By Thomas X. Teller
My first memories were in the bathtub, although I didn’t remember the word for that yet, in the dark; the tub was filled with salty brine. Primordial soup. It stank of growth. I could smell the fishy smell of decay just barely held off. Music was playing, much too loud, right into my skull. I was vibrating. The door opened into the dark and my mother was standing there, although I didn’t recognize her. I didn’t even peek an eye above the water to look - I couldn’t move just yet. My muscles were withered from disuse, my skin mottled gray from the months in the dark broth, in the womb-room. I felt like a photograph being developed, safe in the red-darkness, until the bathroom door opened and the burning light washed me all white. Overexposed. I felt hurt for the first time in months. I missed the quiet numbness of death.
My mother knelt down next to me, excited to see my eyes open, apparently, but not showing it. Of course she knew it would work. She had the utmost confidence in the power of a positive attitude.
“There’s my boy,” she said. “I knew you were getting better.”
She smiled. I tried to mimic her.
Months passed. I learned to walk - felt exhausting - and to eat - felt disgusting. I learned to speak again, although this was the hardest part: the words took so much effort, my mouth felt it was still thawing out, moving numbly around the words. Novocaine-mouth, but everywhere, on everything. Even my thoughts exhausted me, came too slowly. It felt like I was thinking through molasses. “You’ll get there,” my mother said, serving me a plate of mushed up vegetables. Slop, but it contained the nutrients a regrowing boy needs. Mush mush, she mimed, gnashing her teeth. Chomp chomp. I opened my mouth to show her I’d swallowed.
Afterwards, we watched a movie. This part I liked. I could stare at the screen, not really taking it in. So long as I remembered to laugh at the right times, I could be left alone. I leaned back in the chair and let my eyes relax, unfocusing, and became nothing again.
When that was over, and my mom had finished her bottle of wine, she shooed me upstairs. I thought maybe my dad would be coming home - but no. I hadn’t seen him since I’d woken up. My dad. Funny how you can almost forget about people like him after you cross over into the Nothing. They were divorced now, of course; their marriage was good, but not “lose your only son at eighteen” good, and my dad quietly moved to another apartment after the funeral. I had asked to see him, once, when I had the strange fleeting urge of motivation. “Not just yet, honey. You’re not ready yet,” my mother said. Then she added, with a touch of implication, “maybe once you’re feeling more yourself.” It sounded like, “if you behave, if you become my son again, well then we can talk about seeing your father, can’t we?”
She showed me to my room; my “bedroom,” not the dark brine of the bathroom where I usually slept, grey and fetus like, in the nourishing dark. I didn’t recognize the boy whose bedroom it was; the sports trophies and the Grade A! papers and the scholastic decathlon medals and the photos of friends. I had a weird Japanese stuffed animal that my dad had gotten for me from a business trip when I was five, and I had loved it, and now it sat propped on the made bed staring at me with inquisitive, accusatory eyes: who are you? It said, and: Where is my boy? What is this broken thing?
I sat down on the bed and looked at the stuffed animal. Then I slept on the floor.
My mother told me that I loved tennis, and so I decided I would have to love tennis, if I wanted to see my father again. She took me out to the court at the high school, wearing her pressed white tennis outfit and headband. She dressed me up too, in my old tennis uniform and a wig that looked like my old hair.
Smack. A serve hit me in the stomach. “Come on!” she shouted, smiling, “get your head in the game!”
Head in the game. Got it.
She served another. It bounced by me on the right. I willed my body to go after it, to dive. I was rewarded with a twitch of my racket hand.
Smack. She served another. It bounced against my face.
Balls bounced by. My mother kept serving, seemingly uncaring that I couldn’t muster the strength to return them. I saw the image from the outside, a perky suburban mom firing shot after shot at her grey-skinned half dead zombified son. The image almost made me smile.
“Look alive!” she shouted. A neon ball smacked me between the eyes. It hit me so hard that it actually bounced back over the net.
“Nice one!” my mom shouted. My head was officially in the game. I looked alive.
A voice called my name from beyond the court.
“Oh hi, Randy!” my mom called back.
A few boys were standing on the edge of the court in tennis whites. It took a moment to recognize them. “Your teammates, honey,” my mom said, “say hello.”
“Hello,” I said reflexively.
Randy, blonde haired and tan-skinned, looked at me through the fence. “You been avoiding us?”
I smiled at the right time. “No,” I said.
“Oh. Well. Come by Friday for a bonfire! It’s a goodbye thing.
“Goodbye thing. Got it.” I said. I smiled. “Bye,” I said. I put some inflection in it. Some umph.
My mom smiled at me as Randy left. She mouthed “good job.” I smiled back.
That night dad came for dinner. He sputtered and fell to his knees when he saw me. His fat, aging hands fell on mine. I cried too, but I don’t know if it was about seeing him again - I just did. I don’t know if I felt anything, really. If I did have emotions, they felt very far away.
Dad moved back in for a little bit. But that didn’t last; how long was I expected to keep up the act? Eventually he would see me staring at a wall, dead eyed, or see a stitched-on ear flop onto my untouched dinner plate. Eventually he knew that I wasn’t the same son he’d lost. I was only half-living. I could put on an act, but that was it. My mom was okay with the act. But dad knew I was gone. I didn’t blame him for leaving again.
He would walk in on me, sitting in my arm chair, pretending to watch the T.V. even though Netflix had shut off hours ago and the sun outside had gone down and it was just me in the dark and the quiet, a pale ghost, a gray apparition. I was haunting him, I knew, just by being the shell of myself, visible but not quite there. And every time he saw me in my stillness he saw the body in the casket, not his boy.
I wanted to feel bad about this. I wanted to miss my dad, to hate or love my mother. But as I looked at them, dad with his stained shirt and whisper-hair, mom in her bright neon “athleisure,” I didn’t feel anything, which sometimes feels like sadness. It was like I was hungry for emotions, for realness inside of me, grasping for it. But hungering to feel alive again just made me feel empty. It was like the emptiness of me was having hunger pangs, and thinking about it just made it worse. It was better to not think about it at all.
I went to the “goodbye thing” that Randy was having before we all left for college. I dressed myself up for it: reattached some limbs that had gotten a little loose, had my mom tighten up the stitches like she was tightening up my shoelaces as a little kid. I tried on some different clothes: a pink polo. That made my skin look too grey. A white oxford; that made my skin look like a big bruise, yellow-blue. I gave up and put on a black hoodie so that no one could see underneath it, oversized so no one could see the malformed lumpiness beneath. I imagined it was a big bed comforter, that I was still under the covers, the only place that reminded me, peacefully, of the grave.
Randy’s “goodbye thing” was a bonfire, but as I walked towards it I noticed there was a distance between myself and the smells: the woodsmoke, the wet plants, the sharpness of alcohol, stolen from our parent’s basements. At one time these would have made me excited, or at least I would have been able to touch them. Now it just felt like they were just out of reach. Feelings I was too lazy to catch.
I sat by myself and made conversation when I was expected to. The liquor did a good job of making me feel a little more alive, or perhaps just helping me forget that I was dead. It filled up my stomach and my blood with a chemical warmth, like I was drinking coal-fire, and when it beat through my heart it almost felt like the real thing, like blood-warmth.
Everyone was wearing nothing, half-open, unbuttoned stretches of fabric, flannel, oxfords; tight, bright swimsuits even in the dark, because the air was hot and humid it must have made them feel like they were swimming. But I was dead flesh and the heat made me feel like I was cooking, bloody meat becoming grayer until it was medium, medium well, well-done.
My parents dropped me off at college and in a few days I was already at my first big school party. I didn’t understand the people there, I thought in fact that many of them were spoiled and cocky and didn’t care about learning at all, but then again, I’d stopped caring about learning a long time ago it felt like now, so why should I care? I drank a lot and I tried new drugs. I didn’t have to worry about them killing me, so there was that. I guess without my mom breathing down my neck I could have eased up on the act a little bit, stopped trying to be the boy that she missed so much, but I didn’t. Changing now would have been too much effort, far too frightening. I was afraid that if I tried being myself I would reach inside and find there was nothing there.
I met a girl named Cordelia at a party one night. I saw her from across the room, like it was a movie: smoke filled air, red solo cups. Except that everything was ridiculous because, if it were like a movie, with upbeat romantic music, they would show me, half-dead and drooling, a drunk corpse, to some eighties bop staring lazily at a girl in an oversized sweatshirt and holding a thin, glowing joint. I stared, though, because I could see her hand glowing white in the blacklight, like the pearly underbelly of a catfish. She had little stitches on her ring finger, much like mine, and I could see them trail up her wrists where they restrung the veins and the skin there. I knew then that she had been reassembled too.
We didn’t have to say much to get on with each other. We rarely said much at all, but we liked making jokes that other people wouldn’t get, or that they’d find weird, like, “what’s grey and tired and wants to die?” and the answer would always be “me!” no matter who was telling it. It’s not supposed to be funny to you. It was funny to us.
Cordelia’s dad was the one who put her back together. She’d slit her wrists in the bathtub, and for a moment, when she was telling the story, the image brought me back to the bathtub where I had re-gestated. She said she watched the blood spill from her wrists into the water, swirls and balloons and little whirlpools of blood, like tie-die on the white tile. Her dad, disappointed, for fear of not getting his return on investment, poked around the internet until he found the same combination of information my mom had to bring his daughter back on track. He bought the self-help books, titles like Jumpstart Your Child! And Reanimation: The Kaplan Approach. He ordered the equipment on Amazon.
“How about you?” she asked one day, as we laid in the beautiful grass beneath the beautiful trees under the beautiful sky that neither of us could really feel or care about.
“What do you mean?”
“How’d you do it?” she asked.
I didn’t know what she meant; I asked her.
“Kill yourself, I mean.”
“I didn’t,” I said. “I was hit by a train.”
“Sure,” she said. She didn’t have the energy to argue; neither did I. That was why we liked each other. But I wondered from that moment on if I did actually do it. It was impossible to say, I discovered. The person before, the boy who would have killed himself, was an entirely different person than I was. Maybe he did kill himself. Maybe he didn’t. What did it matter?
But sometimes I was sure that he did, and that my mother had brought him, or me, back anyway. That felt wrong. It didn’t feel like a new lease on life. It felt like a debt I could not escape.
It wasn’t very long after graduation from college that Cordelia unspooled herself. She took one of the threads in her wrist and attached it to a slow moving car, then just waited for the stitches to pull themselves out one by one. She’d really done a number on herself with the razor so there was plenty of thread on her hands and legs and arms to unspool. I almost didn’t notice she was falling apart until the car was very far away. I could see her waving as her fingers fell off and she collapsed to the ground. I don’t know why she picked my car.
I rushed back and I went to the apartment where we lived and I put all the parts of her in the bathtub. Then I went to the freezer and dumped everything from the ice tray, and when that wasn’t enough, when it looked pitifully on the pieces of her, I took all the frozen dinners and the icecream and all the cold beer and I put it in there too. Then I ran to the store to buy more ice, and by the time I got back the bits of her had already started to rot and little flies were making nests around the bathroom. I realized it wouldn’t be so easy the second time around.
And so I called my mom. She felt sorry for me.
“And you have her on ice?” she said, then said something I couldn’t hear to her tennis friends. She sounded irked.
I’d dragged her off the court. I said, yes, I had her on ice.
“I’m sorry honey, but not everyone makes it, especially not twice. She’s too old. It’s one thing when you’re young, bouncing back from something like that. But how old are you now, twenty two? Tsk tsk. I just don’t know. Might be better just to start from scratch. By the way, are you coming home for Christmas?”
She hung up, and I held the phone to my ear until the buzzing noise came, in the bathroom with the pieces of her and the flies.
I came home for Christmas. It was easy, because I had gotten an office job in the same city where my parents lived. For a long time, life got better. I grew thicker skin to things that used to bother me. Work had a pleasantly numbing effect. I hardly had to do anything but sit and stare at the screen, and the tasks were so deadening that the glaze over my eyes felt natural. I saw some of the people coming fresh out of college go through the same changes I’d gone through years ago. In many ways I felt better prepared. I had a few drinks after work with them almost every day, and a few drinks at night, and between the warmth of the booze and the warmth of coffee in the morning I could almost feel that slight hum of life, like a turtle bathing in the sun before returning to the cold water. Skin grew over my stitches as the years went on, and a little color returned to my skin. I found that exercise, which I once loathed, now brought back a little vitality to me, but only if done in the most robotic way, on the elliptical, the treadmill, on the weight machines. I was still a corpse, technically, although it became easier to forget that, and my body still cracked and popped and groaned when moved out of its rigid movements: sit, walk, stand, run. After a long time, I hardly ever thought about the train. But sometimes, after a long day at the office, I’ll come home, eat dinner with the kids, watch a movie with my wife, and then retreat to the bed, where we’ll make love, simple, rigid movements, and when she rolls off of me, I’ll be staring at the ceiling, and just stare.
A nd stare.