The string band played melodiously in the corner of the room. A frantic frenzy of overlapping conversations could be heard between beats. It was a busy place, and I was tucked away at a corner table by the window. I tried to force myself to enjoy my surroundings. Objectively, I was able to recognize the splendor of this place, and how lucky I was to have a table there on a weekend evening. But truth be told, the last place on earth I wanted to be, was there in that beautiful bistro.
Earlier in the week while out on a drunken gallivant with my good buddy, liquid courage, I asked out a girl. And to my surprise, she said, “yes.” We exchanged numbers and pleasantries before parting ways. Over the next few days, we called and text one another and hatched out a following time to meet, and that’s how I ended up in a bustling lounge on a weekend.
“Another bourbon, sir? While you wait…?” My waiter, a tall, handsome figure said through a courteous smile.
“Ah… sure! Why not? Thanks.” He tipped his head ever so slightly to acknowledge my confirmation. He began to pour. I watched the tawny liquid slither atop the generous ice-sphere in my glass. The ambient lighting caused a visual symphony of refracting nictations that captivated my gaze. This was to be my third drink, and my date wasn’t even here yet. She wasn’t late, I was just early. Very, very early.
I had just moved to this city, attempting to flee the shackles of misery from my old life. Getting drunk and stumbling from one bar to the next in hopes that a woman would see my pain, wander over to me and save me from myself was current modus operandi. Thing is, that only happens in the movies. And generally, only to a handsome protagonist—handsome or, hero, are two things that I am not—so, drinking to a level of constant inebriation fell paramount. It was really the only way that I could navigate through a day. Hell, near the end of it all, I even had to be buzzed just to get to work. A horrible thing to admit… considering I was a paramedic.
When the waiter was finished, he walked away and I wasted no time before lifting my glass and consuming from it. It was during that consumption that my date had arrived. I missed her coming in through the door, but she had spotted me and made her way over.
“Matthew… Hi!” A beautiful voice overtook the music and delighted my ears. I looked up and saw her standing before me. But what I was seeing was impossible… because there in front of me, mere inches away, was a woman who could not possibly be real. I am not remarking on her beauty—though I am sure she was resplendent in her own right—what I was witnessing was something else entirely. Something scripted from a horror film, and not at all from a romantic fable. Standing erect at touchable distance from my now quivering hand was a visitation from the afterlife. A reincarnation of a woman of whom I had once had a very different meeting with…
“Matthew…?” Her voice inquired once more. By now, all real-world features and elements of this live woman had vanished from view, and all that I was seeing, remembering, were the ghastly remains of a suicide victim I had responded to. A girl who had died by a noose of sadness. My eyes began to recall every horrid detail from that day, from that girl. Her neck bore the superficial wounds of fingernail scratches. The one thing movies and TV always get wrong about portraying hanging persons, is that in real life, they always claw at themselves. Their body tries to fight their mind’s fatal implementation. This means that there are always wounds attached to the hanging departed. A horrifically wretched thing to see.
I felt a swell of sickness ascend from the pits of my stomach. I writhed once, then twice more. My hands now cupped around my mouth, a mixture of saliva and expelled bourbon snuck through the slits of my fingers. I no longer saw the live woman, so I cannot tell you of her reactions, but I feel confident that they were marred by an understandable obfuscation. I felt a hand on my shoulder, I am not sure who it was from, but I jerked and bucked it loose from me. One more gut wrench and then I was able to swallow. By this time, my brain was beginning to understand the two realities of my surroundings; the real world of the present, and the once real world of the past… they were colliding. Shamefully so.
I remember attempting to apologize to the woman who had so generously come to see me, but the words were lost in the garbles of panic and embarrassment. I fled the restaurant. I don’t even recall paying for my drinks.
I never heard from that girl again. No text, no phone call, no inquisitive inbox messages online, nothing. And believe it or not, that was a relief to me. I mean, how could I explain to a woman who had at one point acquiesced to my asking her out, only to find out that she reminds me of a dead girl? There is no way on earth that I know of where that conversation goes smoothly, or where I come out of it looking sane.
This is why I didn’t want to be out in the first place; the world around me holds so many perfidious triggers and reminders of my lived experiences, that even the simple act of grocery shopping can turn into an interactive living nightmare. Hence the drink… consume enough of it, and the world itself begins to fall victim to the haze of intoxication. A dulling of sharpness, so-to-speak. Drinking made the intolerable cautiously more bearable. And for a long time, a long, long time, that was how I got by; drink, pass-out, go to work, repeat. But just as is with all things detrimental, it has to come to an end at some point. 2 years ago, after having spent time in a trauma and rehabilitation centre, I put the bottle down, and have not picked it up since.
But that is not to say that the horrible motivators behind my desire to use have faded also—they haven’t. I still hate the outside world. Grocery shopping is usually something I have to talk myself into, much like an athlete inflating himself for the big game. I continue to struggle with apparitions taking shape over the living, causing a frightful pause within me. And thusly, some socially awkward moments to dwell on later.
One thing has changed though, and shockingly so—I met a woman—a woman who has since become my girlfriend! No, we didn’t meet in a bar and she’s not here to save me. She is however, a beautiful soul. A kind spirit with limitless empathy. But even she does not know of the sometimes paralyzing angst that I suffer through, even while in the brilliance of her company.
The other night, I woke with a gasp. I shot up from the mattress and sat choking on the air around me. We had gone to bed together some hours before, but at some point during slumber, our journeys toward sleep had taken us on different paths. I was taken back to an apartment fire. A fire I have written about before, a fire that haunts me to this day. I woke to the smell of thickened smoke and vanquished plastics, metals and furniture stuffing. And… the foul remembrance of burning skin and hair. My hands recalled the loose, jagged flesh that tore from my patient and stuck to my gloved fingers and palms. It is indescribable, the amount of confusion and disorientation that saturates me in those first frightful moments of rejoining the present world. This is likely because these instances never feel like a dream; it’s more like a rehappening. A torturous Groundhog Day.
After spending a few minutes employing some of the stabilization skills gifted to me in the course of therapy, I noticed her beside me, my girlfriend. My instinct was to wake her and hug her tightly, but I fought against it. Just because I was awake, did not mean that I needed to burden this hard-working woman with the same fate. Instead, I just sat back, allowing the cool wood of the headboard to seep in through my damp skin. I observed her silhouette beneath the covers. I navigated her curves with my eyes and tried to convince myself of my much happier and more serene reality, castigating my memory that had so rudely woken me. That moment, a complete juxtaposition—a burning and a love—a burning love, if you will.
I wasn’t able to fall back asleep until the sun had begun its slow crawl toward the heavens. I sat, my back resting on the headboard, my eyes peering out the blinds of the window. Slowly watching the world come into the light of day. These are the moments where I feel most broken; here I am, beside a loving woman, comforted and safe, yet my body, my brain and my cells all act as though I am burning all over again. Even when I tried to take a soothing breath in, my nose stuck and spasmed on the remnants of remembered smoke and soot, charred flesh and bone.
I know most stories are supposed to end with a ‘happy.’ I supposed the only solace that I can offer here, is that I was able to live through and make it to tomorrow. Tomorrow, being a new day. And it is in that promise of a new day that the motivation of ‘try’ is born… because I will always try for a better tomorrow! After all, I am no longer drowning in a bar, waiting for the impossible. Instead, I am sober and with a woman who has no desire to save me from myself, but only wishes to be with me… so today is already better than yesterday. And so it shall be, that tomorrow will be great!