Story Within Story 1/2008 - Swimming Upstream by Jackson Lassiter


The Partially-Fictitious, Painfully-True Future Autobiography of Someone I’ve Never Known
by Jackson Lassiter

The first time I steeled myself, took a deep breath, and dived into the unknown was a sun-filled morning during the summer of my eighteenth birthday. Prior to that dawning I had been submerged in the unusual but predictable cesspool of a white trash upbringing, an overburdened mother and an uncaring father fastened like bricks to my fluttering ankles. With no life preserver at hand, I doggie-paddled through prepubescent parental neglect only to belly flop into heavy-handed high school high-jinx. For four years I was not accountable to anyone for anything. My ethics sank. I started an affair with a married woman that spanned my last two years at Riverside High School . It was an unconventional circumstance compared to most teen coming-of-age stories, but in the limited sphere of my redneck hometown, somehow the norm. In a shit-pile of small-town cultural deprivation, top-of-the-heap drama was our primary stimulation.

When the muddle unraveled with the threat of violence from a very large and very angry bear of a husband, I was left with no choice but to run. Quickly. Although the late night confrontation with not-so-gentle Ben was surely a fear-filled nightmare, my marching orders hissed and then punctuated with the deathly sharp point of a hunting knife, I cannot make visceral the shaky memory of my takedown. I was a deer caught in the headlights of a Dodge Ram speeding down a dark country road, wide-eyed and as petrified as topiary but then bounding into the underbrush in a last-minute rush of adrenalin, narrowly escaping the thud of an impact.

I barely remember packing my eighteen-year-old’s belongings – Fleetwood Mac cassette tapes, Levi’s button-fly jeans, tee shirts of every color, a variety of hair products – the final scene of the vague recollection of my near demise. At will, though, I can call to mind the scent of yellow alfalfa on the breeze through the open car window as I sped away the next morning. I close my eyes and I feel the warmth of the rising sun on my left cheek. I have held close and kept vivid, refreshed through the years by reliving the sheer joy of it, the thrill of pointing my gargantuan Chrysler Newport south and punching the gas. Unfettered freedom, uncharted territory. The vast unknown.

I didn’t know where I was going or what would happen when I got there, but I knew that movement was important and required. I may have been pushed off the edge, but it was still me who swam off into the unknown.

I got as far as Salt Lake City before my pockets ran dry – not even quarters left – and the gravity of my poverty yanked me to a standstill. The gas gauge needle rested on the big red E as I pulled into a secluded pullout on the first rise of hills above the city’s valley. As twilight sank into darkness the lights below flickered on, and from my vantage point the expanse appeared oceanic, twinkling fluid yet somehow substantial. I watched the lights through the night, and in the morning I sold the Newport and began
searching for a life.

My sixty-five-year-old body is willed to the ledge outside my kitchen window. I crawl head-first through the opening to teeter at the edge of my existence. The city teems with life far below while Death and I watch from above, perched together on our diving board. He is quiet, as am I. Sound, light, and odor rise in greeting through the thick heat and humidity of themid-summer’s eve. They welcome us. I am beckoned.

I tread water that first year, unmoored in the meandering currents of a world bigger than I’d ever expected. I fished the new depths for a sense of self, but I had drifted so far from my backwater upbringing that I barely recognized my own reflection in the rippled city surfaces. Still, I landed a random job and an apartment. Neither was a trophy but both were respectable catches considering the limited bait I had to offer. With no real education and no real skills, I trolled this new urban wilderness with the bare hooks of brazen wiliness. Good fortune provided the rest.

But true satisfaction – a sense that I belonged to a specific place or purpose – proved to be slipperier game than the small fry of survival. I saw contentment in the faces of strangers on the city’s streets, glimpses of what could be, but my own self-identity was an undulating shadow that quickly darted away from my grasping fingers. It hid in the murky depths of my unenlightened desires. It taunted me. At nineteen, I experienced self-realization as both possible yet impossible: possible because I witnessed it in others, impossible because I was swimming against the current of my own limited development. Enlightenment lay upstream, but as I swam toward it I kept running up against a rock-like piece of myself planted firmly in my own way. I could find no path around myself, no ladder to a higher me. After the brief exhilaration of backstroking away from my juvenile delinquency, I was forced to float in a tepid pool of psychic ache with a nagging sensation that somehow I was sinking.

Or was I?

I engaged a therapist who administered some psychological tests – hundreds of seemingly meaningless statements I was asked to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to.  I look at my stool after I defecate. I sometimes cross the street to avoid talking to someone I know. I have thoughts of killing myself.

The tests took hours and I was unsure of how to navigate. I grew tired. I could decipher no secret code or hidden patterns in the questions, no predetermined right or wrong answers, so I just provided the truth as best I could. I ticked off the answers, filled in the ovals, and marked my preferences. Later the therapist called me to his office and looked at me with intelligent brown eyes that oozed gentleness and compassion. “You are gay,” he said, placing one hand on my knee. “It’s OK to be gay.”

I dove again, this time from the platform built on the restraints of my confusing and repressing cultural upbringing – a rural combination of redneck machismo rebellion against any rules and stalwart Baptist preaching of nothing but rules – into a glittering fast track, free-style
underworld of disco balls, highballs, and swingin’ balls.

Shirtless and shoeless, I am clad only in well-worn white cotton boxer shorts, nothing like the tight, colorful bikini briefs of my disco youth. These boxers befit my age and status.

My torso glistens as droplets of sweat trickle toward the thatch of my graying pubic hair, just visible as it curls over the top of the frayed elastic of my waistband. The beads of moisture follow an irregular course, rolling first in one direction and then the other as they traverse the contours of my stomach.

Eventually the drops join their brethren as a growing wet spot in the fabric riding low beneath my navel. If I stay here long enough, my shorts will be soaked.

1977 was a year to remember; I wish I could. In photos from that year I am a rail-thin boy in platform shoes and wide-bottomed, big-cuffed plaid pants. I have floppy red curls that demanded a good portion of my salary in maintenance, a wry smile, and glassy eyes. I look like I was having fun, but by the time twenty arrived, just one action-packed year after a double back flip into the deep end of my sexuality, I had already over-punched my dance card. Over-punched is understated: it was tattered. I had done enough drugs for someone twice my age – or more – and I had single-handedly kept the Stolichnaya Vodka Company in the black. My adopted lifestyle – late nights, dancing queens, loud music, naked trysts – had become cliché. What had started as a welcome massing with others of my species, the liberation of being a participant in a subsurface dance with a school of like-minded boys, had lost its luster. We were jaded little barracudas feeding on good times and each other like there was no tomorrow.

But I could clearly remember a yesterday, so I knew that tomorrow would come. The superficial lifestyle of flashy impermanence soon bored me.

I reconnected with the therapist and I asked him, “Is it OK to love someone?”

“Yes. Me.”

We paired like the only two cichlids in the aquarium, constructing a home and protecting it, as we were supposed to, with a vengeance. Any other potential suitors, whether real or imagined, were driven away in a tail-waggling fit of jealousy. No intruders allowed. It was a dip in new waters for me. This complete commitment to another person, a shared existence, was another baby step in my march toward becoming a complete person. This life was unfamiliar, and therefore begged to be conquered. We bought a condo, we bought china. We chose paint. We tiled the dining room. We tried to get a puppy but the Homeowner’s Association thwarted that effort. We got goldfish, instead; they died with alarming frequency.

We both worked. With increased experience and the beginnings of a secondary education under my belt, I was no longer the smallest fish in the
biggest pond. We expended our expendable income profusely, sometimes unwisely. We shopped our way through disagreements and we pretended we were blissfully happy, just as we were supposed to. We blindly circled our shared bowl, circled and circled like the latest of the goldfish until I, too, felt like I could die from the sheer boredom of it.

It ended with the power of a flash flood. A small argument boiled over, my sealed emotions exploded and I dove back into the current of change. At twenty-six, my personal headwaters – the source spring of my still elusive sense of purpose – demanded my attention. The need to find enlightenment called. I waded out into the stream of consciousness and the sadness I left in my wake, the tears I left in those gentle brown eyes lodged, unforgettable, under my skin.

This ledge is narrow and my toes hang over its rough edge, curled like an Olympic diver’s toward the scene below. I feel the tiny rocks embedded in the concrete beneath my bare soles and they feel to me like the tiny lumps scattered in my lungs, my liver, my bones, my brain. “Do it,” these tumors tell me. They are loud and ever-present. The pills and chemotherapy do not quiet them. The radiation seems only to have angered them. “Do it,” they urge, and I try, but my feet, pink in the evening light, betray my desire. They desperately cling to the nubbins of pebble. Still, at any moment I might force them to release. With just the tiniest lift off, I will be airborne. Using less energy than it takes to live I will spring from this roost and make my way to the street below. But for now, my feet have the upper hand and I remain where I am.

Eight years flowed beneath my bridge. I jerked, an erratic butterfly stroke, from my twenties to my thirties. I landed in four different cities, took four different jobs, had four different boyfriends – but no loves. After each high-dive into a new life, I basked in the glory of torpedoing through the brilliant unknown, my angst drowned by immersion into what could not be foreseen. But each peak flat-lined, each dip bottomed out somewhere below nirvana, and repeatedly I moved back into the roiling current of my life. I faced upstream and looked for the next opportunity to reinvent myself. Life was a series of these short stops, each segment of this segmented existence like a restful float in the deck pool of a cruise ship, a soak that lasted just until the water reached a comfortable body temperature. And then I slid out and flopped across the splintery deckboards, hurtling myself over the ship’s bow like a Frazier River salmon escaping the net. I returned to the cold salt water to follow the chemical scent to the stream of my identity, lurching toward the porthole entrance to another iteration of me.

I was a cowboy driving a truck in Denver, a grunge boy on a bike in Seattle. I picked up a southern accent and a Puerto Rican Army Sergeant in Charlotte. I learned to eat crawdads. I taught aerobics in DC. I gave up smoking.

And I honed my skills. I learned to train for my splash into the next unknown, to set the parameters as best I could. It was, I found, entirely possible to cushion the impact that inevitably came after the dive. I became a pro at logistics. I kept notebooks, schedules, resumes. I embraced this process, the “getting ready”, with arms wide open, arms at the ready to move above my head, clasp together at the fingers, and part the waters for the rest of me to follow.

My arms are outstretched, horizontal. My splayed fingers and the backs of my hands press against the smooth marble wall on either side of the window’s opening. The pale, flesh-colored stone holds the heat of the just-passed afternoon sun. I am crucified on this altar, placed here because of the ravages of my disease. But I am aware that the nails constraining me are of my own creation. With one quick turn of thought, a self-induced reckoning, I can release their hold. I could swim now, but I wait.

I continued the battle throughout my thirties, always searching for my purpose, my birthright. I had learned to plan, but these plans were sometimes overridden by accidental happenstance. I’ve gone up the wrong fork in the stream on more than one occasion, and although my mistakes usually devolved into frantic back-paddling, it was never without merit. I took my lessons where they come.

I followed my senses into the wrong bar at the right time, found there a man who showed interest in me at the very moment that my interest in myself was gasping for breath. I hovered near the buoy of this married man for five years and learned how to share my partner, a skill that has served me well in times since. Another time I cannon-balled into a bathhouse and met a boy. It wasn’t love, but we moved east and this time I got the dog. She stayed with him when he realized I wasn’t true. I navigated back across this huge county in a Yugo, slept curled in the tiny back seat like a wiggling shark pup in an egg casing because I couldn’t afford a hotel. Income has rarely played a role in my choices. Past Oklahoma I encountered a blizzard and arrived “home” in Colorado minutes before I-70 was closed. I counted my blessings.

The serendipitous nature of the universe propelled me to swim beyond the boundaries of my existence with regularity. A friend happened to mention that the owners of his apartment building were looking for a new manager. I lived rent free for the next few years and learned to sell anything to anyone. There’s a seat for every ass, I discovered. Another time I tired of commuting to a belligerent boss and randomly applied for a job I wasn’t qualified for. I’m nothing if not a charmer, and by my third week in the position I had learned what needed to be learned. I faked my way to proficiency. I became resourceful. I learned to listen to the voices around me and pick up the cues I needed to float. This became part of the game. Prepare, dive, and assimilate. I would have been a good alien intruder.

When I dive, if I dive, will I be leaf-like? Will my mass tumble side to side as it drifts through the currents rising from the hot street below? Will I rotate top to bottom and gently circle back around upon myself? Will the long evening light refract from my changing shape in a million different angles? Like a leaf, will I falter in my plummet, skittish and fickle in my path, uncertain and indecisive until I finally spiral to a crisp ‘plop’ among the leaves that have fallen before me?

I had random collections that for some reason sparked my interest. The chicken collection was a general nod toward my farm boy roots, but the individual specimens were a manifestation of just how far from that coop I had flown. I had milk glass chicken candy dishes, bent metal chicken candelabras, a complete set of Tiki-styled chicken and bamboo porcelain for eight, serving dishes included. I had an odd cubism chicken platter, a pink chicken TV lamp, and a hand-blown Mexican glass chicken margarita set: the libation poured from the hen’s upturned beak into the open asses of a clutch of ground-pecking chicks. The dishes all inhabited a kitchen with rooster wallpaper and I cooked wearing an apron emblazoned with another rubberized, brilliantly-hued rooster, the words below reading, in Italian, only one cock for so many hens.

They slowly disappeared as poultry lost its appeal, but I still find them on occasion, hidden in a drawer, stuck in a box. Chickens persist.

I collected seeds. Acorns. Walnuts. Sycamore husks. Milkweed, cocklebur, Mexican sunflower. Maples and box elders thrown in the air to spiral down like tiny, pilotless helicopters. Wisteria pods that mysteriously exploded in the middle of the night, my bare feet scuttling the puffed seeds across the hardwood as I padded to the bathroom in the morning. Unidentified seeds that I was drawn to because of their unique shape, color, texture, smell. Seeds, like new beginnings, waiting to happen.

I collected beach glass, bits with the sharp edges worn smooth, rounded by the repetitive force of waves grinding them against the sand like the everyday ritual of life grinds down its inhabitants. My favorite is the lower half of a broken jar, the ragged shards of the remaining sides grated to smooth, rounded peaks, the raised letters spelling MAYONNAISE left intact on the bottom. I still have it on display, filled with a variety of seeds. Through the etched glass rim one can see how they settled naturally like the stratified layers of mother earth: smallest sinking through to the bottom, largest perched on top. The display means something to me; within the confines of that gnashed piece of flotsam, new beginnings wait.

And I collected river rocks, rounded perfectly by centuries of flood. I developed an affinity for agate treated thusly and lined a fifteen-gallon aquarium with them. No life forms – the goldfish trauma with the therapist had not been forgotten – but the agates were so galactic, so arctic, when wet.

Or will I be a stone, slicing through the depths of my disability as I hurtle through the fetid air? I hope to land headfirst, bullet-like, shot straight to the unyielding pavement from a cannon on high. I will splash in my own muck and glory. Thwack! My skull will explode, its tumors splashing in a lumpy abstract grey and red stain at the busy intersection of suffering and sympathy. I will be no more.

I have always been body conscious, driven to keep this machine I live in performing at peak capacity. But I am not one who came upon an exercise program and stuck with it for years. I ran until the beauty of the world going by under my own power became trite. I lifted weights until the muscled reflection in the mirror looked bored. I taught aerobics until the warmth of being idolized by less taut physiques cooled. I cycled. I climbed. I played tennis, racquetball, softball, basketball. I developed astute proprioception abilities and a constant awareness of how I moved, my form, my sense of physical self. I was smokin’ hot at times. On one level I moved through these phases sequentially, sticking with each only until it bored me. On a general level, I never lost sight of the fact that this body is my temple and, whatever I do, I do at its urging. It has not let me down. And always it swims towards enlightenment.

The weight of my body presses back toward the solid safety of the building, an unwilled reflex that shifts me away from the inviting abyss below. The gravitational center of my body, my butt – damp white cotton clinging to damp white curves – tries to settle itself back through the open lower pane of the window. I force it to stay put, balanced uneasily on a high and tight wire strung between retreat and advancement.

My naked back is pressed to the cool upper pane, and I imagine how it looks from inside the room, the skin flattened against the transparent surface. As the living color of my tainted blood is pressed out, my flesh becomes its true translucent bluish-white, like day old halibut. I am wet with sweat, the product of heat and anticipation, and my back fastens to the slick glass like the rubber suction cup of a dart shot from a child’s toy pistol. What is this? My back will join my feet and butt in betrayal of my purpose? I know better. I retain control. With one small forced arch, a slight pressing together of my shoulder blades, the hold will be released. I will move forward to enter the empty, receptive space. My reticent body cannot stop me.

I love country music. I dance like a dervish. I love to swallow colored hits of ecstasy, some yellow with a print of Mickey, some white with a Popeye figure, and some mottled brown like a tiny flat bird’s egg. I listen to trance music. I watch American Idol and I hope that everyone wins. I listen to the underdog’s song. Butt rock makes me feel young. Classical makes me feel smart. Jazz makes me feel cool. Barbershop quartets make me giggle.

Experience deepened me; I drew closer to myself.
The traffic whirs below me; the refrigerator hums behind me. Between the two, I am quiet. 
I developed an infatuation with artists in my forties. I loved the feel of the dancer’s body moving below me; I purposefully twisted him into shapes and positions that I knew no other could attain. He could, and he smiled. I was held captive by the angry thrust of the stage director as he directed me. He said move, I moved. And I smiled. But I practiced catch and release with the actor. The flip-flops from comedy to drama were too unpredictable, too sudden and unpredictable for even me. I briefly appreciated the steady tenor of the textile artist but soon his presence became as one-dimensional as his medium. Age was leveling, but not flattening, me.

The opera’s wigmaker was a wild child. He introduced me to Puccini, booty bumps, and HIV. It seemed as inevitable as the rest of my journey.

Death is an artist. He is a writer of sonnets whose gnarled but firm hand leaves an ink smear on everyone’s last chapter. Death is a painter, sometimes as gentle and indolent as Monet’s lilies, sometimes as harsh and surprising as a Jackson Pollack splatter. He is a singer whose shrill crescendo sometimes cannot be heard yet is ever-present, an off-tune beautiful note that sticks to the passage of my dwindling days. Sometimes it is all I can hear.

Death stands beside me on this ledge and invites me to dive into this unknown, into what comes next. But he does not push. I hear his song, the notes rising as swiftly as I might fall. I see his rendering, the thick black outline of his images and the muted relief of his pastel shading. I read his poetry and I feel remorse and fear, enlightenment and release. The beauty of his art cannot be denied, yet cannot be understood. He is an unknown who asks for my trust. Death makes a wish: he stands in my company and requests the favor of a reply.

At fifty-five, love floated toward me, found me. He was dressed as a soldier and spoke so quietly that I was forced to listen. The music faded to the background and I stopped thrashing. His sweet, low voice filled my head with dreams. In crisp blues and with a plain face, he asked for my company. He did not demand, but he did not hesitate. He stood stalwart and strong and accepted me: my past, my present, what I may be in the future. I dove into the unknown of him; I swam into his stream. No choice. No regret. Eight years passed and each day dawned new, each morning was another party in a private pool for two. He cared not that I’m fickle. He adored my fickle. Holding hands we moved upstream together. He led when he could, I lead when I could. One of us always rested, pulled along in the drag of the other. Swimming in pairs, I learned, was better.

At sixty-three the cancer found me.

There is no equity. It is not reasonable that now, at the point in my journey where I finally arrive at my destination, just now as I splash in the embracing oasis of the headwaters of my purpose, my own end is inevitable and is near. I try the dead-man’s float in the calm waters of our partnership, an attempt to revel in the beauty of our love, but these tumors weigh me down as surely as if I had stuffed my pockets with boulders. I am that salmon escaped overboard, floundered back to the safety of the waves then battled around boulder, over dam, up ladder, escaping the sure grasp of bear’s claws and eagle’s talons to finally reach my destiny, only to discover that my destiny is to lie exhausted on my side in water too shallow to swim, too brackish to breathe, my one eye fixed skyward. I mouth the words as I gasp for air, “there is no equity.”

I have yet to answer death. My will agrees with him; to dive would be salvation. But my body, although tortured, is not convinced. Biology argues with will. The feet cling, the butt attempts an intervention, the back adheres. Sunlight fades and the marble cools to my touch. I remain static. I do not dive, and I do not retreat. Still, I know that I cannot stay here forever; like all of my life before me, I must have movement. I am resolved: one more breath and I will act, I will choose.

I inhale.

© Jackson Lassiter