Something solid and heavy struck the front of my Honda and slid up over the windshield, thumping and scratching as it slid along the top of the car. I looked in the rear-view mirror as a deer slammed onto the trunk and cartwheeled through the air, landing with a bone-breaking thud on the side of the road. As it lay in the red wash of my taillights, I was certain it was dead. But then, legs scrambling for footing, the deer raised itself to standing position and stood for a moment, sides heaving. After a few tentative steps, the deer found its grace again. I watched in disbelief as it crossed the road in two elegant leaps and cleared a fence, nimble once more as it ran across the field and into the woods, white tail flashing. The car idled on the country road as I sat hoping that the moonlight might reveal the deer one last time, but it was gone.
The elegance of the moment almost halted me from self-destructing that night, but instead, I turned the wheel and continued driving to the bar. My recent divorce had run roughshod over my life. I tended toward depression, and my formless evenings propelled me out of the house in search of anything to loosen what felt like pliers pinching my throat and chest. “Anything” had led me to unsavory establishments, hollow encounters, hangovers, and brand-new razor blades that cut so easily, especially the whiter, meatier part of my inner forearm. The flesh there reminded me of a fish’s belly.
I moved my cigarette to the other hand and tipped a cup to my lips, swallowing vodka and bits of ice. The consequences of these actions—the depression and defeat that followed the next morning—were beginning to wear on me, but not enough to make me stop. Even if I’d made it through a day distracted by my office job with its put-on happy faces, sour self-hatred set in on the drive home from work. As the light outside stalled in the transition from late afternoon to early evening, panic boiled over. Nighttime soothed; twilight discomfited. About midway through the despondent, yellowy, half-light period, I’d default to what had become a comfort ritual: fill my travel mug to the rim with ice and Smirnoff raspberry vodka, grab some CDs, and head for the car. On the drive to wherever I was going, when I was angry and restless, I fed my resentment with songs by Megadeth and Metallica. Hours later on the drive home, when I was crying and suicidal and convinced I wouldn’t make it through to the next day, it was always “Freedom” by David Gray (The end is close at hand/I think we understand/There ain’t no use trying to delay it). Prescription sleeping pills helped me pass out once I was home. Ambien took eighteen minutes to kick in. As I swallowed one or two or three, I’d mark the time and wait for the escape of medically induced slumber, staring at my glow-in-the-dark alarm clock as it ticked forward. If the time didn’t pass quickly enough, I gave in to the compulsion and went to my sock drawer, digging for my secret packet of razor blades. Sometimes a little cut, sometimes a big one, but there always needed to be blood.
* * *
My frame of mind sank even deeper into a ditch of murky waters, and my ideas for escape became increasingly macabre. Over the next few weeks, I fled from home earlier and earlier until one day I skipped going home at all and just went straight to the bar from work. When I walked in, I smiled at what was becoming a nostalgic aroma—cigarette smoke, old frying oil, and the tangy smell of drunks. A bartender with standout green eyes and thick, black lashes took my order and made me a generous vodka tonic with extra lime. She was pudgy, with a round face and plain, washed-out hair, but her eyes were incredible and took her to a level of attractiveness reserved for those who have one extraordinary feature that transcends and masks any other physical shortcomings.
I pondered for a minute and decided that no, I didn’t have an extraordinary feature. I scratched my scabs through my sleeves. The cuts that were healing were starting to itch. I took a drink as I glanced around. A man wearing a Rasta hat was sitting at the far end of the bar. He was smiling and talking to a friend as he pointed to his back. His lanky brown hair brushed the top of his shoulders. When he stood up from his seat, I noticed the peeling Superman logo on his worn red t-shirt. Lifting the hem, he turned and showed his buddy whatever it was on his back that he was so happy about.
He saw me looking and flashed a grin, holding up his mug of beer. “Happy birthday to me!” he said. I smiled and raised my glass. The bartender came over to check on me.
“How’s your drink?”
“Oh, it’s good. Thanks. What’s your name?” I asked.
“Crystal,” she answered. That name fit her and the bubblegum-pink nail polish she wore. And her Scarlett O’Hara eyes.
I continued. “I know this is an odd question, but what makeup do you use on your eyes? What color of shadow? Do you use eyeliner?”
“Nope, no liner or eye shadow. Just plain old mascara.” She was friendly, but that was all. Her polite no drunk counseling tonight, please expression was clear.
“Oh.” I put my head down, feeling my face color like a coil heating on a stove. But then I made it worse. Hurt and embarrassed, I went ahead and gutted myself, as I always did.
“Did you know that when you blush, the lining of your stomach turns red, too?” I asked.
I looked up, but she was already tending to someone else and didn’t turn back. My stupid bit of trivia floated above me, flashing neon in the dead air. I sensed someone at my side but looked in the opposite direction. Oh, how I hated myself.
“That’s pretty good. Here’s one for you.” The man in the hat reached for his cigarettes, taking two. He lit both and handed one to me. Up close, I could see crinkles around his eyes when he laughed. His face was open and boyish. “Okay, are you ready?” he asked.
I nodded yes.
“Did you know that a cockroach can live for up to a week without its head?”
I blurted out the first thing that came to mind. “Swans are the only birds who have penises.” My face and stomach lining turned brighter shades of red.
“I can’t compete with that, but did you know that the tongue is the strongest muscle in the human body?”
I felt the first flutter of kinship. I liked this funny guy.
“So what’s so special about your back today?” I asked.
“I celebrated my birthday with a tattoo. Forty years is something noteworthy, don’t you think?” he said.
I had a phoenix tattoo on the back of my neck. I got it on my thirtieth birthday to commemorate my survival of a particularly suicidal depression. At the time I felt as if I was a brilliant new creature. But now, a few years later, I thought perhaps I had been a bit premature; my feet were dragging in the soot again.
“Can I see it?” I asked.
He turned his back to me, and I lifted the shirt. The tattoo was spotted with blood and shiny with ointment. I sat there in silence, staring at the image of a deer in mid-leap inked into his skin. I thought of the deer I’d hit a few weeks back.
“I got my tattoo for kind of the same reason,” I said, pulling my ponytail to the side so he could see the phoenix with the bright blue wings that stretched up into my hairline.
Crystal stopped by with a fresh beer. “This one is on the house, birthday boy.”
“Yeah, happy birthday, by the way.” I said.
“My name’s Andy. What’s yours?” he asked.
“Lyn,” I said.
“Hey, aren’t phoenixes usually red? Why is yours blue?” he asked.
“Too much blood already,” I said.
“I think I know what you mean.” He gave me a quick nod and whispered, “I’ve been there, too.” He pointed at my sleeve. I looked down and saw that in my gesturing, the cuff had pulled back, revealing a grid of scars and scratches spotted with blood and shiny with ointment.
When he looked at me, I didn’t look away or down at the floor like I usually would. His blue eyes softened, and the pupils opened. It was like how, after cutting myself, I’d stand with my face an inch away from the bathroom mirror and stare into my own pale eyes, trying to figure out what was happening to me.
I drew back and asked, “Did you know that John Wayne won Lassie in a poker game?”
* * *
Between trips to the bathroom, picking songs on the jukebox, and a couple games of pool, Andy and I talked. What I said, he knew. What I asked, he answered. What I felt, he understood. I knew his confessions, and he knew mine. Nothing solved, no answers, no advice—just boiled-down empathy. My initial surprise at meeting one of my ilk grew until it turned into a feeling of hope that matched the strings of starry lights tacked up around the bar.
Hours later, as the ice cubes melted in the drinks we’d forgotten about, Crystal came by to collect our glasses. “Time to settle up, you guys.”
Andy looked at me and said the most perfect thing of all. “Do you want to go for a ride on my motorcycle?”
It was two o’clock in the morning on a work night.
“Let’s go,” he said, turning toward the door. As we walked out into the parking lot, I felt bashful. We’d left the bar, our established territory, and stepped onto new ground.
“You might get cold. Do you have a coat you can put on?” he asked.
“Yeah, in my car, right over there,” I said, pointing across the street. “Let me go get it.”
“Okay, my bike is right behind the bar. I’ll be waiting.”
I crossed the street, wavering between continuing the night or getting in my car and leaving. As I tried to decide, insecurity took root. Was he really waiting on me? In the sixty seconds I’d been gone, I was sure he had left. I had to know, so I put on my coat and walked back. He was standing there, smoking a cigarette, waiting.
We got on the motorcycle and I clutched his jacket, too shy to put my arms around him. The bike fired to a start, the seat vibrating beneath me. We glided into the empty street and took off, the whole town ours on a random Tuesday night. It was bliss. After walking around feeling that I couldn’t get a full breath most of the time, the wind buffeting my face and riffling my hair felt like a gift.
We rode all over, cruising through the blinking traffic lights. It seemed that we didn’t stop once. We flowed along like a current in a brook, smooth and constant. I closed my eyes and relaxed my body into each bump and curve, lost in the ride and my feeling of unexpected happiness. I leaned forward and wrapped my arms around Andy, my heart squeezed sideways with emotion. He responded by pushing his head back against my mine.
When the ride was over, he drove me back to my car and turned off the motorcycle. We stood and faced each other, silent. I felt crisp and full of clean air. I could breathe.
“I don’t know why I met you tonight, when I needed something so badly, but … I don’t know, it was perfect. Thank you.” I hugged him and said it again. “Thank you.”
He put a hand on each side of my face and kissed me good-bye. I unlocked my car and got in. As Andy rode away, I watched his taillights get smaller and smaller until distance winked them out and the rumble of his motorcycle had faded. I knew I wouldn’t see him again, nor would I try to find him. I wanted the memory of this night to be preserved as a singular, untarnished treasure.
When I started my car, the music came blaring on, the lyrics of my latest dark song screaming out at me. I turned it off. As I drove home, my mind was full of light and air. When I got to the spot where I’d hit the deer, I stopped the car and looked toward the woods. The full moon painted the fields a whitish-blue. I didn’t see anything right away, but after a few minutes, I spotted a deer emerging from the trees. As I watched, another deer joined, and another, and then more until there were nearly a dozen standing there, silent and peaceful.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Lee Coursey