Writer in Residence · 01/11/2011

Things I Know About Rabbit Holes

in response to “Things I Know About Fairy Tales” by Roxane Gay

I imagined going down, down the rabbit hole of my own happily ever after. I sucked in gritty bits of earth and clay. I got dirty. I saw all the way through the tunnel, where channels split off like root systems in hollow pipes of stale air.

I followed false leads. I stumbled, fell. A number of times, I stabbed my palms in the darker sections. The pain felt electric, hot and real, necessary, too.

”And how often do you have these imaginings?”

“I wouldn’t call them that.”

“No? What then?”

“They seem real.”

“Ah, but trauma can become a clever trickster.”

Each dead end brought the same sick gift — an image of Joel. Joel, age three. Joel, at age four, never older than that, no, never.

“Does he talk to you?”

“Of course not.”

“Why, of course not?”

“You’re the shrink, you tell me.”

“Because he’s dead?”

But where was the water, the pool? If I was to be properly tortured, shouldn’t I have been presented with Joel’s bloated body instead of my beautiful, unscathed boy?

Inside the tunnels, each time I reached for him, my son wafted apart, like a wraith, a sheet of human panels played against the light like a radiant quilt. I told Joel I was sorry. I begged Joel’s forgiveness, but my plea only echoed, boomeranging back to me.

“I find myself in a maze underground. It starts when I hear him calling.”

“What does he say?”

“My name.”

“Why are you crying? Here, take a tissue.”

“I don’t think I can do this.”

“I have no new ways of telling you that you are innocent. Believe me, the accident was not your doing.”

There are reasons for things. It’s not all fate or being cheated by luck.

There were reasons for the pool. The triathlon took place in spring. I had ten months to train. It was too hard to make the trek from work to the gym and still have time to be a husband and father. Besides, my career was soaring. We could afford a lap pool. It made sense.

“And your wife, does she blame you?”

“We divorced, didn’t we?”

“You are clever, always answering a question with a question.”

“I am not clever.”

“How about guilty? Does that suit you? Is that the real label you’d rather wear?”

There were nights Joel would ask for a second reading. He enjoyed old-fashioned fairy tales. My son believed in magic carpets and friendly giants with hands as thick as houses. Often I’d cut the tales short, moaning about being tired when really I was just eager to get in the lap pool. Now, I’ve long since burned those books we used to read, yet their ink still runs through my veins no different than boiling tar.

“If we are to make any real progress, you have to come face-to-face with your fear.”

“How so?”

At the school, recess is a raucous cacophony of shrill squalling. A kid by the tetherball has Joel’s grassy, red hair and lanky gait, the way Joel would have walked if he was seven. I get out of the car and lean against the cyclone fence for a better view, and a minute later the squad car pulls up.

He’s a gunslinger, this cop; squat, one thumb hooked inside his belt a few inches from the black revolver. But he breaks apart the same as they all do — his face shattering like a mirror. “Oh, hey, it’s you.” He’s seen the news. Everyone has. This is a small town.

“Very well then.”

“That’s it? That’s all you’re going to do for me.”

“Our work is finished.”

“Our? We? I haven’t got squat out of these sessions.”

“You’ve failed to live up to your part of the bargain.”

“You’re a crook!”

“Am I?”

I am supposed to go down the rabbit hole. By myself. And destroy it.

I am to take nothing with but my fear. Dr. Sing said it’s sort of like therapeutic cannibalism. When I got on my knees and banged on his desk and begged him to help me, Dr. Sing looked up with his rosy Indian complexion, pleased yet without a trace of conceit. He said, “You are very much wounded. Still, you are strong enough to do this. I believe in you.”

And now I’m staring at a gaping gully, at the place I’d once considered filling with dirt. I call his name and there’s a flat, chopped-up echo. It comes across sound like Noel more than Joel.

I’ve been inside it, sleeping up. From this angle, however, the pool looks so damn shallow.

I go to the faucet on the side of the house and give it four turns. The pressure hiccups, then catches flight.

I come back and drop the hose over the side. I watch the water spew out in an urgent rush. I wait for it to cover everything, to fill up every crack.

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posted by First Footing