One: An End And A Beginning

Here I am underground in an ankle-deep stew of sewage and dead, or mostly, dead rats. The heavy smell of mildew and stagnant runoff hangs thick in the air. Might as well be breathing through a bar straw lined with black mold. My limbs burn, screaming for the oxygen spent within the last half hour. Every pulse point thumps heavily across my body. The rhythm feeling grossly mistimed even for the middle age mush I’ve evolved into.

 Squeak! Squeak! Gurgle.

 Cat sized rats sputtering their quadrupedal death rattles echo from every direction. The rounded sewer tunnel provides a disturbing resonance to act. A chill shimmies up my spine as I flinch at the violent tugging on my grime soaked pant leg. Pin sharp claws tear through the fabric. The phone books currently duct tapped to my shins as body armor have swollen with water, making it hard to maneuver under the weight. They also do little to shield the back of my legs as my little attacker is now demonstrating by scratching my pale untoned calf.

 Shaking my leg with what little strength left at my disposal, I manage to punt the soggy rodent into the inky darkness of the tunnel. Kicking up more water than expected, an unhealthy gulp of the metallic flavored liquid splashes into my mouth, triggering a gag reflex. The wet thud of vermin slamming against brick promptly follows, furthering along the heave building in my guts. At least he won’t bother me again. Unlike his hundreds of cousins forking a lazy river past my ankles. I wonder how many vaccines I’ll need by the end of this? 

 "Shit! Which way did I come in?"

 I find talking out loud pretending a studio audience is watching my every move has become more of a habit since living alone these past few months. Weird? Yes. Good for staving off loneliness? Kinda. Helpful when realizing you don’t know which sewer tunnel leads the way out? Nope, but I’ll continue to delude myself all the same.

 The water smelled slightly better than expected. The rain an hour ago helped along the excrement-laden runoff normally found down here, though the occasional terd emerges. Furry bodies continue to float past, eerily caressing my legs. Normally, I would be nervous wreck but this is not the time for a panic attack, not after what I’ve been through. I’ll shut my eyes tight, take three deep moldy breaths and open them. I see nothing. Did I mention the batteries in my headlamp are from a television remote on my coffee table?  Smacking my palm against the flashlight frantically it flickers dimly back to life.

 I think it was the left tunnel. Yeah, the left tunnel. I’m almost sure it was the left one. I think.

 You’re probably wondering what in the fuck is going on right now and you have every right to that query. You’re thinking, ‘What is this mad man doing in a slimy sewer wading through a broth of rat stock with phone books taped to his legs? Why is this asshole telling me about it? Where is this all going?’ Now, take a moment and imagine yourself as the aforementioned studio audience. It’ll make the absurdity I’m spewing a bit easier to stomach. I mean, for all I know you could be in my head pretending to care-- or not care. Either way, let’s go back about three weeks. Back to my crap-hole apartment where my nights were spent thusly;

 Click.

 A show about food.

 Click.

 A reality show with a gaggle of D-list celebrities living in a mansion that they themselves could in no way afford; even after the paycheck from the show is cashed.

 Click.

 A show about the history of food.

 Click.

 A show where the dance prowess of other D-List celebrities is voted on by lazy ’do nothing’ home viewers who’d rather watch other, more famous, people do what they themselves wish they could.

 Click.

 The fifth spin-off of a popular crime drama about homicide detectives investigating murders so horrific they could only have been ripped from today’s headlines. The title; random letters and the name of a major city. C.S.I.:L.M.N.O.P.: Miami or some such shit.

 Click.

 A cooking competition where chefs are forced to make impossibly complicated meals in impossibly short time frames, in no way allowing them to truly display any actual culinary talent.

 Why did I pay for cable? Not that it mattered; service would be cut off at any moment anyway. Cable companies tend to do this when customers flake on payments. Shamefully, I would miss the five cooking channels out of habit. This was my life for six months. Look for work, come home, forget to eat, watch inane shit on television, jack off to Internet porn-- which vamoosed with the cable-- and, more than likely, pass out on the foldout couch in the living/bedroom. Well, last I remember it was a foldout. My daily routine made it so I hadn’t used the bed since moving in; like a normal human being. But I was not a normal human being. Not anymore. I’d become the strange hybrid of a man or rather the quivering mass of what used to be one. We’re often referred to as ‘late-thirties divorced male with child.’ Nothing lures the ladies like an out of shape, balding divorcee dad living in a one-room apartment with no cable. So now you know the truth; my couch and bed are one and the same. But, hey, at least I don’t sleep on a futon like some broke college kid.

 Keeping a sarcastically upbeat attitude once your prescription to FILL IN THE BLANK runs out is no easy task. I hadn’t had health insurance in two months and rationing anxiety meds during lean times was tough and getting tougher. Though, on the plus side, I’d found a job and the new insurance would be active in two weeks. My deductible was astronomical but not half as bad as paying completely out of pocket. Gotta love the American health care system, drug dealers who charge three-hundred percent markups on necessities that cost cents to manufacture.

 It was mid-August during one of the hottest summers on record. I swear they said last year was the worst. Often, I believe weather people just say that in order to give the folks something to complain about. A kind of sick joke only they are in on. Either way, my balls were stuck to my thigh from the obscene amount of condensation built up in my boxers. God, I missed air conditioning.

 It was half past two in the morning and even the droning infomercials on TV wouldn’t shut my brain off. Not surprising. Being out of work long as I’d been, unfettered nights tended to keep me up well past when normal people power down. While the nine to fivers recharged the bare minimum needed to drag themselves through a day identical to the one before, I was nocturnal. While office drones stressed about the cover sheet on a report their boss might merely glance at for a second only to dismiss, I watched pitchmen sell snake oil in the guise of cheap gadgetry guaranteed to improve your life for just three easy payment of $19.95, plus shipping and handling. Sleep quickly becomes secondary to a person with no schedule. Whenever my body decided to crash, it did only to wake up three or four times when a sound from the TV or a random catastrophic thought would stir in my head. Hence, the pullout couch stayed a couch.

 Live this way long enough and you understand why folks eventually get their shit together. A person needs purpose; a reason to go on. Stability. And if you’re lucky, stability comes with a job you love to make money in order to be happy. My new job was far from that, though having normal hours again would be a plus. The hardest part would be shaking off the staycation jet lag long enough to get some sleep.

 Staycation; a nice way of saying, ‘can’t afford a real trip.’ We love to dress up mundane acts with catchy, hybrid jargon. How Bromantic.

 The Ex once accused me of being the most negative person she’d ever met. Which was ironic, given she spent more of her time judging her so-called friends on social media than she ever did enjoying them in actual social situations. Even worse, a large percentage of these friends were people she’d never actually encountered in real life. Followers they’re called.

 Aren’t we all?

 But towards the end of our relationship, it was my negativity which attributed to the inevitable divorce. The couple’s therapist and I had been working on it. Our sessions were as such, “Was I complaining again? I’ll be more aware of those emotional outbursts from now on. Yes, I have been doing the breathing exercises we discussed, Dr. Shit-For-Brains.”  That was my cute little nickname for him, not that I ever said it to his smug face.

The only ray of sunshine in my life; my daughter Bea, a nine year old with an unimaginable grasp for reading people’s bullshit. She gets that from her old man. Not sure how proud I am of jading a child at such an early age, but at least she’s honest. For example, as of late she became to be an agnostic. A choice made after attending St. Gertrude of Nivelles School for Girls. Evidently, the sisters had trouble with Bea’s incessant questioning of the Good Book. For instance, she asked how Adam and Eve only having two sons, one of whom killed the other, could populate an entire planet. Let that one sink in for a moment. Not as bad as the first time she attended Sunday Mass at the age of six and bellowed to the nearly silent congregation, "Why is no one trying to get that skinny guy down from the lower case T?" Her words exactly.

I asked her during one of our scheduled visitations why she decided to be an agnostic and not an atheist if she didn’t believe in God. 

"I don’t not believe in God. My science teacher told us in order to prove a theory you have to first come up with a hypothesis. So I did. Nobody knows if God is real, for sure. And nobody knows if He’s not. So, I have to keep gathering evidence to prove it either way. Daddy, can I be a scientist when I grow up?"

I enthusiastically answered, "Yes."

Thankfully, Bea had developed a compassion for others Mother Theresa would be shamed by. I don’t know where she picked up such behavior. She certainly didn’t get it from her parents that’s for damn sure. She volunteers for park clean up, she helps feed the homeless and collects for food pantries, even if nobody wants the crap people donated in the name of cleaning out their cupboards.

There’s that negativity again.

And twice a month Bea helps out at the local pet adoption place. She gets straight A’s and reads at an eighth grade level. I literally have the perfect child and before anyone thinks this is me bragging, let it be known, I didn’t have to try to have a good kid, she did it herself.

Between my fits of obsessive compulsive anxiety coupled with bouts of depression and the Ex’s need to create drama when the world took a break from revolving around her, Bea never took it on. Most kids would act out; become a mirror of their environment. Not my daughter. She analyzed the situation with her immature parents and chose to become to polar opposite. Which gave my Ex and I more time to indulge in our own selfish issues without the burden of warping her.

Parents of the year.

Seems to me, when I’m at my lowest and the world is about to swallow up what little self worth I’ve allowed to myself keep, that sweet, opinionated, amazing little wise-ass keeps me-- If not for Bea-- I know somewhere there’s got to be a quote by an enlightened mind explaining what she truly means to my life. And when I say life, I speak of the mortal coil I’ve come semi-close to unraveling on one or two occasions. She’s my purpose for being on this Earth. She is factually the reason my brain hasn’t become a Jackson Pollock on the walls of my shitty apartment. And just in case you’re wondering, that’s not a euphemism. But I wouldn’t give the Ex the satisfaction, even if she’s right about me being poor and never following through on anything. Which really means, I can’t afford a gun and if I could would never get around to pulling the trigger anyway. I guess it’s Bea and me being a slacker which has saved my life thus far.

I’m sorry, we may have gone too far down the rabbit hole of inner psychosis a tad early. Ranting always has a way of dragging out the gloomier parts of memory lane for me. When my insurance kicks in maybe I can go to that better shrink I’ve been meaning to see. ’Till then, I’ll try to rein it in. Hell, you don’t even know my name yet. How rude--  

Next Chapter: Four: You Never Forget Your First Time (excerpt)