by Dylan Sanders-Self
It’s Monday, my day off. I try to not think about scratching the parts of myself infected with poison oak. It’s difficult. This was the last thing I needed.
I text my mom that “I don’t want to live anymore.” I know. Not very “adult” of me. I wanted to feel heard. I’m really sad. She’s just as sad, if not more sad than I am though.
She calls me,
to tell me,
that she’s informed the cops that they should probably do a
5150 on me.
I ask her if that was really necessary?
I place one of the nine 100mg THC capsules I have in my open palm and slap it into my mouth. I don’t have any Benadryl. I don’t want to feel my poison oak. I don’t want to feel my feelings, but it’s too early to start drinking. I lightly trace my finger over a pus bubbling, mustard yellow, blister on my left arm; beckoning me to scratch it. The yellow pus blister is soft, gooey, like a recently melted marshmallow.
Stiff knuckles rap at my white door that doesn’t lock. I open it and in a very calm tone, I ask the police men, if they wouldn’t mind letting me walk down the block before they hand cuff me. To my surprise they agree. They then tell me that; even though I sound fine, my communication with my mother has rung a bell that can’t be un-rung.
I saunter down the block. The air is cold. Even in the sunlight. I form goose bumps between my blisters. The cop gets his hand cuffs out and tells me to put my hands behind my back. Then asks me, “what’s wrong with your skin?”
I stare at a Magnolia blossom. Becoming a flower must be painful. All that stretching, morphing, for what? I tell him, “It’s poison oak.”
The larger of the two cops delicately holds my right elbow with his left thumb and index finger trying to avoid my blisters filled with itchy oil. He gently applies pressure on my head easing me down into the back of the SUV. He fastens my seat belt for me.
In the SUV the cop talks to me about football, how lame omicron is, and how he had once burned something that had poison oak on it and it got into his lungs. Bon Jovi’s Livin’ On A Prayer plays in the background. I respond to him, restrained, that, that sounds like the worst thing ever. He tells me it was and that he thinks I’m going to be fine.
The smaller of the two cops, the one that put me in handcuffs, takes me through the back of one of the most highly equipped hospitals in the world. I’m dressed in a black t-shirt with a white shark on it, black Levi’s jeans, black Nike socks, and black Puma shoes. A woman in a business suit asks me my name and when my birthday is.
I get a covid test. They take my blood, my vitals, my clothes, my wallet, my phone, my cash and store me in a room where they tell me I must wait for a psychologist to become available to review me. The security guard on staff stares into his phone. I ask for itch relief, cortisone. They tell me to be patient.
I sit on a cold, spongy, blue hospital bed in a flimsy grey gown. I try not to tear into my arm. Even though it feels like it’s burning from the inside out. Somehow scratching it will soothe me? My green eyes fix on the white wall to my right. Centered above a porcelain sink, a red biohazard bin, and a silver paper towel dispenser; is a water color painting of star gazer lillies.
Staring at the still life I feel the stone starting to set in. My mind wanders from my poison oak, to why am I in this hold? Then, in that innocuous moment of time, it dawns on me that the only constant, beyond change, in my current chaotic life, are the regulars of the restaurant.
The ones that have seen me every day; except Monday, for decades. The small handful of people that can tell how I am based on how I take their order. I love them, hate them, get fed up with their personas and their idiosyncratic behaviors. Yet, in the liminal state that I find myself in currently. I wonder what I would do without them? Without the restaurant? Now that I’ve lost a constant in my own life. A constant I thought would never cease. At least, not until I was more of an adult.
Some days I can’t deal with Ron, the homeless guy. He cycles in and out of rehab programs and always shows up to the restaurant dressed in hilarious haphazard thrift store get ups. He has a “tab.”
Most recently, he’s been wearing a neon green Godzilla hat. Smudges of dark dirt from where he’s passed out in the park the night before scatter across his slightly bearded pale face. His silver spiked belt tries as hard as it can to hold up his skinny jeans, but it fails, and can only suspend his pants up below his waist line. Which, expose his skiing lobster boxers to all the gazing eyes of the clientele.
To top it off, adorning his small chest, a tight red T-shirt hugs his beer gut and in white capital letters one can read, “READING IS SEXY!” between his breasts.
I can’t stay mad at Ron though, because he’s homeless, has no money, and always tips two dollars on his “tab.” No matter what. It’s the only principle I’ve never seen him break.
Most of the time Paul is pleasant. He has medium length white hair and always eats for free. He rides the bus for fun. I swear I’ve caught sight of a grape buried within the avalanche of his beard. He’s the most lovable and gentle mental case you’ve ever met. Yet, his efforts in terms of maintaining his cleanliness often fall short. He smells bad, like socks you’ve worn for way too long. He pissed himself once at the bar and that was the only time we have ever had to ask him to leave. Ever.
I love Lee. Even if I don’t really know him. Who I think he is seems rad. He only has one leg. Ahab. He’s the first customer at the restaurant every day. Even on weekends. His slow pivoted gait carries him across the time worn creaky hard wood floor of the restaurant to B-5. Which, I’ve come to call Lee five. He’s stoic. Often never speaks a word to anyone. All I know about him, beside the leg thing, is his order. A cup of cereal in a bowl, raisins, nuts, and a kids size orange juice in a small glass. $7.70. I’ve never had the balls to ask him how he lost his leg.
When we got the news I tried to quit. The owners, my best friend’s parents and him, wouldn’t let me. They told me that even at the capacity I was at, I was better than essentially everyone else.
They also thought it might be good for me to interact with the bodies full of empty stomachs. The guests that fill the wait list. Them. Sir, miss, ma’am. Bro with the hat, dude with the beard, lady with the glasses. Seemingly happy families, clearly unhappy families. Foil guy, Andres, the to-go order for “Batman.” Techies, lawyers, police men, college kids, Tinder dates, break ups, high school drop outs. Matt Damon, Molly Shannon, Tom Waits.
The constant stream of people I’d only see for a brief and intimate period of time before never seeing them again. Ever. Forever.
I’d occupied what felt like every state of emotional existence in the restaurant, in front of these people, these tables full of strangers, friends, enemies, and celebrities. Except for utter depression. I’d never been this depressed before. It’s so intense. So gnarly, as I would say.
What I really meant to text my mom was that, existing in my current reality is so painful for me, that the idea of existing in any other reality, seems pretty appealing.
Even though I knew the customers didn’t care about my emotional state, it felt like they were in on what the owners knew. That me working, even if it didn’t feel like it was working; was good for me.
That asking them what type of meat they’d like; ham, bacon, or sausage? Created a micro aspect of compassion for someone. Took the focus off of my suffering. If only for a few seconds.
The only time a customer has ever actually been impacted by my emotional state was recently. I was hosting and this lady asked me how long I thought it would be until she could sit down at a table? I told her that the longer I spent talking to her about it, the less time I’d have to get her seated. Which, I thought was honest and vulnerable. She took it as offensive. So did her husband.
He got in my face and asked me, what is wrong with you? I didn’t want to get into telling him what was wrong with me, why I didn’t feel like myself, why I’d been temporarily inconsiderate of his wife. Normally, I’m full of empathy. Normally, I’m a good host. Yet, under these circumstances, with my prefrontal cortex being inaccessible due to the activation of my amygdala. I’m the worst host in the world.
So, rather than apologize, or show compassion for this person who I’d just verbally offended, I ask the guy if he wants to “fight me?” He says, “maybe I do?” to which I say, “whatever dude, here’s your table, sir.” I finish cleaning the two top I’d promised for Laurie, and seat the pissed off husband and in my opinion, overly sensitive wife. Then Laurie asks me what happened to her table?
As unprofessional, juvenile, and immature as it was, within that inappropriateness, I felt myself not feel my pain. To feel that I could feel something other than my suffering was immense.
However, to know that, by not acting like an adult, a responsible well-adjusted person who can deal with the world, I’d discovered that sometimes being an adult meant not being an adult.
Something that, until now, I’d never thought to think about. I’d always thought, assumed, that becoming an adult followed a linear path.
The best part about the restaurant, is that it’s categorized as a restaurant. Even though it’s so much more than a restaurant and also nothing like a restaurant. It helps keep homeless people alive. It feeds gentle mental cases for free. It waits on one legged men without speaking to them, every day, except Monday. It unintentionally enables drug addicts. It helps sober up alcoholics. It’s unlike any place you’ve ever been but exactly like all the other places you’ve ever been.
It’s sort of like, ok, how would you describe the feeling of being hit by a sun beam? Whatever that feels like for you, it’s like that.
It wouldn’t let me quit.
The customers don’t know how to make the magic that is what the restaurant makes. They just marvel at it. Devour it. It’s a source of sustenance. A way to continue prolonging their survival.
My depression in front of Ron, Paul, Lee. Never stopped them from eating. The lady with the hat, dude with the beard, bro with the sunglasses. The lawyers, college kids, Tinder dates. They kept eating. They knew it was ok. Necessary. Even if I didn’t. Even the dude who I asked to fight me knew it was ok. Even if I’m not.
The weirdest part about time, as I’m experiencing it in this hold, is that the span of time, or how it’s calculated, can feel different. Longer. Shorter.
For instance, the actual amount of time that elapsed within that innocuous moment, when I realized the only constant for me were the regulars of the restaurant, and all the thoughts, feelings, and memories accompanied with that epiphany, took all of maybe, like, sixty seconds? Even though it felt like hours.
Where as the six hours I spent waiting for the white coated psychologist with a stethoscope hung round his neck like an untied tie, in which I wasn’t really thinking anything. Or wasn’t really feeling anything, other than the pulsating throb of my poison oak’d skin, felt like it only lasted maybe like an hour?
When the psychologist looked at me and asked me if I had a plan, or any weapons in the house? I replied “no!” He let me go. He told me to work on my communication with my mom. I asked for a cortisone shot. He gave me a grey sweatshirt.
I walked back to my residence. The grey sweat shirt providing a barrier between hand and blistered skin. My mind continued to teeth on suffering and growth.
I open my unlocked door. The lingering smell of burnt sage twists up my nostrils. I crack a beer like bubble wrap with my right index finger. I scramble toward my shiny silver computer. Within the empty space of the Google search bar, I type “what grows through suffering?”
I go deep into the oooooh’s of the Google results. I’m looking for something other than mental health articles. I’m looking for something within nature.
I knew snakes, crabs, and lobsters molted but that didn’t seem to hurt them. I knew muscles had to be stressed in order to grow. If anything your brain undergoes the feeling of the muscle being stressed.
Then I remembered this thing my dad, Nigel, used to do with his weed plants; right before he was about to harvest them. His slender frame encased in creamy white skin baking in the autumn sun, would enlist the help of his orange Makita drill. He’d then drive a 1/8th gold bit right through the green stem of the plant. I asked him why? Why did he do that? Why would he harm that plant on purpose? What was the point?
His low voice was enthusiastic. He communicated to me that what he was doing was called “splitting.” He said, he thought that it might be a superstition? He wasn’t sure. Wasn’t sure what to call it. Whatever it was.
He related it to the story about trapping a scorpion in a ring of fire and watching it commit suicide rather than burn alive. I’d never known about that, until then.
With his thick British accent that I couldn’t hear, and will never hear again, ever, forever. He told me that as the plant died, or responded to the trauma he’d just caused it, theoretically, as it suffered, as it started to come to grips with the harsh reality that it was just another plant lost to the cosmic slaughter, what it did in order to combat its inevitable death, its final futile living action, involved sending what was left of itself, its life force, out toward the buds it had already created in order to protect what it’d been growing throughout its entire existence.
He said, the only tangible thing he’d noticed, in terms of splitting the plant, was that he’d found more of these things called trichomes on the flowers of a plant that he’d split vs. plants that he hadn’t split. Trichomes look like those small hairs that form at the tip of your tragus.
Beyond that small observation, what mattered more, he declared, was that he believed, and essentially, that was all that mattered. He believed in the process.
My father. Who won’t see me have children. Who never got to be as grand of a father as we all knew he was capable of. Who would never again get to tell me to get back on defense, or do more push ups, or keep my chin up, or pipe down, or pull my socks up, or tell me not to cry, or tell me to drink up, or tell me to “grow some balls.”
With amber eyes and Fosters on his breath, he reiterated that doing what he’d done, causing the weed to suffer actually helped it. Helped it produce more potent flowers. Flowers that wouldn’t have bloomed as bountifully without having to respond to immense pain first.
I believe it.
About the Author
Dylan Sander-Self received his M.F.A from S.F.S.U. His work has appeared in Spectrum, dailydrunkmag.com, and the Ale House Narratives. He lives, works, and writes in Santa Cruz, California.