Saturday, December 17, 2016

like fog

Even with all the ice and the midday sun skimming low on the horizon, this winter is easier than the first, and I think every winter will be. The first winter was all howling loneliness, always dark and I could never sleep.

I remember the mornings, sitting up out of bed with crusty eyes, making coffee, and catching the bus up the valley to go to work. Frozen,white fog pressed flat against the windows, blocking out everything and then the bus pops out into a patch of clear and you can see how clouds are hanging on the mountain and the road is going up and down and in and out of them. We are driving in the sky, and the sun comes up out of the cloud bank dripping like a bucket from a well.

My memories run constantly, some over and over on repeat, others flashing like unsuspected fish up from the muddy bottom. Sometimes the memory has a beginning and a middle, or at least and end, but most of the time it's white noise like this --

I remember the first night of the trip out here, and the name of the town where that first motel was: Big Springs. A flat spot on the plains, where I've never been before or since. What comes back to me is the sound of the trucks going by on the highway so close and so fast that in my mind each one shakes the room like a gale-force wind. Now I see I must have been afraid, but I didn't know it then. The first winter proved me right on a few essential things.

Because I was right when I thought it would be easy to start over, leaving everything, emptying. It is easy, so easy. You don't even have to change your name because it means nothing now to anyone you meet. You are a blank, but you can't stay that way because nature abhors a vacuum. Things will come along to fill you, maybe remake you, maybe make you forget too much. You'll be forgotten, too, in the place you left behind, memories of you will dry up like puddles. How is it possible to live in a place so long and leave behind so little of consequence? Living light, you called it. You said you liked it that way.

You never have to tell a single lie, because no one has any questions about you. Every morning I get on the bus and smile at the driver, and he smiles at me. I go to work, and to the store, and home, and in no place does my body feel solid or real. Maybe it's all the layers you wear, how they numb you. Or maybe it's the memories, how they light up your sensory cortices, flotsam and jetsam of the past blocking out the present. My startle reflexes are tuned up so high I feel every time someone whose learned my name says it out loud. I don't leave my house too much that year. Also, I haven't yet learned to walk in the cold.

That first winter taught me other things, too -- another way to move through time, a way to live when it is almost always dark and you can almost never sleep. Time moves in a spiral then, bringing you back to same place over and over, only little higher up. I blame the pace of travel. If I told you that it took a week of driving, barely stopping to sleep a few hours each night, eating at gas stations, it might wound to you like a long time, but it was blazing fast, moving like a comet across the incredible stretches of the west, over mountains that are still formidable with all the horsepower you can pack under a hood.

To the body moving that fast is jarring, dizzying. It will take most of a year for the buzzing in my head to stop, a white noise made up of sudden feelings and pooling memories of motel rooms, all the ones from the trip and then others, all the motel rooms of my life and there have been a lot. That winter teaches me some things about moving too far too fast.

So much darkness not to sleep in. Odd dreams when I sleep, quick waking that leaves me uneasy. I start to believe that people are looking at me everywhere I go, and what's worse is that this isn't true. I have a feeling like someone wants to hurt me.

I've felt this way before. It makes me hold my body differently, tense when I go around a corner or through a door. One time, after another move, another start-over, this feeling built and built until I had a panic attack one hot afternoon in May, a bad one. I remember leaning over the kitchen sink, a sudden pain in my stomach, falling into it, then nothing. My neighbor heard me screaming and found me in my kitchen on the floor, thrashing, and called the ambulance. He's standing over me with his phone in his hand and I wonder what this means and who he is.

I didn't want to go to the hospital, begged not to go, but I couldn't answer questions for the paramedics, didn't know what day it was or my name. Memories all blanked out, white like fog on the windows of the bus, empty as a dreamer, but awake.

Ambulance, hospital, hallway, bed. Scared of the nurses, like a child -- will they put a needle in me? Old lines of thought that run like this: no one will help you, no one wants to help you, only you can help you and how will you help you when you don't know your name? They take your clothes.

The doctor come with his chart and his questions. From outside, where I watch myself, I know that if I could explain he would understand and he would let me go. Inside, where I am still panicking, his questions open up the holes I am afraid of falling into, so instead I get angry and I tell him nothing is wrong. From outside, I beg myself to calm down. From inside, I can't.

He leaves. Inside, I'm glad because you can't trust anyone, they are the ones who put you here to begin with. Outside, I'm horrified because he was the one who maybe could have helped. From this perspective, which seems to see through space and time, I watch myself penetrating further and further in, other hospitals, doors slamming shut behind me.

When my name comes back to me a few hours later it is sudden, the way the sky up here can clear with no warning and turn brilliant and innocent. A nurse comes in, an older woman with her hair drawn back tight and her face carefully arranged to meet me. I'm OK now, I want to tell her, I won't say anything else to scare you. I ask her to bring the doctor.

It takes a long time, but I don't mind. If you've ever forgotten your name and remembered it again, you know it is the best feeling in the world. I tell the doctor "panic attacks" and I answer all the questions he asks. I can tell there are more questions, and he says he wants to keep me under observation, but by now I remember that I'm an adult and I can refuse, so I do. Finally, he shrugs.

This is a small ER in a county hospital and it is the weekend. He knows how much paperwork it takes to commit someone involuntarily, and I'd be out again immediately. My eyes are so clear now, my affect so regulated and congruent. I apologize for all the trouble. He makes me sign and form that says I am being released against medical advice, and suggests I consider wearing a medical alert bracelet for my condition. To keep things nice I say that I'll consider it. The nurse brings back my clothes. I let the hospital gown fall down my arms and off my body. On the way out I stop in the lobby and buy candy from the vending machine. It takes an hour to walk home.

This is a story I don't tell new people, and of course no one ever asks you -- have you ever lost your mind for a while? Do you know how good it feels when they let you out? Ever walked home in the sunset, trying to make your thoughts weave back together and cover up the blank spots in your timeline? My stomach hurt, I bent over the sink, then I was gone --

Because I could give it a name, that's why they let me out. Because I gave it a name and made it make sense. Names have this power. They take the terrible and unknowable and symbolize it,  translate it into the realm of the rational and classifiable. Of course, the name is also nothing. It explains nothing. It doesn't tell you what it feels like for me unless you've felt it too, and it doesn't tell me why it came or how to make it go.

Yet somehow, once you know the name you may find that you release some of these questions. The name brings with it its ontological framework, the grace of which is that what doesn't fit loses its significance, becomes ghost.

As long as you act quite ordinary -- wait for the bus in the morning and go to work, smile at the people that you meet and introduce yourself, answer when your name is spoken -- then people will grant you the privilege of very few questions.

Sometimes I feel lucky, and other times it makes me too afraid to cry and I feel like I've lost everything until I depart the bus at the downtown station in the cloud-filtered early morning light and see the old men and their dogs, the ones who sleep here all night and know what it's like to be really cold.






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