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Confessions of a Drowned Man

“He had been hurt doing everything he had ever done. He expected it, even wanted it. Nothing centered a man like pain. Nothing drove the irrelevant bullshit out of your mind like the taste of your own blood.”
— Harry Crews, All We Need of Hell

One of the best things that ever happened in my life was a motorcycle accident. My motorcycle accident. It happened in September 2014.

I was visiting an old Army buddy in Texas. He lent me his ancient BMW motorcycle, which was a mistake–a mistake by me, that is. I had no business being on a motorcycle, much less an honorable old gentleman of a motorcycle like that BMW. There was nothing modern about the BMW… nothing to help out a rider who was a rank amateur, and a slow learner.

Before
Before

We rode out into the Texas Hill Country. At some point, we stopped so I could drink a pop. It was hot, and I was wearing a leather jacket and helmet. So at least I had that much sense. Or rather: My Army buddy did.

Out in the hills, amongst the cattle, we rode. I enjoyed the countryside, another mistake. Following my buddy down a hill and across a bridge, I saw the deer much too late, braked, and flew over the handlebars, landing on my left shoulder and bashing the left side of my helmeted head on the road. I was stunned. As I flew over the handlebars, I thought, “So this is how I die.”

I didn’t. Die, that is. Didn’t even see a blue tunnel.

On the side of the road, I somehow was on the side of the road, my Army buddy unzipped the jacket he’d lent me. We saw part of my clavicle sticking up near my throat.

I don’t remember a lot. There was a woman behind us in a car who came to my aid. We somehow got the jacket off. The helmet had a large crease on one side. The BMW was not injured. It was an indestructible old gentleman.

I went to one hospital, was scanned, and then was sent to another hospital, where I was also scanned. My shirt had been cut off at some point. I was brimming with morphine, and blasé about my condition. My clavicle was shattered. They checked me into the hospital.

After
After

I drifted in and out of consciousness for a few days. Occasionally, I’d wake up while someone took my vitals, or encouraged me to eat. I was in the ICU, I realized. I woke up as other people screamed their lungs out. I was moved to a regular room, and was told that I could leave if I wanted, but first I had to stop clicking the little button that administered morphine to me via an IV. I had them remove the IV.

The clarifying pain

That’s when the pain set in. I think I stayed with my Army buddy a few more days. I can’t recall.

I took a flight back to Illinois, saw my doctor, who referred me to a surgeon.

A good friend, who had given me shelter when I left my wife, agreed to drive me to my surgery and then see me home afterward. The surgeon, with the help of a power drill, placed a plate and nine screws into my shoulder, reassembling my clavicle by force.

In a sane country, I would have stayed overnight in the hospital. But I don’t live in a sane country. I was sent home immediately after I woke up in the recovery room. My friend made sure I picked up my Tylenol 3, and made it home to my apartment. I slept that night like a dead man.

The next morning, and the next week, I wished I was dead.

My mother, while she was dying of the breast cancer that had reemerged out of remission and had metastasized into her bones, told me, “Bone pain is the worst pain.” While passing in and out of a sweaty stupor, I remembered her last days.

My mother is my role model in life. She taught me everything I know about being a human being, and I miss her tremendously every day, even more than my murdered sister, who had been my best friend before her death in 1992.

I wept thinking about my mother being in this kind of agony. “I’m sorry, Mom!” I shouted out, over and over. The pills, which barely cut some of the pain, ran out after three days. The whites of my eyes turned piss yellow.

Two years earlier, I’d left my wife and had gotten divorced. I was alone, and felt alone. Lonely. It was my own fault, the divorce. The doomed marriage was my fault, too. I’d met my wife around the same time that my mother’s cancer had come back. It was loneliness that had driven me to ask a work friend to marry me. It was her terrible marriage that caused her to say yes, I think. I was a drowning man, and then for a short while, I wasn’t. The marriage was a life preserver for a few years. So there I was, mostly underwater, but my head was above it. You’re okay, you tell yourself, knowing that it’s a lie. I think we were happy at first. I hope we were. But the thing was, I never opened myself fully to her, and she knew it. And I knew she knew it. We made some bad financial decisions together and ended up in a tiny condo with her sister, and after that I was never alone.

I need solitude. I need it to write, which is the one constant in my life. Married, I couldn’t write anymore. I tried. The writing was coming out shit. I became resentful.

I am my writing. I am my books. If you think you’re my friend, but you haven’t read my books, I have news for you, bucko: You’re not my friend.

So without anything like solitude, I felt more and more trapped, and more and more resentful. I stopped eating and lost 50 pounds. I broke in November 2011, and finally left her in January 2012, and we divorced in August that year. Our marriage lasted eight years. It was like someone had died all over again. I drank. I obsessed about it for two years. At times, my heart raced for no discernible reason. I’m told that’s called an anxiety attack.

I was a ten-car pile-up of a human being.

So… drowning

The summer I was ten my mother arranged for me to take swimming lessons at a community pool in Tampa via the American Red Cross. There were A, B, and C groups. You started out in C, in the shallow end of the pool, and worked your way up to A, in the deep end. I managed to make it up to A fairly quickly.

My first day in A, we received a lecture from the instructor about lifesaving techniques. The instructor said something along the lines of “Never try to save a drowning man without bringing along a life preserver.”

The idea was that instead of trying to pull the person out, you would throw him or her a life preserver attached to a rope and that person would cling to the life preserver instead of clinging to you. You then give that person a tow to shore.

A drowning man, in his desperation, will cling to you in such a way as to drown you as well.

I raised my hand. “What if you don’t have access to a life preserver? What do you do then?”

“Call the authorities and wait for them to arrive,” I believe the instructor said. “In other words, let them drown.”

By this time in my life, I liked to argue with instructors, probably to test the limits of their knowledge. More probably, because I liked to get a rise out of them. A person will show you his or her true self when angry.

This is why I got low marks in “Citizenship.”

Later on, at my Catholic high school, I also received low marks in “Moral Guidance,” which was a half-hour class in Catholic religious indoctrination. My line of questioning in that class implied that nearly everything that Catholics believe about life and life after death is half-baked nonsense, or worse.

The swim instructor threw the question back at me. “So are you saying that you’d swim out and drown?”

I said that anything would be preferable to watching someone die. I stopped arguing, got up and walked toward the shower area and promptly stepped on a pyramid-shaped chunk of brick, which, if it was a piece of candy, would have been called “fun-sized.” I stood on one foot, leaned against a wall, and looked at the bottom of my foot, which was bleeding nicely. I walked back out to the pool area on the side of my foot, showed the instructor, who, angry with me, suggested that I should go “rinse it off in the shower.” I did. I came back out leaving bloody footprints behind me on the pool curtain and showed the instructor again. This time, her anger having cooled, she ended up wrapping my foot in gauze and called my mother to come pick me up early.

I ended up having to take yet another trip to the emergency room (I was a frequent flyer as a child) and received a lecture from Mom during the drive to the hospital about being “a little jerk.” The instructor apparently gave her an earful.

Back to the clarifying pain

In the months of physical pain that followed my surgery, I found that I could finally put away the things in my life that I had unnecessarily carried with me. Who had asked me to carry these things around? Who said that I had an obligation to continue to tote around my guilt over my mother’s death, my sister’s murder, and the death of my marriage like it was a 70-pound rucksack?

It was me. I was the only one. I was making myself miserable. Physical pain taught me that I shouldn’t carry around any pain that I manufactured myself.

As anyone who has read my books since 2015 will tell you, my writing is now funnier than ever, and far more free-wheeling, too. I’m comfortable with being around myself for the first time since I was 12 years old, and it shows in the books I write.

I like being alone now. I love my solitude. When I come home, I’m relieved that there is no one here. I’m happy, which is something I haven’t been able to say until recently. I sit in silence sometimes. I listen to the clock tick, and smile.

On the minus side, I have had problems remembering things since the accident. Names, faces. At times, I wonder if someone actually spoke to me about something, or if it was a dream. I think it was the blow to the head. Or maybe it’s my age. Or carbonated beverages. Or allergy medication. Whatever.

I also found out that I have dry macular degeneration, so I’m going to go blind at some point, possibly. I take vitamins to try to stave it off.

Life is a series of tradeoffs.

Happiness. I’ll take it.
Facebook: www.facebook.com/smalltownpunk
Twitter: twitter.com/explosivedecomp
Website: www.johnlsheppard.com

Old Shep

Don’t shoot me, Elvis.

Up until my 30’s, I was known as “Shep.” Outside of my family, people rarely called me “John.” I am an American Catholic, went to Catholic school, and was born in late December back in ’63. Every third boy I went to school with was named “John,” after President Kennedy, who’d been shot in the head about a month before I was born.

This was the beginning of the end of America, if you listen to a certain subset of Americans, and I missed witnessing it by a month. Or maybe I didn’t. Maybe I monitored it from the womb.

When my brother and I played Little League baseball on the same team in Tampa, we were known as “Big Shep” and “Little Shep.” Tom was a terrific catcher, and I was an incompetent occasional right fielder. The sponsor for our team was Village Inn Pancake House, and we had garish purple shirts and purple hats.

One time, when a kid from another team tried to run home on him, Tom blocked the plate. He was an immovable object. Tom got the out, and the kid was out-out. He was carried off the field on a stretcher. Tom was promoted to the senior level league after that.

I set a record for number of walks in that league because I was short and had adopted Pete Rose’s crouched-over batting stance. I rarely took a swing. On one occasion when I did, the ball dribbled along the third baseline, and I stood in the batter’s box frozen in shock. “Run, Little Shep! Run!” the kids chanted from the dugout. I did, and to my further shock, I stood on first base with a hit.

I pitched batting practice for the other kids. I had many books on baseball, and one of them featured various methods of gripping a baseball. So, at some point, I started using them and the kids on my team flailed. I’d made myself into a self-taught junk-ball pitcher, in other words.

The manager of my second team, Eastern Airlines, decided to use me in a game. The first time out, the other manager became upset enough that I was pulled. It was unfair that some kid was throwing knuckle-curves in a Little League game. There may have been rules against this. My second time out, I was shelled. That was the end of my pitching career.

I played Little League ball for a total of seven years. I was uncoordinated, half-blind, undersized and generally a bad ballplayer. I still love the game though. I was known as “Shep” throughout all of it.

In the Army, for four years of active duty and a couple more in the reserves, that was my name.

I think nicknames make you approachable.

I had a buddy in Germany who was in the same predicament that I’d been in when I’d first arrived. He was in possession of a college degree, but was enlisted. If there’s one thing an enlisted soldier hates, it’s another soldier putting on airs. Other soldiers rarely spoke to him. And then I nicknamed him “Slice.” After that, he was awash in buddies. Army buddies.

It’s an ephemeral thing, being an Army buddy. I haven’t seen or spoken to anyone from my unit in Germany in over two decades. Not that I have an itch to talk to any of them. I don’t have honey-colored memories of my time in the service. It was miserable, and about a third of the soldiers I served with were clearly psychopaths.

The first time I was called “John” outside of my family was when I was getting my MFA, shortly after getting out of the Army. “Good to meet you, John,” an affable fellow MFA-er said at a beginning-of-the-semester picnic. I looked around for this “John” and realized he was talking to me. “Oh,” I went, and shook his hand.

Later on that year, another MFA-er called me “Shep.” By that time, I’d grown used to being “John.” I gave him a look and went, “Shep?”

That guy ended up being a TV producer on shows like “Mad About You” and “The Goldbergs.” He’s probably the most successful MFA-er in human history. Most of us end up teaching college and writing books that sell about 4,000 copies.

After my MFA, I ended up writing nonsense for a junk mail firm in Pompano Beach, Florida. As I drove to work each morning, I’d pass by strip clubs, gun shops, pawn shops and eventually the Broward County Jail, where the live standup for “America’s Most Wanted” was filmed most weeks. I reverted to being “Shep” at that place. It was my last tour of duty being “Shep.” I didn’t last long there. I didn’t fit in.

I took a job in civil service working for the Navy about 20 years ago, and became “John” for some reason that I don’t fully comprehend, and have been “John” ever since.

Nobody’s seriously called me “Shep” for years and years. I miss it sometimes. There’s an easy familiarity in being “Shep.” A “Shep” is an affable dude. A “John” is a toilet, a book in the New Testament, a frequenter of prostitutes.

The thing is: People call you what they want to call you.

I can’t help thinking that something changed in my character in my 30’s for people not to want to call me “Shep” anymore. Perhaps there’s an iciness in me that was brought on by certain events in my life. I don’t know.

Could I ever be “Shep” again? I won’t insist on it, that’s for sure. It would have to come naturally. You can’t force being a “Shep,” after all.

7 steps to happiness

For the first time in your adult life, you’re happy. Instead of enjoying your happiness like a sane person, you analyze the hell out of it, because that’s what people who are not used to being happy do. Also, you were a philosophy major in college. Snicker all you want at that, but a philosophy degree is better preparation for life than that business degree some chumps were suckered into. Philosophy is about questioning everything. You were never a yes-man.

1. Jettison the friends who aren’t friends anymore.

Friendships (and romances) are like Wonder bread. You think that they are going to last forever, but they don’t. This is especially true of friendship/romance created under duress. Fear is not the goo that binds the bread pudding of friendship. Fear is a ticking time bomb of sticky toxic waste.

That college roommate? You were away from home for the first time and were deathly afraid of being alone. The woman you married because your mother was dying? Afraid of being alone. That friend who was so there for you when you left your wife? See the first two.

You hang on far too long, afraid of being ungrateful, as the fear that started the friendship/romance evolves into resentment, leaving behind a decaying relationship corpse that you are afraid to bury because then you’d truly be alone. The corpse seems better than the alternative. At some point, you realize that if you are actually grateful for the relationship, you should bury the corpse and let that person get back to living his or her life, and that you should go on with your life, too.

You also realize that these people all knew you at your worst–your worst case scenario you. That is all that they see when they look at you–a basket case. Even though they don’t mean to do it, they can convince you that you’re still a basket case by the way they treat you. You don’t need that. They don’t need it either. Pity generates as much resentment as fear.

And then one day you let go… you embrace being alone… the state you’ve been afraid of your entire adult life. You relearn a word you discovered when you were two: No. And it is fantastic! Those pitying eyes are gone. All those Wonder bread people who you thought you couldn’t live without? Turns out life is so much better without them. In your empty apartment, you let the dishes pile up in the sink. You sing along with Glen Campbell and are not afraid that someone is watching you, judging you. Eat hummus with a spoon right out of the container. Watch the Indians on TV in your boxer shorts and do pushups between innings. Experimentally eat the raisin that you dropped on the kitchen floor maybe a week ago. Who cares? No one. Not a single solitary soul. It’s glorious! All that worrying about people who didn’t give a shit about you was like a slow drip of acid into your soul.

There’s a difference between being solitary and being alone. It’s a secret that had been kept from you for a long time, but you finally whispered it to yourself.

When you come home to your empty apartment, with no one there to greet you (not even a cat), you are relieved and happy. A long, loud sigh escapes from your lips every day after you close the front door and deadbolt it.

Even healthy relationships expire and require burying. Not that Facebook cares about that. Facebook insists that you remain friends with people you’ve long since moved past. Facebook friends are not actual friends, by the way. Facebook is a vile scam preying on fear of loneliness. At best, it is methadone. You know that. You minimize your time there.

2. Don’t travel. 

You never thought you’d live in a country with a “Department of Homeland Security” did you? Oh, but you do. Now every trip to the airport is a dystopian nightmare of inscrutable (human-free) check-in machines, cold stares as you shuffle in line up to the body scanner, shoeless, and then the long shamble through corridors filled with people bumping into each other as they interact with their phones. You get to your gate and discover that you’re sitting in a middle seat because every flight you’re on is overbooked.

Driving isn’t much better. Hours stuck in heavy traffic add to your creeping guilt over burning hydrocarbons that are quickly killing off our planet. That road trip music list on your iPhone isn’t aging well either as you slowly inch forward. Should have made that list longer. Better songs. Urgh.

Once you get there, there’s the disappointment of being there. “There” is not that great. Certainly not worth the bullshit of travel.

So when it comes time to take a week off, you stay in your blissfully empty apartment indulging in your main hobby: writing books that no one reads. Ahhhh. That’s better.

3. Watch more TV. Skip going to movies. 

You were brought up to believe that TV was as awful as candy corn, and that movies were high art. Gilligan’s Island, The Captain and Tennille Variety Hour, CHiPs, and The A-Team pretty much cemented that.

The movies had Nashville, Jaws, The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, Blade Runner, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Blue Velvet…

And then one day you saw Twin Peaks. You shook excitedly in your barracks room, vibrating in your chair. And Twin Peaks begat The X Files. And then came The Sopranos. And then Mad Men. Now you spend your time waiting for the next season of The Americans and Orphan Black to hit the small screen.

Meanwhile, movies have become a massive billowing shitstorm of comic book junk, fucked dialog and plots, and cartoonish special effects. And admission is too much. You find yourself sitting in front of an old lady who carries on a monologue that matches exactly what you’re thinking about the billowing shitstorm you are currently, for no good reason, subjecting yourself to. The cantankerous old broad lets loose a loud popcorn-and-Coke gasser. Why am I here when I could be at home, blissfully alone, watching something good?

4. Pay off all of your bills and don’t create new ones. 

Much of the stress of your daily life used to be bills. You grew up poor, so you compensated for that by running up insane credit card debt with the woman you fear-married. You owed so much fucking money it was maddening, and you were dizzy with nausea thinking about it every waking minute of every day. You went to sleep thinking about being broke and every morning you woke up… still broke.

But then, once you were alone, you lived like a monk… mainly out of self-hatred for having abandoned the rotting corpse of your marriage like a teenage mother ditching a prom-night-conceived baby at a fire station.

One day, you woke up and realized that all that monkishness had taken away one of the things you’d most hated about your existence: the feeling that you’d never emerge from debt. You’d paid everything off. Holy mother of fuck! You felt 20, 40 pounds lighter.

Now you wake up and wonder, “Exactly how much money do I have in the bank?” with an incredible sense of relief. Money has lost its grip on your life.

5. Don’t eat in restaurants. 

You also wake up physically lighter. Why? Because one of your major indulgences used to be eating in restaurants. You used to work in a restaurant, so you happen to know the secret of “good food,” and it’s spelled F-A-T.

If you eat in a class restaurant, you can be certain that you’re eating a stick of butter mixed in with your order. If you eat in a not-so-class joint, you’re eating eight ounces of blended oil (best case), beef tallow, or Kaola Gold.

Now that you’ve stopped eating in restaurants, you aren’t eating artery-clogging, megadoses of fat. Suddenly you’re not feeling like total shit anymore. Funny how that happens.

6. Cut out alcohol. Exercise instead.

When you were first alone, you dulled the miasma of anxiety whirling in your chest cavity with plastic bottles of cheap, clear fluid purporting to be vodka. It only helped somewhat. You drank until you passed out, and then woke up the next morning with a massive hangover. Work dulled some of the anxiety, but only during work. Once you left work, you were right back in downtown Shit City, standing on the corner of Fucked and Main. So more drinking.

One day you came home from work and saw that you ran out of alcohol, and so did without it because the thought of facing the liquor store clerk after a day of dealing with people was too much. Then you forgot to pick up alcohol again. And then you didn’t pick up alcohol on purpose.

You mastered your anxiety through long walks, and then bicycling, and then a rowing machine. The exercise not only knocks out the anxiety, it makes you feel so much better than booze ever did. You actually feel strong, like you could handle anything.

7. Don’t give a shit that no one is reading your books.

The one constant in your life has always been books and writing. You read from an early age. You don’t even remember how it came about. No one taught you. When you went to kindergarten, you were already reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. You could already write, too.

As you grew older, books were your salve. You could take your parents’ constant fighting if you could crack open a book. You loved detective novels and science fiction.

You wrote short stories and hid them under your mattress like they were pornography. Your mother found them and encouraged you to keep on writing. You even got a (completely worthless) graduate degree in writing.

Like every writer, you have a sneaking suspicion half the time that you’re a genius. The other half of the time, you’re certain you’re a charlatan and everything you’ve written is pure junk. But the one constant is that you love books and love writing. Now that you’re alone, debtless, and sober, you can actually concentrate on doing what you love. No one is reading your work, but that’s okay. You’re fine with that. You reach inside yourself and find all the things that you love (and hate) about the world and put them on the page. Nothing matters but the writing itself. This doesn’t mean you don’t want people to read what you’ve written, but if they don’t, it won’t stop you from writing.

Nothing will.

New book here, not that you care: http://amzn.to/2bG110j

Summer 1994: Getting Pierced By Fiona Helmsley

Here’s another short story from Fiona Helmsley, this time about the indiscretions of youth. Make sure to check out her new book, My Body Would be the Kindest of Strangers.

Chelsea pierced my clitoris with a piercing needle she got secondhand from a boy she’d met at a hardcore show. She’d pierced her own with it the night before, and the needle’s tip was coated with a thin layer of black soot: afterward, she’d sterilized it by flame. The year was 1994, before the piercing/tattoo craze had really taken hold of the youth community, and having a piercing anywhere besides your ears could still cause quite a stir. Though my new adornment would be hidden by clothing and mons veneris, its existence alone would make for an interesting addition to any conversation. I looked forward to the challenge of concocting the segue.

We did some heroin and Chelsea told me to lie down and spread my legs. She got to work, reaching in, pushing my fleshy girl parts aside. I felt a quick, tearing pinch followed by a threading sensation as she moved the hoop through. The soot from the needle’s tip left a flaky residue that we wiped away with witch hazel, leaving a sickly, piscine scent. Chelsea was my best friend, and we joked that our matching piercings were our version of the half- heart friendship necklaces that they sold at Spencer Gifts at the mall.

Only the skin of my clitoral hood rejected the piercing that night as I slept. I woke up in the morning and the hoop was gone, lost somewhere in Chelsea’s bed sheets. Chelsea, who had no schooling in proper piercing procedures, hadn’t done the piercing far back enough, and the skin around the puncture site had split in two, forcing the metal out. I felt like a child who had been given a coveted toy only to have it snatched away before I could play with it. I was too impatient to wait until we got more heroin. Chelsea would have to pierce me again without it. I had taken the pain so easily the night before, I had no doubt that I would be able to do it again.

I was intensely wrong. As soon as the needle cut into my flesh, my body was like a cannon ball, and I was hurtling through space and time. The quick pinch from the night before had morphed into a monstrous, burning rip–the kind of pain that invigorates you, reminds you that you are alive only because you want to die, or kill its causation. Operating on a mix of autopilot and adrenaline, my body flung itself away from Chelsea and towards the other side of the bed. Still, in a feat of grace and agility, she had somehow managed to get the hoop though. I was re-pierced and had a newfound respect for the medicinal qualities of heroin. I felt that I understood how it had earned its moniker in the trenches.

As Chelsea readied herself to go to work, I prepared for another day of loafing. My mother had kicked me out of the house for the second time in a year for using drugs. The first time had been during the school year, and the school day had taken up a good portion of my time. Once the school year was over, there were just that many more hours in the day to fill.

The beginning of the summer had held a different vibe. The freedom provided by my homelessness had been all adventure. I’d traveled across the country, done drugs, had sex, and lived the punk rock dream, free of parental intervention. But now that the summer was almost over, I was in crisis. Could I make a life out of doing these things without being the drummer of a hair band? Did I even want to? If I did, I could have been doing them much more comfortably with a stable place to lay my head at night, not the rotation of Chelsea’s house, my friend Clem’s, and the outdoors. My friends and I had always held a disdain for the people we’d known who had made a big show of leaving town, only to come back. I was turning into one of those people. No matter how embarrassing it was to be homeless in the town I grew up in, my friends and family were here, and I kept coming back. And there was Chelsea. A year younger than me, she still had to finish school.

Unbridled freedom hadn’t always been my life’s goal. There was an anti-drug PSA on television at the time that claimed, “No one says ‘I want to be a junkie when I grow up.'” Whenever it came on, Chelsea and I would talk back to the TV that the voice-over person should speak for themselves. The whole trajectory of my life had changed since I’d first tried heroin the year before, sniffing it off the floor of a Subway sandwich shop bathroom. College plans scrapped, family relations scrapped, and the constant thought always there, lingering: Let’s get some drugs. Today would be no different.

Teachable Moments by Fiona Helmsley

Make sure to check out Fiona’s new book, My Body Would be the Kindest of Strangers.

I grew up across the street from an old cemetery. Sometimes, when he was feeling motivated, we’d go there, and walk. Round and round we’d go, making loops past the rows of neglected, moss-covered gravestones. Near the north side of the grounds, bordering the woods, a small scattering of crumbled stones faced west. Suicides, he told me. Back when the cemetery was active, they weren’t allowed to be buried on consecrated ground.

We’d grab walking sticks. I think of them now as staffs. We wouldn’t talk much as we walked, but we weren’t solemn or sad. When I think of his body, I think of sailors, probably because he bought most of his clothes at the Army Navy store. He’d wear t-shirts commemorating marathons he hadn’t run in, and shorts like Carhartt’s, with deep pockets and hooks. His legs were tight and muscular, like mine. I have my father’s legs, only sexy.

Some days, the little boy would come, and then the whole dynamic would change. The things my father and I did free of undercurrent became competitive. “Teachable moments” –just not for me. Even something like picking out a walking stick. For a young girl, any stick would do, but for a young boy, it had to be near-mythical, like everything else.

They’d go to the woods, near the suicides, and look for impressive ones. A lot of dads carry pocket knives, but in the pocket of his shorts, my father carried a truncheon. It protruded like an angry table leg. He’d hit at the overgrowth, and when he found a stick fit for a prince, the little boy would help to break it loose.

Because my stick wasn’t important, I’d wander ahead. One day, while they were off being men, I ambled over to a group of family gravestones. The dead patriarch had been commemorated by an oblong pillar that time had taken the luster from, and turned dull. Next to the pillar was a gravestone shaped like an angel, its hands clasped in prayer. A pair of woman’s underwear had been knotted around the angel’s wrists, and a bra had been tied around its head like a blindfold.

I called to my father, who emerged from the woods. He freed the bra from the angel’s face valiantly, hooking and dragging it with his stick, making swooshing motions with his arms as he lunged with his legs. Removing the underwear from the angel’s wrists was a challenge: the knots had been baked in by the sun. A pocketknife would have done the job easily. With a truncheon and stick, he could only poke and bash.

He ripped the underwear from the angel’s wrists. Using his stick like a slingshot, he tied the underwear to the bra, then used their elasticity to fling them into the woods. The little boy and I watched as the undergarments flew through the sky. My father was the liberator of a gravestone angel.

Years later, I worked with a woman at a video store. It had been torn down in the mid-1990s, but she remembered the house I’d grown up in: when she was younger, she and her friends would hang out in the cemetery and get drunk. One night when they’d all been wasted, an older boy suggested they dance naked in the moonlight. It was summer and he’d called it “Skinny Dancing,” like Skinny Dipping. She didn’t know why she’d done it, but she knew I’d gotten into hijinks as a kid, and wouldn’t judge. After she’d taken off her bra and underwear, she’d used them to gag and a tie a gravestone. The gravestone was in the shape of an angel. She hoped it hadn’t been a child’s.

I Wish I Knew How to Quit You By Fiona Helmsley

Editor’s Note: Here’s the first story of Fiona Helmsley’s we published in Air in the Paragraph Line #13 back in 2010. Make sure to check out her new book, My Body Would be the Kindest of Strangers.

I smoked my first cigarette the same night Guns N’ Roses debuted their video for Paradise City on MTV. I was spending the night at my friend Angie Caravello’s house. We opened her bedroom window to blow the smoke outside.

“I’m high!” I said, after completing my first correct inhale. I felt tingly all over and strangely energized, even for the late hour.

“No you’re not, dummy.” Angie retorted, annoyed at my ignorance. “You’re just lightheaded. It happens the first time you get nicotine in your system. Pot, now that gets you high. Next time you come over, I’ll have my friend from West Hartford get us some.”

But I wasn’t paying attention. I was too busy feeling dizzy and watching the coal on the end of my cigarette glow each time I inhaled. I was thirteen years old.

My parents were smokers. My mom liked Virginia Slims lights, my dad Merits. My dad successfully quit the year before I started, but my parents were divorced by that time so I didn’t have to worry about him smelling the scent of my new habit. We lived next to a gas station and I’d been buying cigarettes there for my mom for years. At first, the gas station manager had no questions when the brand of choice changed from Virginia Slims to Camels, but when he noticed a group of teenagers lingering on our rooftop next door, lollipops of glowing amber hanging from our mouths, he got suspicious and called my mom.

“Fiona, are you smoking?” She asked, hanging up the telephone later that night.

It wasn’t a good time for truth. It was the height of my “Where there is doubt, make it count” phase which coincided with all of my adolescence, which made it more than just a phase. And most of my young adulthood, for that matter.

“No, mom.”

“I hope not.” My mom answered, dejectedly. “Do you remember when you used to bury my cigarettes in the yard because you didn’t want me smoking them?” She spoke with a touch of guilty nostalgia.

I did. I’d done it more than once, too. One time in particular stuck out in my mind- election night 1984. I grudgingly went next door and got my mom her coveted Virginia Slims. She was so wound up in the election results, she hardly noticed as I slunk in and out of the TV room, each time taking another cigarette from the pack I just bought for her. As Mondale/Ferraro battled Reagan/ Bush for control of the country, I battled cigarettes for control of my mom. Each kidnapped cancer stick was placed in the same mass grave in the front yard. In a scene straight out of Good Parenting 101, my mother caught me on the fifth time around and demanded a heart to heart discussion. She appreciated my concern and she loved me. She would smoke no more cigarettes for the rest of the evening, she vowed. As I went upstairs to bed, I felt hopeful.

“No, no, NO!! ” I heard my mom scream five minutes later.

Then the flick of a lighter.

Reagan/Bush had won re-election.

My mother had lasted half an hour without a cigarette.

The first time I tried to quit, I was fifteen. It was very hard. I was a freshman in high school and had already been indoctrinated to bathroom smoking. After every class, the same group of girls would gather in the same designated bathroom for a quick puff before the next bell. We were a mutual addiction society, our shared cigarette bathed in the color of five different lipsticks. We crossed economic and social stratospheres, just like the kids in The Breakfast Club, only all female and all smelling like Judd Nelson’s character. I lasted two days. I missed my friends in the bathroom.

I convinced myself that if I quit for good, it would be a quick snowball effect until my friends saw me only at class, then only the weekends and then never. It was the same with the situation with the field hockey team I’d recently been in. A lot of my friends played, which involved travel for games and a lot of on- field bonding that I wasn’t apart of. Joining the team was out because I’d never so much as picked up a stick. I knew I had to find a way to ingratiate myself into the game, but it wasn’t going to be through playing. In desperation, I agreed to carry the team cooler. Field hockey, like smoking, was something that bonded me and my friends together.

Without the cigarettes, I was getting to class early and alone. Smoking had become a matter of social survival.

My eighteenth birthday finally came and with it the right to look every convenience store clerk in the eye when they asked me for ID at the counter.

At the same time I was getting my right on, non smokers everywhere were asserting theirs. They were developing their voices and the sound was disapproving. By the time I moved to NYC for college, the non smoking contingent was loud and proud. Why should they suffer for our dirty habits?

The college board at the school I was attending heard them and decreed no smoking on campus. None of the other students seemed to mind and the school bathrooms always smelled bleach-y and smoke free. Where had all my black lung compadres gone? Anyway, I kind of agreed with the non smokers. I understood their perspective, even if I didn’t appreciate their gains. I had empathy for the innocents. Inhaling second hand smoke was like getting crabs from a public toilet. Reaping the negative consequence of someone else’s pleasure. No fair.

But when their clean air movement infiltrated the bars of NYC, effectively outlawing bar smoking citywide, it was hard to remain so cooperatively passive.

First they came for the Communists and I didn’t speak because I wasn’t a Communist…then they came for the Catholics.. and I didn’t speak because I wasn’t a Catholic…when they came for the smokers, I keep my mouth closed and ruined my chances of playing muse to a literary great.

Thaddeus Robbery was my imaginary boyfriend. I’d read his zine “Robbery” for years. Published just once a year, I read and reread each years copy till the staples wore down and the pages fell out. Thad lived hard and loved harder, devoting the pages of Robbery to his criminal exploits and crimes of the heart. Some girls aspired to Playboy, I aspired to Robbery. There was nothing I wanted more than to be one of the women Thad wrote about in his zine. Part Jack Kerouac and part Iggy Pop, Thad had sang for a series of punk bands in the late eighties, but now devoted most of his time to writing.

And as my friend Lauren explained to me, when she called to ask me if I would meet him at a bar near my apartment in Brooklyn, trying to pay the bills in typical post punk rock fashion.

As a bar dj in Williamsburg.

“Thaddeus Robbery is in Brooklyn trying to line up a dj gig at Psycho Hose Beast. I know you love him. You were the first person I thought of to show him around. He knows no one in NYC. Hook up with him at the bar there. You can thank me later.”

The street directly outside Psycho Hose Beast was one large, drunken, human ashtray. Now that smoking was no longer allowed inside, this was familiar sight outside most NYC bars. I was about to join their ranks, lighter in hand when I was distracted by a voice that I’d heard before, only coming from my record player.

“You fucking smoker scumbags! What a bunch of sorry, fucking losers. This is fucking great. I love that you dogs are out of the street. Gives me an idea of who to avoid inside.”

And with that, Thaddeus Robbery entered Psycho Hose Beast. It was a perplexing scene to witness. I didn’t know how to react. Was Thad drunk? Did he just not like smokers? Maybe a loved one had recently died of cancer? Was Thad just an asshole? The crowd outside didn’t seem to care. These drunken outdoor smoking circles were a breeding ground for his type of angry outburst. I decided it better not to keep him waiting and threw my intended cigarette to the sidewalk, mystified.

My excitement returned as I passed through the door of the bar. I had a date with Thaddeus Robbery. Sort of. I wondered how well it would translate to the written word. I’d worn an a tight, black glittery dress so Thad could use lots of adjectives.

“Well when will your boss be here?” Thad quizzed the bartender, who already seemed annoyed. He’d only been inside a few moments and was already armed with a drink and a sneer. He was getting more and more intimidating with each encounter I witnessed. I tapped him lightly on the shoulder.

“No, I don’t want to buy any fucking batteries!” Thad’s arm made a shooing motion in my direction but he didn’t turn around.

“You took the L train here, didn’t you?” I pretended to laugh, completely ignoring his nasty assumption. “Let me guess, the Chinese lady, with the cart who also sells CD’s? She is really annoying! She totally got up in my face the other day singing Baby Boy in an attempt to get me to buy the Beyonce CD.”

He stared at me blankly, as if trying to determine my origin so he could make sure I never, ever happened again.

“I’m Lauren’s friend? Fiona?”

“Oh Fiona!” His eyes teased deceptively. “Well la dee fucking da! I have no fucking idea who you are! I do know someone in New York–this cunt, Lauren–who is supposed to be my friend. But instead of doing something real uncunty–like, like say, showing up here, herself, she sends out a COMPLETE FUCKING STRANGER IN HER PLACE! “

At the same time, my phone rang. Lauren’s phone number flashed across the screen.

“Its for you.” I said, handing it to Thaddeus. I couldn’t stand the thought of listening to him argue with Lauren about what an obvious, flashing light loser I was.

“I’m going out to smoke a cigarette.” I stumbled, handing him the phone.

Thaddeus’s body bolted up right, as if a large squirrel had just attempted to penetrate his asshole without permission or lube.

“YOU’RE GOING TO SMOKE A…. CIGARETTE?” His face twisted, like saying the very word left a bitter taste in his mouth.

“No,” I interrupted, “I’m going to go outside with The Cigarettes,” I took a deep breath. How had I forgotten his anti-smoking tirade? “There a band I know.”

I took the ten steps to the door five at a time, effectively ruining his chance to respond. A group of girls leaned against a car parked outside. I could see Thaddeus staring at me through the window as he talked on my phone. I made small talk with the girls.

My nerves were a mess. I thought of asking one of the fake Cigarettes for a drag of her namesake, but Thad was still watching me through the window. This was going all wrong. Why had I made that Beyonce comment? I’d hate me too. I wanted a cigarette so badly. It was as if Thaddeus’ scolding had stripped all the residual nicotine from my system.

My imaginary boyfriend had turned abusive. Did we need imaginary counseling? He continued to glare at me through the window as he hung up my phone. I couldn’t leave even if I wanted to, I told myself. He could find me. He knew all my potential hiding spots. He had my phone.

Tap. Tap. Tap. Thaddeus was knocking on the window to get my attention. He beckoned me with his finger.

As I reentered the bar, he shoved a drink into my hand.

“I’m sorry Fiona. Its not you. Its me. Lauren told me you’re a big fan. We’d be nothing without our fans…..”

His apology sounded like a Susan Lucci Emmy acceptance speech but with unexplained plural pronouns. My palms where clammy. I was in full fledged nicotine withdrawal.

“I need to use the bathroom.” I stammered.

“Go empty yourself then.” He dismissed my weak human need with a flick of his wrist. “Don’t forget to wash your hands. I will know if you don’t.”

The walk to the bathroom was a blur. My hands shook as I closed the bathroom door, brought the cigarette to my mouth and lit it in one fell swoop. The nicotine flooded my starved cells and I felt lightheaded.

“I’m high!” I mouthed the words in tribute to Angie Caravello, seventeen years after she’d first corrected me. I wondered if she wore mom jeans now.

“All right, whatever you’re smoking in there, drop it in the bowl and come out of the stall.”

I’d been so focused on my need for nicotine I ‘d completely ignored the cardinal rule of unlawful bathroom smoking-survey the scene first. Had I not learned anything in high school? I attempted to fan the smoke cloud from the air, but it was futile. I was caught.

It was the annoyed faced bartender who’d been talking to Thad earlier.

“What aren’t you getting? I saw you outside with all the other nicotine freaks. You know the deal. There is a zero tolerance policy in effect towards smoking inside bars now. Zero. We’ve had undercover cops in here for the past month just looking for violations. It’s the bar owners that get screwed for your stupidity. What you just did could get us shut down.”

I did understand her position. I decided to take the risk that maybe she’d understand mine.

“Would you believe I’m trying to impress a guy?”

“I don’t care. Get your shit and get out.”

So this was it. This was how the evening was destined to end. It was like an after school special for “Just be yourself.” I’d gone to this great length to hide my habit only to be exposed anyway. What the fuck would I say to Thad?

The bartender held the bathroom door open.

“Alright, alright.” My Robbery dreams had, for lack of a better analogy, just gone up in smoke.

“I know I broke the rules, but come on. This is really embarrassing. I’m here tonight with a guy I really like too.”

“Oh I’m crying for you. You have two minutes to get your stuff and get out. If I have to tell you again, I promise, you will be really embarrassed.” The expression on her face reflected the truth in her statement.

I considered my options as I made my way back to the bar. Thad was slouched on his barstool, elbows on the counter. He had a fresh drink in front of him.

Telling the truth was out. Thad had made his feelings on smoking toxin- free pondwater- crystal clear. He may of been at Psycho Hose Beast for a real job interview, but I felt like my evening was a job interview of sorts, too. I was auditioning for Robbery. I was acting like an idiot, but that was just it–I was acting. I wasn’t really an idiot. People all over the world did things like this when they liked a person–hid little aspects of their personalities that didn’t translate well to first impressions.

I still had hope I could get Thad to come home with me. Surely if we couldn’t have a meeting of the minds, we could have a meeting of the bodies.

Unhappily, I foreshadowed to Thad back at my apartment, with me in and out of the bathroom all night long to smoke. I couldn’t decide which fate was worse–Thad knowing I was a smoker, or Thad thinking I had chronic diarrhea.

“You smell horrid.” Thad said, handing me a drink as I approached him, my hands still wet from the furious cigarette stink disinfecting they’d just received in the bathroom sink.

“Listen Thad, your not going to believe this but….in the bathroom…”

I looked in his eyes, searching, looking for something, anything.

“In the bathroom…..I……… met an undercover cop and she said this place is about to be busted!” I paused for dramatic effect, then grabbed my jacket and phone from the bar, hoping Thad would follow suit.

Instead he began twirling his drink stirrer, watching it as it twisted.

“And that affects us because…”

“Thad, they’re going to take the whole place down! We don’t want to be caught up in that! Come on, We got to go! This place is crawling with cops!”

I grabbed at his sleeve, catching the peeved bartender’s eye from across the room in the process.

“I’m not going anywhere. I have nothing to fucking hide. I’m an American fucking citizen. I’ll just sit here and watch and make sure they do the job right. It will be like a live action episode of Cops.” He was defiant.

“Thad you’ve got to listen to me…we have got to go……”

“What do you have to hide Fi-fi?” He eyed me mischievously. “What, are you holdin’? You holdin’ Fi-Fi? You holdin’?” He said ‘holdin’ the way one would when making fun of drug lingo. “I’m so done with all the B.S, Fi-Fi. Done. D-O-N-E.” He slurred his words. “All of it. Be honest with me, you holdin’?”

I wanted a cigarette again. My want for Thad stroked my want for nicotine. It was a vicious circle since one canceled the other out.

The bartender moved into my field of vision, glaring in my direction. My time was up.

“That’s one of them, Thad. Shes giving me the secret signal. I gotta go. The bust is going to happen any minute.”

It was all so futile and stupid. ” And, yeah, Thad, I am. I am holdin’.”

I fingered the pack of cigarettes in my pocket. They were contraband as far as he was concerned.

“You know, I could tell the moment I met you.” He touched my hand gently than quickly pounded it with his fist. “Now make fucking tracks or I’ll turn you in myself.”

I knew as I turned to leave, he was probably not serious about the second part. Thaddeus Robbery was putting on a show just as much as I was pretending I wasn’t a smoker or that I had drugs in my pocket. Just like Glenn Danzig with the gym or Henry Rollins with the IFC, Thad’s attitude was just a post punk defense mechanism.

But then, I remembered, I did have drugs in my pocket.

As I walked to the subway station, tobacco filled cigarette in one hand and marijuana filled cigarette in the other, I tried to make sense of what had just happened. In effect, I’d chosen cigarettes over Thad. Maybe not directly, but I’d known his extreme feelings about the habit and taken the risk anyway. What else could I justify doing in the name of a nicotine refuel? What other dreams where I willing to defer? Laws were I willing to break? I’d thought I’d loved Thad. Or at least the idea of being in his zine. But I now understood–I actually loved cigarettes more.

You think your guy’s hot? Well mine’s smokin’.