of time, but not me. I find it to be fascinating and energizing — nothing feels better to me than learning something, even when it is something I thought I already had all figured out.
That’s why this here piece of ancient wisdom matters so much to me —
“It is not good to settle into a set of opinions. It is a mistake to put forth effort and obtain some understanding and then stop at that. At first putting forth great effort to be sure that you have grasped the basics, then practicing so that they may come to fruition is something that will never stop for your whole lifetime. Do not rely on following the degree of understanding that you have discovered, but simply think, ‘This is not enough.’
One should search throughout his whole life how best to follow the Way. And he should study, setting his mind to work without putting things off. Within this is the Way.” — from Chapter One of The Hagakure
Free advice from a salty dog: you could take that there piece of ancient wisdom and apply it to every last thing you do.
Fithian, Illinois is a very small town. There are maybe five hundred residents that receive their mail there, and on a good day there might be two or three hundred people in the town proper. Fithian is not the smallest town I have ever been in, but it is very close — the smallest being the four days I spent stranded at a small roadside diner outside of the Zion National Park in southern Utah, where it was almost impossible for me to hitch a ride out of there. Probably had something to do with my heat stroke-driven delirium and all of the tattoos right there in the heart of Polygamy Nation.
Interestingly enough, I did get picked up by a long haul trucker who took me all the way to Flagstaff, Arizona — which sort of ties in to my experience in Fithian, Illinois.
I was moving back home. Back to my roots. Back to what was left of my family. Back to Brooklyn. I was making my way across the country in a Mitsubishi Eclipse that was dangerously overloaded with the weight of far too many personal belongings, a couple of angry and scared cats and a girlfriend who was in the middle of a nervous breakdown. Driving through Oklahoma in the dark of night, I rocketed right through an armadillo at ninety-five miles per hour. The under-carriage of the Eclipse felt like it was about to fall out at the moment of impact. I let go of the wheel, secretly hoping that the car would careen into oncoming traffic and kill the both of us.
The car had a mind of its own and worked its way over into the soft shoulder of the highway, out of harm’s way. My girlfriend woke up screaming at me, demanding to know what had just happened and why we were stopped in the middle of nowhere.
“What the fuck, Sean? Why do my feet feel like they are on fire — is something wrong with the car? What did you do?”
I didn’t say a word. I just opened up the driver’s side door and stepped right out onto the highway as a semi went roaring by — the rushing wake of air felt like a blast furnace, like a crematorium. Crouching down next to the car, all I could see in the darkness was blood. I had put my hand down into something wet beside the left front tire, and when I picked up my hand it was covered in the gore of the armadillo.
I took off my shirt and put it on top of the hood and then slowly slid myself underneath the car, to where most of the remains of the armadillo were stuck to the under-carriage. It was hot and sticky, and the smell was unbearable. I managed to break loose most of what was wrapped around the beginnings of the drive train and scooped as much of the armadillo out of the brake pads as I possibly could without taking the tire off — there was no sense in having that mess cooking itself to the brakes and hampering my ability to drive. When I pulled myself up from underneath the car, I could see the look of horror on my girlfriend’s face — she immediately began writhing in her seat, covering her face with her hands and crying.
This was an atypical outburst — I‘m the one covered in the blood and inner-workings of a recently deceased armadillo, but she is hysterical.
Part of the reason why we were in such a rush was because her step-grandmother had passed away. Granted, I had never in the period of time we were together heard her mention this woman other than to talk shit about how mean she was to her — but she was sure as shit flipping out on us somehow driving 1700 miles in twenty-four hours to get there in time for the wake/funeral. We slept for brief periods of time in rest stops — usually no longer than half an hour or so — cats crawling around at our feet, the car full of so many different scents that I didn’t know where I ended and the smell of beef jerky or cat piss began.
“Do you want to take a couple of these pills I have?”
“The fuck are they?”
“Erin said they were Adderall or something? They’re like uppers. You should take a couple of them, and then we can just drive all the way through. I have to get there, Sean. I just have to get there.”
“I’m not taking some fucking pills you got from some cunt of a co-worker. This is the same fucking girl who fed you lines of meth at your going away party you neglected to tell me about nor invite me to, right? The night you came home spun the fuck on out, grinding your jaw and decided it was cool to hit me? Fuck that.”
“Fuck you, Sean. I have to get there.”
The first time I met her, she came into the coffee joint I was working in. I had just got off the streets and landed a job as a barista. She ordered a large coffee — “leave an inch of room for cream, please.” She tried to pay for a $2.07 cup of Sumatra with a credit card. When she handed me the card her hands had that alcohol poisoning shake going on. The card was declined. So was the second one she shakily handed me. I just stood there half-smiling while she rummaged around in her purse for enough change to pay for most of it, then I told her to put her money away.
When she finally fell asleep, I crept out of the car and went to a picnic table to smoke and gather myself. I pulled out the cell phone and called her father — a long-haul trucker who chewed tobacco and liked to joke around with me on the phone, his big raspy voice saying things like “I never once in my life thought my little girl would go with a New York Jew — how come you don‘t sound like Jerry Seinfeld?”
He picked up on the fourth ring.
“Hey — it’s Sean. Unless you know some magical back-door route where I can somehow do two-hundred miles per hour and not get caught, we’re not going to make it in time for the wake or the funeral.”
“I figured. How’s my little girl holding up?”
“She’s a fucking mess. I hit an armadillo a couple of hours ago in Oklahoma and that set her off pretty bad. She’s sleeping now. We’re at a rest stop just inside Missouri.”
“An armadillo? Did you fuck up the car?”
“Nah — it was a hell of a mess for me to clean up on the side of the highway in the middle of the night, though. That fucker exploded something terrible.”
“You’re lucky you didn’t get killed. I’ve seen those little tanks take out whole semis — that’s why I refuse to work in fucking Oklahoma.”
“Can you do me a solid? I need for you to wait about an hour or so and then call this phone. Please try and tell her that this idea that we can make it there in time is impossible and insane? I’m doing the best that I can, but I cannot take her freaking out any more. It’s insanity.”
“You got it, buddy. I’ll call her up in about an hour. See you guys soon. Please be careful.”
When she and I first started dating, she lived in a two bedroom apartment stacked from floor to ceiling with boxes, four cats, and her bi-polar mother. She was bi-polar as well, but she went untreated. Her parents divorced when she was young, and the custody battle was told to me as a horror story. From everything that I was told, her father was a very intelligent man — and in some ways his arc reminded me of my own, an outsider with intelligence and the albatross of potential hanging around his neck — who ended up falling into a life bound by his environment as opposed to his natural intelligence and abilities. The marriage fell apart because he took it upon himself to work hard for his new family, but working hard meant being away from home most of the time — taking long haul jobs all across the country.
When a partner is away, well, we all know that type of story.
The first time she and I had an argument I totally lost my shit — so riled the fuck on up and full of pressure that I actually screamed inside of the fuselage of the car, causing the windows to rattle and shake. I should have known right then and there that what had just happened was the biggest and brightest red flag I could ever ignore — losing my shit should never be on the menu.
I moved in with her and her mother shortly after.
We arrived at her father’s house only a couple of hours after the funeral. Everyone was milling around in the yard, folding chairs scattered all across the driveway. As we pulled up I felt queasy — like I had been up for days on crank and the world was just settling around me like flakes in a snow globe. I had never met any of these people before, and here I was, meeting them for the first time at a fucking funeral after party.
She shot out of the car before I had even turned it off, racing across the yard toward her father — a fucking mountain of a man with a huge beard and a can of beer in his hand. As I was closing the door to the car I got another whiff of the armadillo — like the fucking thing was haunting me, taunting me from Critter Heaven. I watched her father pick her up in his arms and squeeze her. I watched the faces of everyone else gathered and saw so many different emotions on display at our arrival — some people looked totally gassed-out and drained, other people looked nothing short of annoyed.
I’m sure it was a big to-do.
I slowly made my way over to her and her father. I nodded my head at a few people who were staring me down — I am sure I was a sight to see for people in a town that small. A man they had never met who was dating a member of their family — moving her to Brooklyn of all places — covered in tattoos, shaved head, road-weary and completely tapped-the-fuck-on-out.
“So — this is Sean, eh? Come on over here and shake my hand.”
In person, his voice was even louder, raspier. Kind of like how Wolfman Jack sounded to me as a kid. Familiar. He stuck out his hand and I put mine in it, his huge meaty paw enveloping my hand like it was a child’s. He started to laugh this amazing and booming laugh and pulled me into him, giving me a hug. He reeked of Copehagen and beer.
“You want a beer, Brooklyn? We’ve got plenty of them over in those coolers — since you’re taking my little girl to New York City, I suppose what’s mine really is yours, isn’t it?”
“Thanks. Actually — I’m not much of a drinker. Is there a cooler full of soda?”
“What? Are you some sort of New York sissy? Get a load of this guy — ‘not much of a drinker.’ You sure can pick ‘em, honey!”
Everyone got a good laugh out of that one. I noticed that my girlfriend already had a beer in her hand. She liked to drink — so much so, that during our relationship I hardly felt the urge to drink, because her levels of consumption made me ill inside. She could not handle her liquor well, even though she professed to being a Professional Drinker.
I found the cooler with the sodas in it and opened myself a 7-Up.
I was then paraded around the front yard and introduced to everyone. They were all very polite and seemed to be good, decent people. Someone made each of us a plate of food, and told us to go ahead and sit and eat, as we looked like we hadn’t had a meal in while — which was true.
Things started to settle inside of me, the queasy feeling fading into the background.
I am sitting on a stump beside her father’s woodworking shed and smoking. I made my way back here to kind of give everyone some room to breathe and mourn. Death is always such an odd thing, the way it brings people together or drives a wedge between them. Every family goes through those things eventually.
I am watching as a squirrel jumps from branch to branch in a small tree at the far end of the yard. I hear a crunch of a footfall behind me, and then I hear the bang and recoil of a gun go off as I watch the squirrel explode into a mist of blood and fur and fall to the ground behind the tree. I turn around to see her father, huge grin sneaking out from behind his beard, slowly lowering the .38 in his hand and pointing it at my fucking head.
“Please don’t point a gun at me.”
“Aww — I’m just playing around, Brooklyn. Can you believe the way that little rodent blew up like that? Damn, that was a good shot.”
“I’m serious here — please do not point a gun at me. It isn’t something that’s going to make me feel very comfortable, you know what I mean?”
Her father lets a slow whistle seep out from his teeth and lowers the gun. Nobody from the rest of the family even bothers to come into the part of the yard we’re sitting in — as if the gunshot is something that they are all too used to hearing. He stands there for a minute, half glaring at me, possibly trying to gauge what kind of motherfucker it is that is dragging his daughter off to the wild jungle that is the Brooklyn in his mind.
“Come on into the shed, Brooklyn — I want to show you something. I think it’ll flip your wig.”
One of the things that I learned very quickly while cohabitating with a mentally ill mother/daughter combo-platter was that they spoke to one another without speaking most of the time. The verbal cues they used had much deeper meaning — mentioning something about one of the cats was usually some sort of secret code that was actually referring to something altogether different. There was also some kind of preternatural sexual energy floating around in the apartment which always left me feeling unsettled, as if the two of them and the swirling nature of their mental illness were up to some form of witchery unknown to me.
I came to find out later that their collective history was intertwined with far too much for me to ever reveal to anyone — so much so that even they would never dare speak of certain things while together, with only hints and allegations slipping free in singular conversations. Names muttered in quiet tones between bong hits. Scenarios revisited after a mouthful of vodka, told to me as if I myself were there.
Lord have mercy if I wasn’t able to connect for pot — the two of them would go into death throes. My girlfriend once obsessed and freaked out so badly she scared off my most consistent connection by calling and leaving harried voicemail after harried voicemail while I was sleeping. She even accosted a friend of mine in a tattoo shop, getting into her face and personal space and saying “well, if you don’t know where we can get some pot, you should at least roll us a joint or two of what you have on you, you know?”
Every day was a party around there.
Her father walked over behind where he had his array of table saws set up and pulled a very old and weathered-looking footlocker out from behind a false wall. I stood back a bit, watching as he dusted it off with the back of his hand. He bent down and worked the combination on the lock while holding his can of beer clamped tight between his teeth. Looking around the room I noticed there were a lot of unfinished projects hanging around — what looked to be bookshelves, a rocking chair, what could possibly be part of a bed frame.
“Come on over here, Brooklyn — I ain’t gonna bite you. Check this out.”
As I walked over to where he was standing I could see that the footlocker was Army issued. He had the top of it propped open, and inside there were some compartments with memorabilia and flags. That’s when I saw what he was holding in his hand.
“Look at this thing — ain’t it pretty? You think the handle is made out of real human bone?”
My heartbeat. My heart was beating so hard that it felt like my entire ribcage was about to burst and splinter across his workshop. I could feel the cold sweat breaking out on my forehead. It felt like my balls had decided to turtle up into my body. My eyes got blurry as I stared at what was in his hand, what he was holding out to me as some sort of offering.
“This here is a genuine article, Brooklyn. Got it at an estate auction not too far from here. I have a lot of this stuff — never served my country like you did, but I sure do have a lot of respect for everyone who has. Go on — you wanna hold it?”
“No. No I do not want to hold it.”
“Aww, c’mon. How many Jews you think were skinned alive with this knife, Brooklyn?”
My mouth would not work. All of the saliva was hardening inside of it like cement. I had to put my hand on a table to steady myself. As soon as he noticed how pale I had become, and how I could not really hold myself up under my own power he broke out with his giant laugh yet again.
“Oh, man. I’m sorry, Brooklyn. I figured this would be something you might want to see. I didn’t mean anything by it. Look — I’ll put it away. I’m really sorry.”
I just stood there, frozen. I had no idea what had really just happened. Did this man, the father of the woman I was moving back to Brooklyn with me — did he just in a span of no less than five minutes not only point a gun at my head, but also just pull out a genuine Nazi dagger with a bone handle? How was any of this real? Why am I involved in this?
Later on that night I was pacing back and forth in their driveway, smoking a joint and chewing up a handful of Xanax while talking to my cousin on the phone about what had happened. I was trying very hard to relay the terror I felt without coming off as too alarmist, but failing miserably.
“You already knew this relationship wasn’t going to work. Just try to make the best of it and get yourself home — everything else will work itself out when it needs to.”
She was dead right.
One of the things I learned way later on — after the dust and carnage of the relationship settled and I was able to look at my own actions and truths clearly — was that she and I were on similar trips.
Me? I was trying to pull a Prodigal Son type of return to my roots. I wanted to be close to my family. I wanted to walk the very streets that spawned me. I knew there was no other place in the world I was supposed to be, and that I had no choice but to try and escape from the life I had out in the desert that I never wanted to be a part of to begin with.
Her? Well — she was trying to escape her past as well. Trying to erase that small town she was born five miles outside of in a trailer. Trying to take herself and put herself into a place where she could spread her wings and be who she always wanted to be. I know it seems corny, but New York City appeals to a lot of people in the same way, people from small towns all across the world get caught up in the romantic ideas that surround a place like this.
Irrespective of the emotional terrorism of our doomed relationship with one another, we both ended up getting to exactly where we needed to be.
“May you have the hindsight to know where you’ve been, The foresight to know where you are going, And the insight to know when you have gone too far” — Traditional Irish Blessing