by Patrick O’Neil
I walk onto campus against the flow of students and cars exiting the parking lot. I’m teaching tonight and the woman I teach with is sick, so it’s only me and I don’t want to be late. A cold wind is blowing, shaking the palm trees and bushes, as the streetlights cast elongated shadows across the sidewalk. I walk quickly with my head down, leather jacket zipped, and a scarf around my neck. It’s sort of eerie, reminding me of late fall or Halloween, but it’s only a full moon night in April.
There’s a young woman in a wheelchair stopped on a pathway by the arts building. When she checks her phone it illuminates her face and I notice she’s pretty. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen her, but it is the first time I’ve looked at her this close. She’s almost always here when I’m on my way to class, usually running past her because I’m late. No matter the weather she patiently waits, obviously for someone to come and get her. Seeing her pulls at my heart, because my sister uses a wheelchair, she has cerebral palsy, and when we were young I was the one that picked her up after school or other places she needed rides from. And having been an irresponsible drug addict and a total mess, I imagine the times my sister waited for me. Waiting on a cold night alone somewhere in the dark. And then the image goes haywire, into a horror film of what possibly happens to women in our society alone in dark places and a wave of shame and guilt washes over me. I can no longer look at the woman in the wheelchair. I turn my head and walk faster, my insides twisting.
It’s two in the morning and I’m lying in bed, staring at the ceiling; a low level of depression is coming on and I’m trying not to go with it. As I close my eyes wishing sleep would overtake me, I drop into an ancient memory—I’m standing in a bank, my gun pointed at the teller as she fills a bag with money. She’s terrified and almost crying. I tell her to hurry up, and nervously glance over my shoulder. I’m so loaded on heroin I feel nothing for this woman. But as an observer, now, many years later, I’m detached from my then self and I see the fear I’m instilling. In a rush of emotions my eyes jolt back open, I sit up gasping for air, my heart pounding.
It was something that was said. A slight, a put down, nasty words, in reality I can’t even remember what it was. But either I said it or it was said to me, and I remember. I remember how it cut to the bone, and there was no way to take it back.
Such journeys into guilt and shame are a mainstay of my psyche. I remember and relive horrific past events and basically torture myself with regret. I’m suddenly aware of how others felt, when before I was numb to their feelings.
I was telling my girlfriend Jennifer about the woman in the wheelchair and she asked, “Have you ever forgiven yourself?” And she might as well have inquired if I’d won the lottery for just how far removed that is from my reality. I’ve made amends and forgiven everyone in my life for all the bad shit ever done to me. But to forgive myself seems impossible. No matter how many times I work the steps, I’m still left with my memories and misgivings.
These days, I work hard to not create more damage as I try to practice the principles in all my affairs. But unfortunately I still hurt people. I still say stupid shit. I’m still me. I’m not referring to the really lame stuff like the other day when sending Jennifer an explicit text regarding black panties and the curve of her hip reflecting in the mirror and I inadvertently, due to not wearing my reading glasses, sent it to the last person who’d texted me instead—a good friend that didn’t need to read my heartfelt yearnings of amour. That kind of stuff is awkward, but funny and really, who cares? But I’m talking about when I hurt people’s feelings even though I’ve told them the truth and they chose not to believe it, and then yeah, shit happens and I’m the bad guy, stuck with feeling blame. Or worse, I have a conscience, and I care about other people. I care to the point where it’s way past sympathy and empathy. I care to where it’s close to killing me. Like when I come out of a coffee shop and there’s a bag lady passed out in a pool of vomit and it hurts to see this. Or I read the newspaper and some yahoo has gunned down a bunch of folks because he lost his job, or a deranged mentally ill mom drowns her baby, or a cop has shot an unarmed teenager. It wears me down. I might not understand them. I might not like them, care for them, or want the best for them. But I know what it’s like to be trapped in a situation. I know what it’s like to be insane.
Class is over. The campus is deserted. I walk back out retracing the way I came in. The woman in the wheelchair is long gone. And I stare at the spot where she was. I wonder if she waited long. And then it hits me: how the hell do I know anyone was late picking her up? Why do I make up these scenarios? Why do I try to find a common thread of pain that just might not be true?
My car is under a streetlight in a campus parking lot, and as I near I notice the shadow from a huge dent in the fender. Someone has pulled a hit and run and bashed my car. Hitting it couldn’t have been easy. It would’ve taken a lot of effort. The driver had to cross the entire parking lot, executing a last minute U-turn just to hit my car. And so now I’m thinking someone hates me. Someone did this on purpose and wants to hurt me. Mess with me. Mess with my car. Yet, how do I know this? And why do I assume this instead of accepting it as a random accident that no one meant to do?
Traffic is light as I drive toward home—the full moon bright in the night sky. I whisper, “I forgive them, I forgive them, I forgive them…”
But when the hell am I ever going to forgive me?
Patrick’s memoir class, Putting the Creative in Creative Non Fiction begins July 25th
Patrick O’Neil is the author of the memoir Gun, Needle, Spoon (Dzanc Books), and the excerpted in part French translation, Hold-Up (13e Note Editions). His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including: Juxtapoz, Salon.com, The Weeklings, Razorcake, Sensitive Skin, Fourteen Hills, and Word Riot.
Patrick is an editor for the NYC-to-California-transplant-post-beat-pre-apocalyptic art, writing, and music anthology Sensitive Skin Magazine. And a two time nominee for Best Of The Net. He is a regular contributor to the recovery website AfterPartyMagazine, and has been blogging at Full Blue Moon Dementia for over ten years. Patrick holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles, lives in Hollywood, California, and teaches at a local community college. Check out Patrick’s web-site for more information www.patrick-oneil.com and his blog Full Blue Moon Dementia http://patrick-oneil.com/blog/