I abandoned a life track recently, which my track record (hah) holds I do about once or twice a decade, and, like most things you only do once or twice a decade, still isn’t very easy.
Andy posits that major life changes are often accompanied by a dramatic physical component, and I think he is right. The first time I drank alcohol, I was nineteen. I had a Bud Light while watching “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” with a suite mate, felt nothing, and turned in. But I’d whispered goodbye to something, shed a piece of myself that I had theretofore worn, for whatever reason. This was my first time living away from home, and I was shedding lots of things over a relatively short period of time. But I’d held firm to a “substance-free” existence until that very moment. That night, when I was flossing, my permanent retainer–a single wire glued to the inner surfaces of my lower canines, a relic from ninth grade which made flossing a tedious process more akin to sewing –came unfastened on one side. No, that’s an understatement; it burst free of an age-old bondage. A literal bondage forged of a chemical called “bond.” Brittle flecks of aged tooth cement exploded forth from my craw. The wire sprung back, digging into my tongue. “Hallelujah!” I actually said. The wire was an unequivocal obtrusion now, and had to be dealt with immediately. The job had to be finished then and there. It is a luxury when life presents you with such obvious decisions, and these are usually the times when I switch life tracks. I took the free end of the wire between my thumb and forefinger and wiggled it back and forth until it easily twisted free from the remaining cuspid. The feeling and process were identical to the first time I removed one of my own baby teeth—catalyst, shock, acceptance, revolution, and triumph. Also there was the teeth connection.
I inspected the dread artifact in the fluorescent light of the dormitory bathroom. More than a quarter of my life had been spent shackled in its grip, itself a mere symbol of the generations-old institution of orthodontistry which stood on the pretense that the natural state of human beings’ teeth is wrong, and that even when righted, will tend back towards wrongness if let alone. The defeated piece now sat in the palm of my hand, nothing more than an unwound paperclip. I tossed it into the night and lived another twelve years.
On the day that I abandoned this latest life track, a Thursday, my colleagues took me out for celebratory drinks in the evening. It was, by my estimate, the eleven-hundredth time I drank alcohol. I have become quite adept at it since that first Bud Light, capable of discerning which alcohols will taste good, which bad, which will best suit what occasion, how much will make me sick versus pleasantly clear of sight, and so forth. This is how I knew that the full day of crippling vomitousness which followed was not the mere product of indiscretion, but rather a necessary symbolic purging brought on by a subconscious need to punctuate. Friday was one big period at the end of one hell of a run-on sentence. I threw up everything: first a horrifying torrent of black liquid I swear I never consumed in the first place, then a more typical mixture of eclectic matter, then a sort of of concrete bed of sludge from the very pit of my stomach, then a long string of nothing-vomits that stressed all the veins in my head until it felt like they would burst like in the final showdown at the end of “Scanners.” I drank Pedialite and ate Saltines and chewable Dramamine and an Ibuprofen and then regurgitated all of it, then vomited more nothing-vomits, vomited the very notion of not vomiting I’d foolishly begun to entertain, vomited the sun and the moon, vomited the alphabet, and animated an entire episode of Wallace & Vomit, in vomit. In a moment of levity, I imitated my two-year-old nephew, who, when playing with trucks, is known to say in an adorable, tiny, husky voice, “Here comes the red truck!”
“Here comes the up-chuck!” I cooed, and vomited.
The rest of the day was measured out in such performances, the time in between spent in a state of torpor in bed, on my side, one eye below blanket level, the other fixed vacantly on my laptop screen. I was supposed to have gone to the office one last time to sign a piece of paper for HR. Instead, I feebly plonked out an apology email with one hand, asking if I could come in on Monday. They said I could, but that my email access would still be revoked by the end of the day. So I plonked out a farewell email addressed to the entire organization, abandoning all the sharp-witted and inspiring words I’d planned out over the last four months in favor of something far more awkward, even going so far as to spell my own name wrong in the signature. I supposed that at that point the awkwardness was necessary, like the sickness, to illustrate that something was over. It was like having a reunion with an ex too soon after a breakup. It was like trying to keep a sentence going after the period. Which doesn’t work.
My wife-elect put her own cold symptoms on hold to take care of me. She brought me Cup Noodles and medicine. She put the movie “Hook” on my laptop, and I relished it more than I had at age eight or any time in between, giggling at the funny parts, bursting into odd sobbing fits that made my entire face clench anytime something touching happened, which in “Hook,” a celebration of lost childhood reclaimed, is most of the time. And so it was that, like the time the pizza place kept sending us the wrong dinner or the time Comcast stood us up after giving us a twelve-hour service window, another dreadful ordeal had served, above all else, as a demonstration of why I love my wife-elect.
And it’s all right. I didn’t lose an appendage in the end. If I had, it would have been all right. Life should be lived with the expectation that you will lose one appendage for each thing mentioned in your eulogy. That’s why we get so many.