I awoke round 3 AM to the sound of someone keying my car. I jumped up, naked and with the knife in my left hand, never without that, and looked to the greasy dark of my side yard. My eyes adjusted to find a crumpled, grasping man on the back of my Toyota Camry. Lo and behold, fantasy’s other: my drunk, incompetent boyfriend.
I tossed the knife on the bed after a consideration to, admittedly, keep it in my hand, always considering that, and opened the rickety front door. I called at Eric in a way that didn’t call for him and like a spinning comet he aimed toward the sound of my voice and hit the rug, then vomited. While he shivered on all fours, I walked away from him to sit on the toilet. I looked up at the fluorescent bulbs above the sink until I saw the world glaze over in black flashes. I breathed; my eyes burned.
The night that Eric blacked out, he had been with Steven at a woman’s house, drinking whiskey while they all sang songs about loneliness. And so the story goes as I heard it from Steven, Eric got drunk and fell into the woman’s bedroom after dancing along to some old favorite, “Freebird” or a song like it that, because the person who used to sing it had died, seemed poignant. I knew Eric because he was my lover, but it seemed like I knew him better for being indifferent to love, the parts of himself that he talked about to remind me that being in love is like being in a blackout, and when someone’s in a blackout, Eric would say, their words don’t matter.
Like the men before Eric who I had loved through their blackouts, I imagined Eric’s night for what I knew about him. I bet he considered the problems with songs and sons. The problem with “Freebird,” he might have said, was that no one heard it sincerely anymore. No one really heard the man sing before he knew he would die that he, Ronnie Van Zandt, was free as a fucking bird. So free that the band played the song as an instrumental behind a lone microphone after Zandt’s death. Eric’s father, Terry, died when a part of the Omaha train tracks misfired onto his body. Terry had an attic room to play music with his kids, and from his death on, Eric tied together music and the death of love. Eric told me the first night we hung out that Terry had been murdered by gunshot, but it came out later from a mutual friend that Terry had died while working on the railroad. I understood Eric’s impulse to say this, having said many times before that my own father was murdered, when really, I had no claim to that word. To compare, in my mind, was to hold, and that’s why “Freebird” could be any other song Eric might have sang that night.
When Trevor died on the way to an AA meeting, steering a Ducati away from Robert Evans Jr.’s Volvo but not enough to avoid a collision, he was years sober. Evans was on his way to Calvary Community Church and turned in front of Trevor without the right of way. Many churches that go by the name Calvary have some variation on the descending or “maranatha” dove John the Baptist saw visit on Jesus. Jesus made amends for human sin, apparently, and those who want to live better try to live as Jesus did.
A week before Trevor’s crash we argued about Step Eight, Making Amends, in our living room. After years of his tyrannical drunkenness, the weekends we spent in the woods preparing for endtimes, his speeches to me that I half-assed everything while I performed tasks, I felt entitled to have an explanation for his love, his tough love, and his love that made me ashamed that I wasn’t more prepared to be the last person surviving.
I already apologized to you, he said.
You said sorry, but for what? You don’t want to talk about it, I said.
My father put his fingers in his ears and hummed.
I walked toward him. Stop it, I said, Dad—stop it.
He hummed louder and backed away.
That’s juvenile, Dad, talk to me, please.
My father screamed I always had food on the table for you. I can’t hear you, I can’t hear you, and I believed him.
To be made to return to the person he was while using, to witness that pitiful man, to see my disappointment in him. These were things that might have killed him. It didn’t matter whether the Step Eight conversation would have led to his last drink or to a moment where we tried again, because he died soon after. And that’s probably why I remember what we talked about anyway. It was our last argument, so it rings poignant. Which is just another way to say that “Freebird” could have slipped into a void.
Robert Evans Jr. describes the collision in the police report as caused by Trevor. Evans Jr. says that Trevor flew into him, aimed for his car. Sergeant Kevin Mauch is reported as saying, “the cyclist locked his brakes skidded and struck the right side rear door of the Volvo.” The Volvo was turning left in front of the cyclist. The Thousand Oaks Star says that Trevor was forty and “wearing a helmet but it was not a U.S. Department of Transportation-approved model Mauch said.” People in the AA community whispered, did Trevor go back to the old way? Two people told me that they knew he would die that day. Friends’ parents called Evans Jr. a good Christian. Trevor dedicated his mechanical skills to Volvos for years because he found their build expert, and their safety supreme. He was right—Robert Evans Jr. and the family he had with him in the car never suffered a scratch from the illegal turn Evans made right before my father’s body exploded on his windshield. And as Trevor lay dying, no one in the car felt compelled to do anything but sit inside the Volvo. If I had known it was my father on the concrete when I drove past the accident, I could have laid with him so he wasn’t scared. I could have reached into the Volvo and killed that good Christian. Sometimes birds, when flying in a clear path, hit a window and die. After I moved to Missouri a cardinal hit my house, and I fed it water from a shot glass. It spit out blood with the water onto my face, then died. The next day a hawk landed on my porch and perched on my chair while our Manx cat sat underneath it. You have to know how to read the signs. Freebird.
Alcohol turns my skin into a waving, fabric doorway that allows passage into this world as a non-believer. The world softens outside my body, my pelvis rests half a glass down. I didn’t know before drinking that I could feel a brightness inside, pumping to my toes. If I have to stay in civilization or die, if living off an old land deep in the guts of a canyon isn’t an option, then let me feel this way sometimes. Let me be drunk. It’s one of the ways in, how I lay down the urge to leave. When I drink with my hair down in Missouri, cigarette smoke from other drinkers get all around me, and it’s like the campfires Trevor used to build us in the mountains of California, and it’s like the oily men of a Ballard, Seattle dock, and it’s like the sand of Tucson against my eyelashes when the wind is up. It’s my origins, the West come for me in the Middle. Drinking makes merging every place I’ve lived possible. Being drunk can feel like I’ve shortened the distance to God enough to ask, how far away is everything and how do I stay here? I don’t fly, I am rooted like the great oak into the ground, I don’t fly. I get close to an answer. I feel from my lips out that this civilization isn’t without a reason to live. I find a home, I want to stay. Unlike every man I’ve loved, I get closer to it—I don’t blackout.
When Evans Jr. pulled his Volvo in front of Trevor’s Ducati, he was on his way to Calvary Community Church. If you look for this church in Westlake Village, California through a search engine, you’ll find that the homepage presents a dazzling array of options, including a variety of ways to donate to the church. There are many “experiences” one is encouraged to opt into if one is a member. It’s quite beautiful, really. There are so many ways to have a meaningful experience, from a new media observance to a stoic, traditional service, that is seems impossible to not understand why someone would want to be a member of Calvary. When I clicked on a link to join, though—thinking that the choice to become a member was all my own—I found that it’s not as easy as showing up to your style of service. I was told:
Membership at Calvary is not like a Costco membership or your Netflix account. You don’t just pay your dues and be done. As a member, you are committing to be a part of the Calvary family. To begin exploring this commitment to life with us, we invite you to attend a Discover Calvary reception. After the reception, you’ll have an opportunity to join a Discover Calvary Group. These groups meet for four weeks to deepen our understanding of how we, both as individuals and as a local church, live out God’s story on earth. At the same time, you’ll meet others who are also beginning to join the Calvary family. This group will also help you explore your next steps in committing to life with Calvary.
Despite the depths of involvement one must enter into in order to approach an identity as “member,” there is a simple, satisfying link on Calvary’s home page labeled “donations” that leads a reader to a “secure” donation form in which anyone can donate any amount. One can donate without ever attending a “reception” or “group.” The act of giving has an immediate gratification. While other church websites have inspirational quotes about giving material goods as a means toward resurrection in Heaven, such as the often used “lay up for yourself treasure in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Matthew 6:20), Calvary’s donation page is austere by comparison to the rest of their website. The calm, unblinking background acknowledges that members get the home they believe in—the location of embodied resurrection—by giving up a little of what they are lucky enough to have access to in the affluent suburb of Westlake Village. Perhaps donation is the one choice you don’t have when you’re a believer. Resurrection might not have a price in itself, but giving to the place that walks next to you on the path toward forever seems like a reciprocal, loving act. Perhaps you can’t read this without thinking me a cynic, and in that, you’d be wrong.
While my father never told me that if we left civilization we were sure to somehow transcend, or that the mountains could be our opportunity for a rebirth, I believe he thought that if we left the city behind, we would go back to a time before his own suffering. He wanted to save us through erasure. His willingness to take me from my mother without even a word to her that I wouldn’t return was his way to show me that he knew I hated what I was supposed to love as much as he did. We both dealt with our addict parents the best we could and took blows when the handling wasn’t helping. The simple narrative of our lives, though, is that I left my mother’s care to live with him full-time, and then he got clean for me. Instead of erasure, stasis.
Calvary’s website details their twelve-step program called “Celebrate Recovery,” and a death processing program called “Griefshare.” Both cost more money than my father or I could have paid. A truth in learning to stay alive is knowing when donation isn’t an option. After Trevor’s death, I found two hundred dollars in the bank. With no will or trust granting me access to it, its value felt like the exact amount of necessary. I sued for the cash and everything else, and won. My lawyers were paid fifty percent of a settlement. I used the bureaucracy my father distrusted to get $200 from his Wells Fargo bank account. I felt like I was telling the world that it owed us something for my father’s and my own disappointment in it, for what was left of me and my disappointment. To be disappointed in the world isn’t to be a cynic. It’s to hope that things don’t have to be what you fear most. To stay, I walked away with fifty thousand dollars. And that’s the exact amount my lawyers were given for demonstrating how good they were at already being here. My financial advisor was inept, the money went quick in a beaming stock market, adults threw up their hands and said oh well. And on Calvary’s home page, if you click on the little blue bird, a cute cartoon flying above a layer of white, you can find ways to “follow” the church on social networking sites for free. Freebird.
A woman named Kathy lives with Trevor and me on and off for years. She’s on meth, dumpster dives for our meals, uses rubber cement to stick pictures of cakes and meat from vintage magazines onto our walls, and she’s my mother figure while Trevor works at the DWP and then after he gets fired. She’s the one who tells my father I huff rubber cement and gets me grounded for a year. She’s the one who shows me a vibrator for the first time. She’s the one who tells me my father has Hep C and is sick. She’s the one who shows Trevor my diary where I lie and say I’m so cool with boys that hook up with me then ignore me. I love Kathy anyway. What else is there. I can’t explain to her that my diary is full of lies, that I’m not okay with how I let boys treat me, that even in speaking to myself I’m ashamed so I make up lies. Kathy takes me to the Valley for my doctor appointments after I return from a trip with my grandparents to Egypt and have urinary tract infections. I’m in the third grade, and she buys me Funyuns before each appointment. During these appointments doctors tell me that I have been raped in Egypt and ask me to disclose, but I tell them nothing happened, and I’m not lying. Once, LuAnn comes to one of these appointments, and they ask to speak to me without her present, and she tells them no, that she’s the mother. For years this is one of LuAnn’s triumph stories in parenting alongside the story that she told Charlene, my father’s girlfriend, that if I were slapped again, there would be hell to pay. The doctors don’t mention my kidneys or do an intravenous pyelogram. Clearly this is rape, they say. Then the infections go away, so no one sees that I was born with a blockage in my right ureter until years later when my father dies and I fall on the floor, shitting and throwing up. And even then, an appendix surgery is scheduled first, then I start pissing blood and a gynecologist says oh. But before all that, Kathy and I drive to the appointments in each car my father brings home to our lot, and sometimes she sleeps in the Volvo wagons or the back bathroom when my father kicks her out again. She tells me that she loves Trevor, and even though they’ve slept together only once, she’s willing to contract his Hep C, that’s how much she loves him. I don’t know what Hep C is, but I pull out one of her Marlboro 100s and smoke it because I’m twelve and no one will tell me not to.
In the mountains of Southern California, with the hawks, up above the prestige and beauty of Santa Barbara Trevor and I set up camp. How old are we? We are every weekend before I turn thirteen and he turns thirty-six. We are red-haired, pink-skinned stunners covered in mud from a nearby hot spring. He is drunk, and I’ve never been drunk. The machine guns are to the right of the army tent, and the steaks are on the left by the fire, which is burning high because Trevor pulled a dead oak from the ground with Chuck the Truck’s tow bar and tied it up to a living tree, then toasted himself with a shot and a handful of something I don’t know. Our spot: claimed. I am also chained up to a branch of living oak because I’m swaying like a pendulum back and forth across a rope swing that is secured by a tree limb. The flames lick me a little, but they’re nothing to worry about. Here, girls only swing above fire for joy, and my father has measured out the exact amount of space I need to be safe, with rope in his left hand and a Coors can in his right. This measurement of material safety is how we will survive. I can see above the trees when I swing high, and look down at the fire when I swing low. While four-wheel driving to this spot, after breaking locks of gates that read Do Not Enter or Road Closed: Unsafe, I flopped around in the camper while my father drank in front and steered us through fallen rocks. We arrive always the first day right before sunset. The Manx cat patrols in the changing light . When the dark becomes its deepest shade and the moon kneels from above to alongside, I sleep in a tent and my father sits by the fire, sometimes with other campers or a woman, sometimes alone. We are far enough from the giant water moccasin that has owned the dam forever. We are close enough to the mud pond to cover our bodies in the daylight. Out here he opens and shuts the cooler as if by the momentum of the messiah’s pendulum. Out here my father hums a sad, true song. From out here we practice sleeping well at the edge of the ending world, from out here we are safe with weapons, food for even one night. I don’t like when my father sings because it makes me acutely aware that while he is built of things we share, what he is built of the most is a sadness that I know nothing about. It belongs to Trevor, his big, red chest. I feel the truth about civilization upending: you are in it together until you are in it alone. Even in the pleasure of being in the woods, where we belong, I know that the two of us, until something changes, need a crossroads. Even though tonight we are safe from the world that will end, I know that my father needs to leave some things behind. If Dad is drunk, I am drunk. Me and this man, we got to get clean.
For a couple of years, Kathy stops coming. I think my father held her down at gunpoint under the 101 freeway after she has the cops come to our house and hold me down. Then Trevor dies and I know she’ll come back. I wait for it. I sleep with the same knife I will sleep with when Eric stumbles to my house, drunk. And a couple of days after Trevor dies, Kathy busts into the house with her daughter, Wendy, and they have half a head of teeth between them. Babies on their arms. They can’t stop laughing. Kathy cries from cackling so emphatically—she can barely speak. She says, we came…to check on you, and falls over, laughing. I want to tell her to leave, but what’s the point. She will always get in. None of us own this home. Eventually I pack up what’s left of the house after moving many things to keep from her. Trevor’s father knows a guy who turns the guns in San Diego, I wrap the knives, the William Cooper book because it might tell me what I need to know. And then it’s just me and the Manx cat left. For twenty years it’s just us: me and the Manx cat who patrols when I tell her, who attacks when unsure. She is a good animal, and together our eyes see everything.
But before it is just me and the cat, I have to leave behind a lot. I forgo the cast iron pans and furniture. Kathy can take them. She can take every fork that the woman after her put into our pantry. Trevor, me, and the Manx cat survived with two forks for a long time, and it never seemed like a loss. When I think I’m ready to die again, I balance that with knowing there is so much to prepare for. I balance that with the Manx cat who protects me. Her name is Armetes, and she scrutinizes men who come to my bed, but loves every drunk. Trevor dies in 1998, and the millennium looms.
And when the millennium comes, I am closer to being a woman than a child. I spend it driving from LA to Seattle. Each mile of Interstate 5, red-tail hawks lay dead along the roadside. Trevor made us follow them into the woods for years because they showed the correct path toward survival. He said they knew. Then he watched them and said nothing, lips parted, my father, St Teresa. Before the millennium I only saw the living hawks he followed. He was sure of something about them, and I am sure that there are signs. The millennium is the year of the dead hawks. For me and the Manx cat, this is like a crossroads.
Once sober, Eric shook at first as my father did, only Eric’s shaking never stopped. In the irony of learning to not kill himself, in a sustained sobriety, the DTs became an identity that Eric could hold onto.
When I can’t sleep, Eric told me, I think of your father. I think of Trevor biking all over Thousand Oaks trying to tire himself out enough to rest. And for that, I loved Eric. I loved him deeply because of how much I had thought about his own father, Terry. To compare is to hold on, and at that moment, I knew Eric couldn’t let me go.
I have my own shaking to do yet. I dream that the world will end, and I will be eaten by dirt that is soft and wet. I dream of the Manx cat in a burning world, looking to me for salvation. Often I can’t sleep because I know what will be there, and I count the men who I’ve loved. I practice feeling grateful for seeing exactly once a kettle of hawks.
Drinking provided Trevor and Eric that flying feeling, but it never stayed long enough. In a world where they had to engage or die, their sobriety led to a freedom from a preparation for the end. The men who live, and even my favorite one who died, found steps to stay put. But through engagement, we risk another kind of dying. You risk knowing right before you die that you are sober when you could use a drink.
You lock your breaks. You skid thirty feet because you are trying not to die. You have worked so hard to be conscious only to realize that when you have to leave this world, you don’t want to. You remember the person you stayed here for. You have a picture of her with a motorcycle in your pocket as you die after hitting a Volvo with your own motorcycle. Are you alive long enough to get the joke? People come to cut your clothes from your body. The side of your head sticks to your sunglasses. Sober, you risk remembering everything, and so before your death, you die a little inside from how pointless it all was. You leave behind blackouts to see your own death. Is it worth it.
If the end of the world comes in our lifetime, my father would have known what to do. I worry about believing in the end more than living. To lock your breaks is to have a steady hand in a world where no one wanted you. But then to die on the way to an AA meeting. What to say? I wonder if each dead hawk I saw during the shift to the new millennium was a sign of exactly nothing, which is something I wouldn’t wonder had we gone to the woods when my father asked. So which is it? Prepare for an end or stop believing in the signs? I don’t know, but I believe these are my options. I postpone deciding anything. I have a drink, and it doesn’t break me. I hadn’t seen myself before as someone who hadn’t been broken. Men like Eric and Trevor converted to true believers, and only they have the answers to how they did it—how they finally slept, how before they left, they stayed. Freebird.