Musings of a Brief Spring
By Robert Russell
From a gloomy, sable sky dripped nostalgic raindrops that pattered upon the pellucid skylight domed over an empty dining room. I sat hunched over and alone on a clean, tiled floor listening to the gentle pellets above my ears, my pathetic but only companions. The pervading disquiet inspired by the sound nudged me into a sardonic contemplation, my mental ramblings like a strangle-hold seizing me with an unrelenting grip. The sallow walls reverberated each traveling thought a hundredfold like claps in an echo-chamber. Clap, clap, pat, pat, patter. Damn the rain. In the ill light, I looked upward at the acrylic ceiling and found an amorphous orb with dark eyes and a bearded face peering back at me. We stared and stared for a time, and then, it began speaking. Enamored in its enchanting incantations, I found myself lifting and falling again and again and again. Reverie. Again. Oh, the memories this room once held.
An empty home is a cavity in a person. Deep as a trench in his heart, it pierces and burrows, shooting through his veins a stinging admission of an ended era. It is an anxiety, or rather, an infection, gangrenous lesions forming in his mind gradually erasing his memory’s photos of the past. Naked walls become strangers; the vestiges of adornments have long been washed away and painted over new. Clean floors, pervasive space, do not just intrude on familiarity, but defile it. Nostalgia is a shattered mirror, the fragile shards of which bare the fading memories that fall farther and farther into oblivion. Past times, fleeting flashes of life and exuberance, loom heavily in the stagnant, dust-flecked air. Legion roars of jubilation, once echoing clamor like fanfares through the halls, slowly grow quieter and quieter. Infinite footprints, dances, indelible traces of vigor and love have been buried under new tile, and thus the slate is wiped cleaned, times to be totally forgotten. Soon no one will know of the incredible life that this dead home once enkindled.
Back to my senses. I had returned to Richmond to retrieve the last of my belongings, reluctantly of course. This apartment had been my home for the past five years, five glorious years. Inside the walls, the pinnacle of my youth abounded in beatific excess. And in the quiet, idle intervals of my divine apotheosis, the image of a growing man began to materialize. It had been more than a home; it had been the greatest home that I had ever known and likely will ever know. The culmination of my life thus far had been nurtured and grown like a seed within those walls. The extremities of my existence occurred within those walls. I loved within those walls. I almost died within those walls. I learned within those walls. I endured within those walls. The best parts of my life, the worst parts of my life, the best parts of me, and the worst parts of me, those walls have inspired and known me more intimately than anyone else. It was painful to be back, and I was back for a week, what would be my last week within those walls. As soon as the last painting fell, the last chair removed, the last shirt-hanger taken, I knew finality would settle in. And like an overwhelming, existential deluge, it was already beginning.
Friday night. In nine-days’ time, I would say goodbye and start the familiar, five-hour sojourn back up to Philly, but best to dwell on that later. Still sitting in my miserable heap on the slick, barren floor, cold as a frozen lake, I thought about potential plans for the evening. The city was alive with inebriation. The city was always alive on Friday nights, and I could always hear it through the walls. But somehow, on that Friday night, I could not be enticed to go out. I spurned the seductive sirens that sang from the streets songs of shamelessness and salacity. My mother would have been proud. Truthfully, I was just tired. The physical defeat of the trip down in combination with my inability to escape the screaming tethers of the past that the surrounding walls amplified incessantly seemed to spur my decision: sleep over debauchery. It was late anyway, and I was lugubrious. Slowly, I stood and moved out of the empty dining room and into my former bedroom. Finding solace on the floor in the dusty corner, I laid my tired head on a pillow I had brought with me and buried myself in a swath of blankets. My old bed had already been removed.
Saturday mornings in Richmond. There was only ever one thing on the agenda. It was eleven o’clock, and Eve beckoned. Brunch was underway. In less than an hour, we sat adjacent to one another at a crowded bar; noon: The Richmond peak of the brunch rush. Three individual bartenders donned in casual, gray shirts with “The Daily” emblazoned on their backs moved swiftly behind the bar. They were efficient and fast, pros undoubtedly, and in no time, I was downing what was left of my first, last Richmond screwdriver. The ice in my glass slid downward and hit my teeth with an audible tap, prompting a soft chortle in Eve. An old friend, a temporary lover–eons ago–she was always good company. Life in Richmond had continued for her after my departure nearly a year before, and as I was with her, comfortable in her company and certainly comfortable at a bar, she recounted the quotidian details of her current days. Still a student, and now, a part-time au pair, still an avid reader, but with a new, non-reader boyfriend, Eve strained a breath between sentences. I soaked up every word eagerly, reveling in the simple pleasure of the conversation. And what a pleasure it was. With a swelling stupor, I realized just really how much I had missed her. Distance makes the heart grow fonder. Fuck a cliché, but there was some veracity in that one, I admit. Her fucking eyes. Eve’s eyes were bluer than sapphire, penetrating, prismatic, and dangerous. Her eyes could kill me; they could lure me into the deep, dark trenches of the Pacific, and as I choked and drowned, I would still never break contact despite the stinging, saltwater blur clouding my vision. I would no sooner welcome my own death and demise in those eyes simply knowing that they would be engraved into my retinas for eternity. And her hair. Her long, black hair. Waving in the waft of a shuffling waiter behind her, tresses shimmered under the invading sunlight that seeped into the room. Strands danced across her white shoulders with enervating grace. Intermittently, she would swipe a finger derailing a strand in its attempt to infringe upon her cheek which, in an undefinable way, I found delightful. Those delightful cheeks. Pale and unblemished, they grew rosy with each cocktail she finished, and our laughs flowed more frequently. Oh, her laugh–a jubilant appurtenance to her voice, soft and contagious. Her voice, of a timbre married to comfort and pleasantry, pitched upward as she spoke with interest and passion of the things that she loved, her blue eyes growing bluer with each word uttered. She sang of psychology and children and books and film and food and friends, the words like notes on sheet music, her voice fluttering like a flute. Such an intriguing melody, it woke a sleeping attraction that I had long forgotten. A dying flame under the shallow depths of my psyche that had been lying restlessly dormant waiting to be reawakened was suddenly being fanned back to life. Eve had unknowingly inspired a conflagration inside me, and it was beautiful. The way she spoke, her eloquence and brilliance radiating effortlessly; her outwardly beauty was but a complement to her lovely mind.
A few hours later, we hugged and departed, she behind the steering wheel, me on the sidewalk. As she sped past me in her blue Honda Civic with a Bernie sticker on the back window, she honked twice and waved. I waved back with a smile and cast my glance downwards. That was the last time I saw her.
Richmond air is different from Philly air. It is lighter, sweeter in a decrepit, industrial way, yet with an alluring after-taste of something I can never identify. Such were my thoughts as I walked. Perhaps, it was bias, or more probably, the alcohol was beginning to reach its warm hands out of the bloody ether and caress me. Traipsing through the streets of the Fan, homely, quaint townhouses lined the sidewalks, undoubtedly more than a hundred years old. Auburn leaves danced around my steps, intermittently kissing my ankles. Over cement cracks like the ticks of a metronome in my stupor ears, my feet carried me onward unhurriedly; there was no conductor to my pace as time ceased to exist along with my cares. Birds chirping in counterpoint, a warbling chorus accompanied by neighborly bustle, maintained musical static that seemed to diminish the distance of my trek.
Around the curvy bend, crossing over Lombardy Street, passing a playground, toddlers swinging gracefully with their smiling mothers behind them, the sidewalk again outside the Addams’ old palace, turning down Birch Street, a gay couple smoking cigs perched atop a rusted fire escape, entering Morris Street, a jazz recording blaring from an open window which turned the heads of my pedestrian allies on the opposite sidewalk, expressions of glee on their faces, stepping into shadows of protruding trees, over shallow puddles with glimmering branches in their reflections, stopping at the corner of Floyd Street, allowing a bicyclist to pass, waving cordially, stepping into the crosswalk and moving diagonally onto Harvey Street, the chatter of an open Lamplighter, bearded hipsters sipping overpriced coffee, exchanging opinions on Dostoevsky amidst smoky exhales, a girl in a yellow sundress reading a book on a park bench, bats on her knees and a pixie cut, a barefoot man and a dog skipping back and forth in the grass, the sun bathing their movements with delight, a delight that found me just as I found it, the beauty of life that enshrouded me like a protective shawl upon recognition.
Suddenly, I stood before The Local, the famous Irish pub, accurately named as it was a local favorite. An old brick building with an old crew of regulars that never left. I could not begin to count how many times I had been there, most certainly more times than any other bar in Richmond. No wonder my drunken feet dragged me here, and unwittingly, it was the day before St. Patrick’s Day. Festivities were already in bloom. Patrons young and old, sober and drunk, smoking and standing, thronged on the outdoor patio, taking advantage of the fine weather, its breeze ruffling tops of heads busily. Moving through the crowd and climbing up the stairs, Liza met me with an uproar of surprise at my arrival. I had only told a handful of people that I was coming home. She had not been one of them. Screaming bloody murder, she launched herself into me from the top step of the brick stairs. I nearly fell backward most assuredly into a head injury. Another old friend, Liza was one of the oldest, actually. I had met Liza during my first week of college, and we had stayed close for seven, short years. She stood tall, her eye-level a bit higher than mine; her flaxen hair flamed against a tanned complexion. Scintillating umber eyes struck me with unwavering intensity, and the subtle southern accent hiding in her voice was but a sultry accoutrement to her charismatic aura. Liza was a beauty, enough said.
“What are you doing here!?!” she exclaimed, nearly spilling the beer in her left hand.
“I’m back for a week!” I responded with enthusiasm, thirsty for a drink of my own.
“Ah, I’m so glad you’re here!”
“Me too, believe me!”
Inside, the pub was an Irish frenzy. Green walls were met with a green sea of shirts, pants, skirts, leggings, and raiment alike. The air, strikingly redolent with sweat and beer, felt viscid against my skin. The wide hall was dimly lit, the few lamps above the bar being the only pathetic source. From the radio played a speedy, Irish punk war cry which my ears immediately recognized: “Seven Deadly Sins” by Flogging Molly. It was barely audible under the vocal roars of the burly men seated down the bar ardently entranced in the soccer game displayed on the three screens above wooden shelves of infinite bottles. Stepping over the doormat before the entrance, I dodged dart-throwing players and carved my way to the bar.
It was everything I had missed.
I took a stool, grabbed a beer, peered to my left, and found more old friends. Beyond them were more old friends. For Christ’s sake, the room was bounteous with familiar faces, all eyes of which smiled widely upon meeting my gaze. My initial stupor from the brunch cocktails with Eve had subsided during my walk, but in greeting and reconnecting and basking in the horde of my old friends in this Irish pub, a renewed intoxication boiled up from my throat and found rest in my skull. It was not of nausea or ill-feeling, but of exult and vitality. It was barely three o’clock.
A problem I have pondered over the past five years is whether I love liquor because it makes me talk or whether I love conversation because it makes me thirsty. Oh, how it racks my brain. Hours, days can pass, and I would still be no closer to a solution than when the quandary first became present. However, one certainty cuts through the confusion and shines clear as a bell: alcohol adorns me in a half-lifted veil of the strangest and most wonderful variety. The tulle of inebriety that covers my eyes dissolves each driving attempt to self-analyze whilst simultaneously impelling a thick stream of confidence to flow into my fore-mind uninhibited. There, it culminates, spewing from my lips and emanating from my eyes, in a glorious, confounding version of my better self. Intoxication is a tool with which I am able to thwart and quell the obstacles that arrest my desired traits when I am sober. Each drink brings me closer to that idyllic portrait of myself, that perfect, mental simulacrum that does not exist in real life but only in my dreams. Taciturnity turns into loquacity. Diffidence transforms into poise. As my anxieties fall away, my eloquence and ideas are born anew; as my physical insecurities are smothered, my outward intrepidity is inspired; as my depression is forgotten, my livelihood is reclaimed. Ironic that alcohol is a depressant when it stimulates my inwardly innermost desires.
When sober, I am scourged by insecurity; it is the baneful beginning and end to all my actions, thoughts, motivations, and sustenance. And there are no bounds to that affliction; its deadly touch digs into every crevice of my body rendering me paralyzed and subjugated under its will. Its unrelenting hands have molded me into a social leper. I am monosyllabic in conversation, not out of disinterest or ostentation, but rather from the force of its chains that shackle my mind in even the simplest of personal interactions. Thoughts, ideas, insight, and the formulation of such are wrenched away under a reddening face. My heart palpitates unexpectedly, sending me into arrhythmic throes of nervousness and lethargy. It has been like this for as long as I can remember. Grade school was the worst. I would trundle down hallways peering downwards, my neck straining to carry my heavy head, so as to avoid any and all eye contact. I wanted to strive for popularity but could never bring myself to make advance onto others. A constant fear of rebuff would prevent me from obtaining affability, and thus I was always forced to conceal my shyness. That persistent, preemptive defense mechanism blossomed into a suffocating introversion that, to this day, continues to engulf me in its blazing grasp. It is through enormous effort that I am able to unearth even the smallest nerve that lies buried deep inside, and once I have exhumed it, only then can I begin to slowly stoke that friendly spark, hoping that it might grow into a meaningful relationship. It is a vicious, turning wheel, a gear, the cogs of which stab and cut into any semblance of happiness. For years, no chance of escape had even grazed my mind. I accepted long ago that I would have to live with this plague until my dying days. But then I had my first drink, and suddenly that horrible prognostication, my ineffable plight that so tortured me, shattered into an oblivion. Alcohol did not just stop the bleeding and heal the wounds; it broke the wheel entirely.
Take a sip; a flash of gleaming tile, a school hallway, latticework of lines and glazed vinyl designs, glaring white and grey and beige, a spill here, dust clumps there, a physics textbook, some notes, moving shoes and dismembered limbs, a yellow sundress, bats on her knees and a pixie cut, all fading into nothingness. Another sip; I can finally walk upright and look forward, unafraid, my back thanks me, backs of heads, tufts of hair and goldilocks, snapbacks, backpacks and paperbacks, pedestrian peers on the opposite side-wall, expressions of glum on their faces, dapper teachers and corpulent administrators, is this really my high school? Take a shot; the redness that fills my cheeks now is not from apprehension but the burn of the whiskey. Ah, that beautiful, sultry burn that cuts through the static and numb. My eyes water, my nose tingles, and suddenly, I have no recollections of the suffering that I faced everyday walking down those halls–the suffering at the behest of my own masochistic mind. Now, my afflictions release me, those memories evaporate, and I am here, finally. Here.
At a black-top, metal table on the outdoor patio of the Local surrounded by old friends and basking in the briskness of the sunny breeze, the corners of my lips curled into a strong and easy smile. I glanced around, from left to right, and I took a mental snapshot, a souvenir of a perfect moment to carry with me back to Philly. Liza emerged, followed by Cecelia, another day-one. Cecelia was secretly one of my favorites; I could say it was her charisma, intelligence, humor, and good company that kept me close to her all these years, and that is all true of course, but more truly, it was her widow’s peak–the most adorable of genetic gifts. They pulled up chairs, sparked cigarettes, pulling slow drags between sips of beer, and relayed the plans as they were forming.
“City Dogs is the move,” Cecelia announced with conviction to the crowd. A freckled marble statue in the pale sun, she raised her glass, the froth of the beer crashing against its insides. All other glasses ascended in tandem amidst a chorus of agreeable cheers.
“You best be coming, Russ,” Liza murmured to me from across the table top. Her glaring eyes made it abundantly clear that to refuse would be to usher my early death. For an instant, I wondered what method she would take in my killing. One came to mind rather quickly.
“Hell to the yes I am,” I responded back, a musical inflection in my voice.
We set off, a green, drunk bevy staggering down the street: Liza, Cecelia, and me, along with ten others, more friends, old and new, to whom Liza had extended the invitation. To onlookers we were quite the spectacle, I imagined, us, dancing and traipsing dizzyingly, a few nearly stumbling as we obnoxiously laughed and chanted lyrics from popular songs. How insufferable we were, like petulant teenagers on the first night of summer; however, our collective, outward appearance was the last of my concerns.
Ebullience takes many forms, especially for a twenty-five-year-old having relinquished the beautiful life I had possessed back in Richmond. Present forms include: a new episode of Last Podcast on the Left, books about alien abductions, old Twilight Zone reruns, true crime documentaries, a cappuccino from the Mad-Hatter, delving into conversation on literature with a professor, hearing my father laugh for once. But on that Saturday eventide, in the company of my peers under the waning, fuchsia sky cowering over towering roofs and splintering, wooden parapets, ebullience took its form. I was without a care. I was happy.
Flailing, falling, slurred words, and blur. My seat throws me to the floor, the stars above smiling at my clumsiness. Tides of laughter crash around me, and I writhe on the cold wood searching for my feet. Wait, what happened to my leg? My left leg is soaked. I swear I didn’t piss myself, just a damn waste of a tenner. Not again. God’s hands wrap around my shoulders and lift me up; no, but two, disconnected pairs of strength support me, ah my friends. I forgot how many had come along to City Dogs. It is such a beautiful night, but balance is not my forte. Hold on, I think I know that song. “Stand up. Sit down. Pass out. Wake up.” Stop swaying. Focus. “Sit down, man.” Oh shit, right. Okay, well, my mouth does not want to cooperate. Nor do my limbs for that matter. What even are limbs, man? God, look at these beautiful people. How did I get so lucky? I love them all so much. Sit. Okay, I’m sitted. Hey, why don’t ya go fuck youself? Wait, where are my cigs? Ah, here they are. Jesus, this pack is mangled; how many are broken? Got one, thank god. Necisito una encendedor, por favor. Gracias. Why isn’t this working? Nothing is working. Oh shit, wrong end, wow. Egg on my face! Here, let me light that for you. Thanks, man, I fucking love you. God, I can barely see. Where’d my drink go?
In a hazy place and a glowing air, undoubtedly the residual drips of invincibility from a last night’s good time, I found myself standing, or rather swaying, on the corner of my fire escape roof peering down fifty feet to a black, asphalt parking lot. My arms were outstretched, I was barefoot, and the cool breeze graced my face ruffling my hair and tickling my stubble. The gray sky, an unpainted, stale ceiling extending the limit of my peripherals was slowly collecting hue. The pastel morning was emerging, and the empty streets amplified an eerie, ominous presentiment. The world was illusory, phantasmagorical, but sensuous too, and it was beautiful.
I teetered on the precipice, my toes growing numb in the brisk wind. I had forgotten how I gotten there, but all that was behind me. Something beckoned. Something compelled. Something drew me; something inside me pulled and pushed me like an oscillating pendulum in my unconscious. I was hypnopompic, that much I could realize, but like the terrifying restraints of sleep paralysis, I could not find escape from the altered state. But it was beautiful.
On my perch, my crow’s nest overlooking the city skyline, I was a king. I surveyed my land with a growing fulfillment, an approbation to a life-long, imaginary achievement. At that height, the existential zenith of my youth transcended. This was the apogee of my life. This was my divine apotheosis in physical form. This was my life at its greatest, height and all. With that fleeting, final thought, I stepped off the ledge, and it was beautiful.
Contrary to popular belief, weightlessness is a myth, at least at fifty feet. Air resistance is a slight and unequal impediment to gravity’s strong hand; it is not a defiance nor concession to force, but a loving, embracing companion to falling.
Birds chirped in the early light and flew as I flew too, my pathetic but only companions. In the circumambient rush of the descent, I was brought back to that time I jumped off a cliff into the New River in West Virginia. I remember how nervous I was. That timorous pit in my stomach buried in potential energy leapt into my throat, but it was extinguished as soon as I broke the water’s surface. Water is kind. Pavement is less forgiving.
The impact of the fall thrust my body forward into a dust-covered, rigid porcelain bowl whereon I forcefully struck my head hard and fast in the throes of a sleep-drunken, myoclonic jerk. I groaned at the pang that reverberated inside my skull before returning to its corner on the surface of my forehead with a stinging admonition. My senses slowly came back to me. My vision was still blurred, but I made out the shower curtains, the shadowy, inclined ceiling, and a dirty mirror. The bathroom reeked, a fetid combination of sweat and vomit I deciphered, and I was suddenly stricken with an overwhelmingly revolting taste on my tongue. I lay on the cold, tiled floor for a moment, bewildered at how I had been able to sleep like that. My neck was stiff as a board, and my lower back ached torturously.
How did I make it back last night? My memory was a void.
I tossed and turned and slowly found my bearings, my legs shaking as I gently stood up. A wave of nausea and lightheadedness seized me as I made my way to the kitchen sink where I immediately threw my lips under the faucet and let a cold torrent fill me with glorious revitalization. Life poured into me. However, despite the orgasmic quenching of my thirst, my mind quickly drifted to the dream that had sent me flying back to reality. I shuddered at the image of the pavement. It had been three years since my near-fatal accident, and the post-traumatic dreams had subsided entirely. Or so, I had thought. This last dream was the first in the many years of trying to forget that horrible event, and within the screaming tethers of the past that these bare walls emulated and intensified, I felt a growing cavity in my heart burrowing deep and piercing me to my core. Anxiety washed over me, and I began to wonder if coming home had been the right choice after all.