What Second Chances Are Like
I can only think about my life lying next to someone at night, that time when the collapsed gills of the pullstring shades are useless eyes to the outside and there goes that unfamiliar pop of synapse of the mind’s hidden goings-on and you touch her and want her to stay? but it’s weird because it’s her place and who are you to say who stays and goes, who can change and who can’t and yes, it’s never by yourself that you think about your other self and what they would think about you. It’s not even about the relationship, maybe it’s actually okay but the presence of someone else forces solitude. It’s the angel/demon/shoulder thing hammered into you from cartoons as a way to view dichotomous choice but you only see yourself as one of the familiar symbols, okay, it’s really the demonic critique you want (hell, Rilke said something to the effect: if my devils leave me, my angels will too…) and the only non-cliche is this old self doesn’t only show itself at night. The bad parts of us are alight all the time.
It’s not one of your finest moments, this old you, me, whoever.
Do you ever think of what your younger self would say to your current one? Mine, he comes out and tells me You broke off your marriage?
Engagement, says I. We weren’t there yet but why are you bringing that up? It’s no longer a thing in my life. And that was a few years ago. I’ve reconciled it. We’ve talked.
That’s different? That’s the same thing, he says. And you had sex?
With how many people?
Everyone has numbers, says I.
Are numbers inherent to the universe and discovered? It was supposed to be with her. It was supposed to be one woman.
I was never good with math. This isn’t a book club novel. You can force any ending.
Any ending? he says.
Of course you would ask that, says I.
I don’t get you, he says. Maybe I never will.
Jesus is this a break up?
I think you should know what that is by now like those famous salivating dogs with the ringing bells, he says.
A woman yells at the bus driver to drop her there, yeah, in front of the gas station, no, yeah, there. Right there. She ambles off, short elastic pants cinched like disappointed parent’s faces and she holds a few bags, one is an American Girl backpack which could be for a niece or granddaughter but no I’m afraid not, I know it’s not and why is that inherently sad? I told my coworker that I liked Molly’s books, she was pretty hot, you know, when I was little and I said do you know they retired a few of them? She says if Molly was real she might be dead by now.
My old self would say So you’re harming your body and for what?
Because it’s all business, says I.
And all those girls?
Experience? And this is where I hesitate and take off my boots so I don’t add to the tracks on the carpet. I read once that distillers during Prohibition wore boots with animal tracks on the soles.
He says You smell like smoke. You smell like an outdated bowling alley. You smell like an old person’s deathbed regret.
I like bowling, says I.
A cigarette habit? Huh. You smelled those in a relative’s house (he died, remember? But no, of course you don’t know what that means…) and remember you and your siblings threw everything you owned in the washer when you got home. Now you smell like that? Remember what clean smelled like? Probably not.
What? Anything else? says I. He hasn’t taken off his boots because his boots are clean and new and a brand I don’t recognize. I think about the See this watch? part of Glengarry Glen Ross when I see the shoes of my younger self.
You smell like naive things, says I.
Awkward please revise, he says and takes out a red pen.
I don’t like colored ink. It seems he wants to mark me away.
I put my shoes back on, balance on one foot like leaving a breakup, how dressing takes forever, how it’s always hard to put things on, open doors, leave.
Depression? he says. Can’t you just fix that? Think better thoughts? Why would you want to do nothing all day? Sounds like an excuse to me. Pull yourself up.
It’s not that easy. It’s not about thoughts, says I. And this is the awful made-for-tv part so you may want to turn away.
Who have you become? says he, the old me.
I would never write that.
Jesus, I say.
He laughs and I leave.
With the old me that would be a prayer.
Your old self would say, Really, you need that stuff to get yourself through the day? Remember when you went outside? Remember when you ran for exercise, when movement made you happy? It’s not all get here and fuck or get here and work or get here and get drunk. You wanted to be a doctor, though you hate blood.
Yes, you would say those things, you moralist bastard, says I. You have no idea what minor minor minor success is, old self. See my follower to followed ratio? See my minor minor minor empire? These things matter. Your alcohol tolerance matters. Recognize when you are recognized. At least give yourself that, old self.
The younger self says at least give yourself that your mind and your body are worthwhile.
I think, You don’t own a body. You are a body.
I want to think about that thought more.
He says No. You’re not listening anymore.
You can no longer tune in to the good voices. They remind you of when things were easy. So much life has been bestowed and you ignore it. You can’t even chew on hands that give. You have no teeth.
I’m dog sitting for a friend.
The note says, When they look at you they want something. They might want to pee, they might want to eat, they might want to be petted. They might want love.
In the motion sensor activated light, their tail projects what looks like another animal behind them. Think it’s an animal behind them for a second. They could take care of that animal. They want to go inside. They whimper and scratch at the door with big eyes and shivering coats. I look at them and say, But you have built-in coats. You are warm. I am wearing wool socks on cold concrete. I am colder. I am not a dog. I don’t know you too well but I let us inside.
He needs to go into his kennel. She can sleep in the bed, if you are in the same room.
But watch out. She tends to pee in rooms. He tends to ruin good things.
But he’s a dog, he doesn’t know any better.
No that’s okay but I tend to ruin things I know I’ve been given and in these moments I tend to wonder if there is such a thing as grace.
You can’t fit broken hearts alongside the ship in a bottle. You need to move somewhere else. It’s not even about starting over. It’s about silence.
I don’t want to think about the past self that would disapprove. I want to have a self that approves, in the present. He has a long way to go.
He is trying, saying:
You are open to infinite change. A change in self-love. A chance to excrete any self-doubt.
Just not today.
The snow falling off car bumpers sounds like a soft vomiting. I have not yet wasted my life, again. It’s warm enough outside to alter truck tire treads with a boot. They are not the kind of cold to remain unmoved. A larger man leans on a parking meter pay station to rest from his walking. I don’t think that’s why he stopped. He is out of breath and zips up his coat and his cheeks are cold but it’s getting warmer and I cannot tell if he is tired. We are both leaning and snow is falling then it stops doing that and no, the flakes are carved and unknown, I do not force any idea on them even this fleeting stagnancy because in this moment I want these flakes only to be flakes and it is dark and see, second chances are more like sundials. They don’t work at night.
Buy Alexander Helmke’s eBook “Bonfires” on Amazon, the iBookstore, or Barnes & Noble.
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If you’ve been looking for a chance to say something then this very well could be it.
I wish to God I’d had a list like this when I was 23.
Answer phones better than anyone else has answered phones before. Relay messages so brilliant, they bring people to tears. Turn the coffee run into the choreography of Swan Lake. Become best friends with every intern and every underling and every taxi driver you encounter.
I remember taking the pen and notebook from that woman outside the courtroom, flipping to a clean page in the book, and writing, JESSICA IS SAD in big, bold, uncoordinated letters. “My sister is going to be a good writer someday! Look at how nice her lines are!”