Walking the Streets of Home
Home means different things to people.
“Growing up is not like before,” Javier mused aloud, forking a garbanzo bean in his Mediterranean salad. He drew his legs onto the cushioned seating, assuming a comfortable pose. The polished gleam of his burgundy dress shoes accentuated nicely with pleated green socks. Javier had what every gay man in his late 20s might desire: An excellent fashion sense, a fit body, an easy-going personality, and a willingness to be spontaneous.
Matthew met his gaze, mirroring his expression. He leaned forward to soak in Javier’s aura of warmth.
“I suppose it isn’t.” Although Javier’s musings spurred his critical thinking, they usually left him feeling helpless.
“Think about it. When you had eight years old, did you spend all the days playing videogames in your Atari?”
Matthew pushed a half-eaten tapa aside for a fresh plate of anchovies marinated in oil and herbs. “No,” he responded cooly. “I played in old beaver dams and tree forts out in the woods.” Javier’s tilted eyebrow told him to elaborate. “I grew up in rural parts of the US.”
Matthew reached forward to get another croqueta de jamón from the plate between them. Three years living in Spain after college had yet to tire him of the country’s cuisine or its alcohol. He took advantage of the pause in the conversation to sip from a glass of tinto de verano and have a glance around the restaurant.
Young and dashing couples occupied every table around them. The women dressed in long dresses, heels, jewelry; the men in dark suits but no ties. Magenta-tinted lightbulbs contrasted nicely with the midnight-blue wallpaper and wax candles along the periphery, lending the place a romantic yet mellow vibe. It occurred to Matthew that they were the only same-gender couple in the venue. Although Spain had released itself from the shackles of fascism and become a bustling democracy in the 1980s, gay people still had to tread with caution. Former members of the ultra-conservative regime peppered the citizenry at every turn.
Matthew reclined into his cushioned seat, extending one of the suede chukkas on his feet to touch Javier’s muscular calf underneath the table.
“There’s a joke that some people like to tell about Canada.” He exaggerated a smile to win over Javier’s skepticism. It worked.
“Let’s hear it.” Although Javier spoke excellent English, his Spanish accent sometimes punched through on certain words. The pronoun ‘it’ often sounded like ‘eet.’
Matthew held his smile to build the anticipation. Javier grew impatient, nudging his chukka. “The tragic thing about Canada is that they could have had British culture, French food, and American technology.” Javier pinched an olive from the bowl on the table, waiting for the punchline.
“Instead, they ended up with British food, French technology, and American culture.” He waited for Javier’s expression to light up with laughter. A moment passed. Javier frowned and leaned forward, the pocket of his checkered shirt getting dangerously close to a bright-red dish of salsa brava.
“Well, do they know about Espain?” His Spanish accent appeared once more.
“What about it?”
He set his fork down, feeling the white fabric of the tablecloth between his fingers. “We commanded the whole world for more than one century, winning fortunes from Africa to the Caribbean.” He sighed. “Now, we need loans from the EU to avoid bankruptcy.” Despite all his qualities, Javier saw the world at large through the same lens as most Spaniards. Pride blinded his ability to see things as they were.
Matthew slid his hand across the table, resting it on Javier’s man paw. “What do you say we get out of here, get a gin-tonic at the Irish pub down by the avenida?”
From the first sips of watery, room temperature beer at a Super Bowl tailgate in high school, to the pulls of vodka college parties, to the elaborate cocktails in downtown lounges, Matthew loved to drink alcohol.
Four years of life in Spain in his 20s only cemented his love for the stuff. He learned how the word alcohol derived from the Arabic term al-kuḥl, a descriptor for the residues of ancient make-up. He absorbed the Spanish way of drinking long into the night.
As the years went by and he grew into an adult version of himself, he developed a taste for every kind of alcoholic beverage. There were craft beers, glasses of exotic wine, mixed drinks at sports bars, overpriced cocktails with too much garnish. He even downed the miniature vodkas that flight attendants handed out in business class. If it had alcohol, he was into it.
His usual go-to of whiskey on the rocks led to tall glasses of beer at work events and social gatherings, depending on the season. The smoky, semi-sweet flavor of the whiskey took the edge off, numbing his perception, providing a nice buzz before the bubbles and hoppy sweetness of beer further dulled his senses.
On dates, he liked to show off his knowledge of red wine from around the world: Malbecs from Argentina, crianzas and tintos from Spain, Italian chianti, and various French bottles that you only find in select delicatessens. The inherent bitterness of red wine and variety of subtle tones delighted his palette and impressed whichever guy he happened to be dating at the time. Knowing which appetizers to pair with bottles of red always excited his partners.
Several years passed until Matthew first suspected that he might have a drinking problem. Weekday afternoons at the office triggered an urge to have a drink. He gave in to his cravings for a while, downing two or three swigs from a hip flask — a gift from a long-ago ex — before unwinding from his job at various watering holes around West Hollywood, the armpit of Los Angeles. Before long, he drove further and further away to avoid running into people he might know. Most of his coworkers drank socially and never questioned his choices. He put in good shifts as a department coordinator for a special effects producer, and people liked him. But the fear of suspicion lurked in the background, sort of like a childhood paranoia that you never quite shake.
His streak of problematic drinking came to a head in his mid-30s. He had been dating Eduardo, a Mexican-American dentist with smooth features and kind eyes. Toward the end of the relationship, when they decided to part ways due to “fundamental differences,” Eduardo became the first to openly question a potential alcohol dependency.
“How many drinks have you had this week?” Eduardo spoke to him in Spanish with a soft Mexican accent. Sympathy and concern poured from his olive-green eyes. That night alone, Matthew had downed an entire bottle of aged vino tinto before transitioning to Hendrick’s and shots of tequila. Eduardo’s question forced him to reconcile with a long-suppressed truth. A deep sense of guilt and sudden desperation gripped him.
Downing the gin-and-tonic before him, he told Eduardo to piss off in at least five different ways before rushing out of the tapas bar. Although he was angry and far from sober, he still had enough sense to understand that driving was out of the question. Upon entering his apartment, he fixed a sloppily made negroni from the kitchen bar and masturbated on the living room couch. Gulps of the bittersweet liquid sloshed onto the sofa and floor as he pleasured himself with furious motions.
The following day, rays of yellow light beamed down through the skylight on the ceiling. A searing headache made sitting upright a laborious task, and a large, bright red stain on the couch fabric stood out like a bull among a flock of sheep. His slacks hung around his knees, and the calendar on the wall reminded him that it was his 35th birthday.
Raising his arms above his head, Matthew struggled into his first deep inhale of the day. Through the dimmed lights and layers of incense in the air, he could just make out the hands of the clock on the far wall. 6:32 PM. Just two minutes into today’s session, his third-ever class, and two hours since his last drink. His arms strained as the blond student in front of him moved with grace, relaxing her shoulders down and back. When Matthew tried to copy her, tension seized the muscles along his spine. Picking up yoga in his late-40s was proving challenging. Pangs of frustration gnawed at his ego.
Sarah, that day’s instructor, picked up on this. Gliding over from the front of the studio, she placed her hands on his shoulders. His upper back began to relax as she continued her soothing commentary, whispering to him between lines of narration. “Keep your neck straight. Tuck in your chin. There, that’s it.” Her soft voice carried the smile that she seemed to wear at all times.
At 7:36, he slid out the door into the cool spring air of Ann Arbor — Michigan’s greatest city — unsure whether he’d ever return. But Sarah’s warm smile reminded him of friends and loved ones from long ago. Plus, the chronic pain in his neck had gone from a 7 to a 4. He vowed to give it another shot.
Spring turned to summer and later to fall as he learned the foundations of yoga and became a regular fixture at the studio. In addition to becoming more flexible, the clouds in his mind cleared and his focus regained its sharpness. He liked the students and teachers, and the studio offered a variety of classes. There were afternoon flows, morning workouts, evening meditations, and introductions to different types of yoga. Over time, he gravitated toward the breathing workshops that Sarah led on the weekends. He often found himself replicating the patterns that she laid out in her teaching: Four counts on the inhale, hold for four, four counts on the exhale, then hold again for four. Repeat as many times as needed. The benefits of deep, controlled breathing made their way to the core of his being. His drinking lessened as he meditated daily, attended regular yoga classes, and went to AA meetings at a local church. Yoga emerged as the keystone habit that began to transform his life.
Out on a walk one crisp Saturday morning in October, he listened to a podcast about breathing. According to the experts who spoke, many people, even practiced ones, believe the inhale to be the more significant half of the breath cycle. But the body tenses while breathing in oxygen. Muscles contract along with the diaphragm, and the heart accelerates its rhythm. The exhale is when the body relaxes, the heart slows to an even tempo, and mental clarity appears to peak. Between the exhale and the next inhale, the body descends to a momentary state of almost total rest.
Human physiology, the complex product of millions of years of ongoing evolution, propels itself toward this state. But the hyperactive minds and physical habits of present-day people erode this cycle. Common advice tells you to breathe in deeply, but it’s the opposite action that holds the key. If people knew to stop, breathe, and exhale more oxygen than they took in, the world might just be a better place.
Easing into warrior one, virabhadrasana, Matthew allowed these details to dissipate into the expanse of his mind. His bare feet rooted him to the mat on the floor. Gentle harp music from the sound system in the studio floated through his awareness like passing clouds in a bright blue sky. He drew in deeply before exhaling for at least ten seconds. By the time he released all of the oxygen from his lungs and diaphragm, he found himself in a wide-legged forward fold.
Sarah’s kind voice carried itself through the room. “Stay here in this beautiful forward bend, legs wider than hip’s distance, for as long as you need.”
An eternity seemed to pass before Matthew drew in another breath, this one mixed with lily-scented incense. Raising his arms above his head, his eyes met Sarah’s at the front of the room. A tear streamed down his cheek, dropping to the mat below. He was smiling, feeling better than he had in a long, long time.
Time continued its steady march, and Matthew awoke one day as a 55-year-old man. A career pivot from internal logistics to sales and marketing brought him to Zurich, Switzerland, to work for a cosmetics manufacturer. He knew a bit of German from classes in college, but the language he studied varied significantly with the dialect in Zurich. In the end it mattered little; the people in the office spoke excellent English. Plus, he mainly dealt with buyers in Latin America over the phone.
Before leaving Ann Arbor for Switzerland, he practiced yoga every week for nearly four years. Sarah departed shortly before he did, announcing that she accepted a fellowship to teach aspiring yogis in Bali. When it came time to say goodbye, she took Matthew in her arms and held him close. Matthew wanted to tell her how her guidance changed his life, but he simply said, “Send us a postcard.” The light in her eyes told him that she understood.
In Zurich, he supplemented weekly yoga classes with sessions at an Olympic-sized swimming pool. An added perk of the facility was that the technicians ran saltwater through a special generator to produce chlorine instead of treating the water with chlorine itself. This resulted in a pool that smelled like the sea and didn’t irritate his skin, thus helping him to rekindle a favorite activity from childhood. After one month, he had configured his swim routine to near-perfection. By the time he showered, dressed, and emerged into the frosty Zurich night, endorphins coursed through his body and mind.
One evening, following fifty laps in a bustling swim lane, Matthew stepped outside and was ambushed by a loud voice nearby.
“Young man!” The voice came from his right. Matthew shot a look in its direction. A paunchy, middle-aged man sat on a bench, a large grin of yellowed teeth protruding from his tanned expression. Black whiskers clung to his dark chin and cheeks, and long, flowing locks fell below his winter cap. Matthew’s defense instinct told him the guy meant no harm.
The yellow grin grew wider. “Young man, you look like you feel good!”
The comment’s bluntness surprised him. He wondered what would inspire one fifty-something to call another fifty-something a “young man.” Not to mention he didn’t sound Swiss. Matthew answered before he knew what to say.
“Err, yeah — I guess I do feel good.” He inspected his cheery counterpart with a sense of mild curiosity. The man’s coat and galoshes were well-worn. Several bags sat to his side. It occurred to him that the guy was homeless or perhaps even worse off. While he felt a slight urge to turn and be on his way, he decided to stay and engage with him.
He straightened up and tried to match the guy’s beaming yellowness. “90 minutes in this place does the trick.”
“Consider yourself lucky!” His voice tinged with an odd accent that Matthew couldn’t place.
“When I was a young man, like you, I also felt good!” The man laughed a hearty laugh before turning his merry gaze to the night sky. Matthew joined him. Lights from around the city cast an orange-yellow light upon the darkness. Snowflakes fell in slow motion as if time was easing to a standstill. The circumstances suddenly felt strange, and yet it made perfect sense. This was life unfolding with a spontaneity that no one can ever predict.
Matthew returned his gaze to the man. That yellowed grin greeted him once more. “Do you have a place to stay tonight?”
“Not a worry, my lad! I’ve been a man of the streets long before you arrived, and with good fortune, I’ll still be here after you’ve gone.”
He then eased to his feet, arms held high and wide like the Jesus statue outside Rio. A courteous nod of the head led to a deep bow that betrayed the man’s seeming physical limitations. Even from ten yards away, Matthew felt the man’s brimming joy.
“Take good care, young man! Avoid the drink and the flake and the fast food! Believe me — I know.” And with that, he gathered his bags and strode away, disappearing around the corner of the health center.
Matthew stood there for a moment longer, blinking at the tracks that the man’s galoshes left in the snow. Then he, too, picked up his bag and went on his way. Fresh snow crunched underneath his boots as the distant sounds of the city floated through the snowy night with a hushed chorus.
There were six chambers in a cylinder. Six rounds to fill it. One well-placed shot to end a life. His life. 63 years old, two apartments, $572,000 in various savings accounts, and six months left to live. Math became more complex when he considered sentimentality and distant relatives, but his mind kept revisiting that number: one. Just one bullet to stop the pain and draw the curtain.
Damned liver cancer. Three decades of alcohol abuse had caught up with him. No amount of yoga, healthy food, or clean living could negate the damage of 30 years of addiction. He preferred to end things on his own terms than undergo treatment and suffer. Growing up in Tennessee, a state with more Baptist churches than doctor’s offices, awareness of such thinking would have led to intervention and visits to at least one therapist. But in present-day America, death and chronic illness pervaded just about every corner of society. People were so desensitized to violence and sickness that suicide was practically a welcome gesture. At least it meant you were brave enough to act.
Matthew rehashed these thoughts as he felt the weight of the revolver in his hand: a Colt Python six-shooter, a heavy collector’s antique, but undoubted in its ability to kill. It came into his possession for a cool $1,500 at a New England pawn shop. When asked what he intended to use the gun for, Matthew hesitated before stuttering something about self-dense. The man behind the register just stared at him before pushing a box of ammunition his way. He said that while the carton contained 100 rounds, he’d need at least 1,000 to become a good shot. If only he knew.
He chose the town of Ellsworth, Maine, as his place of death. The town’s name lodged itself into his memory while studying nearby Nova Scotia on a map in high school. Ellsworth lay close to Canada’s Bay of Fundy, home to the world’s most extreme tides. He liked the idea of stepping into the afterworld as the waves swept everything out to sea.
Images of rushing water and cold stones battered by the ocean coursed through his mind like rapids on a raging river as he peeled back the lid of the box by the windowsill. Inside were rows of bullets, packed together like sardines. His breath became unsteady as he withdrew a single shot and slid it into the chamber. The cylinder spun several times round before closing with a metallic click that sounded definitive.
Holding the six-inch, gold-encrusted barrel to his temple, he suddenly recalled Christopher Walken in The Deer Hunter. This is what it must have been like at the film’s conclusion. No fear, no doubts, just a raw desire to play the game, to see if a squeeze of the trigger would blow his brains out and extinguish the pain.
As a kid, he used to dream of small towns in faraway places. The kind with colonial-era houses, excellent schools, and a bustling Main Street. He imagined shops stuffed with local goods, theaters in old boarding houses, and festive lights during the holiday season. He liked the idea of visiting small-town America, though the anxiety that tainted his dreams told him that living there was a different story.
Matthew drew in a breath and exhaled, bringing himself to the present. He held the Colt against his head. The radiator in the corner hissed as it emitted heat to warm the chilly room. The long salon had tall, Victorian windows from which even longer drapes hung to obscure the cold daylight on the other side of the glass. Matthew stood by one of the drapes, revolver pressed to his flesh, finger on the trigger. An overpowering stillness held the space in its grips. Nothing moved. Matthew drew no breath. Only a hiss from the radiator punctuated the dead silence.
The muscles in his left hand contracted, and the trigger began to move.
For a long moment, Matthew was unsure whether he was still alive or already stepping into the afterlife. The light beyond the drapes shone more brightly, and he felt no sensation. Then the space around him collapsed and swirled into blackness. His vision went offline, and his spirit separated from his body. A haunting sense of fear suddenly flooded him. Is this what it’s like to be dead?
Another moment passed as Matthew blinked his eyes open. Little by little, the circulation returned to his feet, snaking up his legs into his vital organs. He gasped for air as his heart swelled in his chest.
Simple probability showed that the chances of the round firing were one-in-six, or 16.67%. NFL kickers miss 40-yard field goals slightly less often than that. If the same one-in-six chance got repeated six times, the percentage shot up to 66.5% — the odds of rolling a two with six tosses of a die. It didn’t require much thought to know that the odds were poor, but this reality mattered little. Matthew returned the revolver and the bullet to their individual cases, breathing normally again. Crossing the room to the dim-lit kitchen, he drew a line through DAY 1 of a weekly planner. Five days remained on the agenda.
Just as he contemplated what to do next, the sound of a jazz trumpet drifted in from the world outside. Peering through the window, he saw a lone player on the street corner, moving to and fro with the music in a manner that betrayed the gray surroundings of early spring. He played a few more scales before a young woman paused to listen. A bill materialized from her coat pocket, and she dropped it into the musician’s hat. He bowed as she continued on her way.
Matthew cranked open the window. Cool, springtime air flooded in, mixing with the radiated warmth of the room. His nose caught a whiff of fresh-baked croissants from the bakery on the corner. The scent of buttered rolls and warm bread combined nicely with the old leather furnishings in the apartment. Across the street, a red robin fluttered its wings into the welcoming branches of an old oak tree. Although he approached the orbit of death only moments before, the beauty of that moment brought a slight smile to his aging face.
He had known many homes in his life, from Tennessee to Zurich and many places in between. If the game of chance had its way, Ellsworth would be his last. The door to the staircase leading to the outside world beckoned him. He would step through the door and walk the streets of small-town America. He would honor his life’s coda by walking the streets of home.