Floating on the Flat Bench

A rising, a lightening, a liftoff. Sweating between sets, sucking in air. House tunes through my ear buds, and my face—for many years hiding—now lifted to the light, eyes keen, and bloody heart beating.

I stood and threw another twenty on the bar and my sweatpants held, the drawstring now needed. Each day, I cinch it a bit tighter in the locker room and run a hand up and over my belly. Gauge its heft.

I carry a notebook through the gym. Aging dude of analog. Dinosaur among millennials. I write my weights, my sets. Without this, my faulty brain will backfire, backpedal, delete my gains. I’ll forget I moved up to 60, and instead I’ll grab the 50. The notes say in numbers that I’m stronger than I think.  

And now, a lifting. Lungs filled. Head light, lit up, happy.

What the fuck?

What’s this feeling?

Or, no. I knew it, had felt it before. Years behind me. Where had it gone? I’d lost it, and with it, belief.

2.

I know how it sounds: “I’d given up.”

Dramatic. But dude. I had.

I’d come to believe—after five years of hard blows—that I was done. A litany I’m sick of repeating (a hopeful sign), and those who know me are sick of hearing it. But for the sake of narrative cohesion, and for those who are new here:

Six years ago I got stuck in suicidal thoughts. Which led to therapy. Confronting for the first time the pale, squirmy, hundred-legged bugs hiding under my boyhood rocks that I now kicked aside. In the light, the things scrambled for cover. A visit with a family member who’d molested me when I was nine led to the discovery of dozens of erotic stories he’d posted online. One-handed reading celebrating intergenerational incest. Stroke stories that had garnered that man thousands of fans, hundreds of emails. He’d wanted me to read the stories, led me to them, and when I read them, I’d lost my mind.

Brain hounded by those thousands of anonymous men out there in the world who’d seen me naked, in a sense. Felt unsafe everywhere, with everyone. My withdrawal led to the end of my marriage, which led to my exile from San Francisco, my home for 18 years, and the loss of everything—house, friends, shrink, garden, sobriety, and more—that had tethered me to the planet. So I bounced around the country in a state of pitch-black, barely-tamped panic and poverty, in the company of nothing but an eight-pound chihuahua.

Life had chained me to a tiny square of sunless dirt. None of it my fault. None of it deserved, maybe, but hard, fixed, and true.

Among us, souls without luck scrape by. Sad fucks who can’t catch breaks. And maybe, one day, I’d been somebody else, but now I was this. Now, I was them.

Once smart, I’d grown dumb. Once good at work, I now faltered, got fired. Once hot, now dumped. Once sweet, now scary. Desperate. Feed me, said my eyes. Look at me, said my hands. Once, people grinned at my approach. Now they looked worried, looked away, hurried off.

Easy, when you’re not stuck in that square, to hold hope. To platitude. To chide. But here’s the truth—after five years of it, I was scared as fuck that I was done.

3.

Three years and three months ago, I checked myself into a detox center just over the Vermont border. Five days in a fog. They handed me pills in little paper cups to ease me back from DTs—I’d been drinking a liter of whiskey a day. The pills made me hazy. We lined up for the pills. Lined up for trays of food, three times a day. For chats with doctors or nurses or shrinks. I don’t remember them. A lab coat, maybe. A clipboard.

I don’t remember anyone. I know I made friends. Two men cared about me enough to say out loud during group that I should stay past the five days. They thought I needed it. But I can’t remember their faces. Their names. They cared about me, and I recall nothing about them.

What I remember: at intake, they took away my notebook. The metal spiral, they said, could be removed and fashioned into a lethal weapon. They took my pens. They took my belt and shoelaces and the drawstring to my sweatpants. I remember that I shuffled around in hospital slippers, holding my sweatpants up so they wouldn’t slide down past my ass. I remember thinking—in small, sharp splices amid the fog—how had I come to this?

I remember standing on a fenced back patio, in a small square of sun. The weak warmth of November. The men were right, it turned out. I should have stayed longer.

4.

And now, floating.

A hard-fought floating. Eight months of sobriety, every day of which I built—slow and precise—like a house of steel cards. Good work. Good deeds. A bunch of skin-baring risks. One five-pound plate at a time. My neck outstretched, open, exposed to the jaws of strangers, bosses, money. Face now lifted to catch the light through the windows of an LA Fitness.

Where once each day was something to be endured, now, this floating. Now, something else. A year-long calendar with little doors, and behind each day a new thing—friend, fuck, chance, food, tears of no regrets. Wider vision. A glimpse of another human’s pain that isn’t my own.

Life feels different when you’ve nearly died. I’m floating, dude. Fragile, steely, but lifting. I stand from the flat bench. My drawstring holds. I throw on another twenty, to test out my strength.

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