Shore Leave – RJC Smith
August 13, 2020
At the end of the day I put on an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation and I take a Klonopin and I lie in bed. I pick up where I left off on Netflix. It all becomes a mish-mash of pastel colors. Patrick Stewart pointing at things and saying something—sometimes shouting.
“Turn it down,” my aunt yells, banging on the wall separating us. Two minutes after I turn it down she bangs on the wall again.
I am 25 years old and I am living like a child. I recognize this. I am living with my aunt, for Christ’s sake. The woman who raised me. My not dead mother. I go to drug counseling. This is all voluntary though it feels like I am consigned to it—living with my aunt and living off her money and all.
Me and my aunt are in a row of houses, a connected chain of apartments, and ours is on the end. From my bedroom window I have a view of the house across the street. The only thing that separates us is a row of low metal fencing and tall grass and weeds taking over the fencing. A light on a telephone pole—which is more on her side—illuminates the distance between us.
I am regressing, in my depression. I try not to think about it, but it is hard. The only escape I have now that I am sober is the Star Trek and the prescribed Klonopin I use to sleep. My hair is growing out, getting shaggy and weirdly asymmetrical. I desperately need a new haircut. I need new clothes, too. This is not to mention the other ways my physicality has been ravaged by the side effects of my psych meds. Acne wrapping my face like kudzu up a building, and I’m getting fat—really. Always thin as a rail with clear skin, never even thought of my skin. Now I’m polka dotted. I can see my second chin easily in the mirror.
The first time I see her she is half-undressed in her window. Then the next time she is sitting outside of the house in a plastic white chair smoking a cigarette wearing sweatpants and a tube top. Her blonde hair, pulled back in a ponytail, is tinged with colors I now passively associate with Star Trek. I imagine the different brands of cigarettes she could smoke, like it holds some significance or it was something we could hold a conversation about. The hypothetical conversation between us plays out in my mind in wah WAH wah Charlie Brown noises because I can’t think of actual dialogue, and then it blurs into a scene of us in her room, sitting on her bed, me moving my hand under her top and her writhing.
The apartment complex is mostly elderly, mostly widowed, mostly with dog. I stick out, which makes me even more self-conscious about my weight and the skin on my face. At night it is barren and I can sit alone on the pool’s diving board in the complex’s center. The lights under the water make the pool glow a deep, unnatural blue which reflects back on my body and everything else in the dark August night.
I drive into the city to attend drug counseling because I lived there when I was admitted to the psychiatric hospital and the psychiatrists thought I was moving back into my old apartment. I don’t bother to correct anything because it is the only excuse I have to drive into the city and be by myself. After the drug counseling, that is.
In the city I often go to a British pub a few blocks away from the counseling center. I used to go there with friends in college. Usually, I’ll just drink water with a fish sandwich and chips. Dip the sandwich in tartar sauce. It’s good. Sometimes I will get coffee. If I drink too much of it, anywhere from three-quarters of a cup to two—depending on the day—I will get tremors in my hands, which I find very embarrassing. When you are drinking a cup of coffee, say one that has been given to you on a little plate, it is even more embarrassing. Your cup is refilled to the brim and you struggle to move it to your face—you crane your neck down to meet it someway up but it doesn’t really work. Coffee drips down and pools in the saucer. Everyone notices—ha ha, like I’m so important, right? Like anyone would care.
One day I get a snakebite, which is a British pint made of half lager and half hard cider. Afterwards my head feels incredibly foggy. I sit down on a park bench and chain-smoke a pack of Camels for half an hour while drinking a large bottle of water.
Everyone at drug counseling seems much worse off than I am, and for that reason I keep quiet. There is a dissonance between my body and height and age and my actual body and height and age, like, I feel like I am 12 and small but in fact I am 25, slightly above average height, and slightly overweight.
Most people’s problems are with alcohol or cocaine/crack. Pretty much everyone at drug counseling is black or Latino, and most of them are at the very least ten years older than I am. There was one other white guy, a meth addict, who left pretty early on. He was mildly effete. Gay. His hair was always disheveled and his eyes were always wide open—peeled almost, like in A Clockwork Orange.
I feel like a fucking idiot being there. For taking up space in a service for people in worse economic condition, who are themselves worse off, or those are my thoughts anyway. At my intake, I told the group moderator—middle-aged Puerto Rican man, bald brown head always covered by different fedoras—nice enough, makes jokes a lot so I feel like I always have to smile and nod or laugh in a brief awkward hiccup—that my only problem, my reason for being recommended there from NYU Langone, is a past addiction to marijuana, which skirts over much larger issues that I have had with alcohol and cocaine and benzos—if I actually talk about those things it not only might allow me to connect more immediately with the group, but it would also have allow me to constructively engage with my own addictive, compulsive behavior when it comes to drugs and booze. Instead I sit there, painfully aware of my status as a sore thumb, listening to people recount the ways in which they have alienated their loved ones.
There are days I spend drinking coffee pot after pot, its effects potentiated to horrifying levels by my medication. The kitchen and dining room are connected together in a kind of circle, and I pace around it in unending motion, wringing my hands and thinking a relentless series of endless cascading thoughts. After a while my calves start to hurt and my feet start cramping. And then I crash hard. Want to do nothing but lie in bed, meditate on my sins. I really must be a drug addict.
It is a few days after seeing her from my bedroom window and I have spent my day doing this. Does being in poor condition physically make you think of your greater deficiencies, as well? In the holodeck, in a simulation of a speakeasy in Chicago during the Prohibition era, Captain Picard smokes a cigar. I become antsy for a cigarette but I have none, and then I think of the Star Trek hair girl.
I walk out the apartment’s main gate, walk on the sidewalk along the complex’s fencing towards its end.
There she is, smoking on the plastic lawn chair in sweatpants. Baggy sweatshirt. Big sunglasses. Hung-over, maybe.
I am walking over. Her head tilts and my body is blocking out a bit of the mid-day light, I imagine.
“Cigarette?” I say, indicating toward the pack next to her on a little wooden table.
“Yeah,” she says, after a moment.
You know now that we are this close you look like someone so familiar.
“Here,” she says, holding out a cigarette.
Are you lonely? I think.
“Thanks,” I say.
“Do you live at Crescent Moon,” she asks, “I thought it was mostly retirees.”
“No.” I am lying for some reason. I suppose I am ashamed. It is happening all very fast, now. Getting nervous. I realize that I am still holding the unlit cigarette.
“Uhm, lighter?” I make a hand gesture like I am thumb wrestling. I can’t tell where she is looking behind the sunglasses—like the tinted windows of some sedan in a gangster movie, rolled down slightly.
“Yeah,” she says. Then we are standing there smoking, it is quiet—I am imagining it is a good quiet. Maybe a minute passes in this good silence and my mind goes elsewhere.
It was embarrassing when a guy from my group flagged me down, walking out of the center and down the street. He caught up to me and started talking to me. Told me I had to stop being so hard on myself, asked me if had any creative outlets. I couldn’t say it wasn’t nice of him but I just wanted to leave. Feeling embarrassed. Then the next week some other white kid, like 19 years old, with dreadlocks, comes in, also for “marijuana addiction” and immediately opens up. Nobody makes fun or anything like that. There is engagement. There is dialogue. And I suddenly realize that the problem has nothing to do with my leeching off of others’ resources or being unworthy, in some way, of benefiting, but just the fact that I’m a dumb asshole with no social skills and a worldview limited to the ways in which I am suffering—in which I am the cause for suffering—a self-hatred that does nothing greater than cause me to live a severely muted life. In fact, all of the shit about me not feeling comfortable was probably just a means to engage—
“Sorry, I don’t mean to pry.” She is looking up at me in the big boxy frames and I look down meekly.
“It’s just…uh, my sister volunteers at this shelter,” she says, “it isn’t that far from here even if you need any help…”
My aunt is asleep on the couch with her head back. The curtains are drawn and her body is coated by the light of a crime procedural. The wine glass on the coffee table in front of her is barely touched. I drain it.
I take my Klonopin and then an extra dosage. I turn on the wall mounted TV. I nestle in bed, under the cover, depressing into the many pillows I arrange around my body. I consider getting up, taking a shower, but I’m asleep before Patrick Stewart can say,
“…where no one has gone before.”
I have a dream, and when I wake it continues to play in my mind. I sit up in bed thinking about it.
I am dressed in Star Trek Yellow. I am at a conference table and around me are Captain Jean-Luc Picard, of the U.S.S. Enterprise-E, Captain Kathryn Janeway of the U.S.S. Voyager, and Benjamin Sisco, Captain of the U.S.S. Defiant and Commander of the space station Deep Space Nine.
“It’s troubling to have you here, Ensign,” Picard says.
“That’s certainly an understatement,” Janeway mumbles in her vaguely transatlantic accent.
“What you have done here is a disgrace to Starfleet,” says Sisco in his staccato. “It is an affront to the very ideals that bind together our Federation.”
They begin walking around me in a circle, berating me about how much I’ve fucked up without actually indicating anything that I’ve done. Sometimes they follow each other around in a circle, hands behind their backs. Other times they walk in a more erratic fashion, in different directions, as if they were planets or moons orbiting me.
A monitor fizzles on, on the wall at one end of the conference table. On it is Admiral James T. Kirk, most famous for his tenure as Captain on the U.S.S. Enterprise—though I believe at this point canonically he should be dead.
“Sorry I’m late.” He scans the room and me with tired eyes.
“To think you had such a promising future in Starfleet, Ensign. Well, let’s begin preparing for the tribunal.”
At this point I wake up—because I am weak from it.
My aunt works as a bank teller a few days a week. I think she is fine—well off enough from the money my uncle left her and social security. She has the job mostly to get out of the house. It gives me necessary time to myself—I don’t like to go out. Unfortunately, the maids who make the rounds at the retirement community are here today.
I feel so restless from the dream and general bad sleep in spite of, or perhaps due to, my Klonopin intake that I feel the need to lose my mind with a pot of coffee—to become slightly manic, to pace continuously around the kitchen and dining room. That would have to wait until the cleaners left.
I decide to put something else in my coffee, but my aunt doesn’t have any whiskey, or any brown liquor at all, so I use the gin that’s in the freezer. She puts enough of this stuff back that she won’t notice a drink’s worth—or two—missing.
The two tastes do not merge at all and it tastes exactly like I am drinking coffee and gin at the same time. It smells even worse than it tastes and wafts out of the mug.
I sit on the balcony while the maids work. I lament that the fall won’t kill me, looking down—barely enough to break a leg. I can see elderly women rotating in the shallow end of the complex’s pool. They are being led by a woman in her twenties in a neon one-piece suit. Steam drifts off of my hot cocktail. I cringe thinking of the maids inside cleaning my room—picking up plates of moldy food and seminal napkins.
I become somewhat drunk from my drink because I don’t drink anymore. The maids have left after about half-an-hour which is just as well because some wasps have started circling above me.
“Another cigarette?” I ask. I am standing next to Star Trek girl again. The caffeine and alcohol have made me brazen.
She seems perturbed by my sudden presence for a second, then she says,
“Yeah, man.” She hands me a cigarette. I realize that I have not once seen her eyes. Or her hair down. Or her off of this chair—besides the moment in her window.
“I’m sorry about the uh…” I trail off. She doesn’t seem to notice. She is staring blankly at the sheet metal fence bordering the lot opposite her house.
“I do live in Crescent Moon.”
“…Because the other day I said I didn’t.”
“You did?” She finally turns her head to look at me.
“Yeah… you said your sister had, uh… and I walked away, then, after.”
A flash of recognition in her face—or what’s visible. A flash of recognition in the lines around her mouth and the skin on her forehead.
“Oh, hey,” she says, “it’s you.”
Another couple days later and I have drug counseling again. I drive past her smoking in her plastic chair. I am dismayed to see she obviously recognizes me, because I planned to turn around at the end of the street and drive up the other way. I don’t know why I didn’t think this would be a problem beforehand. It is awkward and embarrassing, for some reason, her watching me the whole time. I slow down, stop in front of her—it feels like it would be weird not to. I roll down the passenger seat window a bit.
“Driving into the city,” I shout, impromptu of nothing, like the statement is impressive in itself.
She walks up to the car with a swagger, a cigarette dangling from one hand, the sunglasses hanging from the end of her nose. It scares me a little. She leans in.
“You seem fucked up,” she says. She smells like booze. “I like people who seem fucked up. All of my good friends seem very fucked up, and most are, in fact—very fucked up.”
“Cool,” I say. I am hunkered in the front seat of my aunt’s sedan like a clown in a clown car. She is smoking fervently, a hand on the window where it meets the car door—hanging off, barely gripping the sharp half-rolled down window.
“I’m having a little party here tonight—hey—you should come. A bunch of people…” She trails off. She pulls on her cigarette. A little smoke gets in my car.
At drug counseling all I can think of is meeting up with her later. I am excited and horrified. I have little hope that it will go well. I play out nightmare scenarios in my head while actively pointing my face at whoever is talking.
“I want to know what he thinks,” an older man says.
“Who, him?” the group moderator asks, motioning his body towards me. Someone has just finished speaking and people are giving their reactions.
“Yeah,” the man says, “he always just sits there.” Even though his head is turned towards me, one severe lazy eye makes it difficult to tell if he is looking at anything at all.
“I want to see if he’s actually listening or just sitting there.”
“Uh, yeah, it’s like, what he was saying was,” I begin, my eyes set halfway up the blue polo shirt of the man sitting a few feet in front of me in the cramped oval formation we are all, 15-or-so of us, sitting in, in this tiny office room, “you can’t expect people to know what you’re feeling if you don’t talk about it. People can’t read minds. Like, you can’t hold people so accountable for not picking up on stuff that you never clearly expressed to them.”
“Wow, he is listening.”
“Ha, I told you he’s listening,” the moderator says, “doesn’t talk but he’s listening.”
The discussion moves on.
I am terrified of meeting her—and her friends, but I know that I’m going. It’s like if I don’t try to socialize now then when will I?