Waking Up

The door was open, but she knocked anyway. I didn’t know it then, but she wasn’t allowed to enter the room.

“Hey,” she said. “Did you just get here?”

This seemed to me a pointless question – we both knew I had just gotten there. I was grateful for her attempt, though, so I decided to be polite. I had been alone inside my head for a few days at this point, and I saw her as a welcomed distraction. And, although she looked a little bit younger than I was, she was pretty. That didn’t hurt.

The room was mostly cinder-block walls, empty closets, and mostly-empty armoires, so her voice echoed sharply around, even though she spoke softly. There were three beds, but only one of them seemed to have been touched. Before I heard the knock, I was sitting on what was now my bed, with my face in my hands, staring blankly sideways at what was now my plastic pillow.

Before I arrived there, I imagined the room would smell like piss, bleach or the kind of dust you can only find in elementary school basements or a grandparent’s house, or a combination of the three. Surprisingly, it seemed to be completely barren of any smell at all, not even a faint bleached-over piss. That was good.

By this point, I hadn’t slept for more than a 20-minute span in four or five days. One of those days included a nine-to-five shift in a go-nowhere town holding cell, where I could hear the guy in the next cell over — a man about twice my size — snoring most of the day away. I remember him having nice dark-rimmed glasses and wanting to ask him where he got them, but it didn’t seem like the time or place. I still don’t understand how he slept there. If I wasn’t uncomfortable enough in my own skin or my own mind at the time, the tiny cell, rusty toilet and what I guess I have to refer to as a mattress made it that much more of a sleepless atmosphere.

Even though I was exhausted and hadn’t slept in several days, I wasn’t rushing to put my head on that plastic pillow. Sleep was no longer the relaxing recluse it had been in the past. As bad as my current reality was, my dreamland was that much worse because it combined what I was now going through with my cynical and now brutally descriptive imagination.

Every time I drifted off I would “wake up” to the police kicking down my door again, or I would have one of those dreams where you stand next to yourself and watch, and I would be kneeling in the snow and watching that house burn to the ground for what seemed like weeks. One time, when the police barged into my basement to pull me away from my whiskey, they told me a small child had been killed in the fire. I usually didn’t sleep the usual prescribed eight hours anyway, but I was now starting to appreciate a decent night’s sleep.

A few hours earlier, as I was being examined, evaluated, questioned and subjected to repetitive paperwork in order to check in, my mind wandered. Instead of thinking directly about the accident or what was in store for me after I left this place, I started thinking of something I once heard Homer Simpson say: “To alcohol, the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.” I smiled, because I remember laughing when I first heard that. Now, though, it made a lot of sense.

My parents were sitting in the waiting room with me, which was a pretty significant accomplishment for both of them. Though the mutual hatred was significantly faded at this point, the two of them still struggled to have basic conversations. Eye contact was out of the question. Still, I give them both credit for being there.

Before the processing was finished and Kevin (He never actually told me his title, just that he was Kevin.) brought me over to the Blake unit, where I would be staying for a to-be-determined period of time, I met a woman who was crying and whose breath was the type that I imagined first resulted in the coining of the term “intoxicating.” Vodka was clearly her drug of choice. A cheap and unflavored kind, my senses told me. She asked me how to spell Catholic. When Kevin came to get me, she said, “Don’t worry, it isn’t that bad here. Everyone is nice, and the food is really good.”

When I got over to Blake, everyone was in a big dark room watching some kind of movie. A slightly overweight guy with a blanket in his mouth passed me in the hallway and walked into the movie room. I was searched in the bathroom and allowed to sit in my room until the others were done watching the movie.

The room didn’t have a clock. The walls in the hallway had advertised phrases like “Just for Today,” and I figured a room without a clock would help them to instill their idea of a timeless atmosphere which helps people focus on where and when they currently are. Still, I would have liked a clock.

I sat on the bed in the odorless room and began to let my brain eat away at itself. No one knew I was in rehab except for my parents and my friend Sarah. It was a Friday. A week before this, I could have never imagined being in a place like this. And on Sunday, I didn’t even imagine making it to Friday; I was quite sure I was going to kill myself.

A week before this knock on my door, I was drunk, much like I always was on Friday nights. Much like I was almost every night, actually. My friend Frank’s girlfriend had just given me back my favorite book: Burn Down the Night by Craig Strete, and it was sitting in the back seat of my car. In retrospect, that was an omen I wish I had noticed.

On this particular Friday night, Frank and I hit up a few of our more favorable local spots before deciding to drive home before we were too drunk. Although Frank was there at the accident, I’m the only person with any recollection of what exactly happened that night.

And that’s what I was dreaming about before the knock on my door. I thought about what would have happened if I hadn’t gotten out of the car or if I had made it back to the car before the explosion. I thought about how the people inside of the house managed to get out. Most of all, though, I thought about how much I hated myself, how much I hated the person I had become.

I still hadn’t told anyone exactly what happened on the night of accident. Sure, the police figured out what they could and all of central New Jersey had seen it on the news by this point, but I was still incapable of personally vocalizing the entire experience. For all I knew, I never would be able to, and I wasn’t in much of a hurry to try.

And so that’s where I was, or at least where I thought I was, when the girl knocked on my open door and leaned on the frame.

“Yeah, I just got here,” I said, and I stood up.

michael maher sitting on porch with drinkMike Maher is the founder and editor of Sea Giraffe Magazine. He currently reads, writes, edits and walks his dog in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains. His poetry, fiction, and personal essays can be seen in several publications, including The Smoking Poet, The Subterranean Literary Journal, Ham Lit, Calliope, The Ofi Press Magazine and Dr. Hurley’s Snake-Oil Cure. While earning his BA in English from East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania, he served as the vice president and forum editor of The Stroud Courier, winning the Jim Barniak Award for journalism twice during his time there. He is also the recipient of the Martha E. Martin Award for poetry.

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  • FranYo

    I like how your paragraphs are short, to the point, like we, the readers can sense how your mind in this predicament, is jumping around.

    I am confused, though, by whether the event that lead up to your experience in rehab was a car accident, a house fire, or a combination of both (such as when a care crashes into a house). Just my confusion, probably, but thought I’d mention it…

    • We’re intrigued by that too – this piece is an excerpt of Mike’s memoir so there is surely more to this saga. Thanks for commenting!

  • This story is so real it’s scary. I know too many young people that haven’t realized this could happen.

  • ValNeidig123

    Mike- Great writing! I am wanting to read more, as I believe that we may have a lot to learn from you. I am wanting to know about the fire and the rest of your stay in rehab. You’ve done an excellent job of “hooking” me into the story. I can’t wait to see what else you’ve written! -Val

  • Thank everyone so much for reading and commenting. There is certainly more to the story, but this is a sort of “in media res” piece that stands on its own and doesn’t tell the whole story. Thanks so much again! 

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