Monday, March 31, 2014

A Silent Anniversary

An excerpt of a work of fiction.

I wonder because/don't you know who I was?- C. Murphy

A silent anniversary has passed. It has been ten years since an ill-fated trip to the Northeast. Three days into a doomed five day trip, I found my legs could carry me no farther. I hailed a cab and took it to a hotel. Upon arrival I was nervously escorted into the lobby by the cab driver that took me there. Even one of the notoriously short-tempered Boston cabbies found my current medical condition alarming.

The withdrawal made my whole body feel hollow and disembodied. I couldn’t feel a single one of my joints and muscles as I took one strange step after another. I might as well have been walking on the moon. Once situated in my room, having requested a smoking room, I lit a cigarette, which in those days was probably a Marlboro Menthol.

It was a bad habit I’d picked up from a relationship recently concluded. They were what she smoked, and then they became what I smoked. I really shouldn’t have made this trip. I was sick enough that I don’t remember a thing about the departing and arriving flight. I only recall from start to finish the obsessively lengthy airport security upon arrival. After that I only recollect bits and pieces, a heap of broken images.

I walked fifteen miles in the course of one strange day, approaching strangers in the street to ask for directions. When I plotted out my path with a $7 store-bought map later that evening, I realized I’d been more or less walking in circles. One kind soul, a young woman, saw me on my feet unsteadily and spoke to me with pity. At her request, I sat down and rested for several minutes, leaning heavily against a black cast iron fence. Incapable of seeing myself as others saw me, I saw no other option but to keep on stumbling around until I found my destination.

What I do remember fills me full of shame and regret. Since then, I have delighted in the passage of time. I begged God for a miracle, the willingness to turn three years into five years, five years into seven. Now I have reached ten and know that fifteen is just around the corner. Only a small group of people I will likely never see again for the reminder of my life hold any memory of what transpired. At most, they number around one hundred, or maybe close to seventy-five. Now that I have become something of a name and a known quantity, their stories of me could be very lucrative indeed for those easily swayed by a generous payout.

I told my handlers the full story, as I remember it, during the vetting process. At the conclusion of our intensive, detailed meeting they didn't seem especially concerned. I was told that they’d heard far worse and didn't seem overly concerned. Early adulthood hell-raising can usually be excused because criticism usually has a way of boomeranging, damaging the hypocritical should one retaliate and dig deeply enough into someone else's past. The past terrifies me, but I talk about it constantly as a purgative, a bloodletting, as though constant retelling could serve as an exorcism of sorts. I live in fear, terrified of past behavior becoming public knowledge.

I have used my past behavior as the inspiration for many a sermon. The congregation loves a good story of redemption. Americans feel the same way. We can be unforgiving at first, but we love second acts and comebacks. As I've learned, even those who aren't religious find personal anecdotes like these compelling and moving. There will always be some whose doubt takes the form of hostility. These are the ones I pray for the most.

Like any alcoholic in recovery, I separate my life into two piles. One contains periods of relative health and the other, periods of undeniable, acute crisis. I’ve reached the potential I always knew dwelled within myself, though for a long while I wasn’t sure how to best channel the leadership skills that lay dormant for a long time. My father used to tell me, even in my boyhood, that I had great things ahead of me. It took long enough to for me to arrive and I worry that one day the game will be over, and the rug will be pulled out from under me forever.

The larger a name I became, the more two distinct camps grew and swelled in number. Those who wanted to protect my image jealously guarded my reputation and those who knew my indiscretions sought to break through the protective bubble that had been fashioned for me. I followed good advice and gave the naysayers very little dirt with which to work. I usually busted myself, frustrating the news media, and spoke constantly of my limitations and previously undisciplined behavior.   

I relate to St. Paul, who prior to a particularly well-known roadside conversion in modern day Syria had been hard at work signing the death warrants of Christians. My sins may not have been as extreme as his, in some ways, but for some I know my name will forever be known in unflattering terms. I pray that they see me back then as troubled, not a man with malicious intent. I once considered changing my name, or adopting a pseudonym, but reconsidered. I learned that running away prevented me from sharing a powerful narrative, speaking to others who were ashamed of their earlier conduct. My name was part of that radical honesty. 

People sometimes weren’t sure whether I had any control over my actions, or whether I was choosing to selectively enforce control over them. When you hit rock bottom, as I did, illness and drugs take over and grab the wheel. In a few of those circumstances, I can say emphatically that I was entirely out of touch with reality. I lived my life in a constantly impaired state, a generally convivial and friendly person, but at times prone to lash out at others when I believed I was being mocked or belittled.

To some, I’d been a devious manipulator. This is the case with all addicts. If I clamor that forgiveness be granted to others, it is partially my salvation own I request. Addiction made me a pathetic figure. It made me appear alternately threatening, distorted, and eccentric. Since then, I have destroyed any visual evidence of my past. The task was not difficult as it could have been because during the worst times I deliberately stayed out of the range of most cameras or video recorder. That which I missed will resurface eventually, sold to gossip magazines or television networks.    

During my trip, I ended up in Worcester, Massachusetts. Upon arrival, bags in hand, a man offered to sell me drugs. I declined. He was strangely supportive of my decision. That’s so good, man. Don’t do it. A young woman with blue hair was waiting for me at the train station, sitting behind the wheel, parked nearby the entrance. For an evening, I got to know a group of working class slackers who lived on a diet of diner food and very cheap pot. They laughed at my accent and I laughed at theirs.

I crashed on the couch that night, hoping to be left alone by her pet ferret, who had earlier scattered the contents of my backpack across the entire floor space. Convinced by her earlier behavior that she was interested in me, I rose unexpectedly in the early morning. I wasn't sure where I was at first. Upon opening my eyes, I felt beneath me the unfamiliar. I had dozed off on the cushions of a couch that functioned as my bed. She was sleeping across the room from me, and I was struck once again by how beautiful she was.

Swaddled in a huge blanket, I walked a few paces to her bed. I began to run my fingers through her hair, delicately smoothing her cheek with the fingers of the back of my right hand. She woke up instantly, surprised, but not upset. Taken aback by what I’d done, she indicated that she appreciated the gesture, but wasn’t interested in me that way. Crestfallen and embarrassed, I immediately returned to my impromptu sleeping quarters. I had guessed wrongly, which meant a brand new round of self-loathing and hurt. 

She rose around 9 that morning to take me back to the train station, back to Boston. We briefly discussed what had happened the previous night. She wasn’t upset, but interpreted it as proof of her overwhelming physical beauty. Everyone’s attracted to me, she said. This wasn't exactly the case. She was no runway model, but she had her charms. In some ways, her looks were very rough around the edges. On that slightly narcissistic note, we parted ways there and never met again.

My congregation believes in second chances. The Pharisees, the keepers of the law, who were active in Jesus's day would call most people who attend my church their social inferiors or even downright scum. As it is written, it isn’t the healthy that need a doctor. The membership includes convicted felons, sex workers, sex offenders, and the chemically addicted. Having hit rock bottom, they cried out for God's assistance. I tend my flock with care. This is one of the only places where damaged people can belong without being forcibly expelled.

They come in twos and threes, shuffling in with their heads down. They've heard about me and this church. Our no questions asked policy is enforced. Those with no families to return to seek to form those of their own. It pleases me that I can provide peace of mind to those who have lived in a perpetual state of crisis. Once I was there myself, and with every point I make, I regularly see heads nodding in agreement during the sermon.

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