That behind This
Superficially, I’m nobody. Well, I’m Jeffrey, and there are untold depths beneath, but most earthfolk seem content to merely skim the surface and judge from there. In terms of the constructed reality we all operate within, I’m a fat, unemployed loser. Right now, in fact, I’m sitting on the couch — well, lounging on the couch — in the basement of my mom’s house in Glen Burnie, Maryland on a Tuesday afternoon, feasting on a box of donut holes. I’m dropping them right in my mouth like grapes fed to the wealthy Romans.
You have no reason to trust me, but I’m asking you to trust me anyway. I’m going to tell you about an experience that took place exactly two months ago in this very basement. This experience scared the living shit out of me and nearly destroyed me, but now I’m beginning to think it might also set me free.
It was January 20, around 4 in the afternoon. I was lying on the basement couch under the ratty blue comforter I’d had since childhood, sipping a lukewarm can of Mountain Dew and snacking on a bag of chocolate-covered pretzels. Judge Judy was on TV, with a case about a stepfather suing his stepdaughter for crashing his car. The two of them were screaming at each other and Judge Judy was scowling down at them with her arms folded sternly.
I was suddenly overtaken by a swell of boredom, so I shut off the TV, swung my feet around, and sat upright in the center of the couch. The only source of illumination in the room was a weak rectangle of daylight seeping in through a tiny, curtained window in front of me. As I gazed around the room in this hazy glow, I felt a deep sense of futility. Every object down here was familiar to me, and every moment bled seamlessly into the next, with no delineation or distinction. I’d been living in a tiny, contained universe for years now, ruled by my insecurities and fears. Any gifts I had to offer the world were buried beneath hardened layers of doubt and monotony, and I had stopped believing anything meaningful would ever come out me.
A few weeks before this, I had gone to a free meditation class at the local YMCA, but I hadn’t tried to meditate on my own yet. I decided to attempt it right then. Why not? Empty time was yawning out in front of me.
I pulled a small pillow from the end of the couch and tossed it on the carpet in front of the TV. I plopped down on the pillow and tried to situate myself comfortably, my body facing the darkest corner of room. I crossed my legs and rested my open palms on my knees, just as I’d been taught to do. I shut my eyelids halfway so that only a blurry segment of tan carpet entered my field of vision. I then began to slow my breath, focusing on each inhalation and exhalation.
After 20 seconds or so, my mind started to wander. Was I doing it right? What was on TV tonight? What was I going to have for dinner? Which book was next in that fantasy series? Why hadn’t that last job called me back after the interview? Why had Danielle just cut me off like that without a reason? I scolded myself for losing focus, and reoriented myself on the in/out breath. For about a minute, I got into a reasonable flow, but I soon began to notice a slight rustling sound coming from the corner of the room in front of me. I opened my eyes and strained to see into the dimness, but all seemed motionless and quiet. I closed my eyes and resumed my deliberate breathing, but I soon noticed the rustling sound again. I opened my eyes, and this time I thought I could see the end of an empty blue pillowcase flapping slightly, as if a light breeze had kicked up from the far edge of the room. I felt no air movement though, and there was nowhere for wind to enter down here in any case.
Suddenly a surge of warm energy shot through me, darting from the bottom of my spine up into my forehead, and then back down into the ground. The pillowcase in the corner began to flap more noticeably, and soon one end of it began to rise off the floor very slowly, as if it was being pulled up by an invisible hand. Was I hallucinating? I rubbed my eyes to be sure, but there was no doubt it was actually happening.
At this moment, I heard a single word uttered in a soft yet distinct whisper: “Finally.” This whisper didn’t come from any specific area of the room — it somehow seemed to come from everywhere at once. The pillowcase was now standing up on end, with the mysterious wind still causing it to billow gently. As I watched, the pillowcase silently folded in on itself over and over, eventually morphing into what appeared to be an undulating arm and hand. The “fingers” emerging from the hand were long and flowing like tentacles. I was now legitimately terrified.
“The first stage,” the whispering voice hissed coldly. “The room is indwelled.”
The voice sounded metallic and wholly inhuman.
“Who are you?” I asked softly, my body beginning to tremble.
“That cannot be known,” the voice responded impassively. “I am a segment of that which has no name or form. Any motion you see is fleeting habitation.”
The fluttering, tentacled hand began to float across the carpet toward me. Every part of me wanted to jump up and escape, but I was immobilized.
“Close your eyes,” the voice whispered in a tone that chilled me to the core. “Close your eyes and breathe deeply again.”
The voice physically compelled my body to obey, and so my eyelids were forced shut. I then felt something soft, cold, and damp attach itself to the center of my forehead, which triggered the start of the absurdly grandiose, soul-destroying vision I will now attempt to describe for you.
I was standing alone on an impossibly tall mountain. Above my head was the clear evening sky, with a red sun setting in the distance directly in front of me. Below me on all sides, surrounding the mountain, was a swirling mass of clouds interspersed with what appeared to be uncountable hordes of ghosts or souls. This mass spread out as far as I could see in every direction, and it was charged with an intense, explosive power. As I stood observing, my body began to vibrate, and I was soon brought to my knees by the sheer force of the energy mass, which was permeated with a deep, mournful moaning sound. I began to comprehend that I was witnessing the collective suffering of humanity throughout time. My own personal suffering then arose out of the mass, and all the fear and weakness and humiliation in my life played out before me in a brutal, inescapable cycle of images and sensations. Eventually, this suffering assumed the form of a demonic entity that congealed around me, constricting my chest, throat, and mouth until I began to suffocate.
After what felt like hours and numerous bodily deaths, this entity finally detached from me and joined with the rest of the mass, the whole of which began to condense itself into a thin stream that stretched from one end of the horizon to the other, bisecting the mountain just beneath me. Once settled into its “flow,” the stream began to rise upward until it passed directly through my chest, impaling me with its colossal, incapacitating energy. I was in a state of pure panic, but I somehow understood that my task was to receive, transmute, and release this energy so the pain cycle of the world could finally end and humanity could move to its next stage, whatever that might be. As excruciating and overwhelming as all of this was, it felt inevitable and ultimately good. It was always bound to occur. It was the human purpose — death and resurrection.
Then an abrupt shift took place. My skin began to throb and bubble as if it was on fire, and as I screamed in agony, the flesh was torn from my body in long, ragged strips. The exposed nerves, tendons, and muscles underneath were then stretched taut and my stomach was sliced open, my uncoiled guts spilling out on the ground.
At this point, my consciousness completely detached from what was left of my body, and I saw that all of human existence was a futile game of torment and destruction. My existence in particular was the most evil and destructive element of all. Somehow I had opened up a sort of portal that would now proceed to pull the earth and all its inhabitants into a permanent vortex of derangement and pain. This vortex swirled everywhere, consuming everything, and I witnessed all the people I had known — from my close relatives to the most random acquaintances — pulled into it and contorted beyond recognition. I heard their piercing screams and watched their eyes bug out in terror as they were ravaged and devoured.
There was not the slightest hope that this state of deranged misery would ever end. This was the new truth, or rather the old, core truth that we had never wanted to acknowledge. I struggled again and again to find some sort of ground, but there was nothing there. No trace of support. All the good that had ever arisen, all the love that had ever been expressed, was now erased, as if it had never been. All meaning and purpose was now transformed into malevolent disorder. And behind it all was THAT — a vast, indifferent consciousness that looked down on this pathetic display without an ounce of concern. When I realized the presence of THAT, I begged it to put an end to everything. I begged for annihilation. It refused. Why would it even bother? This was one experiment among billions, and this one had just happened to end in this particular manner.
“Please end it all,” I pleaded over and over. “Or at least end me. Kill me, I’m begging you.”
There was no response, and I knew it was pointless anyway. Even if whatever was left of me was “killed,” I would still end up right back here, in this permanent hell. What terrified me most at this stage was my suspicion that THAT was God, or at least God’s emissary.
I have no idea how long this torture lasted — inside the reality of the vision, it felt like hours, days, months. I was both part of the collective derangement and the cause of it, which doubled the anguish. What had I done to deserve this? What had humanity done? THAT had no interest in explaining the what or the why. It had no interest in explaining anything. It declined to justify itself in any way. Its cold indifference was the base truth of the universe.
I can’t pinpoint the moment I came back into my body, in the basement. Looking back, it was gradual. I began to see and feel my arms, my legs, my fingers, my toes. I pulled my legs into my body and hugged them close. I gulped down deep breaths and shuddered uncontrollably.
I sensed the being from before still in the room, observing me, but I no longer feared it. It wasn’t here to harm me physically. It had come to initiate the vision, and soon it would leave. My body collapsed over onto its side in fetal position. I was not a functional human in that moment. I was simply a body, devoid of thought or impulse. A useless organic blob.
That night I couldn’t eat or even move — I simply slept right there on the basement floor. I slept for 16 straight hours without waking, and without any dreams. My mom was at her boyfriend’s house for the night, so there was no one to check on me.
I woke up at 9 the next morning, feeling utterly alone and almost suicidal. I was a mass of flesh and bone without a purpose. I dragged myself up the basement stairs to the kitchen, where I forced myself to drink a stale cup of coffee and eat a bowl of Golden Grahams. Our old grey cat settled on the kitchen table in front of me, staring at me unblinkingly with his wide green eyes.
“Charlie,” I muttered at him. “How do I look? Fucking destroyed, right?”
He didn’t move a muscle.
“I’m done,” I said, pushing my cereal bowl toward him.
He inched forward, bent his head down, and started lapping up the milk. I snickered softly at this for some reason, and then stood up and shuffled off toward the front door to see what the day was like outside. It was grey and cold, with a soft drizzle speckling the sidewalks and street. Two doors down, our neighbor Pat was pulling a large cardboard box out of his car trunk. He noticed me and nodded, and I waved weakly back, my wrist flopping like a wilted flower.
There was nothing out there for me at that moment. The little box houses and all their inhabitants were perfectly meaningless, destined for obliteration. I swung the door shut and made my way back to the kitchen, where Charlie was cleaning the final remnants of milk from the bowl.
After sitting on the basement couch most of the day literally staring at the carpet and trying to erase my mind, I heard my mom’s voice at the top of the stairs.
“I’m back, Jeffrey,” she yelled cheerfully. “Have you done anything today?”
By the look of the light bleeding in through the little window, I figured it was around 3 PM.
“Nope,” I said as loudly as I could.
“What’d you say?” she asked.
“I said I did nothing,” I repeated at the same volume.
“Ah, OK. I’m going to fix some lasagna tonight, and I’d surely enjoy the pleasure of your company.”
She’d obviously had a good time at Donny’s house.
“Why aren’t you eating?” she asked at dinner, with a twinge of concern.
I’d eaten three bites and was now making tracks in the ricotta cheese with my fork.
“It’s not worth it,” I answered, pathetically. “I mean, the lasagna’s good, but it’s not worth it.”
“What’s not worth it?” she asked, her eyes narrowing.
Her greying hair was gathered up in a bun, which pulled the skin of her temples taut.
“I had an interesting experience last night,” I replied. “A kind of dream, I guess.”
“OK…” she said, waiting for more.
“Suffice it to say, it was not a pleasant dream. Not pleasant at all.”
“What was it about?”
“I’m not gonna get into it. I need to go back to sleep. Do you still have those sleeping pills?”
“Yes, but wait a second. Sit here with me for a few minutes and talk.”
“There’s no point.”
“Yes there is,” she insisted, leaning forward over her nearly empty plate. “You seem upset. I want to help.”
“I’m fine,” I answered, forcing a smile. “I just think life is ridiculous sometimes. Don’t you ever think it’s ridiculous?”
She furrowed her brow and sat back in her chair with a sigh.
“I mean, life is just life,” she said, looking down at the table. “You do it. You go about your business. You try to do good things and not hurt anyone else if you can help it.”
“But in the end, what if it all means nothing?” I asked, my voice rising. “What if everything you did is just completely wiped out, like it never happened? Doesn’t that depress you?”
I stuck my fork in the center of the slab of lasagna, like a lightning rod. I was being quite melodramatic.
“Come on, Jeffrey,” my mom replied, grimacing. “If that’s how it is, there’s nothing we can do about it.”
“We have no fucking power,” I mumbled.
“Language!” she scolded.
With that, she stood up to bring her plate to the sink.
“Let’s watch a movie tonight to get your mind off all this,” she offered as she rinsed her fork. “A happy movie, maybe something with Chevy Chase.”
We ended up watching her DVD of Funny Farm in the living room. After barely laughing once, I passed out about 10 minutes from the end. There were nightmares throughout that night, and I woke up many times in a panic, convinced I was dying.
The next evening, my mom was back at Donny’s, and I was unable to extract myself from the basement bathroom. I was seated cross-legged on the small circular rug in front of the sink, swigging from a bottle of Jim Beam and sifting through the pros and cons of living. My mom’s nearly full bottle of Ambien was resting on the floor in front of me, enticing me. The single fluorescent bulb on the ceiling projected a cold, uniform glare over everything in the room.
At that moment, I felt no real reason to continue the absurdity. I was an abject failure in life — that was a given. Beyond that, though, if sheer indifference was the deepest layer of consciousness in the universe, what reason was there to play the shallow games? My only hesitation was that I might fall permanently into that hell realm I’d witnessed. Was that what came after? If so, we were all fucked.
As the minutes dragged on, I got steadily more drunk and confused. Was what I’d seen some kind of taunt? A threat? A sick joke? A challenge? A warning? What about the “creature” that triggered the vision? Was it an alien? A demon? Or something else entirely? I was being sucked deeper and deeper into this bleak, churning speculation, at the center of which was nothing.
That’s when a kind of miracle happened. All thoughts were wiped away, like rain off a windshield. My mind went completely blank, and every muscle in my body relaxed. This state only lasted a few seconds, but when I came to, I was sober. I set the bottle of whiskey to the side and stood up. I felt significantly clearer, as if a hidden purpose had been installed somewhere inside me. I opened the door of the bathroom and walked out into the basement. Everything looked the same, but yet not quite the same. The contours of things were subtly different. The couch, the TV, the old 1970s lamp, the carpet, the comforter, the bookcase, the mini-fridge. All remained themselves, but their visual limits were somehow more clearly defined.
I sat down on the couch and breathed in deeply. The familiar stale, musty smell was still very much present. Really, nothing had changed externally. I struggled to gauge what had changed inside me. I did indeed feel different, but I wouldn’t say I felt any more hopeful, exactly. It was simply a shift away from the previous and toward whatever was to come. I’d stay alive, though, for now. I was sure of that.
I spent the next few days adjusting to this new orientation. Very quickly, I noticed that my social filter had been almost entirely removed. There was no fear restraint on saying or doing whatever I wanted, and this was so pronounced that it alarmed me at first. The sensation wasn’t a happy one. It felt almost nihilistic, birthed out of that supreme level of meaninglessness and indifference THAT had revealed to me. Nonetheless, there was a kind of visceral pleasure in it, and I began to conduct absurd little social experiments out in public.
An example: Two nights after the bathroom episode, I found myself in the parking lot of a run-down bar called Mountain Tavern about a mile from my house. I’d been passing the place for years without ever thinking about going inside, but on this night, at 12:30 AM, I was suddenly compelled to enter.
The exterior of the place was dark, with a single light illuminating a faded green metal door. Inside there were about 20 people drinking, most sitting at tables and a few shooting pool. I perched myself on a stool at the bar and ordered a Jim Beam neat from the taciturn bartender. The room was eerily quiet, which made listening in on individual conversations unavoidable. After aurally scanning the premises, I focused on one particular interaction at a table about ten feet in front of me.
“Yeah, maybe that’s true,” slurred one of the pair, a stocky twenty-something with bleary eyes and a shaved head.
“It is true, dipshit,” replied his companion, a wiry middle-aged man with long black hair and a thick moustache.
“You don’t get to call me dipshit,” the shaved head retorted angrily.
“I call you whatever the fuck I want,” came the calm, ominous response. “You disrespect people I care about, you lose the right to my respect.”
There was an extended moment of awkward silence, during which the shaved head noticed I was watching. His eyes narrowed as he took a long sip of his beer. I refused to look away, so we just stared at each other.
“What are you looking at, friend?” he asked loudly.
I didn’t answer.
“I said what are you looking at, you fat fuck?” he asked again, more aggressively.
His companion had now swiveled toward me, his arms folded across his chest as he examined me impassively.
“Nothing,” I replied flatly, still staring back.
“Were you listening to our conversation?” the shaved head asked, leaning back in his seat.
“Yes,” I answered.
“It’s the closest one to me, and I can’t turn my ears off.”
“So you’re a smartass, huh, you fat piece of shit,” he spat back at me.
I stayed silent and kept on staring.
“Turn it off, Luke,” his companion said calmly but firmly.
“Fuck you, Sammy,” he responded, visibly agitated. “I’ll handle myself.”
“I said calm down,” Sammy replied, struggling to suppress his anger. “You’re a goddamn embarrassment.”
Luke suddenly jumped to his feet and hovered over Sammy.
“Come on then, motherfucker!” he screamed down at him, spit flying. “Get up!”
Sammy stood up, reeled back, and clocked Luke in the face as hard as he could, sending him sprawling out on the floor. He then squatted down over him and pummeled his face again and again until blood began to spurt up into the air. Three men from a nearby table then stepped in to pull Sammy off, and Luke was left in a puddle of spilled beer and blood, moaning softly and nearly unconscious.
After extricating himself from the arms of the fight disruptors, Sammy simply pulled on his denim jacket and stalked out of the bar without a word. There was not a lot of general concern for Luke. Everyone just shook their heads and resumed their drinking and conversing, leaving him prone on the floor. I walked over and knelt down next to him. His face was a pulpy mess, and he was groaning pathetically every few seconds.
“Are you OK?” I asked.
“Fuck you,” he winced back.
“I’m going to help you sit up,” I said.
I hooked my arms under his armpits and hoisted him up. He swayed unsteadily at first, but then managed to stay seated upright with his legs stretched out in front of him.
“He was my ride,” Luke said softly.
“I’ll give you a ride home,” I replied.
We sat silently for a few minutes while he collected himself.
“OK, I’m ready,” he finally said, and I helped him to his feet.
We made our way slowly to the car, my arm around his shoulder for support, and I drove him to his house, which turned out to be only about five blocks from mine. Not one word was spoken during the ride. He simply stared out the window with a doleful expression. When we arrived in his driveway, I opened the passenger door for him and helped him to his feet.
“I got it now, I’m fine,” he muttered.
Before disappearing into the house, he turned around and gave me a brief, feeble salute.
Another example: That Sunday, I offered to take my mom to church. I hadn’t been in at least three years, so she was quite tickled and immediately jumped at the opportunity. The church in question is conventionally Presbyterian, completely lacking in passion or mystery, and thus wholly predictable and comfortable.
The sermon on that particular Sunday dealt with the episode in the book of Acts where the Holy Spirit appears in the form of “tongues of fire.” This incident was the inspiration for the embodied intensity of Pentecostalism and speaking in tongues, but everything that morning remained calm and analytical, per usual. After the service, donuts and coffee were set out in the atrium, and we decided to stay and help ourselves. When my mom got caught up chatting with a group of women I vaguely recognized, I decided to approach the pastor and ask him a few questions.
“Do you remember me, Pastor Thomas?” I asked, holding out my powder sugar-speckled hand to him.
“Yes, of course I do,” he replied as he clasped my hand, his round eyes gleaming and his bearded mouth smiling broadly. “Hello Jeffrey. I’m so glad to see you back here.”
“How do you do it?” I asked unceremoniously.
“I’m not sure what you mean,” he answered.
“How do you keep your faith in a loving God who created an orderly universe?”
“It’s a legitimate question,” he responded gamely after a brief pause. “I would say it’s just something I know to be true, by experience.”
“Then is it still faith, if you know it’s true?” I continued.
“Yes, I think so. I know it in my heart, intuitively, but my intellect still has to have faith to believe it on a material level.”
“Interesting,” I replied. “What would you say if I told you I had a very clear vision that the universe is actually hellish and chaotic?”
“Yes, while meditating. There was a God-like intelligence there too, observing it all, but it was completely indifferent. It had no skin in the game.”
Pastor Thomas seemed a bit taken aback for a moment, his gaze fixing on a point behind me, but he quickly recovered.
“I’m guessing that might have been a simple nightmare?” he asked.
“No, I wasn’t asleep,” I said. “I wasn’t exactly fully awake either. I was in a sort of meditative trance.”
At that moment, my mom strolled over and gave the pastor a warm embrace, extracting him from my trap. He seemed relieved.
“What are you two discussing over here?” she asked cheerfully.
“Life,” I answered, smirking.
The days following the church visit were mostly solitary. I felt dislocated and restless, so I went for aimless, hours-long walks around the neighborhood, all bundled up in my coat, hat, and gloves. During these strolls, I found myself pausing often to examine seemingly minor details like a winding crack in the sidewalk, the ripple of a flag in the breeze, or a leaf resting on the surface of a puddle. I would stare for minutes on end, oblivious of anything else around me. It was as if something deep inside me wanted to verify external reality in some way. My surface mind had no choice in the matter.
This accumulation and verification of details began to provide a kind of tranquil base from which I could operate. It was a slow realignment with the world, or maybe my first true alignment.
As the weeks progressed, I sensed a deeper shift occurring. Something new was taking root in my guts and rising up into my chest — a sort of solidifying buoyancy, as paradoxical as that might sound. I was skeptical of this sensation at first because it almost felt like happiness, but there it was, regardless.
One evening, I decided to cook a pasta dinner for my mom and Donny. I called Donny myself to invite him, which he seemed to very much appreciate. After dinner, which they appeared to enjoy, the three of us sat around the kitchen table beneath the hanging, green-shaded “chandelier,” chatting and drinking wine.
“Well done, Jeffrey my boy!” said Donny, patting his substantial belly and grinning widely.
His dyed black hair, belied by his greying beard, was slicked back flat against his head.
“Thanks Donny,” I replied with a smile. “Are you enjoying yourself?”
“Yes indeed I am,” he responded heartily.
“That’s good,” I said. “That’s what I want.”
“I have to say,” he continued hesitantly, “I’m a bit surprised at how relaxed you seem tonight. Your mom tells me you’ve been going through a bit of a rough patch.”
“Is that so?” I asked, draining the rest of my glass of wine. “Is that what you told Donny, mom?”
“Well, I did tell him you’ve been pretty dark lately,” she said. “Which is true, isn’t it? You’ve been weird, frankly.”
“Have I?” I asked with a wry grin. “I don’t mean to be.”
“Well we’re here now,” said Donny, raising his glass. “Cheers to us all.”
We all clinked glasses and took a sip.
“Does this make you happy?” I asked my mom pointedly after a brief pause.
“Oh yes,” she replied, smiling. “Very happy to be with my man and my son.”
“The simple things,” Donny offered.
As we paused to savor the moment, I placed my palms down flat on the table in front of me. The tabletop was shaking very slightly, likely from the forced-air heat blasting through the vents.
“The simple things?” I repeated softly, in the form of a desultory question.
“That’s right,” Donny answered, nodding. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned on my long trip through the ringer, it’s to appreciate the simple things.”
“You’ve been through a lot, huh?” I asked more purposefully, gazing over at him.
“I have. I’d be happy to tell you about it sometime. I’ve told your mom everything.”
He reached over and clutched my mom’s hand tenderly.
“He has,” she confirmed, grasping his hand in response.
I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this. After a moment of awkward silence, I leaned back in my chair with my arms folded behind my head.
“I guess the point is to not worry about the point,” I mumbled to myself almost unconsciously.
“What’s that?” Donny asked.
“Nothing,” I replied, chuckling. “I’m glad we could finally do this. I like you, Donny, and I didn’t think I would, to be honest.”
“Oh,” he answered, blushing slightly. “Well, I’m surely glad you do.”
“I see why my mom trusts you.”
“Well, thank you Jeffrey.”
I gazed over at my mom, who was beaming.
“Now,” I said, sitting forward. “Shall we head to the living room to watch a scary movie?”
“Oh yes, let’s do that!” my mom exclaimed, standing up and grabbing her glass of wine.
As we made our way out of the kitchen, she playfully linked her arm in mine.
A few days later, I found myself wandering through Marley Station Mall near my house. It was early on a Tuesday afternoon, so the crowd was sparse — mostly retired folks and security guards. Roughly half the storefronts were empty, which also contributed to the ghost-town feel.
As I strolled from floor to floor, the surface reality felt increasingly unsteady. My mind was oscillating between finding everything utterly absurd and meaningless, and trying to parse the significance in every gesture and interaction I saw. There was no equilibrium point, and none of the recent buoyancy. To self-soothe, I decided to get myself an Italian ice from Rita’s. Passing by the Foot Locker on my way there, I noticed the lone employee — a short, stocky woman in her mid-20s with close-cropped black hair — sitting on the customer bench and staring down at the floor dejectedly. I stopped to peer in at her for a few seconds, but she quickly spotted me, so I pretended I dropped something and hurried on my way. Her eyes were red and bloodshot, as if she’d been crying.
I ordered two cherry ices at Rita’s and headed back to the Foot Locker, where I hovered in the doorway until she looked up.
“Can I help you?” she asked, sniffing softly, her eyes rimmed with tears.
“I brought you a cherry Italian ice,” I said, shuffling forward a few feet and holding it out to her.
“Why would you do that?” she asked, seeming vaguely irritated.
“I don’t have a reason, really,” I answered hesitantly. “I walked by and saw you sitting here alone, looking upset. I was getting one anyway, so I got you one, too.”
She smirked and shook her head ruefully.
“What the fuck is happening in my world, man?” she muttered, looking down at the floor.
“You don’t have to eat it,” I said. “I can leave.”
“No, I’ll eat it,” she said, waving me over without looking up. “Why the hell not?”
I walked over and handed her the cup and plastic spoon.
“Sit if you want to,” she said, motioning to the open section of bench beside her.
I sat down about a foot away from her and we ate our cherry ices in silence.
“Thank you,” she said after a minute or so.
“You’re welcome,” I said, gazing over at her. “Why were you crying? You don’t have to tell me, but I thought I’d ask.”
“You can ask, but it’s too much to tell,” she replied softly. “It’s everything, really. It’s all going wrong.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Sometimes I just think, fuck all this,” she continued, her voice rising. “Fuck all of it. Fuck my family, fuck my turd of a boyfriend, fuck this job, fuck my life.”
She paused and looked over at me with a sheepish smile.
“Sorry,” she said. “You’re probably ready to get up and leave. I wouldn’t blame you.”
“No, it’s fine,” I answered. “I’ve been there. Exactly there, very recently.”
I was suddenly feeling solid again. Completely present.
“What did you do about it?” she asked.
“Well,” I said, formulating my answer, “I guess I’ve been learning how to rest inside of individual moments without comparing them to anything else. This lets me appreciate them, in a way. Like this moment right now, with us sitting here on this bench.”
“Ha,” she said with a weak laugh. “This moment? Are you serious?”
“Yeah,” I replied, smiling. “Does that sound like bullshit to you?”
“Sort of,” she said, chuckling.
“I’m lonely, though,” I went on. “And when you’re lonely, you find anything to latch onto.”
“Everyone’s lonely,” she stated matter-of-factly.
I nodded and sipped a spoonful of the melting cherry ice.
“The universe is cold and heartless,” I said dramatically, after swallowing.
“You really think that?” she asked.
“I’ve seen it firsthand,” I said. “But it’s probably a pointless thing to worry about. If it’s all meaningless, what good would it do to know?”
“That’s not making me feel better,” she said with a laugh.
I stared down at the floor and smiled.
“When you’re a kid, you don’t worry about what anything means. You just try to make a little bit of sense of what’s around you, and you let yourself go into each moment.”
“I remember being able to do that,” she replied, sighing.
“Things scare you, but you let them go, because they’re just momentary too,” I continued. “Then as you get older, the generalized anxiety of the world starts to affect you. It starts to paralyze you. And at the center of all that anxiety is the fear of the unknown, which is really the fear of death and what’s beyond death.”
“Well… shit,” she said, shaking her head.
“Jesus,” I replied, laughing. “I talk like I know, but I don’t know anything. Am I freaking you out? If so, I apologize.”
“No, you’re not,” she answered, smiling.
“Honestly, don’t pay attention to anything I say. We can just sit here quietly if you want.”
“I’m fine, I swear,” she insisted. “Surprisingly I feel pretty calm talking to you right now. At least I’m not dwelling on my own personal shit show.”
“What’s your name?” I asked, gazing over at her.
“Julie,” she replied. “What’s yours?”
“Well, thanks for coming in here, Jeffrey,” she said. “I needed this, I think.”
“I think I needed it more than you did,” I said, cradling my empty cup. “So thank you.”
I fell asleep on the basement couch that night watching the first Friday the 13th movie. I awoke, bleary-eyed, to the grey dawn light filtering in through the tiny rectangular window. I pulled the comforter tight around me and lay there listlessly for a few minutes, staring at the carpet. When I finally roused myself enough to sit up, I felt a sudden surge of warmth in my chest. My head was instantly cleared of its sleep haze, and a strange, peaceful euphoria overtook me. I then heard a distinct sighing sound, followed a few seconds later by that inhuman whisper I had tried so hard to forget.
“That which is known by the temporary name, Jeffrey,” it gently hissed.
Again, the voice seemed to come from everywhere in the room at once. I glanced around the basement to try to spot any movement, but all was still. I felt no fear this time. In fact, the warm, euphoric sensation was only growing stronger.
“You will learn what is behind the dark and the light,” the voice whispered.
“What is behind?” I asked softly.
“That which is nameless and contains all,” it continued. “That which flows through all actualities and possibilities.”
At this point, my body was throbbing with energy, and the heat had extended from my chest out through my limbs and up into my forehead.
“The base equilibrium is ecstatic union,” the voice went on, “expressed in each individuated aspect of existence. Now, go gaze on your present form and comprehend.”
Obeying the irresistible impulse, I walked into the bathroom and stared at myself in the mirror in the dim morning light. There I was, looking just how I always did. Again obeying the impulse, I stripped down to nothing and stood there naked. The same familiar girth was there in the mirror, the same blotchy skin, the same sagging folds. But now there was no inkling of shame or doubt or fear. This was a form connected and intertwined with all other forms, an aspect of that ecstatic union. And then behind this form, the infinite energy…
As I looked on, my body began to glow red beneath the skin, all through my limbs and stomach and chest. The glow then rose swiftly upward through my body until it burst from the top of my head in a brief eruption of flame. For a few glorious seconds, the bathroom was bathed in blinding light, and then all went dark.
When I came to, I was sitting with my back against the sink cabinet and my legs stretched out straight in front of me. I hoisted myself up and tottered out into the basement, dazed and still naked. I realized I was shivering, so I plopped down on the couch and wrapped the comforter around me. Although the light through the window seemed a bit brighter, it was still early morning. All the other details in the room were unchanged, as if nothing had happened. The pillow next to me still had a faint circle of sleep drool.
What was I supposed to do now? There was no point in analysis, I decided. I would simply live my life. I bowed my head and whispered a spontaneous prayer, my first prayer in years. I prayed that others would see and experience the full spectrum of THAT, just as I had.
That particular baptism took place a week ago, which brings us up to the present. I asked you to trust me, and I hope you do, but it’s ultimately irrelevant. Life, death, and that which encompasses life and death all continue on regardless.
As I recline on the basement couch plying myself with donut holes, I am fully satisfied in this moment, but this time of solitude is ending. In a few minutes, I will stand up, stretch my limbs, climb the stairs, put on my coat, and leave the house. Beyond that, the Holy Spirit beckons…