Discover more from An Ordinary Disaster
Chapter 1 — Learning to love Mickey's Malt Liquor—and waking up with a concussion
An Ordinary Disaster — chapter 01 — Up In The Cave
Grey San Francisco light seeped through the lone window of the attic, just enough to rouse me from where I lay tangled in the covers of a mattress on the floor. Everything hurt. I ran my hands slowly over my body, checking for damage. As I expected, there was the burning itch of skin scraped raw, along with the soft blue glow of bruises on my knees and hips—and a sore, swollen knot on the back of my head the size of a silver dollar, mushy when I pushed on it.
The inside of my head was a red cloud of static pressure punctuated by sharp lines of pain, the result of a familiar combination of Mickey’s Malt Liquor, a few roughly chopped lines of speed, and a Seconal.
Wrapped in a thin, dank comforter and an old sleeping bag, still wearing everything but my shoes, I’d been shivering, half-awake for hours, unable to sleep because of the cold, the drugs—and the fear that if I did fall asleep, I might not wake up. The house key in my front pocket dug into my thigh as I lay there, longing for rest and for my headache to disappear, knowing that neither was possible.
Hearing movement, I peered out with one eye, bleary, trying to stay in the dark, and saw two figures in the shadows at the other end of what felt like a long, low cave. Struggling to focus, I made out the back of Alex’s head, his blonde surfer wave catching the light as he sat facing away from me, and Ella’s face, her eyes closed—and then I saw her reach down and take his penis in her two hands like a branch.
I bet we all could have had a good laugh if I’d just rolled out of bed and said “hey guys,” on my way to the bathroom, but I was just fifteen, and I was riveted by the sight of sex, but I felt trapped, unable to speak or even move, even though I did really have to pee.
I was angry with them for putting me in that position. They’d forgotten me, or didn’t care that I was there. Still, I knew I was spying as I watched Ella bend forward. I caught one glimpse of Alex’s naked flesh at her lips, just visible between strands of her long black-and-purple curls, before her hair fell forward into his lap and covered everything. My own erection pushed tight against my pants. I wanted to see more—and, now that I’d made it through the night, I also wanted to go home, but all I could bring myself to do was roll onto my back and pretend to be asleep.
The night before, we’d been out on one of the high outcrops that overlooked the city—rough, unpoliced places where we gathered in the dark. Twin Peaks, Tank Hill, Glen Park, Lands End—they were ours in those days, and what we did there went unseen. We were all hiding, and it felt like freedom.
Leaving the craggy hilltop that we called Rocky Mountain, I slapped my skateboard down at Roosevelt, feeling the magic of smooth asphalt through the soles of my feet. The sky was clear—no fog to hide the stars of the city as I turned onto the steeper blocks of 17th Street and picked up speed.
Flying downhill now, I crossed Ord, still faster—and then, at Douglass, beyond the point of no return, I hit something. I don’t know what it was—a pebble, a manhole cover, a slippery stripe of marking paint—but I went down hard and fast. My board went skidding into the gutter and I was flipped fully upside down and landed with the sickening smack of my skull on the blacktop.
I lay there stunned, holding my head, as my friends caught up. An older girl named Diana helped me up, whispering, “try not to fall asleep tonight, you might end up in coma.”
I did my best to shake it off. All of us who skated had already had at least one concussion—and all of us, all still just in our teens, were already averse to dealing with the cops. Going to the hospital seemed a lot like walking into a police station, especially given that we were all drunk, high and holding—and calling my parents didn’t even cross my mind.
After a few minutes, I retrieved my board and stood leaning against it, wobbly and unwell. The pack moved off towards Ella’s place together, her parents having given the upstairs over to us some years back.
Piling into their third floor flat and then getting up to Ella's hideaway always meant a gatekeeping encounter with their bird, a full-sized green macaw that screeched jungle murder as it flew back and forth down the hallway, with its outstretched wings whipping the walls, and its talons forward in attack position. That thing always seemed like a threat, and I thought they were crazy for living with it. I'm sure it would have been beautiful in the light, but it shouldn't have been shut up in that dark earthquake flat.
We scurried past the squawking madness, climbed the ladder, and shut the trap door, sealing ourselves in. Wrapping herself up on the floor close to me, Diana murmured that she would check on me later in the night.
I must have dozed off after catching my friends going at it, and then woken again as the sun finally found its way into the attic, one layer of gold slicing through the thick summer fog. An old air-cooled VW passed by on the street outside, the rasping out-breath of the exhaust subsiding again as the car headed north past the store on the corner of Guerrero and 22nd where Ella’s father would sometimes go with us to buy beer. It may well have been from him that I learned to like Mickey’s—a cheap, fortified beer that came in fat round bottles, crisp with an extra kick. Injured and invisible, my head filled with dull grey spikes, I stared empty-eyed at the graffiti markered on the ceiling, my breath shallow, gathering my will until I could slip out and limp my way home.
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This is part of AN ORDINARY DISASTER, the book-length memoir about a man learning to listen to himself, and the price I paid until I learned how to do that, serialized right here on Substack with a new chapter published every week.
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