The move to Arizona from Carson City the summer between my fourth and fifth grade is nothing in the memory stores but a blur of tan and brown, the dusky smell of sagebrush, the sound of sticky tires pulling off hot pavement and backhanded threats from my dad. “I’m gonna pull the car over!” he’d yell, after long hours of boisterous banter and sideways smacking of arms between me and my brothers. And sister. What my mom and dad did not see was the deeper alarm in me, the dread. The loneliness. That the division of labor of my family and the pecking order of my siblings put me in the most invisible and vulnerable position.
Straddling that 4th and 5th grade it was time to move with my dad’s ever expanding sales territory. Who would have thought the transition from mechanical, black and white keyed cash registers with spring loaded number flags to the new electronic NCR 5200 would yield such fertile growth in the American Southwest. Enough opportunity for an expanded sales staff, the National Cash Register company enticed my dad with untold riches and reservations of gold and fry bread.
My brothers and sister demanded something this particular move. We slid down the western US, my first grade in Salem, then second grade in Medford followed by third and fourth in Carson City and now 5th grade starts in the southwest heat, 110 degree east Scottsdale, Arizona. Amidst the futility of any request on behalf of either of my parents, was a swimming pool. And here is where they came through for what seemed like the first time in my little life. Like Santa Claus.
After days of driving we pass by Yavapai row with WWII tract houses sidled up to the Pima Indian Reservation. Pulling in to the bright driveway shadowed from a towering saguaro cactus, my amazed eyes spotted a line of flash cool between the fence boards next to the mustard cooked cinderblock home. Lightening blue water and familiar refractory patterns on the white finish bounced off the shadows cast in the desert light. Hooray! Our new house at 8662 E. Solano Drive had a swimming pool.
Over a short time that swimming pool became a pinto bean shaped site of chlorinated dread. My brother between the many games of Marco polo or stomping launches off the roof, would drown proof me. He held my head under water on too many occasions to number. Not just a dunk but more effortful, my brain jumping into survival mode as my short life played out in slow motion, sudden pangs of distress shuddering through my body. Looking at the fractal light patterns with the thrum of my pulse in the beaten eardrums, flashes of lightning come with flicker pictures and sensations: my mom squinting in the sun, a polka dotted swimsuit, stiff Bermuda grass cutting the tender skin of my back, the drone of a small airplane overhead, my foot bleeding under the arch from broken bottle glass in front of the Oregon State Hospital’s gazebo. The texture of my tongue on the green and red sugar crystals atop a Christmas butter cookie, Jimmy Krueger’s grandma and her gray beehive hair, bitter Brussel sprouts and the way the light fell into the green-tiled bathroom down the hall from my bedroom. The place where, with clenched jaw and angry strength, my mom crammed bar soap down my throat in a violence unimagined. Her usually calm but strong forearms that peeled potatoes became forceful and urgent. My mom, alive, communicating her fury through her hands. Maybe those same hands that pushed on my neck and head, keeping me in the clear center of that goddamn pool…
Then to be let up to air, my lungs swallowing chest-fulls of air, eyes blinded by panicked rage with wet throaty coughs of betrayal. I remember gasping and yelling at my brother. Each time. Every time.
I write this story to tell myself, to remember the process of what unfolds as it unfolds. That story, like memory, only becomes something in the telling of it. In some ways, writing is an active forgetfulness of moment to breath to breathing. I remember to forget people falling from the sky. The failed parachute flapping in the night and the quick body-breaking sounds through the trees I can hear the sound of that person’s body hitting the forest floor with a thump, the reverberations felt through the lug soles of my boots.
Indeed, as I write the story of the pool I remember to breathe, to gulp air, to suck in my lungs through a narrow mouth shape. Air is precious when I remember the crowded wetness surrounding my submerged panic, where the will of me, seeks the surface and those edges that define the center. Where I seek to forget the story of it, my body remembers to reach up to the surface on tippy toes and, like the horn shape of a trumpet, my lips extend beyond the surface sucking rushed inhales of precious dry air. My body only remembers when I put myself in the position to let it.
There is a writing workshop in town that hosts events called “Write Around Portland,” that I attended years ago. Now, I disappear before you, hoping to write around myself. Conjuring the word, the magic, the in-between spaces, I distract you, my dear reader, from me. Like the pool story and its exasperated birth into words and images, I still sit here heavy in my chair weighted by the prospect of the next thing to do. My gut continues to bloat around the previous meal, my skin itches with sun and the dog’s nails patter on the floor as she comes up to breathe on my bare thigh. Still, I write around a pain pointing at my heart in hope that I can disappear before myself.
I write as if I’m barefooted on the screaming hot pool deck in Arizona. I work around the edges, hesitatingly. I move my furtive feet as if feeling in the dark for the smooth, cool coping lining the kidney shaped pool. I find the cool center by defining in painstaking detail where “it” is not. Only I know where that cool depth is by sliding my feet around the edges that surrounds “it.” But never it itself. My feet, if they could speak, say, “look at it, don’t meet the center of its shimmery wetness. Diving in, it may be too shallow to swallow you whole.” Like the heartened, open gaze of that crow’s eye meeting mine, it draws to center as the mirror-revealed gaze disappears. In the center of that pool I may find you and me.
Writing around me, I avoid Andy. Andy killed himself on Mother’s Day a few months ago. I can write this now, but maybe not go any further. It’s not so much the loss of him that rises up in my guts but more putrid pain released from other losses of men too young to die. My close connection with them has its own story and I have told different versions over the years. But the bitter bullet that Andy accepted helped release some newer demons living in kinship with those dead others.
While I embolden myself to dive deeply into my heart, I can say at the same time I am never ready or prepared. What I choose to study won’t stay still enough for me to focus my eyes. And my feet alternate with weight and unweight as I rock from side to side. I fidget, oscillating in so many ever-expanding dialogues—embracing and rejecting again and again, the ever-reducing vibrations of my cellular corporeality. What the fuck, I can’t focus on the stuff because I can’t hold still.
It is now under my skin. I feel that pool water now up to my nose and in my sinuses, as if snorted, the shock and the awe of my biology, my mortality, my look at me. The wavy brown structure that is my hair. There is so much to not take, I can’t take it, this intolerable aliveness and cursed awareness that you and I and Andy are inseparable. One organism aware of our separate selves, stripped away of the survival brain, put me in you and you in me, as if my eye connected to your eye yields the same view. And then you are gone. In a spray of blood and bone, evaporated in a blast that chips my teeth and leaves a bruised-jaw tenderness.
As I write and evoke the terror of Andy’s death, I look away from the ripple-y pool surface. But I don’t look away at anything. Not at the floor, or scuffed brown toe leather. Or dog haired red and blue rug. Or earth scrabble hard woods. Or that over there with the amber light. I won’t look at its center, or their center. But not at the center of other things as well. I maintain awareness of its center while looking away. My eyes look unfocused—detached from the picture but aware of that which I look away from. Like the down cast eyes of those Sundancers in Goldendale a few years ago, I won’t look at the braided rope of hair and flat face, or listen with eyes the crinkle of twisted lid bells lining the pthalo pigmented fancy dress. I avert my eyes from the scent breathing in the aged and cinnamon skin. I look away but look with the other sense organ and allow the crusted jewel to reveal itself within the body eye. And then I see.
I see the text message from Andy buzzing on my thigh a week or so before he killed himself: “Hello Dave, how are you doing? I hope you’re well. I see that ______ is doing well and is becoming quite a lovely young lady. I know it has been a long time since we talked, so I’m sorry if this feels out of the blue. I always respected you, and wanted to connect more, but just wasn’t in a place to do that. I am reaching out now because I am not well, and don’t have much of a network of people I feel are healthy and constructive for me. ______ and I have finally split, and she has moved on with someone else. It has cracked open an entire planet of trauma and depression, and I am in a very scary and unpredictable place. I can’t control my mind. I feel possessed by demons. I am trying to claw forward, and I think learning meditation must be a big part of that. And creating a supportive network. And anything else. Right now I am desperate and fragile, and wondered if you could talk some time, maybe hold my hand a little bit and help me find some resources. Thank you for hearing this Dave. I’m sorry for adding something so heavy to your day.”
When I first met Andy, we stood toe to toe. His demeanor and posture spoke to me of the most gentle and present kind. Introducing myself to him, holding his hand in a touch disguised as a handshake, I loved him before he spoke.
He shared with me intimate details of his reality broken open as a teenager. Unable to assimilate, his trauma was contained within a family of lacey curtains and tucked in shirts. Underneath the sheer breezy billows and pale cotton belied a ragged despair that tore through generations and manifested in silence and a familiar dissociation, warm skin over cold flesh. Andy brought to bear his ruptured safety to the world to find comfort and found it in some places but lost it in others.
Unprotected, lived, lost and ever so ever always tender. And open. His gaze and soft, lucid speech betrayed a loosened, lessoned and jettisoned masculinity, the kind that is scary to most testosterone-driven males—that nothing and everything hurt him.
And again like a pendulum, I see in me an effort to go back into the watery comfort of drowning quiet. Andy’s suicide was not anything willed or conscious on my part. The only cursed action I chose was to love him unrestricted as if I had no guarded heart or spring-coiled musculature tensed for the next battle.
My intentional connection to Andy and his death woke those demons up. They arose from my special wound which manifests in my lower left inner abdomen. I talk about the source of me found. The place where my pain continues to birth itself and pour through the systems of endocrine, bilious and sinew. And other systems too.
These nights, some time after Andy killed himself, I find myself waking in the quiet. Like the pool I swam in and out of as a kid, I end up again in the deep end reaching with my toes, holding my breath and sinking. Where there was panic now belies curiosity. I want to know what Andy knew. I want to see the places in me that invite and elicit my insanity, to which a bullet to the brain might remedy. Like the kid in me in that pool, I stretch my legs with toes pointed down, looking for the bottom. I don’t find it.
With open under water eyes, I don’t remember what I see, I don’t picture it, conjure it, recreate it, or store it for further inspection. I let my eyes rest, I don’t focus with effort but let their resting gaze witness the picture in front of me. Those fractal patterns shimmering below the surface on the inside of my eye. I exercise effort to become effortless. I see it and see it onward through and through. I see to it that it strays and don’t try and fix it with desire or will it to memory. I don’t see the same picture of green against pooling red mercury clotting against a wound, or the bleached spectacle of dead eyes.