A Red Eye In The Dark

I need to tell you the story of how I got the cigarette burn mole on my lower back. Before I lost my virginity, everyone in my family called it a tramp stamp. For every embalming fluid highball they shared, they’d giggle and clap like blind men trying to echolocate every time I lifted up my shirt. My Mom would quickly suck in air through her teeth, perhaps wincing at the reminder of our family’s longstanding feud with melanoma. The days before every birthday brought another scar for them and another fitful, if still worried conversation around the dinner table, so, sooner or later, I’d be lifting up my shirt and telling them the story again. He followed the whims of an unconscious drunk literally supported by the walls of a bar in Humboldt. For the sake of adventure, he says, in a city famous for nothing but subpar pot! I sit there saying nothing, nodding my head and laughing only when they do. I cannot tell them of the adventure I truly had.

It was in those first few days after I graduated high school. I was a fake ID in one of those cheap dive bars – one of those with the chair-colored chairs and floor-colored floors. Stepping out onto the “Bar-set Strip” meant stepping into a cloud of organic flax seed dresses and, that time, a seemingly unconscious, leather-skinned man stretched out against the side of the building. I moved nearer to size him up better. He had nothing visible on him you might expect. No alcohol. No drugs, but there was a lit cigarette lolling on his nicotine-stained lips, a red eye in the dark illuminating eyelids a more bruised shade of dark. There was something that drew me to the man that didn’t seem to care, so I went for the thing in his mouth. I remember I couldn’t see his face, but he stirred. With a hand that zipped around like a fly, he took the object out of his mouth and tapped it, making short, red slashes against shoe soles held together with what looked like caulking. He contemplated the leaves on the ground, and then held out a hand for me to pull him up. I did. He smiled at me, proffering a bullet flask. I took the flask, snapped the lid, and tipped it. Bourbon, if I remember right. It stung deep and sour. I tipped it again, up and over the region of my spine.

Then, we were eating “the devil’s own” chili, burning through our paper plates, watching clouds of pot smoke pop out from around the walls of the Bar-set Strip. He was speaking of art degrees, rhyme schemes in the Driver’s Ed manual, and how cashiers shouldn’t be attending motivational conferences held by tragically ex-mountaineers. For the most part I kept my eyes down. Maybe I was just in love with the floor, tiled like a worn chessboard.

At the end of the night, I was taking him to Carl’s Jr. to find the screens that told me how it was the best decision I’d made all day.  We sat on the red curb outside. That’s when things were clearer for me. I remember the dark shapes of the trees along the road as he was talking about the idea of luck, and how I didn’t create my own figurative bootstraps any more than he created the part of him that loved burgers more than classes. I had to take stock of where I was. I had strayed from my planned dive bar run. I had to get back to the apartment. Maybe it was that panic that helped me remember his speech about luck as he yanked up my shirt and thrust his lit cigarette into my lower back as I hugged him goodbye. He told me to think about it like a signature on a contract, to help me remember what he said. His body was distorted as he walked off. The red eye dangled behind him, staring at me as it swayed.

That night would hit me like an orgasm. If I thought about it too much, it’d go limp and go away. The sting of the bourbon, the stomach-boiling chili, the way the cigarette burn mole pales in light, the later impish giggling from my family.  All things that now exist at the edge of my senses. I can taste them, see them, feel them, but I dare not speak of any one of them with specific understanding.

Now, I lift my shirt again after Mom smiles behind embalming fluid highball that reddens her stretched lips, having finished a conversation about how she’s already had every adventure she will. I think it well that, at the same time, I am able to admit to them my story of how “the devil’s own chili” and I work together. I think it well that we may use the stomach-boiling adventure that exists at the edge of one’s senses to ultimately reveal how we all relate to each other and what’s around us, building a sense of belonging in whatever way we can.

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