Writings and Reflections

Find Yourself / Exit 2 Miles

by Lloyd B. Abrams

I’d been driving almost twelve straight hours, and it was really getting to me. I had thought that the ostensibly brainless activity of driving on the never-ending I-95 would somehow allow me to discover who I was. You see, I get into this mind set where I hope and believe that a certain “important” experience—in this case, driving for miles by myself—is somehow going to magically open my eyes to the “inner me.” I’m no delusional schizophrenic, mind you; I know who I am. I know the identifying tags, like my name and social security number, my birthday and age, my profession, my wife’s and kid’s names, my license plate number, and even my Visa card number by heart, for chrissakes. But I never felt that I knew who I really was—or, the corollary—like, where the hell I was going with my life.

Now y’all might have had this quandary some time in your life—or you still do—so this might not come as any surprise to most of y’all. Sorry about it, but this Southern affectation is something I picked up at the last fill-up, a 24-hour gas station slash Subways slash convenience store slash cigarette store somewhere in the middle of Nowheresville, North Carolina. The proprietress, an obese woman who was god-awful ugly, and who couldn’t have been more than 30 years old, was chain smoking behind the counter—cigarettes being so cheap and all—but she did have that charming drawl that sounded so welcoming. So I asked her how she was doin’ and she said, “Fiiiinne,” and then after I paid for the gas and a Snickers bar, she asked, “Where y’all headin’?” and I said, “To see my mother down in Florida. I hadn’t been down to see her in many years.” After so many hours of isolation, I needed to make personal contact with someone—anyone.

Like I said, I’d been on the road for twelve hours, with a broken cassette deck in a radio without a lighted dial, so it was hard getting any other sound inside the car besides bad country music and the conversations going on inside my head. Wait a minute; I know how that sounded. So y’all better not start in with me, you know. It’s not like I hear voices in my head tellin’ me to kill or maim or anything like that. It’s just that when I’m alone, I mull over things—and boy, do I mull—and being on the road by myself for twelve hours gave me enough time—too much time, it seemed—for doing a shitload of mulling.

So I’d break up the monotony by doing mental calculations, like miles per gallon after every fill-up or miles per hour of elapsed time, every 10 or 15 minutes or so. Despite the speed limits that were often 65 or 70, I tried to average at least 70, including stops. For a ten-hour stint, from my starting point in Maryland, with only two short stops, I averaged 73.6 miles per hour, and if not for a 5-minute stop, then the average would have gone up to…well, goddamn, I’ve gotta be boring you with all this stuff. But at the time it was real important to me (not “really,” mind you, like one would properly write)—to do the numbers, to do the calculations, keepin’ on goin’, trying to get to an interim stop so I’d be able to catch the second half of the Superbowl, and then concentrate on gettin’ somethin’ to eat. As my daughter—the one I dropped off at college in Maryland—dismissively says, “Whatever.”

“Whatever.” Damn, that used to drive me crazy, especially when we hadn’t spoken more than a coupla words to each other for a coupla years, back when she was in high school. Oh, yeah—damn again—off on another tangent. This’s gotta be real frustratin’ for y’all, so I really gotta focus on what I’m writin’ here. So let me cut out this dialect crap. All the mental stuff—the detritus of mindless time wasting—is not so important now either. None of much of anything’s so important right now. Not after what happened in Georgia.

So there I was—driving at the end of the twelfth straight hour, having almost passed through Georgia without stopping, checking out the map with the dome light on while keeping one eye on the road, and trying to figure out what cheap motel I was going to stay at for the night. I looked up and saw a big green sign, which suddenly appeared, out of nowhere: “Find Yourself / Exit 2 Miles.” I blinked my eyes and shook my head to wake up, thinking that I had dozed off. But there it was, bright as day in the high beams, and I couldn’t take my eyes off of it as I passed by doing 80 plus. This is really weird, I thought to myself—Twilight Zone weird—but I couldn’t resist the urge to make sure it wasn’t a hallucination. I pulled off onto the right hand shoulder, breaking hard, and the car came to a stop, vibrating and shaking on the ridges cut into the pavement.

I was going to shift into reverse and then back up, but quickly gave up that stupidly dangerous thought. Instead, I pulled way off the pavement and then partially on the grass, and cut off the motor. This’d give me the opportunity to stretch my legs a bit and get some air by walking back to see what was really on the sign. “Find yourself?”—what bull shit! At 7:45 on a Sunday night late in January, it was already pitch black. Before, I had noticed an orange half moon rising from the east behind a thin layer of clouds. Walking back, with the glare of headlights in my face, I worried if what I had seen on the sign was actually there, but I was also worried if it wasn’t. I don’t like seeing things. As if anybody does.

At 80 or so, it must have evidently taken the car a long time to stop, because I found myself walking back much further than I thought I had to. Maybe my mind was playing tricks on me, for, after all, I had been driving all day. When I finally made out the outline of a sign in the headlights of an approaching truck, I heaved a sigh of relief.

I walked a bit past the sign and waited for another vehicle to then light up the sign. A few seconds later, I saw what was actually on it: “Kingsland / SR 40 / Exit 2 Miles.” Kingsland? SR40? Not “Find Yourself?” What the fuck was going on?

Shaking my head to get the cobwebs out, I slowly walked back to my car. It seemed as though it took much longer to get back to the car as it had to get to the sign. Strange. When I got back to the car, I took the opportunity to take a piss on the sweet Georgia turf on the passenger’s side of the car with the door open. Then I walked around to the driver’s side, got in, turned on the ignition, and drove off. I figured that Kingsland was as good a place as any to stop, especially after the crazy mistake with the sign.

I needed gas, so I pulled into a 24-hour Amoco station to fill up. Across the street was a Quality Inn that had a banner adverting “All Rooms $32.95.” I wondered if they’d honor my AARP card and charge me even less. In any event, it was a pretty good deal at that. So I filled up the car, bought a few junk food snacks and then drove across the highway to get a room at the motel. I had to navigate around road construction which I had barely noticed, before crossing railroad tracks into the almost empty motel parking lot. I checked in, asking for a quiet, non- smoking room and then paid with my Visa card. I put the receipt in my wallet, and then got back in my car to drive “right ‘round” the back. I backed into the parking space in front of my room.

I turned on the Superbowl and it was already half-time. I quickly unpacked and called my wife at home using the 1-800 number, as usual, and left a message on the answering machine about where I was staying. I must’ve just missed her; I knew my son and his wife were planning to take her out to eat to celebrate her birthday. We were both upset about missing her birthday, but being out of town was just one of those things that couldn’t be helped. And she understood the deal about needing to visit my mother.

I took a quick shower to help me unwind, and paid careful attention to scrubbing my beard, for I had found that I had to wash out the allergens at least twice a day or else my allergies would start kicking in. I put on a clean pair of underwear and a “Bike New York” t-shirt. I then put my sweatsuit back on, took out the snacks I had bought, and sat down to watch the end of the game. I also decided to take a walk when it was over to buy a “real” meal for myself—I’d do anything to avoid getting back into the car again until the next morning.

Unlike most Superbowls, this one was exciting, for it was the one in which the Denver Broncos, the underdogs, with John Elway as quarterback, who had never won the Superbowl before and who perhaps was going to retire after the season, beat the highly favored Green Bay Packers by a score of 34-21. In sports events as in most things in life, I usually found myself rooting for the underdog and it was gratifying to see Denver win.

Right after the game, I locked the door and walked across the motel parking lot and I waved when I saw the receptionist looking out from behind the desk. By the time I followed the train tracks under the I-95 overpass, it had gotten much chillier. I didn’t want to get too sweated up at that point, for I perspire a lot whenever I exert myself. And I didn’t want to walk too far to get something to eat. I realized that at this time on a Sunday night, the only place still open was a 24-hour Waffle House. The culinary delights of fine dining would have to be replaced by good old American food.

The joint was empty when I walked in, so their having no non-smoking section didn’t bother me too much. This place welcomed me with the mixed smell of stale tobacco smoke and brewed coffee, a combination quite a bit more wholesome than the unforgettable aroma of smoke, piss and beer that wafts out of the doorway when barflies stumble out of Paddy’s Place or the Dew Drop Inn or—keep it simple, now, stupid—their usual neighborhood bar. They say that our primitive olfactory sense can really define a place, and that odors often stay within us forever. Well I can agree with that, for sure.

I didn’t realize how hungry I was. I quickly gobbled down a late night breakfast meal of eggs, toast, grits, hash browns, sausage and bacon, washing it down with decaf coffee and highly chlorinated ice water. I hesitated, but not much, at the idea of ingesting so much fat and cholesterol, figuring “what the hell.” After all, I usually don’t have that kind of fatty meal when I’m home. After a fourth cup of decaf, I dropped a five dollar bill on the table, and, as I left, winked at the waitress, who, for some strange reason, looked like she was ready to close up the “Always Open!” place. I started walking down a paved road perpendicular to the main road and away from the motel.

A powerful sodium spotlight on top of the building was used to light up the parking lot around the back and, therefore, the road was illuminated for an inordinately long while. After several hundred feet, the pavement abruptly ended and I found myself walking on a spongy, rutted, sandy surface. My shadow on the road steadily got more elongated but, at the same time, became less distinct as I drew further away. My shadow disappeared entirely when the road narrowed and turned to the left.

The occasional traffic sounds from the I-95 grew more muffled. Maybe the unseen vegetation to my right formed an effective noise barrier or, perhaps, the direction of the road I was on diverged from the interstate. With only the increasingly dim light of the partially obscured half moon to light my way, my senses became more heightened—especially my sense of hearing. At one point, I abruptly stopped when I thought I heard the sound of deer tramping through the underbrush. A few minutes later, I heard the mournful baying of a hound way off in the distance. I tried to stay in the middle of the one and a half lane road because it was higher and drier than the glistening tire tracks on either side.

Several times, I asked myself what in god’s hell I was doing out in the woods in the middle of the night. But I was elated and exhilarated by the ever-present element of danger. It was like a real adventure. Although there were, every so often, metal mail boxes on posts and cut-offs for driveways, it suddenly occurred to me that if I had tripped and fallen, or if I had a serious asthma attack or, worse yet, a heart attack, then there’d be no one around to help me. I’d have to limp or somehow drag myself up one of those driveways to find a dilapidated house that might be burnt out or vacant. And if someone actually lived there, who knows what I’d find? Scenes from “Deliverance” flashed through my mind.

I pulled out my asthma inhaler and took a few slow, deep puffs to stop my wheezing, which had gotten much worse during the previous few weeks. Maybe it was the anxiety of visiting my mother or simply nervousness about being away from home. After more than a half hour or so, I figured that I was at least several miles from the hard road. Then, from the direction I had walked, I heard the increasing loud rumble of a vehicle. I turned around and saw a blur of light, and quickly—almost too quickly, it seemed—the vehicle, with headlights and a rack of lights atop the cab, was almost upon me. I jumped out of the way, just in time, as the wide- tired pick-up truck sped past. I suddenly found myself slipping away, falling down into a ditch on the side of the road.

Suddenly and quite unexpectedly, I was totally underwater, unable to see, and still sinking further. From reflexes I had learned when I had been doing a lot of swimming, I fought off the immediate desire to inhale, fearing that I’d be breathing in water. I made my body relax. Although I was already weighed down by waterlogged clothing, I knew that I would eventually rise to the surface. But my feet slid under me when I hit the slimy bottom and tried to push back up. I fought off panic and willed myself to the surface, moving my heavy arms in a swimming motion. Amidst it all, I thought it was really odd that a drainage ditch along a back country road would have been so deep.

Finally, I broke through the surface, coughing and sputtering. I was wheezing even worse and felt out of breath. Treading water, I reached into my right hand pocket and then the left, and realized that my inhaler must have fallen out, and was probably lost in the mud under a dozen feet of dank, foul-smelling water. It may as well have been a million miles away.

I tried, with only some success, to slow down my raspy breathing. I looked around me and could barely see my fingertips in front of my face. It was pitch black; the moon was totally hidden by the cloud cover. Jesus, that had happened so quickly. I reached out and felt nothing. I turned around in the water, still feeling nothing substantial. I sensed that I was moving with the water—as though I were gliding downstream in a slowly moving river. I tried to move at a right angle to the direction of motion, for that was where I thought a side would necessarily be. After several minutes that seemed like forever, for I seemed to be thwarted no matter how hard I tried, I finally touched the side of the ditch.

I felt around for something to grab onto. I tried to dig my shoes into the side and push up. But the surface was slick and greasy. Greasy?—I thought to myself, and then the possibility of waste products and biohazardous pollutants came to mind. Maybe I was in the effluent run-off of a chemical plant. I felt around for roots, for rocks to grab onto, but there was nothing I could pull or push myself up on; the slipperiness and the angle of the side made it impossible.

The speed of the current was very slowly, but inexorably, increasing. I couldn’t get anything to hold onto. It seemed that as soon as I was able to touch the side of the bank with both hands, my hands were washed away by the force of the current. And then it started to rain.

Heavy droplets of water began to fall on top of my head, followed soon by a torrent. I reached up above the waterline and confirmed what I had feared: the wet, glistening sides were making it impossible to grab onto anything that could slow me down. Even more ominously, the current was accelerating.

As the rain continued, I found myself moving along more quickly, out of control, like a rudderless ship adrift at sea. I reached out for protruding roots and blades of grass, but they either broke off or slipped out of my grasp. Then, I felt something long and narrow nudging me, bumping into me. I reached for it, thinking and hoping, at first, that it might have been a log. I carefully maneuvered myself around and onto it and then clung to it, refusing to let go. At that very same moment, I felt cold hard fingers gently caressing my face. And with that came the awful realization that I tried to push out of my awareness—oh god, oh geez, oh lord!—that it was a body—naked and bloated—and I screamed without sound.

Exhausted and wheezing, my options were quickly running out. The smell emanating from the body was indescribable. In its bloated state, it was, in cop talk learned from television shows, a “floater.” But maybe it would save my life. Turning with it in the current, I ran my hands over the body, looking for its center of gravity. I pulled myself up onto it, and then it started to go under. I pushed off and it came back up to the surface. I rested my head on its torso, and put my left arm around its neck. For balance, I extended my right arm, and grabbed onto its bloated penis. We continued to drift together, in a water ballet, a danse macabre. My ear was glued to its chest and heard no heartbeat other than my own. My hand was locked around its manhood in a desperate, yet loving, embrace. I closed my eyes and let the current inevitably carry us further downstream.

* * * * * * *

I came to, waking, with the pleasant sensual sensation of my legs being tickled, gently caressed. I slowly opened my eyes and noticed the silhouette of the bloated man’s face which I could scarcely make out in the early dawn light. The current had slowed to an eerie stillness, and I realized that marsh grasses had been brushing against my legs.

The sky slowly brightened. There was a beard on the man’s face. I shuddered and shook my head; Why hadn’t I noticed that before? There were also deep, coarse and wide incision lines on his neck, as if someone had tried to hack off his head. When I released my grasp, his head started bobbing back on forth, and the opening in the neck looked liked the grimace of a fish gasping for air.

Making sure to not lose my hold on the body, I slipped downward to see if the water were shallow enough to gain a footing. The bottom was muddy, but I was able to stand in this shallower water with my face above the water line. I looked around me, and all I could see in all directions was a flat land of grasses and subtropical vegetation. Aside from the vapor trail of a jetplane flying far overhead, there was no indication anywhere in sight that man had ever set foot in this one empty part of the universe.

I slowly took in a tentative deep breath, and I was suddenly assailed again by the unmistakable stench of death. It is hard to describe the exact smell, for I’ve tried, with only partial success, unfortunately, to push the shattering memories way back, way down, where my conscious, feeling, reacting mind cannot reach. Just as suddenly, I realized that I was still alive and still breathing, though with difficulty from the wheezing which had not abated. I started to sob convulsively, in joy as well as in fear, for I had made it through the night. I was overcome and started to cough up blood. And then I passed out.

* * * * * * *

I felt myself being picked up and placed on a stretcher. I opened my eyes to the glare of harsh sunlight. I slowly focused and tried to turn and look around, but couldn’t, for I my head had been immobilized.

“He’s coming to,” a voice shouted over the din of helicopter blades. “Do you know where you are?”

“Uh…a swamp,” I stuttered. “Georgia…somewhere in Georgia.”

“You must’ve floated down a long way, boy, ’cause you’re in Florida, now” the voice said. It belonged to a man in a trooper’s uniform.

“Do you know your name?” the trooper asked.

I told him, and tried to get more comfortable. I realized that there was a tube sticking in my arm. It must have been an intravenous.

“Yeah, that’s you, all right. That’s what it says right here on your driver’s license.” At least I hadn’t lost my wallet.

“The body…what happened to the body?”

There was an uncomfortable pause. “Uh, you gotta take it easy, boy,” the trooper said. “Let’s get you outta here.”

A plastic mask was placed over my nose and mouth and I breathed in the cool sweetness of oxygen. I closed my eyes and allowed my mind to drift off, the first of what turned out to be many mental time-outs. I was carried to the helicopter and then strapped in. As the motors revved up and the sound of the turning blades rose, I felt us liftoff and then, finally, I was being taken to safety.

* * * * * * *

I awakened to the antiseptic smell of a hospital room. I slowly looked around at the yellow walls brightened by orange- tinged sunlight that filtered in through the window. There were no other patients. I must have rated a private room.

A middle-aged woman, with streaks of gray in her hair, wearing a long white coat, was flipping through my chart. She then looked down at me. “Good. You’re awake,” she said in her charming southern drawl, as she walked around to my side. “We almost lost you back there. You had a lot of trouble breathing until we realized you were an asthmatic. We had to give you epinephrine and some prednisone.”

“Yeah…,” I started to say, trying to clear out the. “I lost my inhaler. I uh…I couldn’t uh…” My voice sounded raspy; my throat was very sore.

“Take it easy, now. You’ve got to get some rest.” She paused and continued, “The police will be by in a bit to ask you a few questions. But don’t you worry. They’re good ole boys. I’ll ask them to be especially nice to you.”

“Thanks,” was all I could muster.

She bent over and lifted up my hospital gown. She placed the cold stethoscope against my chest and told me to take a deep breath. She repeated the procedure by placing the stethoscope against several other places on my chest and then helped me to roll over onto my side to listen to my breathing on my back. I didn’t hear or feel any wheezing. I’d had my lungs listened to many times before, and I’d always know when they were blocked or clear. “There doesn’t seem to be any obstruction in your lungs or your airway. But we’ll take a chest x-ray a bit later just to make sure.”

She then slowly cut away bandages that had been wrapped around my neck. I flinched when she examined my throat with her gloved hands. “You’ve had some very nasty, some very deep lacerations on your neck—like somebody tried to uh…,” and her voice trailed off. “We had to put in more than two hundred stitches to close the wounds. You’ve also been given antibiotics to prevent any infection from developing.” She then carefully put new gauze around my neck and fastened it loosely with tape.

“I don’t remember anything at all like that happening,” I started to say. My voice was very hoarse.

She ignored the question in what I had said, wrote something in my chart, and continued. “Right now, you seem to be coming along well enough to be released in a few days, with any luck. We need to keep you under observation, just to make sure. And we also need to change your dressing. After all, it’s for your own good.” She gave me a big warm smile, said she’d be back later to check on me, and then left the room.

A few moments passed, and there was a rap on the partially opened door. Before I could respond, two men in uniform came into my room and introduced themselves as members of the sheriff’s department. They must have been waiting until she had left. One stood at the foot of the bed and the other came over to my side and shook his head side to side as he said, “Sir, you’re very lucky. I don’t know what you were doing in the swamp, but it’s a good thing for you that a crop dusting plane was flying low enough for the pilot to see you lying there down in the swamp.”

“I uh…the other guy…the body…,” I stammered.

“Yeah, that’s one thing we have to ask you about. You kept on mumbling some strange things.” His voice trailed off. “But first, if you’re well enough for some of our questions—I noticed his partner leafing through my chart—we’d like to know how you got way down there.”

I nodded, and then the partner reached inside his jacket and pulled out a miniature tape recorder. “You don’t mind if we tape this, do you?” he asked. “It helps us to remember better.”

I didn’t think there was anything wrong in that, or in truthfully answering all of their questions, although my experience with the bloated body, utmost in my mind, seemed to be secondary in theirs. So I told them almost everything—was it my voice that sounded so gravelly?—about having driven all day long, checking into the cheap Georgia motel and then having a late dinner. I told them about needing some exercise, and then about setting out in the middle of the night for a walk. They looked at each other when I mentioned that, as though I were some kind of crazy northerner with too much time on his hands.

They allowed me to tell my story without interruption. I explained that a truck had come barreling down the road and I had to jump out of the way, and then about my having fallen into the drainage ditch. A few times, I felt my eyes started to water and felt myself quivering, but they waited patiently for me to compose myself. I told them everything I’ve told you here in this account—everything that I remembered, anyway—about sinking down into the water and desperately searching for a way up and out—about all the trouble I had with my breathing as the rain intensified—about thinking a log had bumped into me in the raging current when it was actually a swollen body—about grabbing onto it and clinging to it as if my life depended on it—and then about passing out then coming to in the swamp. I did, however, leave out that one detail about holding onto the body’s privates in order to save myself. They didn’t really need to know about that.

They waited until I was finished, looked at each other, and then the officer at my side broke the silence. “That’s quite an amazing story. But there are a few problems with it. Some things we need to clear up.”

“Like, what?”

“For one thing, there was no body.” They watched for my reaction, but I just stared back in disbelief. “We did a search of the entire area by foot, by boat, and by helicopter. If there was a body, like we heard you mumbling, we would’ve found it.”

“But…,” I started to say, but he held up his hand.

“Second—and it’s hard for me to say this—we found something that looked like a man’s penis in your hand when we found you. In fact, the medical boys had a lot of trouble unclenching your fingers to see what you were holding onto. We’ll know more about it when we send it to the lab. But can you explain what we found?” I was sure at that point that they were thinking about some kind of homosexual homicidal angle.

So I filled in the story with that one embarrassing fact that I had left out.

The officer with the tape nodded to the other to continue. He opened his notebook. “Okay. Now here’s what we have. So far, a lot of your story checks out. We’ve already been up to your motel in Kingsland, since we had gone through your wallet and found the receipt. We hope you don’t mind, of course. Even though it was soggy, we could still read it.” (I sighed with relief, for at least I they still had my wallet. I was wondering where it was.)

“We also showed your driver’s license over at the Burger King and at some of the other fast food places, and then to some of the folks at the Waffle House, which is always open. They verified that you were there last night, that you hadn’t arrived by car, and that when you left the place, it looked like you were going to be out taking a walk somewhere.”

“We also checked some of the back country roads, and we probably found the one that was most likely the one that you decided to take a walk on in the middle of the night. That’s the one that had a drainage ditch alongside it which was, in fact, pretty deep. My partner here almost fell right in.” They chuckled. “But what we can’t figure out is how you got so far away from the main road. It’s over ten or fifteen miles. And we also don’t know whose dick it was in your hand when we found you. Do you see our problem?”

I nodded. “That’s what happened. I swear I’m telling you the truth.”

“And nobody’s been reported missing. We haven’t had any reports of foul play.” He shook his head. “We really don’t know what happened. For all we know, you may as well have been holding onto a horse’s dick.”

I shrugged my shoulders. I didn’t know what they were getting at.

“And we don’t like any open cases that look like they’re not going to be solved. It doesn’t look good for the record. I mean, who really cares if you cut off some gay boy’s cock?” He looked at me with a ferocity I hadn’t noticed before. “But I’ll tell you one thing. I want this over and done with. I don’t want any fucked up New York boy making trouble for us down here.”

The officer at the foot of the bed held up his hand and picked up my chart. He pulled all of the papers out of the clip, folded them and stuffed them into his pocket. He said, with an unmistakably threatening tone, “Now here’s what you’re going to do, boy. You’re going to put on the clothes that we’ve got here for you, and we’re going to pack you into our car and drive you back to Georgia. As far as we’re concerned, none of this happy horse shit ever happened.“

I opened my mouth to say something, but the viciousness in his look stopped me in my tracks. “Don’t you say nothin’ to us, boy. We don’t like your kind down here, if you get my drift. Not unless you want to be locked up while we take our sweet time investigating this case.”

I had heard a lot of lousy things about the southern justice system; you’ve probably heard them to. So I was in no position to argue. I pulled myself up into a sitting position. The stitches in my neck tightened and I gasped in pain. “Here. Put these on,” he ordered.

They didn’t bother to turn away as I untied my the thin blue gown, and bent over to pull on an old pair of jeans. I attempted to stand to zip them up, but I felt woozy and began to fall. The officer at my side grabbed my arm to steady me and handed me a work shirt. I put it on and buttoned it. “What about shoes?”

He bent over and picked up a brown plastic garbage bag that had been lying on the floor next to the door. I hadn’t noticed it before. “Here, take your things and come with us. You don’t need no shoes.” He then grabbed my arm and led me to the door. “Don’t make me use the cuffs.”

As I was led out, I looked at myself in a mirror just beside the door. I stood there shocked, gaping. For staring back at me in equal disbelief was a beardless man with a puffy, distended face, with bandages around his neck hiding obscene, grotesque wounds. This was a man I almost didn’t recognize, for his face was not like the familiar one I shaved several times a week, or the one whose beard was trimmed by Dominic at the barber shop. Rather, it was the gruesome face from the horrible memory I tried to push way back into the recess of my mind, the face that I had only caught a glimpse of, in dim light, out of the corner of my eye—but it was definitely the face of the corpse whose body I was desperately holding onto when I had made the ultimate decision to live. I started to scream but a hand quickly covered my mouth. And then I lost consciousness.

* * * * * * *

I awakened in the darkened motel room wearing my gray sweatsuit. I lay in bed with a headache for many minutes, waking up from the terrible dream. I realized I was wheezing, and reached into my pocket. I felt my keys and some change, but no inhaler. In the other pocket was my wallet, which, strangely, felt wet. Maybe the inhaler had fallen onto the floor.

I tried to sit up but cried out instead. It felt like something was tearing at my neck. I slowly felt my neck and it was covered with bandages. And there was no hair on my chin, or anywhere on my face!

Oh my god. The awful dream—but it wasn’t a dream. It must have really happened. The whole thing—the near drowning, the body that, in death, had saved me. But who…why…what the hell was going on?

I forced myself into a sitting position. I looked at myself in the mirror attached to the wall. I closed my eyes and then slowly opened them. I felt all over my face, like a blind man exploring. I looked quite different without the beard, yet the swollen face was still my own—my very own. I had survived. I was still alive.

I tried to refuse to believe what happened. None of it made any sense. But, as they say, “the evidence was overwhelming.” I started to bawl; I was wracked with tears.

Much later, I took off the slightly damp sweatsuit and changed my clothes. I took a long, hot shower. Then I used the 1- 800 number to call my mother to tell her I’d be there a day later than I had expected, and to call my wife to tell her, if she was wondering, that I had been out doing some sightseeing.

I knew I’d have to somehow explain to both of them, ad nauseum, the wound on my neck—a hiking accident, maybe?—and how I came to cut off my beard after having one for 30 years that seemed like forever. However, I still had 400 miles of thinking and driving to come up with a plausible explanation. Maybe, just maybe, I’d tell them I was just trying to find myself.

Up to the beginning of the story

Last revised, March 19, 1998…Copyright © 1998, Lloyd B. Abrams
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