“Heading Home” by Benjamin Selesnick

Issue 17 / Spring 2019

 

You’re sitting at our bench. I see you: fifteen years old, late into a sweltering July night, just as you once were. The landscaped park is austere in its sparse lighting. The woods are on my right, basketball courts down the hill. Marigolds sit in buckets hanging from lampposts.

I walk to the bench but decline to sit beside you. If I did, maybe you’d disappear, scatter in the wind like ash. Instead, I study you. Your eyes are gone, leaving craters in their place; your lips wrap around the front of your head like a handkerchief, allowing for the back of your head to act as a hinge; there’re darkened rims around your nostrils; your cheeks retain the fleshiness of boyhood; and you’re wearing your insulated flannel jacket, black with red highlights, even though the evening’s much too hot for it.

You’re a spirit, I suppose.

On the ground beside you is a thin baggie, 0.4 grams dampened by a sprinkling earlier in the day, tucked between a knotted twig and discarded glove. I—we—lost it eight years back. Once in my hand, then gone. I knew it’d be around here somewhere—it didn’t just fly away. I pick it up, unzip it, squeeze the moisture out of the sickly moss, and place it on the arm of the bench, waiting for you to take hold.

Silent, statuesque. I want to push you, to make sure you’re real, but don’t dare. Your presence is godly, and I’m not the one to test it. Instead, I warily nudge the baggie closer to you, edging it up to your elbow, as I would a bowl of feed to a timid chicken. You don’t flinch.

Confused by your inaction, I go over the hill to use the port-o-potty in hopes that privacy will invigorate you. When I come back over the hill, yes, you’ve repositioned yourself. Your arm is on the armrest, hand cupped over the baggie. You’ve kicked a leg up onto its opposite knee and your other arm rests on your kneecap. You look unnerved, unsettled. I doubt myself, feel nervous about my presence, but so be it. When the resurrected appear, you don’t run away.

Struck, a superstitious problem presents itself: How do I address you? By name? No—what if there’s a curse on your name, one that would make you float away? What if I say your name, your mouth opens, and buzzards spew out in response? What if you’re a demon? A foreboding oracle? What if you ignore me, labeling me insignificant?

I decide to be innocuous.

“What’d your apartment look like?” I ask.

You turn slightly in my direction, looking off to the rose garden across the road. Your movement is rapid, jerky—I hold in my surprise. If this is an answer, I don’t understand it.

Santi had told me that you were living in Brooklyn. Alone, I assumed. Somewhere in Flatbush. He said you were going to Bard, but I didn’t believe him, didn’t know that Bard had a Brooklyn campus. I thought he was lying on your behalf, but what was there to be ashamed of? You were sick. That’s how I thought of it.

“Books,” you finally say, your mouth unmoving, a breath carried from an unknown orifice.

Or, more likely, it wasn’t you who spoke. It was the rabbi, the voice I heard almost sounded like hers. She’d said you’d come to love books in the years before your passing: Kant, Sarte, Camus, Heiddeger, Nietzche, and de Beauvoir—any and all existentialists, understandably. During your funeral, I imagined their books flipped open on a dirtied cornflower rug in your apartment, crumbs and hairs sticking out besides them, emptied fast food containers pushed to the walls, the books’ paper worn and yellowing, scribblings in the margins and underlined passages. I imagined you had torn out a section you really liked and pinned it to the corkboard above your desk. Sitting cross-legged before the books, slouching forward with your hands in different titles while looking at a third—that’s the image I had of you.

“Books are good,” I say, trying to fill the space.

You turn from the rose garden, lift your palm off the baggie, and observe it. Curious, isn’t it, that it’s still here? I figured it’d be gone by now, tucked into the pocket of a lusty teen’s jeans. We had searched diligently for it—or, as diligently as two stoned teenagers can—but couldn’t find it. Our phones flipped open, scouring the grass, running our fingers through the fallen branches. It was gone. Distraught but determined, we went back to your place, got your bike, and then I—why was it me? —biked to Reggie’s across town to re-up. I met you back at our bench, exhausted, and we finished our evening up with a pitiful, remorseful high. But look, it was here the whole time.

“‘A bear was shot here last week.’ You said that,” I say.

You nod, but seem wholly indifferent, focused on the baggie. How can I even tell? Your face is mangled. Outside of your eyes and lips, an ear is bent inwards, your hair is blocky like a hat, your eyebrows wiggle, zigzagging across your forehead. Where’s the emotion in that?

“Odd I remember that, right? A decade later—I can’t even remember the sound of your voice, but I remember ‘a bear was here last week.’ It’s not even a strange thing to say. I would’ve said it too if I’d known.”

You’re frozen, still. Your head moved while I spoke, and now it faces the concrete between your Vans. Why am I even bothering? Spirits don’t like to talk. Not unless they’re the ghost of Christmas’ past. You’re better off left alone. But no, you’re here. I can’t say why exactly, but you’re here.

Hey, you’re here for me, right? That must be it. Why else would I have stumbled upon you in this naked setting? What’re the odds, right? It’s fate, an intentionality. It must be.

Losing myself, I direct the conversation onto you.

“Is there anything you want to talk about?”

Your lips open, but you hold yourself, thinking better of it. Roughly, you stagger off the bench and head across the park towards the soccer field. It takes a moment for me to register your absence. Hurriedly, I get up, and follow. You’re surprisingly quick for someone with such a stiff gait.

Nearing the street, a car idles by. Its headlights illuminate the emptiness, the vacuity. You cross and the car misses you by only a few yards. Unaffected, you continue to rush away, your feet gliding along the pavement. I wait until the car is well passed before I catch up to you. Did the driver see me there, crouching by the curb, alone? Or did they register your foreign body?

You head along a pathway, then onto the section of grass between the dog park and the jungle gym. We skip across a thin stream, holding onto a neighboring tree for stability, and through the trees that guard the park, we can see the backs of sleeping homes. Victorians. Grand, ornate homes with sprawling lawns gaudily decorated for Independence Day. They have spires and two-story garages. Your home did not look like these ones. It was smaller, dilapidated, around the corner from the middle school. Ivy grew on its sunlit sides. The olive-painted shutters weren’t hammered down—they clacked against your house during storms. I didn’t know you when we were in middle school, but I’d seen you. Yes, I’d seen you with DJ and Deon heading back to your house after classes got out: the three of you jauntily—or, I remember it as jauntily—laughing with one another, taking sips from chrome canisters as school bus after school bus crawled by. Y’all’d turn down the block, enter your home, freely, with fruit snacks and video games just around the corner, while I had a 15-minute walk and an empty home awaiting me.

Thinking back, I wasn’t consciously jealous of y’all’s friendship, but I was studiously aware of it, and perhaps there was jealousy in my awareness.

Near the eastern edge of the park, you push two trees apart from one another—they move, incredibly—and step between them, entering the woods. I copy you, pushing the trees apart, and follow your lumbering lurch.

The woods are dense, but there’s a trail wide enough for us to walk through, one at a time. I’m familiar with this trail—we’ve been here before. Our sophomore year of high school, we skipped class and walked all the way out here, two miles at least, with filled backpacks and a drawling aura. The sun was high, and my thoughts were blurry with sleep—teendom. Once we made it to the trail’s entrance, we kept walking back and forth across the pathway, waiting for an opportunity to enter while nobody was around. After we were in and we’d reached the campsite, you rolled a kanger: Tops with a filter sticking out of one end like a rebellious tongue out of a child’s mouth. Lit, you pulled, streams of ribbony, gray smoke billowing from its cherry. You swirled your tongue inside your mouth, pushing up against the walls of your cheeks, then you opened your mouth wide and, like mist exiting a cave, the smoke curled in upon itself and lifted to the sky.

A hundred yards later, we reach the sheltered campsite inside the nestled woods. Three logs surround a trashcan that’s filled with empty liquor bottles and Dutch guts—a teenage haven. You take a seat on the log, hiking up your cargo shorts and straightening the tongues of your Nikes. From your pocket, you take out the baggie—when did you snag it? —and gently toss it into the trash can. It bounces unceremoniously to the bottom. Years back, I would’ve scavenged for that baggie and chastised you for wasting it, but at a year sober and only months away from graduating from Rutgers after being dismissed (kicked out) twice, three cumulative  weeks in Somerset County jail, and three stints in rehab, the first one fancy, the next two local hideaways, I can resist the temptation.

Standing, I ask: “Before Brooklyn, where did you go?”

You mouth your response, but the words don’t come. Your gigantic lips turn your head into odd shapes. Do vocal cords still work after you die? I wonder. For how long do they keep vibrating?

“It’s okay,” I say, holding up a patient arm. “It was home, wasn’t it? You were here.”

You nod, clasp your hands together, and slightly bow.

“But—”

My mouth clamps shut involuntarily, a warning from my subconscious. I stop and pointedly run through a list I’d been taught at my first rehab to improve communication, to deal with confrontation, really: Does it need to be said? Do I need to be the one who says it? Does it need to be said now?

Checking all the boxes, I muscle onward.

“What did you do that whole time?”

The wind picks up, and the moist air dampens my forehead. I rub my shirtsleeve across my cheeks, spreading oily streaks. Your posture rounds, your head looks downward, and you turn away from me.

Your frightened posture gives me a pause: This is a sore subject, I know, but you’re here. You haven’t drifted away—yet.

Hey, you’re still waiting to reveal something, right? This isn’t a pointless encounter, a meandering evening, is it? No, of course not. You wouldn’t do that.

“It was years. Five, if I remember correct. No one saw you since junior year. Not DJ or Deon or Santi. And you were only a freshman in college when you died. If nothing else, that leaves 4 unattended years between dropping out and starting college. What did you do during that time? Where did you slink off to? How did you—how—oh, Christ—”

I knew it. Since I first saw you, I’ve been waiting for these tears. A fresh release in a ceaseless stalemate. These stubborn tears had hooked themselves to the inside of my eyelids, refusing to let go before, during, and after your funeral, and now, six months later, they finally have the courage. They swarm my eyes. My vision blurs. I wipe the tears, but they keep coming, harder, faster, burning and stinging, the vengeful drops. I wipe them more, but the contact of sweaty skin against irritated eyes only exacerbates the pain, but I have to keep wiping, ‘cause if I don’t, then I won’t be able to see you anymore.

Hunched over further, you ignore my crying, refuse it, slipping deeper into your body.

Through erratic gasps and long pauses, I’m able to force out some more manic sentences.

“How did you spend the time? Books, the rabbi said books. But how long can someone possibly read? For five years? Don’t you run out of material? Don’t you, I don’t know, get bored? So—so what, then? Did you spend that whole time in therapy? Is that what you did? Trying to figure it out, ramming your head against that stupid wall: ‘What’s wrong with me? What’s wrong with me? What’s wrong with me?’ The aloof counselors asking the same, useless questions, as if they know what it’s like—even one iota—to have your guts, your brain, everything about you, begging for relief, for the opportunity to escape your body and swim across the horizon? Is that how you spent your life?”

Your mouth, your head, is ajar. It opens wider, then closes, wide, then close. Your chest heaves along with mine. If you had tear ducts, I bet they’d be booming, too.

“Why didn’t you call? We would’ve sat with you. We would’ve yelled at the walls, thrown shit out the windows, burned what you wanted to burn. We would’ve! We were here, waiting.”

We were here, waiting. Santi and I had first gone to check in on you near the end of junior year. It’d been nearly three months since we’d seen you, and there were a lot of wild rumors surrounding your whereabouts: moved; sectioned because of a breakdown; transferred to a new school. No one knew. Your mom answered the door and spoke in a hushed tone, as if letting us in on a secret. She said you weren’t feeling well, that you couldn’t come out, but that wasn’t true, not entirely. You were there. We saw you, just a flash, jutting across the hallway from the kitchen to the dining room. How much courage that must’ve taken. You were in pajama pants and a sweatshirt, your hair ruffled and greasy, a shadow dancing across the hardwood, a spirit, even then. Santi called your name and stuck his head into the doorframe next to your Mom’s torso, trying to see his way into the dining room. Your mom extended her arm and laid it across his chest. His voice echoed in the foyer, and then the house went still. Your mom looked at Santi severely, as though he’d called you a bad name, as though he’d awakened something draconian, ethereal. Together we awaited your response, to see if you’d decided against your strongest instinct to emerge. When you didn’t, your mom said that we should go and come back another day, maybe once the summer comes. We left quietly, apologizing for making a ruckus, and, like your mom said, came back once the thick New Jersey heat set in, but that time, no one answered our call. We rang the doorbell, waited, and then tapped on the window that looked into your living room: a navy L-shaped couch, paisley wallpaper, a low-hanging chandelier, and two seascape paintings surrounding two bookshelves. Still, dead, unused. After some time and repeated calling, we gave up, offended and exhausted, but that wasn’t the only time we came to visit. All through senior year, Santi and I rang your doorbell and tapped on your living room window. Sometimes, we’d see your bike, that pallid grey Cruiser, fallen in your driveway, freshly used. A sign of life, hope. Other times, growing more and more worried, we’d brazenly march into your backyard—a dirt pit with an empty above-ground pool and a weathered shed with a rusted U-lock—and yell to your window. You must’ve heard us. “Come out! Come out!” Like kids, we beckoned for you to play games, to go grab some food, to get high, yet, you never came out. Your curtains, like your mother’s, were snapped shut, throwing a division between yourself and the outside world. After months of repeated failures—getting you to come out became our mission, our obsession—we eventually accepted your rigidity, your absence, and we—or, I—moved away in the fall, quickly forgetting your reclusion, your sorrow. I was too occupied getting smacked around by my own drama: the roxys turning into heroin, the failed classes, the shunning from my parents, the meetings with the dean, the evictions, county jail, and still more heroin. You became a memory, blurry at best and absolutely unintelligible at worst. Only when word of your suicide came did I realize how long I’d forgotten about you and how much time I’d let pass by.

Reproachfully, you slide onto the ground and dip your head into your crossing arms, hiding again.

“Why did you even bring me here?”

You’re absolutely encased by guilt—and so am I, partially—but I can’t help myself, my indignation has taken hold. It wants to feed. It—me—wants to conjure a storm, something torrential. It wants the rain to fall on us, to wash us into the Passaic with all the plastic bottles and waste run-off and dead pigeons, anywhere away from this lonely campsite, from you, from this pitiful reunion I’ve spent months wishing for. It wants to be flotsam or jetsam, pointless, floating without a conscious connection to the world. It wants my tears to turn into light and brighten the whole world.

“Why are we here?”

Nervously exiting your fetal posture, like a turtle from its shell, you lift your arm, bent in impossible ways, and point it at me. Your head is still between your knees, and no matter how much I will you to look at me, you don’t.

“Why would I want to be here?”

Your arms turn. You point at yourself and then at me. Back and forth, the excess fabric on your flannel waves from below your wrist.

“For us? What, to be like we once were? Are you bringing me to all our old spots?”

You nod, purposefully, still looking away. I wait for you to gesture another time, until it’s clear that you won’t. You’ve receded, safe again in your fortified posture. In the silence, instead of gearing up for a second bout of rage, stacking arguments and refutations on top of one another, I become intentional, another thing I learned at rehab. I focus on my breath, pulling myself further and further away from hyperventilation. Don’t act out of anger, they told me. Be composed. Center yourself. Breathe.

Blind and wild, time circles our stilted bodies, wrapping us up tighter and tighter. Even though I want to pull away, to forget about you forever, to grab onto my grief like a life raft, I give in and relinquish the fight, starving my anger. As though in response, the canopy overhead suddenly tilts, separates, allowing for shreds of moonlight to brighten our enclosure. You yourself seem to radiate light, too, but that cannot be.

The pause, a blessing, fully forestalls my resentment. My frustration slips out of my fingertips and leaves a placid stillness in its wake, the kind I’d seen you carrying when I first came upon you at the bench. Now, I’m struck by the smell of the woods’ earthy flavors: the pollen-coated leaves, the implanted foxgloves, the damp dirt. The log’s rot. It all tastes so sweet, like freshly picked carrots. My tears start to evaporate, too, and soon, it’s like I’d never cried. My cheeks aren’t swollen. My eyes don’t feel dried out. My heart doesn’t bear the weight of exposure.

“Can you explain—”

You amble back onto the log before I can complete my thought, lift your hands atop your head, and let out a great sigh. Studying your downtrodden countenance, I stop and consider, for the first time, genuinely, your position. How rare this terrestrial occurrence must be, how time, as it always has, is preciously slipping away, how it must’ve felt to leave and now return, how generous it was for you to take me around to where we’d once spent time together, how your emotional capacity dwindles the longer our time together lasts.

With this consideration, a lasting reprieve cleanses my skin, and shame coats my intestines. It comes to me: you’re here, but you’re not here for me. You weren’t released from heaven to answer my gnawing questions. How arrogant of me to have thought otherwise. It was luck that brought me to our bench, finding you mourning what you needed to mourn. Yes, I’m sure you were happy to see me, but I’m not the one you’re here for, not really. You had a family. You had closer friends. There were others around during your reclusive years, and I’m certain they want to hear from you.

I am not the one that loved you most.

“I don’t—”

You wave me away. I hold up my hands in defeat and place them on my thighs.

“You’re right.”

We rest on the log for a while longer, letting our emotions set. I want to apologize, but it would mean very little—the damage has been done. Without prompting, you get up and search through the trash can. Using a crumpled fist—I now notice that you don’t have hands, just stumps that operate like mittens—you pull out a Dutch wrapper, empty. You flatten it out against your knee and hold it up to the moonlight. Its cerulean and silver sheen reflects an unnatural brilliance.

After a breath, you drop the wrapper back into the bin, letting it dance downwards, and head down the trail in which we came. I briefly follow, but once you exit the thicket, I stop and watch as you go back towards the jungle gym, heading home.

 

 

Benjamin Selesnick lives and writes in New Jersey. His work has appeared in decomP, Literary Orphans, The Bitter Oleander, and other literary magazines. You can find him on Instagram @benjselesnick.

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