I’ve been pulled under again. The faint odor of sulfur still stings the inside of my nose, but it’s quickly fading. I can’t taste it any longer. I can’t taste the vomit that is surely lining the inside of my throat, slowly dripping its way out my half-open mouth, tongue lolling out, gravity trying to pull it into the grass. My body is warm, my heart and pulse still shows signs of life, I just need to step outside for a moment and gather my thoughts. I’ve been here before, but it’s been quite some time.
That irresistible tug at the deepest corner of my brain, urging me down, telling me it’s going to be alright. Ah, temptation, one of the devil’s greatest opiates. I’ve resisted it for years, but it’s pulling at me stronger than ever now. The others won’t be happy when they find me here. They’ll know I gave in, the disappointment will be palpable, and I can already feel myself crumbling under the weight of it. Each tiny perceived infraction another stone placed upon my chest.
Is it getting harder to breathe?
No. Relax, Donovan. You’ve been here before, remember?
I’m swimming through the inky darkness, propelling my weighted weightlessness into the unknown. It resists me more than it used to, almost as if it’s trying to close me off from something. If I just keep swimming? Pushing? Rotating? If I just keep focused, I will find what I’m looking for. Is it my consciousness, or something deeper?
The tiny, almost imperceptible feeling of a pin prick somewhere across my body. My eyes unclench slowly and I look around. I’m not picking myself out of the wet grass at the church. I’m eight or nine years old. This is 1985 and I’m sitting on the edge of a collapsing twin bed, staring at a heavily creased The Thing movie poster that I absolutely had to have at a county fair a couple years earlier.
One of my happiest childhood memories was winning that poster at a fair. One of those games where the walls are lined with various posters and whatever poster the dart hits, that’s the one you win. Unfortunately, five year-olds are not known for their deadly aim, and everybody had a good laugh when I hit the poster of male dancers. Mom and Dad were able to get the carny to swap it out for the one I really wanted.
I woke up terrified the first night it was on the wall, a thunderstorm came through and a loud crack woke up me, as I stared directly at the glowing empty face on the iconic design. I must have woken up the entire apartment building with my screaming. They took it off the wall and folded it a million times and hid it away somewhere, but I found it and put it right back in place.
Little Donny trying to paper over the cracks of his memory again. This isn’t why we’re here.
Their voices. I can hear them arguing on the other side of the door, that’s why I’m fixated on the poster. I don’t understand everything I’m hearing, and that’s a combination of the walls being just thick enough, and their voices being kept down. For once. My mother was always more impassioned in my defense, about the help she thought I needed. My father was too pragmatic, it was always about the money. “If we get him the help he needs, where does that leave us?” he would often ask her as she erupted in tears. He always looked at actual needs as wants. Priority is a funny thing when addiction starts living rent free inside your head.
My father needed that next drink.
My mother wanted therapy for her son.
In my father’s mind this was all very simple, twisted as his logic was. He would tell her that he was screwed up as a kid, and that going to church every Sunday and some classic corporeal punishment would put me in line. There’s nothing a good spanking, or wooden spoon across the ass couldn’t solve.
Do you know how many cases of Schlitz you could buy with the cost of a few hours of licensed therapy? Would therapy have fixed me?
It would not have brought us together.
His Word and Light.
It didn’t fix me at 25, or 35, or 40, what could it have done for an eight year-old? Wrestling is the only thing that has ever fixed me. Allowed me to forget about who I am, who I was and who I’ll become. The comfort of watching colorful characters do outrageous things became my own story as I matured, as I found myself.
But that’s not me, not yet. I’m sitting on the edge of that bed with my hands clutching at fistfuls of blanket, rocking my body back and forth while I stare intently into The Thing’s gaping white face. For now, an unfound little boy, rocking himself into comfort as Mom and Dad argue yet again over the correct way to parent, to care and to co-exist.
Mom never wins these arguments. She always puts up a valiant fight, but in the end she always relents to Dad. He is a maelstrom of hate and fury once he’s had enough to drink and it seems like he’s constantly red lining there. There’s never a good time to ask him anything. I just keep my mouth shut and try not to make eye contact. Try not to make him perceive I’ve done anything wrong.
Their voices were rising and falling like the tide. One than the other crashing against the bulwark of thinly insulated walls and a rotting wooden door with a movie poster taped in place, covering the hole Dad’s balled fist had made one of those times someone needed correcting. Even at my young age, I could tell when the crescendo was coming.
The sound of glass crashing against a far wall and tinkling onto the floor in a thousand little pieces. The sound of a fist pounding angrily on a counter, snapping off formica in the process. These were the sounds that told me I needed to ball up and disappear, to get as far away from this little tiny rundown apartment in Detroit, Michigan as soon as I could.
I felt like I could never leave her. Drinking had greatly weakened him even by now, but never stopped his tendencies. What was once a fist, became a belt, or a board, anything he could get his hands on, really. It was always about control. It was about pride in clinging to the man he was before this, before me.
“None of this would have happened if it weren’t for him!”
I heard that one through the wall loud and clear. I couldn’t make myself any smaller if I tried. Sure, I acted out in school. I was a bit wild for an eight year-old and loved to find any sort of trouble I could get into, but I figured if I was going to get disciplined anyway, I might as well have fun ahead of time.
You liked the abuse.
It made you feel alive.
It made me feel something. Love was a foreign word to me. I merely existed in the orbit and gravitational pull of my parents. A kind of forgotten satellite that was used as an object to reduce stress and anger when I orbited back around into view.
How many times did I tell myself it wasn’t my fault?
Hundreds? Thousands? More?
…all your fault.
I stopped rocking when the shot rang out through the apartment. It was deafening.
“John!?” my mother’s voice rang out, weak and hollow, straining through tears, snot and pain.
And then what happened?
Sirens filled the block and the building. Men in uniform, men in suits. They were trying to reassure me that everything would be okay. That my mother was fine, that my father was… well.
She killed him, didn’t she?
He deserved it, didn’t he?
Johnathan Winters died by gunshot wound to the skull at 44 years-old. Where did all that pride get my old man? Shot in the head. He never thought she could do it. I never thought she had it in her to fight back, to stand up for herself. Yet it turned out that Mary Winters did have some pride. She knew that John would kill Donovan and her before killing himself. In her mind, someone had to survive this and get out. Regardless of the chances.
The police, who promised everything would be okay, shifted me into a foster home. A good Christian family. Upstanding and morally righteous. No drinkers, no cursers, no sinning. The kind of people John Winters wished his own family could be, but never had the right tools to forge into being.
I ran away from home for the first time when I saw the verdict. Mary Winters was given 15 years in the manslaughter shooting of John Winters. He was drunk, she was pumped full of amphetamines. The first time I had ever heard the word in my life. I never knew she was abusing substances much like my father had.
Where did you go?
Isn’t there where you ran from?
My real home. Here. The church.
His Word and Light.
I found the answers here. I found guidance and truth. Every time I ran away from that foster home, they knew I was coming back here. Nobody could figure out why. They just thought it was my favorite hiding spot, but they didn’t know. They couldn’t understand. They couldn’t feel…
I had lost everything, but I had unknowingly begun making myself whole.
Somewhere, rippling along the surface I began to hear the strained squawks of blue jays and the high calls of chickadees and bluebirds. The scene in my mind was starting to fade back into darkness and I could feel my body being lifted up, out, and away from the murky ether I had found myself in. I felt my head first, heavy and unmoving, streaks of pain pushing through the right side. I felt dried vomit around my lips, my tongue felt like a slab of concrete as I forced it back inside my mouth. My eyes pushed themselves open through the crust.
Eye level with the grass, the sun was starting to rise. The smell of sulfur had subsided, but the distant droning of flies continued unabated. As I went to stand, my knees buckled. I felt a strong pair of hands reach under my arms and pull me up. I mumbled a thanks and stumbled off to the nave.
I was exhausted, and I needed to sleep.