Sunday, October 08, 2006

Things fall apart

I was laid off from my job on Monday, or maybe I was fired. Either way it involves me, two kids, a wife, and no savings. Will we lose our home? Will we keep it, but will I keep my cool? Do I have cool?

Wave upon wave, it's anxiety and numbness, but always a steady thrum of nightmare energy.

It's strange. When there are hints we will get through this I become disappointed. Why is being on the verge of solving an urgent problem so much more appealing than having solved it, even when the fear of not being there yet shakes you to pieces?

On Wednesday, just two days after I walked out of the office with all my stuff in a box, the family met at a hotel water park for my nephew's birthday. I was avoiding, out of fear, the big slides. They are brightly-colored, man-width tubes that wind through the big, indoor space and poke through the outer wall too, curling around the outside of the building like a big set of ribs.

I played with my five-year old son in the easy parts, the kiddy slides and pools.
All the while a prodding voice told me I was a coward and drew my attention back again to the slides. Everything I did there, every pool I splashed in, was partly an effort to stay occupied in the face of this persisting fear and challenge.

There was another voice behind this mocking one, a quiet suggestion there might be some value in climbing the ten-story wooden staircase to try one of the four big slides. Maybe I would learn something there. Maybe I deserved a little terrifying fun after what we'd been through, the prospect of selling off our home or who knows what might come. I certainly deserve to forget about everything for a while, do something as simple and counter-intuitive in the midst of being jobless as play at a water park.

I've climbed the staircase and now I'm at the top, with tattooed men and their tattooed wives, all of us letting it all hang out. Perhaps some of these gentlemen have been out of work longer than me. They hang slightly lower to the floor.

At the end of the line is the black hole that roars with the sound of rushing water. I see six-, seven-year-old kids willingly throwing themselves into what seems to me to be the mouth of horror. A quick shove and they are gone, into God knows what.

One of the large, flat-topped, tattooed men lies down in the bath of splashing water at the base of the tunnel, puts his hands gracefully behind his head, and shoves off into uncertainty. He's followed by his wife, a large woman in a one-piece. A couple of kids go. It's the presence of the kids that taunts me not to do what I want to do, which is turn the fock around and walk back down the steps to play on the giant turtle with my kindergartener. (If I need to mention it explicitly, the only irrational fears I harbor, besides spending a night in a haunted house or being tortured, are 1) fear of heights and 2) fear of drowning; it's great to be on top of a how-many-story wooden platform about to throw myself into a dark tube full of water). Now it's me.

I step into the knee-high bath of churning, chlorinated water and put my hands on the hard green plastic to brace myself. I sit down. One really does say, "Here goes" in situations like this and I do. I shove off.

I am traveling very fast, downwards, through a pitch-black tunnel, a single row of tiny lights is the only bearing I have, they bring light from the big room (and perhaps from outside, at one point) showing through pin-sized air holes arranged in a line, flickering like a silent movie or one of those hand-cranked animation machines from the 19th century.

I don't know if I feel terrified or exhilarated until, half-way through, water begins spraying up into my mouth and nose from the tensed edge of my foot and I become quite sure that terrified wins. I am surely going to die in here. My throat starts closing up and I can feel blood from my protesting heart rising quickly to my head with great pressure. All the standard I'm Dying stuff happens: muscles tighten; mind pinches closed, onto the single terrifying thought of one's death. I'm dying, I'm dying.

Time stops in the way it can, and I realize I'm not afraid of not living. I'm afraid of not knowing. What's going to happen, exactly?

Seemingly still for a moment, deep in the bowels of the plastic tube, suspended above the heads of all these people in a room the size of a football stadium that echoes with the shouts of children and the murmurs of adults, I relax with some amusement into the awareness that there is absolutely nothing I can do to stop my descent. So, like the tattooed, flat-topped man and his generously-framed wife, I put my hands behind my head, relax all of my muscles, and drop.

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